Royal Treatment 3-5-2004

This former capital of Laos is full of historic lodgings that will make your clients feel like kings

By: Susan Cunningham

LUANG PRABANG, Laos The lazy lanes of Luang Prabang are now a little bit closer. In December, Thai Airways began flying three times per week between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the former royal capital of Laos.

Central to Luang Prabang’s legendary charm has always been its relaxed, chatty people, its refreshing climate and its ethereal setting on the hills hugging the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Since the small communist nation opened up to private business and tourism in the early 1990s, visitors have also flocked to see the town’s architectural treasures.

Alongside traditional wooden Laotian-style houses are the stucco villas and shop houses of the French colonialists, and hybrid buildings that borrow motifs from both. Then there are 30-odd Buddhist temples, most with the sweeping, layered roofs of Luang Prabang style. UNESCO has been trying to encourage preservation and tasteful modernization of the old buildings. In 1995, it designated the downtown area a World Heritage Site.

Another architectural landmark is the palace of Laos’ last king, who disappeared forever into the Lao gulag in 1977. The large modern airy building, dating from 1904, displays mosaics, Buddha images and royal elephant saddle as well the king’s Victrola and Proust collection. Here too is a chapel that houses the gold Pha Bang Buddha image after which the city is named.

Because there are very few vehicles and the town is so compact with fewer than 20,000 residents visitors do a lot of meandering. Along the way, clients will discover shops making and selling well-crafted silver jewelry, wooden carvings and, most famous of all, hand-woven textiles. The prices for everything are absurdly cheap. Try a hand-woven, multi-colored silk scarf for $5.

Not that all tourists to Luang Prabang are content shopping. The future of tourism in northern Laos lies with adventure tourism. Already Luang Prabang is a budding base for mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and rafting.

Following are some choice accommodations in Luang Prabang. Reservations for all these hotels can be made through, which has a sister site, Stayxs. net, that’s just for agents and travel professionals. Through, members can earn discounts and commissions. Membership is free.

Pansea Phou Vao
At the very top of the line and perched atop Phou Vao (Kite Hill), lies the French-managed Phou Vao, with its 34 rooms and two suites, a pool, gardens galore, babysitters, heated rooms and Laotian staff decked out in traditional costume. Rack rates start at $140, though 50 percent discounts aren’t unheard of. The views are spectacular, but the hotel is located far from town.
856-071-212-194, 856-071-212-530, fax: 856-712-212-534

This hotel is the most historic accommodation in Luang Prabang, if not the nation. This was the home of Prince Souvanna Phouma, Laos’s prime minister until 1975. The first Lao to be formally trained as an architect, Souvanna designed this modern, unpretentious two-story house in the early 1960s. His plan was to retire here and smoke cigars in the lounge adorned with hunting trophies and play bridge on the back veranda. The former bedrooms of the prince and princess can be booked, but the 25 guestrooms in a new two-story annex are more comfortable. The pool is a recent addition.

Villa Santi
This is the former home of crown prince Vong Savang. After serving time as a government warehouse, the century-old house was reclaimed by his widow in the early 1990s. Her daughter and son-in-law Santi renovated and now run it. The old building houses a restaurant and lobby, and most guests stay in air-conditioned rooms in a modern wing with modern conveniences. Around the corner is L’Elephant, the best French restaurant in town. (Centrally located, Villa Santi shouldn’t be confused with the Villa Santi Resort, which is three miles from town.)

Le Calao Inn
This meticulously restored Sino-Portuguese-style mansion is too small to attract tour groups; it has fewer than a dozen rooms. But it’s an ideal choice to book special clients. Dating from 1904, it was originally the home and office for a Chinese merchant. On the banks of the Mekong, it’s a stone’s throw from 450-year-old Wat Xieng Thong and the junction with the Nam Khan River.

There’s nothing old or charming about this sprawling hotel, but it’s amply surrounded by gardens, it’s a good value and it’s well placed for strolls around town or to the night market. The 40 rooms are equipped with satellite TV, refrigerators and phones.