Sunday, October 28, 2007

Northern lights.

Despite recently visiting Luang Prabang in low season (in truth, a spur-of-the-moment decision to take advantage of some amazing hotel rate discounts), the charm of the town was absolutely clear within minutes of my arrival. Within hours of arrival the watch had disappeared from the wrist, the shirt had been further unbuttoned, and it seemed a sufficiently productive use of an afternoon to simply sit on the hotel terrace, watching the golden late tropical summer light illuminating the palm trees framed by the blue hills in the distance.

I could simply give you a list of good things about Luang Prabang, and that would be sufficient. But even without a list, you’d find them anyway. It’s a wonderfully small town, squeezed onto a small triangular peninsula between two wide rivers. Beyond the rivers, across the water from this mixture of French colonial streets and flamboyant Buddhist temples, is nothing but jungle, adding a mysterious ‘end of the road’ outpost feeling to the town which is irresistible.

You could spend days hiring bicycles for a dollar a day, cycling slowly up and down every street, every back lane, making discoveries of restaurants, cafés, paper making shops, gorgeous textile markets, resting for lunch, taking cover from the afternoon sun back at the hotel or in one of the spas that dot the town, and re-emerging at about five o’clock to enjoy the evening light.

And the longer you stay there, the better it gets. The more mesmerised you become, the slower you cycle, the longer you linger over your morning coffee. And you quickly begin to understand why Laos was by far the favourite posting of French colonial administrators.

Everywhere in Luang Prabang is a highlight. And no matter what time of year it is, it is bound to be a magical experience. But I learned from the hotel staff that the town’s charms multiply in winter. Even when I was there, there was a beautiful almost-crisp feeling in the cloudless mornings; and any time after four in the afternoon was just a couple of degrees cooler than the usual tropical temperature, which made the place feel as if it was a lot further from the rest of steamy Asia than it really is.

However, from this time of year onwards, the weather just gets better and better. Mornings get cooler, the sun gets more golden, the nights take on a deliciously fresh feel, the smells of the winter blossom get stronger in the air. Even writing these words makes me want to get on a plane and fly north immediately.

Three things to do in Luang Prabang:

1. Stay at Maison Souvannaphoum – a simply lovely art deco building built for a Laotian prince, converted into a superb hotel by Singapore’s Banyan Tree group. The restoration of the building is not just tasteful – almost everybody can do tasteful these days, especially when the building is so perfect in the first place. It’s also interesting, and stylish. Bright orange swimming pool walls and quirky red lightbulbs hanging in cages in the lush garden may not sound as if they go perfectly with late French colonial architecture, but be assured that they do. Coupled with the charming staff who have you falling in love with them every time they make a restaurant recommendation, this is without doubt one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in, anywhere.

2. Eat at Café Ban Wat Sene. Upon my many bike rides, I found myself returning over and over again to this little place. Incredibly stylish, yet refreshingly devoid of any signs of slickness or polish, Café Ban Wat Sene could franchise itself out a hundred times or more throughout cookie-cutter Asian cities and the owner would be a millionaire within months. Shady and cool during the day, moodily lit and bohemian at night, with food that will have you wondering how they get such deliciously fresh French ingredients all the way here, I could have eaten and drank here three times a day for weeks and been quite satisfied.

3. Have breakfast at Joma Café. I know for a fact that thousands upon thousands of people around Asia are constantly bemoaning a lack of authentically good places to sit on a Saturday morning with a newspaper, a great coffee, and feel a sort of Sydney-style breakfast vibe. Some places come close to it but involve a slight suspension of disbelief on the part of café-goers – sometimes you have to convince yourself that you’re enjoying the real thing when deep down, you patently know that you’re not. Residents of Luang Prabang have no such problems. This place is built for Saturday mornings. An interesting clientele, the right look, superb coffee, and what is without doubt the best start to an eating day I have ever had in my life: the Bagel Egger. For some bizarre reason, Café Joma is closed Sundays, but I have been bombarding the owners with cajoling, threatening and pleading emails in equal measure to try to persuade them to rectify the situation. Joma is another place that if expanded throughout Asia would wipe the floor with the ubiquitous Starbucks and its frankly disgraceful breakfast offerings.

Luang Prabang is a place I intend to return to as regularly as time allows.

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