Few things are as beguiling as the sounds of somewhere else. And when it's the audio of Luang Prabang, you can't help but want to throw open the shutters to let in that soundtrack...
Hyperbole? Certainly, but we three Smiths have just flown in from hectic Hong Kong, via busy Bangkok, and Luang Prabang is what so many other south-east Asian hot spots ‘were once like’, or so popular wisdom has it. Drop your bags here and your pace of life falls with them. Fling wide those shutters and a state of calm wafts in on cooling mountain zephyrs.
Tuk-tuks fart their way past the window as we unpack, children shriek happily as they skateboard in formation down the road and tourists trade personal scores – temples visited or Beer Laos consumed, depending on their age.
Our room – No 1, aka a Superior Double – is perfectly pleasant but, without those shutters open, dark. The outside terrace, separated from an alfresco dining area by a wooden screen, proves a better spot in which to establish our bearings or, in the case of Master Smith, play with toy cars and imitate those trumping tuk-tuks. In this part of the hotel, which dates back to the turn of the last century, we discover ice-cream was once produced by royal appointment.
Location, location and location are the three things that matter most in real estate. In the case of 3 Nagas, one more ‘location’ should be added to the list. There can surely be no better positioned hotel in Luang Prabang, a town of many boutique boltholes. Perched between the Mekong and the Khan rivers, it’s just far enough along the main artery, Sakkarine Road, to count as being both in the heart of town and in the serenity of its suburbs.
Wat Xieng Thong – the departure point for the alms-collecting monks the town is renowned for – is also within a couple of hundred metres, which means you don’t have to get up especially early to watch them file past your room. Being an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of place, 6.30am doesn’t count as ‘especially early’ in Luang Prabang.
The monks bring with them an extra helping of tranquility and after they’ve passed, we sit in a semi-stupor beneath the hotel’s mango trees for our first breakfast in Indochina – and aren’t disappointed when pastries, locally made sausages and good, strong Laotian coffee arrive. The hotel’s French manager would no doubt have cringed (imperceptibly, of course) had he heard my ‘parfait!’.
Breakfast is followed by an amble into town, and before we know it, we’re there (told you it wasn’t far). The slow-beating heart of Luang Prabang is little more than a series of good eateries, trinket and handicraft shops, and the odd tour operator – and, Mrs Smith somehow divines that sunny morning, an extensive night market. I can sense her add a fifth ‘location’ to her mental ledger.
Temple inspections, snack sampling and a slow climb up the 300-plus steps of the dominating Mount Phousi command the rest of the day. That evening, aware of the pitfalls of shopping on an empty stomach, we cross the street from our room to dine in Khamboua House, one of the two buildings that comprise the 3 Nagas. Again we are impressed. We learn later that the hotel has a reputation for providing an exemplary introduction to Laotian food, which is less fiery than Thai and relies more on fresh herbs.
We enjoy our ouas (bamboo shoots stuffed with pork) and khouas (sautéed beef with onions), but with a market a five-minute walk away, Mrs Smith is soon champing at the bit. Before the coffee arrives, she’s gone, leaving Master and me to sit and admire the hotel’s vintage Mercedes and Citroën, which, used for airport runs and to ferry guests to tourist attractions.
By 9.30pm we’re all in bed... but not asleep. Being a Unesco World Heritage site, all buildings of historical importance in town must be restored faithfully, using local materials throughout. In this case, that means ‘may pow’ wood. I can find no reference to ‘may pow’ (maple, perhaps?) on the internet, so the only thing I know about it, other than it being a very dark wood, is that it’s incredibly creaky. The guests upstairs must be aware of the problem because they take great pains to tiptoe about their room – we know that because we can hear every move they make.
Nonetheless, on day two we’re up bright and breezy again, catching the monks for a second time. A couple of guests offer alms; balls of rice from a wicker pot supplied, along with a kneeling mat, by the hotel.
The day is devoted to a wider exploration of Luang Prabang, starting, to Master Smith’s great joy, with a ride in a tuk-tuk. Having explained to the driver we want a tour around the outer circumference of town, we clamber into the back. With the wind in our hair we drink in the sights as we putter alongside the Mekong, turn left and drive past a row of smart guesthouses, take another left and… hang on a second! Ahead is the Khan River. A couple of minutes more and we’re back in front of 3 Nagas, US$10 poorer but much more enlightened about the dimensions of Luang Prabang.
A visit to an elephant village, a boat ride on the Mekong or a trip to Buddha-filled caves or natural forest pools can all be arranged by the ever-helpful hotel staff, but we decide instead to do what comes naturally in this sleepy idyll… We give the day over to wandering, letting the sounds – and sights and smells – of this special somewhere else work more of their magic before it’s time to leave.