The tiny launch is bobbing furiously in the fast current of the Nam Khan River. Our destination, the Apsara Rive Droite, is up the hill on the other bank, but first we have to negotiate steps, a bamboo dock and the rocking boat. The river is low and the boatman has certainly done this a thousand times, but it all adds to the sense of adventure. This is, however, not the place for high heels.
There are four paths to the hotel, sister to the well-established and chic Apsara, which is on the busy Luang Prabang side of the river. You can catch the hotel’s own ferry – a journey that takes two minutes, walk across a narrow bamboo bridge a few metres upstream, cycle over an old railway bridge with a path two planks wide, or take a taxi that loops round to the new concrete and steel bridge and takes 15 minutes. During our stay, we try them all – cycling is the most fun – and each time we congratulate ourselves on staying in a hotel with a view of the town but with the ambience of a village guesthouse. A rather luxurious guesthouse, it has to be said, with a large pool, manicured gardens and an excellent restaurant.
The Apsara Rive Droite lobby references Indochina in a modern way, with huge swaying lampshades, a row of glass Buddhas in bubblegum hues and a cartoonish mural of an Apsara girl from Angkor. Apsaras are celestial dancing water nymphs and Mr Smith notes a number lying in a row by the pool as we check in, before I distract him with the promise of a gin and It in our ground-floor quarters. The huge, shady room is richly furnished in dark wood in a style best described as masculine glamour. The Lao silk bedspread and giant wall hanging are in muted tones of sand, black and garnet, large green wooden doors lead onto the veranda and a fan stirs the tropical air. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of indeterminate vintage and, alongside the grand desk under the shuttered window, trigger vague ambitions of a literary nature. These are soon squashed by the sybaritic enticement of the wicker day-bed on our terrace with its view of the pool, gardens and the rive gauche beyond.
After a swim we test the crisp white and grey bathroom – the shower is big enough for two with a showerhead the size of a dinner plate. A sliding mirrored wall above the basin turns out to be a window into the room, allowing you to chat with your best friend in the bed next door. It’s a quirky touch that proves to be surprisingly congenial. Another friendly feature is the minibar’s moderate pricing, which means we use it as we would the fridge at home.
The Rive Droite is laid-back, very spacious – there are only nine rooms across two floors – and, although it’s only been open a few months, it’s the sort of place you feel you’ve been coming to for years. Ivan, a laconically witty Englishman who owns both establishments, seems to be in the two places at once, a useful feat as he’s on hand to explain matters to tuk tuk and taxi drivers who invariably take us to the old Apsara. Memo to hotel: print the directions on your address cards in Lao as well as English. The manager is groovy, friendly, unflappable and totally efficient too, and the Lao staff members are fantastic, although the barman has an idiosyncratic touch with the gin and tonic, serving it in three separate glasses – one for spirits, one for ice and an empty third in which to introduce them both to the mixer.
When it comes to dinner we are on much firmer ground. The hotel’s big sister is famed for its fare and the smaller menu at the Rive Droite is equally stunning – definitely the best meal of our stay. Like the interiors, the food dabbles in a range of influences but isn’t a slave to any. A lip-smacking Lao version of baba ganoush is served alongside a papaya and beef salad, spicy noodles with pork and delicious crumbly sausages. I don’t know if there is a Lao word for piquant, but this would be the time to use it.
The hotel, in common with several other lodgings in Luang Prabang, offers guests the free use of bicycles – the glorious old-fashioned sort with baskets, dynamo lights and kickstands. The rutted village lanes around the Rive Droite give our buttocks a good work-out, but this is the best way to explore the vicinity, as well as get into town to experience the temples and architecture. Being on the undeveloped right bank of the Nam Khan also means we can discreetly watch the dawn alms-giving, a daily exchange between monks and village women that, across the river, has become something of a tourist jamboree.
If you want to see locals being tourists and having a good time, head to Tat Kuang Si, a magnificent series of waterfalls and limestone swimming holes. It can be a hair-raising climb to the top if it’s been raining but it’s worth it for the views and the highest pool, which can only be reached by scrambling through the falls. On the way down we dally by the sun bear and tiger enclosures, housing animals that have been rescued from poachers. The Rive Droite organised the trip at short notice and for the same price you’d pay a town tour operator. If we wanted one, offers Ivan, our new best friend, he could rustle up a picnic in 20 minutes. When we get back, tranquil, fresh and clear-eyed, Mr Smith and I both agree that we’ve lucked upon a sanctuary built for the discerning and seasoned traveller.