Anticipation, excitement, curiosity – the jumbled up feelings in a dreamy mind as we landed in Laos, a small but, to us, totally beguiling slither nestled in between its neighbours Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
We had longed to visit Laos for years. Laos is proper, unadulterated escapism. A country that overthrew its monarchy to become a communist state. It was for many years a French protectorate. It has experienced decades of unrest, a civil war, and was caught up in neighbouring Vietnam’s conflict, too, but remarkably retained its glow, a smiley outlook on a shattered past. Laos is a country that only began welcoming tourists in 1985.
A land of soaring mountains, lush jungles and the mighty River Mekong, which slices through it, providing the principal trade route for centuries. Indeed, much of the country has relied on farming, rice in particular; but as curiosity grows, so do the number of seriously snazzy places in which to hunker down.
Our first halt is at Rosewood Luang Prabang, a new jungle retreat, an eight-minute tuk-tuk journey from the buzzy city centre, a whimsical fusion of Lao-European architecture and culture, so marvellous it was awarded Unesco status in 1995. Architect-designer, eco-warrior and general creative demi-god, Bill Bensley, who has transformed dull, soulless hotels and private residences in the region into mind-blowingly awesome, award-winning gems, has created something truly spectacular. This place is a sort of Alice in Wonderland on acid.
The retreat is set on a gnarly mountain ravine centred around a gushing waterfall and river. Bensley and his team of design magicians have ingeniously designed a scattering of beautiful suites, villas and canvas tents which also gently convey the vivid history of Laos through its royal influences and colonial French exploration, to adventure traders and modern day tribes.
After a fairly rigorous site inspection with director Guillermo, we tuck into a scrumptious late lunch of minced water-buffalo meat and grilled eggplants, and sour tamarind chicken broth at The Great House, the hotel’s principal dining room, housed in a traditional French–era colonial mansion. The mustard-yellow colour palette is splashed across a bright internal lounge. The wooden doors and ceiling are intricately decorated in local, hand-drawn designs.
For our second night, we head to Amantaka, a former hospital right in the centre of Luang Prabang. It’s a stately, low-rise estate surrounded by acres of lush gardens, scattered with standalone suites and villas, each elegantly decorated in Aman’s signature pared-back aesthetic. Elegant palm trees stand proudly and nod in the gentle breeze as we stroll through the grounds.
Inside our suite, the main space houses an immaculately-crafted freestanding king-size bed, an airy lounge with double sofa and gnarly wooden writing desk. This leads to a cavernous bathroom and private courtyard with plunge pool, a little haven to enjoy some quiet time.
During our stay, a Tibetan monk had been drafted in and was hosting a breath-work and meditation retreat, which had drawn an eclectic bunch of global nomads, seeking to bolster depleted energy levels.
As dusk falls, we make our way to the pool terrace and tuck into a fiery fish curry with sticky rice, washed down with inventive juice-based cocktails infused with local herbs jasmine and rosemary. Everything here feels effortless and just right. Somehow Aman always seems to hit the spot.
Fast forward a few hours and our 5 am wake-up call seemed fairly obtrusive, but soon we were to experience something so extraordinary, so touching, we would fully appreciate the necessity. As we arrive at the property boundary, we are invited to kneel on the edge of the dusty pavement. In the distance, we observe a gathering of Laotian monks, huddled closely, head to toe in vivid saffron robes, preparing for their daily almsgiving ritual. About eight of us, mainly Westerners, are each handed a beautifully woven Lao basket containing sticky rice, ‘khao neow’, which we offer to the monks as they stroll gracefully past. And, just like that, we were transported into another existence.
We bid farewell to this new faraway land and our Laotian friends hoping we will meet again one day soon, and fly south for about 700 km, over the boarder into Cambodia, a country once-shattered by its former leader’s political and social persuasions. Pleasantly distant from any tourists and high-rise developments, the south of the country is a place of intense beauty.
Upon arrival, we’re greeted by a couple of the team who help us clamber into an open-roof jeep, which gently pootles higher into the wilderness, meandering through the evergreen forest. Suddenly, an elegant pheasant darts across the un-made track, trampling over shimmering kaffir lime leaves, releasing a subtle zesty scent.
A few moments later, 98 steps stand proudly in front of us. This is it; the moment we’ve been anticipating. We harness up and, individually, clip into the zip-wire. Seconds later we’re zooming over the jungle, soaring high above the waterfalls which surround our new home for the next few days, Shinta Mani Wild, a sort of super-luxe adventure camp, dreamt up by Bill Bensley and launched in 2018 with an initiative to protect the fast-vanishing flora and fauna of the surrounding jungle and rainforest, which straddles three national parks.
In a land of inexplicable beauty, where elephants and tigers roam freely, 15 fixed-structure canvas tents have been constructed using local materials without jeopardising the rural landscape. Each one is carefully decorated with trinkets and paintings depicting iconic periods from Cambodia’s fascinating past.
Exposed brass pipes, bamboo handcrafted furniture, beaten up wooden trunks – and every item has a story and almost everything is re-used or recycled.
A butler-guide is assigned to each guest who runs through the camp’s concept: ostensibly an activity base to learn about the admirable anti-poaching efforts, but also to enjoy adventure: kayaking, forest mountain biking and swimming. The spa, Khmer Tonics, is a calm oasis at the pounding heart of the jungle. The dedicated team of therapists have been drafted in from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and have curated a top-notch menu of treatments and rituals, administering chemical-free, homemade potions in a truly special – and utterly zen – sanctuary.
Eco-pioneer outfit, Six Senses, which has set up high-design, health-focused resorts in off-grid locations like Fiji and the Seychelles, unveiled a new property just off the south coast of Cambodia in 2018. Krabey Island, pronounced “crab-eye”, is a rugged outcrop just a 15-minute speedboat journey from the mainland. As we approach the island, we catch a glimpse of the lush jungle and swaying palms that await us.
Ateeb, the vivacious General Manager, drafted in from another outpost in Vietnam, bundles us into a glossy, banana-leaf-green electric buggy, and we whiz across the hilly island to inspect a few of the 40 beautifully designed villas, lost in amongst the dense vegetation. Plump bullfrogs dart out playfully in front of us, a grinning chef strolls happily past, clutching large bunches of lemongrass.
If there ever was a time to consider a more mindful adventure in South East Asia, I really think it must be now – after all, the balmy November sun is calling and we all have oodles of time to plan something extraordinary.
How the old world we once remember has evolved, moulded together into something new, something slightly rougher, well, less-smooth, an ever-changing sphere of emotions and vulnerability. As the sun sets across the globe, we dream of better days ahead.
* Timmy Coles-Liddle is the founder of NINE, (nineconcierge.com), a private club crafting tailored travel and lifestyle experiences to members globally.
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