Luang Prabang and The Apsara Hotel

IMG_5714This is my last post from my trip to SE Asia.

Sorry for the delay it’s taken me a while to get back in the swing of things since getting back home. Jet lag is hell.

Luang Prabang is a Unesco World Heritage site, the former capital of Laos located on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nham Khan rivers.

Undoubtedly it is the very photogenic and omnipresent saffron robbed Monks that capture the hearts of everyone who visits. With 34 protected Wats (temples) it is unlike any other place in South East Asia.  And even though the early morning walk through town by the monks to collect alms has become something of a paparazzi filled tourist event it still represents a very real part of what makes Luang Prabang so special.

Lets be clear, I have read many critiques of Luang Prabang that have dissed it as, over touristed, over rated and one over weight middle aged white woman sums up her stay by saying: well lets face it there really isn’t much to see.   If you go to Luang Pabang – I’ve been 4 times – it’s not because you have a list of 12 things you have to see each day.  Really this is not a place about seeing things, it’s a place about being. Partaking in the traditional buddhist life that is still very much alive. Lingering at one of the many great cafes. Enjoying a relaxed evening out, wandering the night market and eating at any number of wonderful restaurants – including the one at The Apsara. Sitting and watching the Mekong go by.  I’m a New Yorker and I don’t find this place boring in the least and every time I have gone I wish I could stay longer.IMG_5713

Over the years the accommodation options have expanded greatly, you can still find a place to lay your head for as little as $8 (or less) or you can spend $1200.  In typical buddhist fashion I choose to take the middle path (or the lower end of the middle path ;-). I spent $110 on a superior second floor room at the Apsara. On my last trip, over 8 years ago, I staid here and really enjoyed it. It’s not posh, but the rooms are large, have balconies, a/c, safes, have a great look about them and include a damn fine breakfast. IMG_5715My room was the far left corner.

The Apsara has two kinds of rooms at this property: second floor and first floor superior rooms.  The first floor rooms open up directly onto the street, are smaller than the second floor ones and have a small terrace at street level.  If you consider staying here I highly suggest you spend the few extra dollars on a second floor room, there are 5 in the main building which I believe are the biggest ones.

They also have a hotel across the river called The Apsara Rive Droite.  It’s directly  across the river from The Apsara.  They offer a very short boat ride across the river by car it’s a good 15 minute drive from downtown.  The problem as I see it to staying there are two-fold: it’s more expensive and climbing down the stairs to get to the boat and up the stairs to the hotel once you arrive would certainly be too much of an effort for me after a night of eating and drinking in town. Others may enjoy the solitude of the location, which is certainly very beautiful and has a pool which the in town Apsara does not. The rooms are also newer and more upscale. I went for cheaper and location.

Stairs.IMG_5583You enter The Apsara through french doors into a multi use room which serves as the restaurant/lobby/check in desk and bar.  IMG_5717IMG_5716in the far left corner you can see the check in desk. Below the bar.IMG_5555I stayed in the upstairs superior room, which is very spacious, has a tub open to the room and an enclosed toilet and shower. It’s decorated in generic chinoiserie, featuring locally made wood furniture (I’m guessing), some bamboo pieces, silks lanterns, window covers and accessories all from Vietnam.

The wide plank floors are beautiful, but curling up at the edges so best to wear slippers and when hanging out at in your room.  Which you will want to do as it is so comfortable.  My two favorite things about the room are the high ceilings and the balcony.  The downside of the high ceilings is that it can take a long time before the a/c can get the room to a good temperature.  It does however do the job.  The wi-fi, not so much.  I asked the front desk people many times about it, but never really got to work in any fashion that was really usable. They were very sweet about it and I did manage to get online intermittently, but if I wanted to blog or upload pictures I sat downstairs or went to a cafe.  I’m not really sure why they can get the wi-fi to work so well on the first floor and so poorly in the rooms. One shouldn’t go to Laos for the internet anyway, right?IMG_5556The little terrace off the main restaurant was the perfect place to have breakfast, which you can oder off an a la carte menu, which isn’t huge but ha everything you need.  All cook to perfection and served with warm baguette butter and local house made jam (I ate the pineapple jam out of the bowl it was so good).IMG_5703My favorite thing about breakfast was the espresso pot full of coffee.IMG_5704Oh and the views. Across the way past the monks where the brightly colored lanterns are is the outside extension of the restaurant where I had a lovely meal on my last night overlooking the Nham Khan River.IMG_5708All the people who worked at the hotel were very sweet, there is no culture of service here and if you come from New York or Bangkok it can be very frustrating as it often seems like the people trying to help you just really don’t understand you or what it is you are asking or wanting.  My advice is to leave your expectations on the plane.  Smile, breathe and be thankful to be in such an incredibly beautiful and special place.

I did want to go and check out the hotel across the river, I thought I could have lunch and use the pool or pay a nominal fee to use the facilities, when I ask I was told that guests who stay in town are not allowed to go across the river and use the pool even if they have lunch or dinner or drinks or pay.  I was told it was simply impossible.  The owner, whom I had met before, was out-of-town so I had no one to question about this perplexing rule. Given that it was low season and both hotels had no more than a few guests I’d think they’d be happy for the extra business, but I would, apparently, be wrong.

For the price, you can’t beat The Apsara as a place to stay, it has a perfect location right in town, yet tucked away on a quiet street with stunning views of the river and hills beyond. Get a second floor room in the main building, ask for a corner room.  Even though it is a small city I would tell anyone who goes to go for 5 days, I can’t really explain it, but underneath the over crowded nigh market scene and all the back packers there really is something special going on here. Despite the commercialization you still get the feeling of daily life here like it has been for ages. The monks are not just there for you to take their picture, talk to them, most are happy for an opportunity to practice their English and are happy to tell you of there lives and dreams. I met a young monk who wanted to move to Argentina and become a soccer player.

One of my favorite restaurants in town is L’Elephant which if you go to Luang Prabang and you should go to Luang Prabang you must eat here.  I have eaten at L’Elephant every trip and I have never been disappointed: the food, the ambiance and the service are all top-notch.  IMG_5536This was the view from my window just before landing in Luang Prabang.  The flight from Bangkok is about 2 hours Bangkok Airways has two flights a day.  They are a great airline I can’t recommend them enough.  Laos requires you get a visa on arrival so have 2 passport photos with you and some US dollars (a Visa for US citizens is $35).IMG_5540I believe the pick up from the hotel was included in my hotel rate and $9 USD drive me to the airport for my trip home.IMG_5541

About urbanfoodguy

I'm a self taught cook with a dedication to buying and eating food that is as humanely and sustainably raised as possible. Which is why in addition to recipes you will see a lot of environmental/political reporting here. I started cooking when I was about 6, it's something I always loved to do. Watching Graham Kerr - aka "The Galloping Gourmet" - was what got me started and I have never really looked back. Over the years I've been a private chef, a caterer, and a food stylist for magazines such as Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Real Simple, Oprah, Martha Stewart's Everyday Food and many more. I've also worked in the prep kitchen for the Food Network on the Bobby Flay and Paula Deen shows. Now I work at home in my kitchen sharing with you here recipes that I create or that other people have created that inspire me and I think you will like. I love my neighborhood (the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and I love to travel. Because NYC is such a big place I tend to focus mostly on my 'hood and the ones that are close by: The East Village, Bowery, Chinatown and Williamsburg. My love of travel has no limits really, I'm always ready to get on a plane. I was lucky enough to have a business for many years that allowed me to spend a lot of time in South East Asia. These days I've been spending time in Mexico, Germany, Canada and the West Coast of the U.S., but check back you never know where I might end up. I do consulting, cooking classes, and freelance lifestyle writing so if you are interested please send me a note: urbanfoodguy@gmail.com
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