LUANG Prabang, the ancient royal seat of Laos, a UNESCO heritage site since 1995, may no longer be the country's capital – Vientiane is – but this is no great loss.
The move, effected in 1970, has had a beneficial effect. Luang Prabang has remained office-block free, low-lying and unpolluted by cars or industry.
Recently opened to travellers, it is not yet oversubscribed by mass tourism and perhaps never will be, instead attracting those seeking a cultural experience in a non-frenetic, hassle-free environment.
To participate in Luang Prabang's life, you should stay within walking distance of the hub, the main street where everything takes place.
If you prefer surrounding yourself with understated elegance and maybe a brush with royalty, the Maison Souvannaphoum is the place to stay.
Home to Prince Souvannaphouma until 1970, the colonial-style heritage brick building has been sympathetically restored by a team of experts, who preserved details faithfully.
The Prince's actual home now houses three luxury suites and the new wing, matching the same French colonial design, contains 22 exquisite rooms with whimsical touches reflecting the local culture. The hotel made it to the Conde Nast Best New Properties list soon after opening last year.
The Maison also features Laotian and French cuisine at Elephant Blanc Restaurant overlooking the pool.
For spa treatments you make your way to tented pavilions placed on the tropical grounds under gigantic flowering trees.
Since bicycles are the locals' preferred way of transport, the Maison has plenty of bikes for guests to use. It is a great way of getting around and discovering the place.
The old town is on a peninsula, a small spit of land four blocks deep and it is there that you'll go for everything.
At dawn you can participate in a 2500-year-old ritual that survives in only three of the many Buddhist countries in Asia: the giving of alms to the monks.
You can join the locals by buying food from vendors and passing the tiny parcels to the seemingly unending orange ribbon of some 200 monks in the grey light of dawn.
Sundown is the best time to climb the only hill in town, Mount Phou Si. After dinner, on the very same road, there will be the fabulous and eerily sedate night markets where the stallholders will greet you with a shy smile.
EssentialsThe Maison Souvannaphoum is 10 minutes from Luang Prabang Airport and close to the old town.
Rooms range from $US170 plus tax.
The Maison Suite (the Prince's former quarters): $US370 plus tax.
More info: www.coloursofangsana.com
The writer was a guest of Maison Souvannaphoum
CULTURE and tradition . . . the Maison Souvannaphoum, Luang Prabang.
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