I love the effect a top hotel has on me. I don oversized sunglasses and a semi-celebrity persona at swanky St Tropez establishments. Mexican haciendas leave me wistful in a maxi dress, clutching a margarita. When I heard that Hôtel de la Paix Luang Prabang was located in Laos’ spiritual heart but used to be a prison, I wasn’t quite sure how this one would play out.
As we approach the hotel, huge white walls loom ominously and, at one corner, a watchtower surveys us. Being detained within those high escarpments was already making me feel like escaping, and I certainly didn’t have the wardrobe for fortress chic.
Once inside, sipping a flute of watermelon juice, my fear of confinement seems silly. We are in a spacious central courtyard, backed by handsome sparkling-white buildings that are softened by French shutters. Palm trees shift in the slight breeze and the reflection of the low hedges, dotted with cream flowers, shimmers in the landscaped pool. Mr Smith, ever the architect, has identified the distinctly colonial feel, and we learn the original buildings are conserved by Unesco, including the prison walls and watchtower which now provide a rather glamorous backdrop to the scene. I concede that the old jail, with its high roofs, slit windows and colonial fenestration, has actually created a unique canvas for Hôtel de la Paix Luang Prabang’s modern aesthetic.
Our Garden Suite turns out to be anything but cell-like. Normally first to fling himself on the bed, Mr Smith struts around investigating. He nods with approval as he switches on the silent air-con, then opens a cupboard to reveal a choice of dressing gowns. I realise I am in an intrinsically male domain: slate-grey tiled floors, dark wooden furniture, white bed linen and minimal fuss. Outside is a semi-alfresco bathroom within our private garden, including a cavernous black-tiled shower so big you could get lost in it, and a sleek bath tub set in a seductive recess. Around a corner, a pale outdoor sofa completes the picture. As I test its comfort, our own frangipani tree drops a welcome flower.
Inside, Mr Smith is living out his bachelor pad fantasies. Already the massive 42-inch television has CNN on mute and the pre-loaded iPod is humming an arrival tune as he calls room service for champagne on the double. This room has a bold, seductive feel and has certainly put Mr Smith in charge, leaving me to loll on the plump bed, swathed in white drapery (probably the only concession to a curve). I muse on how quickly my hotel persona has switched from inmate to a sultry bachelor pad accessory.
As dusk falls, the courtyard becomes a sea of flickering lanterns and an impressive night sky stretches endlessly above us. We follow the pathway towards the back of the hotel, slip through a passage in the rear wall and find ourselves in what appears to be a rural Laotian village surrounded by lofty wooden houses, perched on traditional stilts. We sit down at an alfresco table laid for two, and a waiter pulls a chunky, clay pot of glowing coals closer to keep us cosy.
Knowing we are in the capable hands of the hotel chef, we ask for the Laotian menu. Slightly at a loss as to why the hotel’s Kaipen restaurant should be named after a lowly river weed, we try this intriguing delicacy served in delicate fried slivers with a chilli dip. We taste the local barbecued buffalo too, and a spicy papaya salad with red sticky rice, which we mould into balls with our hands, Lao-style.
Although prison life is treating us extremely well, we escape for a while. After a morning fry-up, adorned with an enormous banger and proper baked beans, we borrow vintage bicycles, complete with baskets, to explore the outside world. Luang Prabang is ridiculously pretty: a peninsula sat between two fast-flowing rivers and criss-crossed by little streets blooming with bougainvilleas. It’s a serene place, thanks to photogenic orange-robed monks and ornate temples at every turn. Stopping to catch our breath we face the mighty Mekong and watch long-tailed boats whizz in all directions. We even see the celebrated river weed being hauled into bamboo baskets and wrung out to dry.
It is also ridiculously hot, and the swimming pool at Hôtel de la Paix Luang Prabang is calling. This glittering abyss is dangerously stylish and perfectly positioned for afternoon sun and a cup of tea with house-made biscuits. Suitably relaxed, we wander to the spa where, over a ginger infusion, Mr Smith – who normally balks at such pampering – decides on a traditional Lao massage. Once he is safely ensconced in his solitary confinement, I indulge in some therapy of the retail variety at the hotel’s small boutique, where jewellery and stylish spa products are up for grabs. Afterwards, coming down from my new-purchase high, I realise with regret that Mr Smith and I are soon eligible for early release from this captivating institution.
Anonymously reviewed by Harriet Whiting (Circumnavigating scribe)
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