The moment I entered Amantaka, set in a verdant garden against the backdrop of sacred Mount Phousi, I was swept into a tranquil state. No easy feat for an on the go gal from New York City. The 24 suite stunner, part of AMAN Resorts group and housed in splendid French colonial buildings, lies in the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos’s spiritual capital.
The UNESCO designated sleepy town on the banks of the Mekong, relatively untouched by the modern world with its ancient wats, temples and traditions, captivates one and all. Life goes on here pretty much the same way it has for hundreds of years – which is one of its major attractions.
“ Amantaka ” derives its name from ‘ the teaching of the Buddha ’ and guests are immersed in the rich culture of Luang Prabang while enjoying the luxe amenities of the noble hotel. Upon arrival I sipped a lemongrass iced tea in the posh lobby of the main building, surrounded by historic photographs, rattan and wood furnishings and potted palms. Then I was ushered into a room where a group of local men and women dressed in white with kind, ageless faces and big smiles sat on the floor beside flowers, candles and offerings.
The ‘Sou Khouan’ ceremony, a Brahmin influenced ritual practiced in Luang Prabang for centuries to protect from illness and sadness, began with the ‘Mo Phone’ master leading the others in rhythmic chants to remind the spirits of their duties. When the chanting stopped, each person bestowed the blessing symbolized by tying a Baci string on my wrist, which should remain for a minimum of three days, to insure harmony. Glancing out the window at the leafy trees illuminated by the golden rays of the sun, I felt a soothing calmness overtake my body.
Next morning another delight: At the first light of day, hundreds of saffron robed monks walk silently in single file from their monasteries through the streets of the town to collect alms, handfuls of sticky rice from both residents and tourists. Placing food into the bowls the monks carry is considered a virtue and is said to connect the giver to the tenets of Buddhism. This long held ritual known as the tak bat has become a must see for anyone visiting Luang Prabang. Most travelers view it from the center of town where crowds, noise and flashing cameras intrude on the solemnity of the practice.
The folks at Amantaka however prepare cushions set right in front of the hotel along with the rice, allowing guests a truly intimate experience as the procession passes directly by the entrance. Sitting there in stillness as the sun slowly ascended into the sky while giving alms to the monks and young novices was profoundly moving. This is yet another way Amantaka connects guests to the exquisite serenity and spirituality of Luang Prabang.
Hotel interiors are atmospheric and refined, exuding old world charm. My suite with white walls, olive green shutters, large windows, four poster bed, high wooden ceilings, private outdoor area with mango tree and pool with loungers felt like a peaceful oasis. As for the cuisine, guests enjoy the best local ingredients such as mok pa, steamed fish in a banana leaf with coriander and coconut milk, dining as lanterns flicker over the main pool at night. For breakfast, khao piak khao moo – rice porridge with chicken, coriander, herbs and shallots was scrumptious.
Don’t miss the fabulous Amantaka Boutique where elegant Judy Wong, wife of General Manager Donald Wong, has curated a stunning collection of locally designed jewelry, antique Laotian statues and gorgeous items for the home designed by native artisans.
With the hotel just a few minutes walk from the picturesque town, it’s easy to explore its many treasures. My excellent and personable guide Chan was born here and knows everything about the place: from the history, culture, religion to the best times to visit shrines to avoid the crowds and more. I loved his manner of telling stories to convey information, like a master teacher. I learned about the beautiful Buddhist practices central to the heritage of Luang Prabang and that many poor families from the countryside send their children to the monasteries in town to get an education so they can have a better life.
The temple tour included visits to some of the most dazzling pagodas in South East Asia with sculptures, gilding and Buddhas galore. Some of the many standouts: Wat Xieng Thong contains over twenty structures including a carved and gilded door to the main chapel, reclining Buddha and famed tree of life mosaic. Richly decorated in gold leaf, Wat Mai features a huge gilded Buddha in meditation pose. Wat Visounnarath, the oldest temple in the city with its celebrated watermelon stupa, houses a spectacular array of Buddhas.
Hanuman, the monkey God and powerful demon Ravana, both characters in Laotian mythology, stand at the entrance to Wat Aham. Inside, a large Buddha seated on an elaborate pedestal is surrounded by colorful murals adorning the walls. Visiting these sacred sites and gazing at the kind, loving eyes and blissful smiles of the Buddhas, it was easy to drift into meditation, sitting in the temples while the monks chanted the divine sounds. I felt both my body and mind relax – that’s the magic of Luang Prabang.
To really experience the locale, take time to stroll the charming colonial town with its languid way of life. You’ll find French bakeries, cafés and quaint romantic spots like Manda de Laos Restaurant where diners relish Lao dishes at tables set around a UNESCO heritage lotus pond. Drop by boutique Caruso Lao where handicrafts and furnishings by local artisans look like they are taken right out of a design magazine. Yes, that is a photo of Mick Jagger with owner Sandra Yuck; he shops here also.
Head to Asiama Gallery for remarkable antiques and ethnic collectibles including tribal masks and amulets. I bought a 19th century Laotian Buddha that shimmers. Leave time for the legendary night market open every evening in the center of town from 5 – 10 with a huge selection of textiles and crafts handmade by local and hill tribe people surrounding Luang Prabang. Meander the picturesque banks of the Mekong sprinkled with stalls of lychees, mangoes and eateries perched on stilts with views of the river most glorious by moonlight.
One afternoon, I glided up the Mekong in true Aman style – in their own wooden boat replete with couches, daybeds and waiters serving cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Passing small villages, lush green landscapes and mist- covered mountains we stopped at the fabled Pa Ou Caves where pilgrims have come for hundreds of years to make offerings. I ascended the steps to behold a resplendent shrine with thousands of Buddhas in all shapes and sizes on the upper and lower terraces of the limestone cave, facing the majestic river and seemingly, blessing those who made the journey.
How to arrange: Cazenove + Loyd specialize in arranging customized luxury travel around the world. Their team of experts provides exceptional services that include VIP no standing on line entry into the country, transportation, restaurant suggestions, top tailor made itineraries with outstanding guides such as Chan, and more. With the company’s extensive coverage in Southeast Asia among its global destinations, it can easily coordinate visits to Laos with visits to other countries in the region.