A simple truth of travel is that you can very rarely go back. When we return to places that have forged strong memories for us, more often that not they have changed, and we've changed too – we're different travellers, looking for different things.
But in Luang Prabang – the northern Laotian city that sits like a precious egg in the nest of the PhouThao and PhouNang mountains – 20 years of UNESCO World Heritage protection have kept a cap on development while allowing the small town to evolve, slowly and organically.
I first travelled to Laos in 1997. As a traveller I was green, but Luang Prabang was greener, the lush mountains so viscerally verdant that I bought a local painting of them because my camera didn't seem up to the job (there's probably a filter for that now).
But when I return almost two decades later, the first thing I notice is those mountains are gone, cloaked in a smoky haze from agricultural burn-offs. But the haze cannot contain these soaring bluffs for long and they peek out from the clouds from time to time as if checking on the town below.
My base is not a hostel this trip. Instead, I am staying at the Sofitel Luang Prabang, the former governor's compound reinvented as a luxe stay and twinned with the 3 Nagas property on Luang Prabang's main street, the two Accor properties perfect bookends for those wanting a peaceful stay a little away from the action while having a friendly base in town from which to explore.
Keen to see the main street, I grab a bicycle from reception and in a few minutes I am cycling down Sakkaline Road that runs along the centre of a small peninsula carved out by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. In a few more minutes I am soaked to my skin and covered head to toe in coloured powder, this being Pi Mai Lao, or Laos New Year, which is celebrated in a similarly soggy fashion to the neighbouring Thai festival of Songkran. But the constant barrage of hoses, buckets and kids wielding water guns with uncanny accuracy cannot disguise the fact that Luang Prabang central looks much as I remember it. Several of the century-old French colonial houses are actually in better condition – and one is pumping out techno and playing host to an Ibiza-style bubble party for new year. This is a poster child for UNESCO preservation.
The next morning I explore preservation of a different kind with a visit to the Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort. This elephant camp has a strong pedigree, rescuing the animals from the logging industry and making them available for tourist interaction for just a few hours each morning with their afternoons free to roam in the dense jungle surrounding this bucolic bend in the Nam Khan River. I get my elephant L-Plates with some rudimentary mahout training aboard Mae Gong Gnun, mother of Maxi, a baby elephant that we ride across the river to visit. Later, Gong Gnun, which means Silver Drum, and I take a bath together in the river bend. I am handed a scrubbing brush by her real mahout (I'm pretty sure she never listened to a word I said) that feels about as coarse as the hair sprouting from Gong Gnun's head. I scrub her leathery skin as she lazily slaps her trunk in the water and she emerges from the river fresh as a daisy – me, not so much; my post-bath scent is best described as "eau de elephant backside".
Back at the Sofitel's Governor's Grill that evening, an exotic tent of dark wood furniture and louche couches, I grab a gin and tonic pimped with fresh ginger and decide that the biggest change on this trip is the level of luxury. My return to northern Laos has more cocktails, more top-notch dishes like the deep-fried Mekong river weed with spicy buffalo that kick starts a Laotian feast at 3 Nagas – but the most stark contrast comes with a sunset trip along the Mekong.
Twenty years ago, I first saw Luang Prabang from the river at sunset. The roads north from the southern capital of Vientiane were still considered dangerous, so I was persuaded to take an eight-hour speedboat along the Mekong to Luang Prabang. It was loud, long and charmless. In near dark my driver stopped at a steep, foliage-filled bank and pointed up. Our trip was over and I had to climb through the greenery to discover the town.
My final sunset on this return journey is a world away. We board the Dok Keow, a 28-metre long wooden river boat run by the Luxury on the Mekong group, and sail to a sand island in the centre of the river where a long table has been set up for champagne and canapes.
It's a smoky, surreal sunset as we watch buffalo being herded on the opposite bank and is punctured only by the sound of a speed boat as it zips by. The boat is an exact replica of the one I spent a long, sweaty day on two decades ago. Not all change is bad.
FOUR LUANG PRABANG SECRETS
There are few more exciting things than the big travel reveal, and Secret Pizza delivers. Down more small alleyways than you can keep track of, this pizzeria is run by Italian expat, Andrea, from the garden of his house. Huge wooden tables, a brightly lit pool table and some of the best pizzas you will have anywhere await. Try the Pizza Del Re (ham, capers, anchovies, oregano and basil) or the Pizza Secret, which is topped with whatever Andrea feels like on the day. Opening times are erratic so check before you go.
Ban Nasamphanh street n.3, Laos; facebook.com/pizzasecret
LUANG PRABANG BOWLING ALLEY
The UNESCO World Heritage status means that bars and restaurants in central LP have to shut by 11pm sharp, but just a kilometre outside the heritage zone is this local late-night drinking spot. It is bright, noisy and drinks are pretty much just Beer Lao and Lao whisky but it's open, so night owls of all varieties flock there as soon as the town curfew falls – some even play a game of bowls. No one seems to know the address, but it's easy to find – when you leave a bar at closing time there are plenty of tuk-tuk drivers asking "Do you want to go bowling"?
525 LUANG PRABANG
British expat Andrew Sykes recently opened this speakeasy-style cocktail bar away from the main drag. It is a bit of an effort to find, but well worth the time when you are enjoying twisted classic drinks (ask manager and Geneva native Nicolas Calvert what he recommends) and buffalo sliders. Best spot is in the sunken concrete seats in the front garden where you can hear the geckos chirp as you sip your drink.
Kingkitsarath Rd, Luang Prabang; 525.rocks
THE BAMBOO BRIDGE
Not so much secret as transitory, this bamboo construction across the Nam Khan River is only there for six months as it gets washed away by the strong waters during the rainy season. It links LP with a small village on the other side with a temple to visit, but the real point is just to get your Indiana Jones on and brave the gently swaying, OH&S-defying bridge itself. It costs 5000 kip per person, with money going towards building it all again next year.
Qantas (qantas.com) flies to Bangkok and has a code share with Bangkok Airways (bangkokair.com) that flies into Luang Prabang. Other airlines flying into the northern Laos town from Bangkok include Air Asia (airasia.com) and Lao Airlines (laoairlines.com).
The Sofitel Luang Prabang is an all-suites affair with 25 rooms set into the grounds that used to contain the Governor and his entourage. It is secluded, sophisticated and very close to the town centre; suites from $251. Ban Man, Luang Prabang; accorhotels.com
The restaurant at 3 Nagas (Sakkaline Rd, Luang Prabang; Sakkaline Rd, Luang Prabang) has a menu full of Lao dishes or opt for the Lao degustation with dishes like minced chicken cooked in coconut milk and curry and steamed mushroom in banana leaf with Lao herbs; accorhotels.com.
SEE AND DO
The Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort is a 15-minute drive from Luang Prabang. It offers half-day, full-day and two-day experiences. You can also stay at the Shangri-Lao residences, a wooden bungalow that looks out over the river; elephantvillage-laos.com. Luxury on the Mekong, runs overnight river cruises from the luxurious Dok Keow; luxuryonthemekong.com
Paul Chai was a guest of Accor Hotels.