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Experiencing the Real Luang Prabang

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations open to Americans now and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new Covid-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.Sheets to tangle up in, dishes to indulge in and a spa worth going horizontal for no longer suffice. These days, I look for hotels like one I found recently in northern Laos that open otherwise inaccessible doors, literal and figurative, onto the most compelling natural and cultural surroundings. Among the authentic pleasures at the new Rosewood Luang Prabang with its 22 Bill Bensley-designed tents and villas straddling a waterfall on the outskirts of town, is an early morning excursion to a humble nearby hamlet. Typically, visitors to Luang Prabang, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995, rise with the sun at least once to participate in Tak Bat, a longstanding Lao Buddhist tradition of "making merit" by doling out rice to the monks for their morning meal. Most head for Luang Prabang’s main stretch, known as Sisavangvong Road, and aim their iPhones at this now well-documented procession.Bypassing that crowd, Rosewood guests are the only foreigners at Phanom village’s Tak Bat ceremony, where I joined gossiping local grannies to make merit by handing out sticky rice and fresh fruit from handwoven rattan baskets to the 30 or so saffron-clad monks and novices as they circumambulate Phanom’s gilded temple chanting Buddhist scriptures. Insightful commentary comes from the hotel’s guest experience manager Sommaiy, a former monk who also leads treks to remote forest temples, where revered abbots still practice the esoteric art of Sak Yant Buddhist tattoos. 

Naysayers warned me that Rosewood’s location, while abundant in Instagrammable natural vistas, was prohibitively inconvenient at about a dozen minutes by car from the center of town. Certainly there are compelling options closer to the action along this charming peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Aman Resorts founder Adrian Zecha converted French colonial officers quarters into the 53 polished, wood-accented guest rooms at AVANI+ Luang Prabang, which sits a Mekong River stone’s-throw from the Indochine-era provincial hospital that the legendary hotelier restored in 2009 as Amantaka. Its 24 serene, silk-clad suites, with double-height ceilings, encircle an especially inviting swimming pool.Over my weeklong stay, however, I found Rosewood’s perch offered access, yet with plenty of distance for rest and renewal. I fell asleep to the sound of rushing water, and woke to birdsong, then counted Technicolor butterflies while tasting royal Lao dishes made with locally foraged fragrant mint, butterfly-pea flowers, mushrooms and acacia leaves by French-born chef Sebastien Rubis, named a Chef Ambassador in Asia by Food & Agriculture Organization of United Nations. Comfy SUVs were on hand to shuttle me into Luang Prabang, with its 30-plus wing-tipped, mirror-clad Buddhist temples known as wats, scattered among traditional Lao wooden houses on stilts and more than 100 Franco-Lao landmark buildings dating from 1893 to 1946, when the region was under French colonial rule. As the capital of Lan Xang, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, Luang Prabang long prospered as a thriving haven of silk weavers, wood carvers, bronze casters, mural painters and gold leaf. Architectural vestiges of this heyday remain, like the magnificently gilded 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, with its crimson lacquered chapel holding a rare reclining Buddha, and Wat Mai with its unique, five-tiered red roof and hand-stenciled scenes from one of the Buddha’s final reincarnations on the interior walls. Political upheavals of the 20th century wiped out much of the living cultural heritage. Rosewood’s deep connections in the local community helped me to discover a vibrant revival underway. Leading this nascent renaissance is Tiao Somsanith “Nith” Nithakhong, who spent his childhood here, studying classical Lao art, music and dance before his family was exiled to France in 1976. This storyteller extraordinaire returned to Laos in 2002 to devote his time to passing on vanishing Lao crafts like temple wall-stenciling, Buddhist floral offerings, puppetry and embroidery. Nith regularly opens his house to young Laotians, some as young as five and six years old. He plays Lao music. They practice Lao traditional dance and lunch together. This is no Laos’ Got Talent, I observe about the encouraging, judgment-free environment. Nith concurs, “Happiness in the making and the doing.”
He recommends I seek out two more “living links” working to revive Lao craftsmanship. Southeast Asian textiles specialist Dr. Linda S. McIntosh runs Asiama gallery in Luang Prabang town, a comprehensive repository of Lao history on tribal textiles and the Buddhist Heritage Project. This indigenous initiative (which has non-profit  501(c)(3) tax-deductible status in the United States) runs the white-lacquered Celadon boutique along Sakkaline Road, which sells rough-hewn wooden Buddhas on pure gold leaf painted bases, organic Lao rose petal tea and well-cut, 100 percent organic cotton tees with artfully Buddhist graphics. Rosewood Luang Prabang has partnered with BHP to offer the truly transformative souvenir that Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart purchased on their Lao holiday. The master carved wooden Buddha comes with an invitation to join around 800 novice monks in a procession from the banks of the Mekong River to the monk’s Buddhist academy on twenty-two riverfront acres of former rice fields and forests for a private ceremony and a shared meal with the novices. The best shopping around Luang Prabang all doubles as philanthropy. The family-run Hilltribe Heritage proffers embroidered, natural dye indigo frocks purchased directly from village cooperatives and Black Hmong cuff bracelets inside a charmingly ramshackle colonial abode cossetted by elephant-ear-size palm fronds. Sensing I might appreciate more refined craftsmanship too, the Rosewood concierge rounded up a selection of Hoi Sang rings, earrings and necklaces. German jewelry-making techniques meets traditional Lao artisanship in these modern pieces with traditional motifs like lotus blossoms and noble parasols. Profits support the craftspeople behind each unique piece.I know my way around this temple town from previous visits, but Rosewood’s local intel guided me into a maze of lanes off the main tourist strip, where Heuanchanch Heritage House proffers exceptional quality handicrafts, like the easy-to-pack rattan woven folk art animals I scooped up for a few dollars, once I woke the vendors napping on their handwoven hammocks. Also tantalizingly under-the-radar is Rosewood’s neighbor, the Special Education Handicraft School Shop which trains deaf and mute young Laotians to weave along with basic life skills. These psychedelic-hued products are to my mind the chicest takes in town on traditional farmer’s jackets, monk bags and Buddhist-offering scarves.  
Here in Luang Prabang, artful hands tend the natural world, too. Along with Southeast Asian contemporary art curator Erin Gleeson, I took an open-air, long-tail boat 15 minutes down the Mekong past gilded Buddhist stupas and electric-emerald rice fields to Pha Tad Ke Botanic Garden, to wander under towering bamboo stalks and among the more than 1,200 native Lao flora, including 288 Lao orchid species. “I’d never seen one before in my life,” offers Rik Gadella, without hesitation, when I ask how the former head of Picaron Editions, the Amsterdam-based publishing house devoted to works of philosophy, poetry and art, came to create Laos’ first botanic gardens. “I like learning by doing.” Gadella suggests the easy one-hour hike around the five-acre Limestone Habitat. “This part of the garden is very local, quite wild and surprisingly ever-changing.” Along with all the obvious lessons in horticulture, landscaping and botany, Pha Tad Ke has taught Gadella much more. “Garden design is quite four-dimensional,” Gadella observes. “You also have to think in terms of time, and of course not only to expect but to welcome the unforeseen and astonishing.” We return to the Pha Tad Ke’s ticket office in town, which doubles as an art gallery where Gadella exhibits smile-inducing works by my favorite Laotian artist Tcheu Siong, who participates in international art shows like the Singapore Biennale. Her naïve tapestries take inspiration from dreams interpreted by her husband, a Hmong shaman. Then it’s back to base camp, where another local shaman, Mr. Xong,treats Rosewood guests using ancient Hmong remedies that incorporate the rare herbs he sources in the forest near Luang Prabang. Though he communicates with the spirit world through trance-dancing and to break the evil spells of black magic for his Hmong patients, in Rosewood’s hillside Sense Spa, he administers his healing powers on my travel-weary extremities with warm, custom-made herbal poultices.Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations open to Americans now and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new Covid-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.


Published onMarch 4, 2021

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