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Rediscovering Luang Prabang


For centuries, this unbearably picturesque hamlet luxuriated in the royal patronage and homegrown ingenuity that combined to make it Laos's cultural capital. Meet the movers, shakers and projects reshaping Luang Prabang. By RACHNA SACHASINH.

Published on Jan 12, 2017

 

FOR CENTURIES, this unbearably picturesque hamlet luxuriated in the royal patronage and homegrown ingenuity that combined to make it Laos's cultural capital. On a sliver of land along the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the gilded spires and dramatic murals of the many temples, the classic Buddhist and French colonial architecture and an easy-going café culture are at once an artistic muse and an ideal backdrop for reverie. Now, in a quiet revival in line with the town's sleepy-cool persona, a new generation is tweaking the town's craft, culinary and creative scene while keeping faithful to its heritage charm.

 

SHOP LIKE A LOCAL
The sinh—the iconic national dress—cuts a demure silhouette (think classic pencil skirt), but the latest incarnations are not afraid to get cheeky. In the past, the patterns and motifs woven into the sinhs served as an artistic and folkloric historical record. A spending spree in this town today will be built on the sinh's present role as design springboard for everything from hip accessories to modern home accoutrements.

At imaginative Passa Paa, Heather Smith's graphic, screen-printed, poetic patterns merge London cool with Luang Prabang craft. Hemp and leather cross-body bags and matching head scarves come in sensuous magentas, inky blues and banana-leaf greens. Screen-printed artworks on wood and canvas are new additions, as are stacks of mix-and-match table linens. Duck into the studio below the shop to see Smith and her talented staff at work. accessories from US$12.

Passa Pa
Handmade screen-prints, Passa Paa. Courtesy of Passa Paa.

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Head to Ban Vat Sene for Ock Pop Tok's updated heritage collection and enjoy a Silk Road-inspired lunch and espresso drinks in the garden café. The pioneering social enterprise celebrates its 15th year with a star-studded ensemble of silk stoles, organza wall hangings and ornate table runners. products from LAK120,000, lunch and coffee for two from LAK160,000.

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The sinh gets a savvy makeover at the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre. Corseted and buttoned up versions accentuate the rear, and work equally well with stilettos or sneakers. Peruse the museum-cum-boutique's exquisite trove of updated styles or have one made to order. bespoke tailoring from LAK110,000, fabrics from LAK300,000.

Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre
Gecko, Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre. Courtesy of Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre.

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Gentlemen are going to want to update their wardrobes at Ma Té Sai, where skinny ties and handsome caps cut from handwoven indigo sinhs marry artisan and bespoke surprisingly well. For women, it's all about billowy indigo tops, skirts, shawls and hoodies. clothing from LAK120,000.

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The pha aap (lively checked bath sarongs) and Tai Lue ethnic sinhs are the jumping points for a contemporary home collection at Luang Prabang Artisans Café. The soft bath linens come in naturally dyed terracotta brown, pale pink and yellows. Above the shop, an old wooden house teetering on stilts is adorned with gorgeous antique silver and textiles. In the courtyard, a tropical repast of iced rosella tea and Lao-style larb pla (minced fish salad) is served under dappled shade of tamarind and banana trees. bath sets from LAK120,000, lunch for two from LAK90,000.

Luang Prabang Artisans Cafe
Courtesy of Luang Prabang Artisans Café.


Vanida Viphavady

Ask an Indider
Vanida Viphavady

Tips from a style maven
The owner of Chithanh Minimart may be the local goto for epicurean imports, but shopping local keeps her looking worldly. For classic sinh styles, try Dara Market (Kingkitsarath Road, Ban Khamyong). "Every now and then, you get a great bargain." Accessorize with loot from Naga Creations (Sisavangvong Road); they make silver pendants embedded with Oma and Hmong embroidery.


  

HAUTE RELICS

Pattana Boupha's eponymous shop harbors some of the last vestments of Luang Prabang's royal court, as much as three-century-old relics collected by his great-grandfather, an imperial minister. Engraved silver drums and filigree jewelry from far corners of the Lan Xang kingdom are a testament to the skill of Lao silversmiths, while old sinhs, wedding blankets and window panels archive the distinctive styles of Laos's diverse ethnic milieu. Chao Xomphmu, 26/2 Ban Visoun; silver sold by weight, sinhs from LAK700,000. + At Asiama Textiles, the meticulously curated collection reads like a cultural anthology. Antique, museum-quality pieces sit alongside newer selections of Lao, Burmese, Indonesian and Indian textiles. asiama.fr; from LAK150,000. + Nouan's Antique Shop is a tousled bodega worth elbowing into. A policewoman by day, Nouan's moxie and sharp detective work have led her to the country's prize vintage finds. Natural handwoven cotton fabric in alluring indigo shades and stripes are sold by the meter. Ban Vat Nong, Sisavangvattana Road; fabrics from LAK50,000 per meter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SHOP LIKE A LOCAL
From termites to tiramisu to teas from old trees, the eateries in this town dish up something special.

HOME PLATE
At Manda de Laos, doyenne Toune Sisouphanthavong sought out Frederick Meyer of Bangkok's famed Issaya Siamese Club to help spiff up her Mama Phiew's traditional kitchen recipes. The humble Lao fare like mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaf) hovers somewhere between soul food and culinary art. The French legacy is in the refined wine list, a sublime riz au lait, and "Baba Maknut"—a pineapple flambé doused with lao-lao, a local rice whiskey. Lotus ponds, trusses of bougainvillaea and starlight make this eatery one of town's most atmospheric. meal for two from LAK300,000.

Manda de Laos
Courtesy of Manda de Laos.

BOTANICAL TASTING BOUNTIES
"Insect is food," Blue Lagoon chef Somsack Sengta says, plating grasshopper tagliatelle in creamy dill sauce. Spätzle and risottos simmer in sauces with flying termites and bamboo worms; caviar and truffle help wash it all down. set menu with wine for two from LAK160,000. + Indigenous flowers, herbs and spices are pureed and whipped into a vegan feast at L'Elephant Vert. Turmeric and bee pollen aperitifs start things off, followed by earthy greens and nutty curries. Dessert? Fruit sorbets and cacao. set menus from LAK120,000.

Blue Lagoon
Courtesy of Blue Lagoon.

TEA & TODDIES
Erudite Asian teas are fêted in an airy atelier above Le Café Ban Vat Sene. Sip rare varietals from Ippodo and Yunnan, along with native Paksong and Phongsaly teas, the latter from 400-year old trees. + Burasari Heritage's riverside lounge has vintage scotch, topshelf cigars, and a dapper postprandial lounge on the banks of the Nam Khan. + Londoner Andrew Sykes's 525 endows the town's nightlife with an urbane sensibility, replete with smart cocktails and eclectic tapas. Inside, the handsome banquettes are nostalgic for the clandestine speakeasies of uptown Manhattan, while garden benches and fire pits in tropical foliage evoke the aura of languid, gin-sipping Indochine.

Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene
Courtesy of Le Café Ban Vat Sene.

LA DOLCE VITA
Andrea Cassinis and Phoutsady "Lee" Vangsengxiong's Secret Pizza opens thrice weekly in their home garden. Milanese Cassinis mans the oven; Lee makes ravioli and tiramisu. pizzas from LAK60,000. + Piedmont and Lombardy flavor La Rosa. Think seared scallops with pumpkin cream and truffles. 40 Khoun Xoua Rd., Ban Vat Nong; sets from LAK69,000. + Punk meets palazzo at La Silapa, with cannoli, cocktails, eclectic tunes and a beat-up 1959 Fiat. pizzas from LAK64,000.

La Rosa
Courtesy of La Rosa.


Yannick Upravan

The Gastronome
Yannick Upravan

"Pop-ups were happening in Laos long before they became trendy," chuckles the cofounder and culinary director of L'Elephant Restaurant. Though he cooks in brick and mortar, stands are where he loves to eat. "For classic khao piak, a hearty Lao chicken noodle soup, Mrs. Teud sets up opposite Dara Market from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. [LAK8,000 per bowl]. The road to Vat Manorom is full of aunties who sell authentic Lao-Vietnamese pho outside their houses [LAK15,000 per bowl]. Sin Dat Lao, our version of sukiyaki, is great fun to eat with friends. Look for the ones along Nam Khan promenade [dinner for two LAK60,000]."


  

TASTE OF HISTORY

Lao mythical creatures and folk heroes come to life at Garavek (LAK50,000 per person). The two-man show is headlined by Siphai Thammavong, a gifted orator, and Keo Udon on the khene, a mellifluous reed instrument . + Before Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack released King Kong, they made Chang, a silent movie about the perils of life in the Lao-Isan jungle, circa 1920s. Shot in the archaic Magnascope format, the film was thought lost until the last remaining copy was found in a warehouse near Paris. Cinema Tuk-Tuk hosts two daily screenings of this Oscar-nominated classic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHERE TO SLEEP
The petite town is big on personality, with more than 30 villages or ban, each with its own temperament. Bunk in charismatic, eminently walkable Old Town with its gilded temples, classic Lao wooden homes, colonial-era bungalows and no shortage of superb French bakeries. Stroll past shophouses peddling homemade sticky rice, fishing nets and baskets, and get a feel for local living in a boutique pensión tucked in a residential enclave. Or, settle into a bespoke riverside villa and watch traditional fishing boats skim the mighty Mekong.

Sofitel Luang Prabang imbues the former French governor's mansion with winsome joie de vivre, pairing heritage architecture and French élan seamlessly. The ultra-luxe resort in residential Ban Manoram receives top marks for its well-kitted spa and personalized sleeping and bathing regimens. A table at the Governor's Grill surveys the expansive interior courtyard, where steak dinners end with imported cigars and a nightcap. doubles from LAK2,010,377.

Sofitel Luang Prabang
A warm welcoming at Sofitel Luang Prabang entrance door. Courtesy of Sofitel Luang Prabang.

+ Serene lotus ponds, cool fountain courtyards and stately teak quarters give Maison Dalabua an air of colonial grandeur. A former nobleman's estate amidst the whitewashed Midcentury bungalows of Ban That Luang, the Maison's lovely spa is ensconced in one of the original wooden houses with ornate doorways painted in gold leaf. doubles from US$94.

Maison Dalabua
Courtesy of Maison Dalabua.

+ On the peninsula, the Sala Prabang boutique portfolio boasts seven dutifully restored colonial era homes, including the former residence of the first prime minister of Laos. The rooms have a Zen-like sensibility, with earthy lime-washed walls and hardwood floors dating back 100 years. The main villa's gorgeous veranda overlooks the broad, placid waters of the Mekong. doubles from LAK650,000. + A five-minute tuk-tuk ride south of the old city puts you in Ban Saylom, where the riverside Sunset Villa by Burasari gets up close with the Mekong. With only four suites, 24-hour butler service and a stunning, cerulean lap pool, the villa is decked out in handsome teak furniture and handloom textiles. doubles from US$124.

 


ALONG THE RIVER
For a close look at traditional village life and hidden forest temples, founder and director of the Luang Prabang Film Festival Gabriel Kuperman heads over to Chomphet District. Follow his path.

http://management.designandgo.net/Luang Prabang Map
Illustration by Autchara Panphai.

1. Hire a boat at the main ferry crossing at Tha Heua Luang behind the Royal Palace and make a day of it (private boats K400,000-600,000 based on the season, or enlist a local tour company to arrange transport and a guide).

2. Shimmy up Pha Tad Ke and survey the world heritage scenery on both banks of the Mekong (jeweltravellaos.com offers rock climbing excursions with equipment and lunch, LAK250,000 per person) or meander the woodsy trails at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden).

3. Explore the underground kilns at Ban Chan, a traditional pottery village.

4. Nibble on sticky rice and ping gai (barbeque chicken on hand-whittled skewers) at Ban Xieng Mane village. Climb up 123 steps to Vat Chomphet for unsurpassed views of Luang Prabang from across the river. Inside the temple, the peeling stencils and murals hint at the late-19th century temple's original grace.

5. View centuries-old murals and walk the meditation hall at Vat Had Siaw.

6. Marvel at the bucolic setting and spectacular stone masonry at Vat Khok Pab.

7. Moor at Had Mak Tang for spicy cucumber salad and refreshing Beer Lao. The island is underwater during the monsoon season.

*Alternatively, hike from Ban Xieng Mane village all the way to Vat Khok Pab and have your boat meet you at the end. Hobo Maps provides a detailed map of the hike and environs; available online and at Monument Books in Ban Vat Nong.

 

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UNESCO-protected Luang Prabang. John Quintero/GettyImages.
  • Handmade screen-prints, Passa Paa. Courtesy of Passa Paa.
  • Courtesy of Garavek.
  • Courtesy of Sofitel Luang Prabang.
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