Sip cold beers while staying at Luang Prabang

MR YEP and his wheezing 1952 Citroen have both seen better days.

At each crossroad as we painfully trundle into town from Luang Prabang's international airport, itself in dire need of a triple bypass, the ancient French chariot gasps and shudders.

In 30deg heat two of us share the back seat compartment with big suitcases.

All the windows are wound down and it's still sweltering. Mr Yep, an obliging, weather-beaten old soul, opens his driver-side door to let in more air.

By sunset we've found a prime riverside spot at the humble Big Tree Café and ordered a large bottle of internationally acclaimed Beer Lao.

It cost only $1.40, but a monumental sin has been committed. It's marginally warm.

The waiter, mortified at our reaction to the first sip, instantly conjures up a gleaming champagne bucket of ice and starched white napkins with the aplomb (we imagine) afforded a $2000 bottle of 1966 Dom Perignon at Claridge's in London.

Welcome to the delights of Luang Prabang, population 50,000, a UNESCO World Heritage site, nestling, for the most part, on a tiny (1 km long by about 300m wide) peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan.

With a backdrop of jungle-shrouded mountains and a surfeit of places to simply sit and contemplate, there's an immediate sense of calm.

As night falls, the illuminated beauty of this former royal capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (The land of a million elephants) is revealed, heralding yet another quiet evening of dining, imbibing, and browsing by the curiously restrained mix of serious travellers and inquisitive backpackers.

They come from around the world at the respectable rate of about 275,000 a year drawn by the city's historical, cultural, and spiritual significance, natural scenery and authentic village life and, for the more adventurous, trekking, rafting, river cruising, cycling, and Buddhist temples.

Just over 700 kms northeast of Bangkok by direct flights with Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines, Luang Prabang, one of only a few protected French colonial classics in the region, is facing the inevitable march of progress.

Is it a mini Ubud in the making, or destined to remain an ageless star on the heritage stage?

Kevin O'Hagan, veteran of 25 years on the Southeast Asian hotel circuit and currently General Manager of Luang Prabang's splendidly restored Hotel de la Paix, says simply that the town "is at the crossroads" as hungry developers look for loopholes in UNESCO's restrictive building codes.

As a classic fuse of colonial charm and contemporary elegance, the century-old Hotel de la Paix where we spend three nights, sits comfortably near the pinnacle of the preserved architecture that marks the true soul of Luang Prabang.

Originally a French governor's residence and then a low-security prison abandoned for many years, its stark white fortified walls and watch towers, shingle roof, soaring ceilings, dark timbers and vast gardens stand as a tribute to innovative restoration.

In 2012 it was awarded a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence rating of 4.5 (out of a possible 5).

An all-suite hotel (including two 120sqm Governor's Residences) it has a spa, Lao cooking school and kitchen (gather your ingredients at the morning market) a huge reflecting swimming pool with a cushioned relaxing pit and bar, and free wi-fi.

Among the things to do in Luang Prabang include, giving the monks alms at dawn, a marathon heritage tour of 32 temples, seeing thousands of mini Buddha images in the Pak Ou caves, an elephant trek, a swim in the Kwang Si waterfalls, a city tour by bicycle, a sunset cruise and visiting a bear sanctuary and a rice farm.

Or there's the Aussie Sports Bar and Guesthouse which does bangers and mash, meat pies and chips, flat screen TV and…"the coldest beer in Laos".

*The writer was a guest of the Hotel de la Paix.

 

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