In Buddhist cultures, ringing a bell, a gong or cymbal is said to be a way to make an offering to the Buddha. There’s a cymbal at the entrance of Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao. We’re invited to strike it with a stick three times before entering, a way to bring us good fortune or a kind of blessing, the doorman who greets us explains. Hopefully that means a good stay ahead of us.
It would be difficult not to have good fortune at Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao. It’s a peaceful hilltop hotel in Luang Prabang, one of my favourite cities in the world, with great views and welcoming staff who make it easy to take it easy. 2.5 miles from Luang Prabang International Airport, the hotel’s just over a mile from Luang Prabang’s UNESCO World Heritage-protected old city, so it’s within easy reach of the Buddhist temples, golden stupas and streets of French colonial era buildings, where there are cafes, restaurants, museums and art galleries. But it also feels a little removed, the hilltop vantage point looking out onto palm trees, banana trees, a sprawl of houses and the hills that surround the city.
The original building began life as a Royal residence on the ‘Hill of Kites’ on the edge of Luang Prabang, a spot where young princes came to fly their kites before the country’s civil war. Later, when Communist Pathet Lao forces took control of the property, it was used by the Lao government to host politicians and other high-level visitors. It was eventually opened as the Mittaphap (Friendship) Hotel, changing hands once or twice, before Belmond (previously called Orient-Express Hotels) took it on in 2006.
The cymbal still gently reverberating, we walk into the large reception area. Around the edges, there are golden Buddha statues, elephant sculptures and traditional Lao musical instruments, such as a Kim (stringed instrument). There’s also a rectangular lily pond with koi carp and pink flowers.
With quiet jazz playing, we’re led through the grounds to our Mountain View room, which looks onto the trees and surrounding city. From our wooden-floored deck, which has two comfy seating areas, we can see Wat Phousi, one of the most iconic and most visited temples in Luang Prabang, the golden stupa glowing in the sun by day and illuminated at night, when it appears to be floating in the black sky.
The views aside, what I like best here is the amount of space. There are wooden floorboards in the bedroom, bathroom and on the wooden deck, with plenty of room to unwind in. Like the building itself, the rooms have a simple clean style, with white walls and lots of wood, including sliding, slatted doors between rooms and leading outside. Apart from a framed illustration of the building hanging on one wall, it’s quite spare and simple. There’s a TV in one corner, tea and coffee facilities, a fridge and a couple of comfy seats in another corner by a chunky square wooden table. The bathroom’s also roomy, with large mirrors, a wooden counter with sinks, a shower area and a big grey bathtub.
Every day, different activities are arranged. On the afternoon we arrive, we try our hands at a bit of archery down in the hotel’s gardens, close (though not dangerously close) to an area where water buffalo roam, with targets arranged inside a bordered off area. The cymbal’s good fortune doesn’t extend to our archery skills; there are plenty of misses and stray arrows. As complete beginners, it takes some time to get the knack, but eventually we’re hitting the target and homing in closer to the bullseye. Accurate or not, it’s an enjoyable hour, trying something new.
At the heart of the property, next to the restaurant, there’s a large swimming pool, surrounded by loungers with neat light blue towels, looking out onto palm trees. We eat at the restaurant in the evening, the menu a mix of Lao food, French-influenced dishes and international cuisine. The staff are efficient, helpful and friendly. My girlfriend opts for the Laotian menu, starting with a Khao Soi, a Luang Prabang noodle soup with sautéed tomato in soy bean sauce, with chicken instead of the usual pork, and Chucci Goong, a rich curry served in a bowl with two giant tiger prawns on top and coconut cream with fried veggies. As much as I enjoy Lao food, the Vang Vieng Goat Cheese with roast pumpkin, caramelized onion, cherry tomatoes and balsamic honey dressing catches my eye, as does a main of pan-seared Norwegian salmon, a big steak with green tea noodles, sautéed Asian greens and a curry sauce. We enjoy the meal with a bottle of Chilean Carmenere and Shiraz blend, Wat Phousi shining in the distance.
In the morning, back by the pool, a generous buffet has been laid out around the main dining room. There’s a section with juices, another with pastries and breads, another with yoghurts, cheeses, salmon and cold meats. Outside, there’s a chef station, where chefs are ready to cook up fresh omelettes to order or Asian dishes, such as noodle soup with chicken.
We try our hands at the national cuisine in the afternoon at the hotel’s Phou Vao cooking school, with Madam Xeng, one of the hotel’s chefs, guiding us through a few popular Lao dishes. “Lao food is spicy, sour, sweet… lots of combinations,” Cha Siong, a member of staff who’s on hand to translate, tells us. We prepare fish and chicken on bamboo sticks and put them on the grill to cook, then char-roast eggplant, tomatoes, garlic and shallots to make spicy dips. Afterwards, we stuff the mixture of fish and herbs into lemongrass, a popular national party treat, and prepare a green papaya salad, with shrimp paste and chilli. We’ve helped create quite a banquet, all of the dishes collected up and delivered to the poolside terrace for our lunch.
Later in the afternoon, I make my way down to the little yellow cabins of the spa, booking in for a Phonklai, a relaxing oil massage, using Frangipani herbal oil. First, outside on the deck, the therapist gives me a foot scrub and massage with lime, then black coffee and black sugar. Inside the treatment room, gentle music plays as I’m massaged head to toe. It’s an skillful massage, firmly working out aches in my legs, back and shoulders. Afterwards, I head into the steam room, next to a small swimming pool, to unwind for another half hour.
Next morning, after breakfast, we leave the hilltop hotel, feeling certainly more relaxed than when we arrived. On the way out, we pass the cymbal. It hadn’t let us down.
Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao, Luang Prabang, PDR 84330, Laos
+1 843 722 4900
Rooms start from USD$190, plus taxes.
The price for an airport transfer is USD$25 per car per way for a maximum 4 adults per car.
Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist. See https://www.graeme-green.com/ and follow him on Instagram @graeme.green (https://www.instagram.com/graeme.green/).