Travel/Experiences  •  Robe Report

Robe Report: Sofitel Luang Prabang

On her maiden voyage to Luang Prabang, Kim Visudharomn discovers a robe and a resort worthy of the old world charm and laidback vibes of northern Laos.

August 03, 2017
The Robe
It’s 3pm on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in Luang Prabang. I’m laying on an L-shaped couch strewn with colorful silk pillows, staring at the room’s impossibly high ceilings and securely ensconced—because if there ever were a sensation that called for the word, this would be it—in the hotel’s fluffy white robe. Pure cotton, no piping—just bundles of pristine white fabric that tumble generously onto the floor, a bear hug waiting to happen. A flimsy dressing gown this ain’t. It’s plush, it’s lush, it’s the kind of robe you could really sink your teeth into but you don’t because that would really be quite weird.

When we checked into the room, there were three robes; within less than 24 hours of our arrival, I’ve since worn two—one strictly for sleeping and one for “activities” that so far have consisted of eating and lounging (i.e. sleeping anywhere that’s not the bed). My boyfriend walks in from the villa’s private pool and, upon seeing me still supine in my robe (the “activities” one), comments hopelessly, “You and your robes.”

I urge/force him to try one—“We’re on holiday, damn it!”—and when he finally does, he gets it. Oh, he gets it. Much of the clothes he packed would remain untouched for the rest of the trip; he will wear his robe to the pool and then to breakfast the next day, which didn’t raise a single eyebrow (OK, maybe a few eyebrows) but would prove a bit too muggy for the rainy season’s humidity, not to mention a nightmare when reaching across the open bowls of preserves to get to the breakfast pastries.

You can spot said robe in the photo below. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there aren't any photos of us in the robes; by the time it occured to either of us to take one, all three (yes, all three) had succumbed to ketchup stains and smears of buffalo jam (not a euphemism for buffalo anything, actually a jam—more on this later).
One of the hotel's four pool villas (and one mighty fine robe: right).
The Resort
It’s the right robe for a hotel where robes are allowed to roam (belted, preferably). Consisting of an intimate 25 rooms, the Sofitel Luang Prabang is situated in a series of century-old UNESCO heritage buildings. It has all the “feels” of a five-star resort without the stuffiness and often unnecessary trappings that come with “ultra-luxury” accommodation. For a start, it’s quiet; not eerie quiet, but peaceful quiet. No overly fussy furnishings, no lobby music, even the children at the pool seem more polite, playing happily amongst themselves while their parents tuck into their novels and another mai tai. “Is it just me, or are the kids here better behaved?” I ponder out loud to the boyfriend. I get no response, of course. He, after his own fair share of free-flow mini madeleines, had dozed off, shaded under the woven rice hat provided for him by the pool staff.

The pool is kinda “the thing" here: the centerpiece amongst the low-slung courtyard buildings. Many of the rooms open directly onto it—hence, the journey from room-to-pool in one’s robe is well justified—though their privacy is protected by high, heavy barn doors and barred windows. Barred windows, you say? Ah yes, this used to be a fort, a prison of sorts. Up until the 1990s, the structures still housed several of the country’s political dissidents.
An aerial view of the rectangular property.

Much of the facade has since been restored and the interiors re-envisioned by Duangrit Bunnag, whose contemporary interpretation is one that undoubtedly pays homage to the hotel’s historical and bucolic surroundings (of his inspiration, the Thai architect cited the simplicity of local agricultural and farming communities of monks who tend the land along the Mekong River). Yet, the site’s intriguing past is still very much present, as seen in the stone embankment that runs along the entire property, not to mention one rather conspicuous guard tower; perhaps once looming over mandatory morning exercise drills (apologies if my image of prison is limited at best and largely informed by Shawshank Redemption and Bugs Bunny cartoons), it now overlooks our pool villas and happy holiday-bloated bellies.

Despite the hotel’s, shall we say, colorful history, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine how even the most superstitious of sets can and have been so easily persuaded by this most graceful of forts. One look at the pool and it’s literal surrender. Tiled in an enchanting black, speckled with deep purple and pearlescent amethysts, it takes pride of place backdropped by the hotel’s elegant French colonial Indochine architecture. A lagoon amidst the lush tropical landscape, framed by tall palm trees from which hang woven lanterns that flicker on just as the sun’s about to set (7:30pm during the summer months, which extends sunset cocktails by a good hour or so. Huzzah!)

Big pool, small pool, and one graceful watchtower to rule over its sun-kissed citizens.
Will this humble slice live up to our Club Sandwich litmus test? Spoiler alert: it does.

The Club Sandwich
The Sofitel Luang Prabang’s Club Sandwich is the edible embodiment of its atmosphere: unpretentious and oh-so-comforting. It’s not about to win any beauty contests but mind you, the best ones never do. It ticks all the boxes in terms of fixings—chicken breast, crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese and a fried egg in every layer—but most importantly, it’s sandwiched between three slices of buttered and toasted white bread. None of that fancy-focaccia-artisanal-country-bread nonsense, just plain sliced white perfection. The sandwich is served with wedges (not fries, unfortunately) that, according to the boyfriend, were “the best wedges I’ve ever had in my entire life.” While I’m not one for overstatements, or wedges for that matter, they’re definitely worth an order—crispy all the way through on the outside, fluffy on the inside and not a soggy piece in sight.

Don't have a cow—try the buffalo instead (I'm sorry, I had to).

Notes on Noshing
When you’re done with the club sandwich, try the buffalo. A staple protein in Laotian cuisine, it gets the full gamut of preparations here at the Sofitel: carpaccio, jerky, skewers, steaks, in a bourguignon stew as well as in laab form, a local salad of minced buffalo seasoned with lemongrass and galangal. While waiting for your dear ol’ buffalo (health nuts, rejoice: it’s a much lighter and leaner cut than beef), snack on deep fried riverweed, kaiwen, the local and tastier version of your typical MSG-laden seaweed snacks, served with some spicy buffalo jam.

Breakfast is had at the canvas-canopied Governor’s Grill, the hotel’s singular restaurant, and consists of mostly a la carte items, supplemented by a buffet of fresh fruits, pastries, and preserves. The menu features local comfort foods—khao tom (rice porridge), kuay tiew (rice noodle soup) and khao soi (northern-style curry noodles)—as well as familiar western fare, ranging from dollar pancakes and eggs benedict to a full English breakfast served with sai oua (Laotian sausage) instead of the usual bangers.

If you’re into breakfast pics (as some people really are), try to get a seat at the edge of the open-air tented restaurant for unobstructed backdrops of scenic greenery and the suites’ columned facades. Plus, from these seats, you’ll have a better chance of spotting Mano, the hotel’s resident rabbit. Yes, really. If the presence of Disney-style forest critters were a gauge for peace and serenity, this place would rank Snow White high, provided Snow White was into straw hats and suntans.

Take your meals at the Governor's Grill and try not to squeal too ridiculously (guilty) when you spot Mano, the resort's resident rabbit.
The 3 Nagas' enchanting exterior and interior.

Life Beyond the Walls
Despite its compact size, the property never feels crowded, even at peak occupancy. Every person, couple, or family is able to carve out his or her own corner of comfort, be it for sunbathing, reading, eating, or a combination of the three. Only during the evenings do people converge, either for the aforementioned sunset drinks at The Governor’s Grill or to hop aboard the open-air shuttle into town (a roughly 5-minute ride).

The shuttle stops at the Sofitel Luang Prabang’s sister hotel, 3 Nagas, similarly a UNESCO property, comprised of three colonial style houses. The one that received us, The Khamboua House, serves as the 3 Nagas Cafe & Ice Cream Parlour, its ecru exterior boasting whimsical red door and window frames, while the interior brims with bright Indochine charm. If anything, go for the homemade ice creams, churned from the top secret recipes of a former royal ice cream maker.

Located across the street in the Lamache House is the 3 Nagas Restaurant, serving a comprehensive array of authentic Laotian dishes, from herb-laden wraps and rice cake salads to simmering soups and yes, buffalo of all sorts. We sat al fresco in front of the dark wood clad traditional two-storey house, dining on fresh spring rolls, chicken and coconut milk soup and Mekong fish steamed in banana leaf and ate everything with the deliciously unctuous black sticky rice.

To-die-floors (I'll stop now).
Maximum Securi-chic (OK, I'm done).

Tipple Tips
The hotel bar, The Library, is more of a nook, furnished with plush armchairs and low candle lighting ideal for a cosy nightcap (who knows, you might actually read something too). For those looking to quench their thirst beyond the hotel walls, resort manager Chin Norathepkitti recommends 525 Cocktail Bar. Its convenient locale (just behind the property) means you can simply stumble home after one too many Smiling Jade Buddhas to the comforts of your Sofitel Mybed and customized soft pillows. Sweet dreams!

The Library: because, booze and books.
One last look at the lobby makes it nearly impossible to leave :(
For more info and booking: Visit the Sofitel Luang Prabang Website.