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Formerly part of French Indochina, Laos may not be the first country that comes to mind when planning a trip to Southeast Asia, but it should be—especially this year. Luang Prabang, a small colonial city on the banks of the Mekong River, is celebrating 25 years as a UNESCO World Heritage site and its hotel scene is better than ever. Now, thanks to a collection of openings by elite brands, the city is coming onto the radar of affluent travelers.
One of the latest openings is the Avani+ Luang Prabang, a 53-room boutique hotel set in French officers’ quarters built in 1914 just steps from the night market, Buddhist temples, and other key sites. Built around a central courtyard with an 82-foot pool in the shade of an ancient banyan tree, the hotel is an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. Minor Hotels, Avani’s parent company, updated the property but kept the traditional Laotian style, using local timber, painted cement tiles, and woven batik textiles. The street-facing Main Street Bar & Grill serves Lao specialties like curries and crispy coconut rice, and guests can indulge in a traditional Laotian massage or other treatment at the tranquil spa.
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Rosewood Luang Prabang, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, opened around the same time three miles away from Avani, on a hilltop forest on the edge of town. A collection of rooms, suites, and luxury tented villas, the property evokes the French colonial era with artifacts like vintage Kodac cameras, early 20th-century newspaper clippings, and croquet mallets. Acclaimed designer Bill Bensley—known for his whimsical style and extreme attention to detail—masterminded the design. Belmond and Aman each have a property in Luang Prabang, as well. Belmond La Résidence Phou Vau is an all-suite hotel originally built in the 1970s as a place where royalty could stay while in town, while Amantaka—another American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property—resides in the city’s colonial-era hospital. This year, Amantaka will host a six-night Keksel retreat with respected Tibetan Buddhist Monk Geshe Chapur Rinpoche, who will help participants overcome physical, emotional, and deep-seated psychological obstacles.
Though Luang Prabang lacks bucket list sites like Angkor Wat, visitors will find themselves steeped in the city’s beautiful natural scenery and historic charm. Legend has it the Buddha smiled there while resting on his travels, prophesying that it would become a rich and powerful place. Indeed, it became the seat of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (the Kingdom of a Million Elephants) revered for its position along the Silk Route, and a center of Buddhist religion. What Luang Prabang lacks in monuments it makes up for in ornate Buddhist temples and shrines.
If you go, be sure to hike Mount Phousi, whose summit has a temple with sweeping vistas of the Mekong and surrounding jungle. Along the path that leads back down to the town, you’ll find one golden Buddha statue after another. Every morning at sunrise, Buddhist monks in their saffron robes silently parade through the city collecting alms in a ceremony known as Tak Bat. Avani+ Luang Prabang is located along their route, and the hotel’s staff can prepare sticky rice for you to give the monks as they pass if you want to participate in this sacred activity. A sunset cruise along the Mekong is another must—you can book one through Mekong Kingdoms and enjoy cocktails and canapes as you languidly cruise down the river. Afterward, head to dinner at Manda de Laos, an atmospheric family-run restaurant with a lotus pond in its center.
The night market is worth checking out if you want to try some street food or purchase souvenirs. Look for the stalls with signs that say “Made in Laos” for beautiful woven scarves, indigo-dyed sarongs, pillowcases, bamboo bags, and other items. The best place for local textiles is Ock Pop Tok, a craft center created and run by women that empowers local weavers and sells their beautiful wares.
Unlike Asian megacities such as Bangkok or Beijing, Luang Prabang invites you to take a leisurely pace. Here, you can indulge in a spa treatment or venture to the Kuang Si Falls for a swim in the cool, crystalline water without battling the crowds at some major monument or feeling like you’re missing out on some must-visit site in the city—and that might be the most luxurious aspect of all.