The Rosewood Luang Prabang, a new property in the heart of the city, combines Laotian and French design into one Instagram fantasy.
As a British expat living in Bangkok, I often travel to Luang Prabang, Laos, to escape the madness of my adopted city. I’ll spend my days writing on the outdoor terraces of the restaurants lining the Mekong River, and settle into a different rhythm. On my latest visit, I stayed at the Rosewood Luang Prabang — a departure from the hotels I have come to know in the former Laotian royal capital, and a pleasant surprise.
Luang Prabang is one of the few remaining cities in Southeast Asia that retains its physical connection to the past as a royal city. The Buddhist temple complexes are interconnected by pathways; there are no vast roadways. The city is not overshadowed by skyscrapers; rather, one feels close to the mountains and the life of the river. This feeling only grows more pronounced at the Rosewood, located a few miles outside the city center.
The resort is a sprawling park of paths and wooden suspension bridges that run past torch ginger flowers, frangipani, and other structures until they reach a series of six safari-style tents. Each is raised on stilts and floats above the tree canopy, with views of emerald mountains receding to the horizon. Within 10 minutes of arriving at my tent, I drank a pot of jasmine tea on the balcony and became so relaxed that I fell asleep.
Three hours later, I woke to the sound of the rushing river below and the sight of the moon strangely obscured by violent rain.
The Rosewood was designed by Bill Bensley, the famed architect responsible for many properties throughout Southeast Asia, including the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and his own Shinta Mani brand hotels in Cambodia. “We wanted to re-create a Lao villa of the French period,” Bensley told me over the phone from Bangkok during my visit. “A house that could easily have been that of the consul general in the 1890s.” Indeed, the resort, which can accommodate up to 46 guests in its various rooms, suites, villas, and tents, is a reincarnation of the home of Auguste Pavie, France’s first vice-consul in Laos. This is not the first Luang Prabang hotel to resurrect French-colonial chic in a Lan Na context: the Amantaka and the Avani, both set in historic buildings, have done so quite successfully. But the Rosewood takes the genre to new heights.
The main lobby, a cool, open-air structure known as the Great House, rises from the driveway path atop a series of steps, and inside this central space huge chandeliers with elephant motifs illuminate the dinner tables. From here, eating a dinner of excellent pork curry and river fish with banana flowers, I could look out at the small shaded swimming pool and, behind it, a waterfall feeding into the little river.
To one side of this structure stands the wood-paneled Elephant Bridge Bar, where I would head for a cocktail made with herbs from the garden. Laotian sweets were set on the open counters, waiting for passersby. As I sat on the extended balcony of my tent, the staff crossed the bridges with buckets of champagne and platters of sticky rice in woven containers. Only the small driving range carved out of the jungle below my balcony seemed incongruously touristic. But that became invisible as the night closed in.
The atmosphere is more private house than resort; the idea is that you should feel as if you are a guest of Pavie’s. There are several framed portraits of the Frenchman, leaving the visitor to ask: who exactly was he? Born in Brittany in 1847, Pavie spent time in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand before moving on to Laos, where he won the confidence of Oun Kham, the aging king of Luang Prabang. By the time the king died in 1895, Laos had become a French protectorate, with Pavie as its consul general. He also launched a series of explorations of Indochina, including remote areas of Laos, and these ethnological and geographic surveys are celebrated throughout the Rosewood. In most rooms there are both tribal artifacts and ghostly photographs of the early French explorers posing in their rakish, wide-brimmed hats.
Sitting outside at dusk as the rain forest came alive with frog song, I felt that this nostalgic framing had been achieved thanks to the considerable work that went into the details: the handmade furniture, the lacquered chairs, the escritoires with their antique telephones. The world of my great-grandfather, faithfully rendered. It is a style derived from a selective-romance perspective of the colonial venture, which chooses not to address the darker aspects of French rule.
Indeed, many hotels in this part of the world are returning to the past as the futures of their countries brighten. I was recently at the Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li, which artfully harks back to the French Concession days of that city. The new JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, in Vietnam, also designed by Bill Bensley, similarly references the French-colonial aesthetic.
That era has become a source of renewed inspiration in Asia, and the reasons are no doubt complex. Perhaps the French presence feels distant now, supplanted by the threats and concerns of the modern world. Perhaps the French were just brilliant architects. For me, beyond the impeccable design, it was the sense of quiet and solitude that made the Rosewood so beguiling — that, and the feeling that the trees are not devoid of their own spirits. rosewoodhotels.com; doubles from $820.