There is nothing egalitarian about a stay in the Settha Palace hotel, the standout property in the capital of nominally communist Laos
By David Hutt
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” goes the old Marxist slogan, although this has been somewhat forgotten in modern-day Laos, where the spectre of capitalism looms large and the luxury industry has begun to rear its head.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the heart of Laos’ languid capital of Vientiane, where the once dilapidated Settha Palace has risen from the ashes to retake its place as the city’s landmark hotel.
In the harsh light of a Lao afternoon, walking into the soft confines of the lobby, with its beige walls, dark wood and imposing chandelier, is like stepping into a sepia photograph of a bygone era.
With a halcyon blink, guests might be forgiven for thinking that French Indochina is alive and well in this distinctly colonial hotel, an anachronistic relic hidden away in a city starting to move into the 21st century.
Opened in 1932 to attract distinguished guests from other parts of French Indochina, the hotel quickly became a firm favourite for the members of the haute société in Laos. However, half a century later its legacy hung in the balance when the communist Pathet Lao came to power in 1975 , turning the hotel into a government building and, in a not-so-subtle snub to the colonial past, leaving it to fall into decay.
In 1999 the French-Laotian entrepreneur Billy Theodas – the son of the original owners – reopened the hotel after investing more than $3 million to restore it to its original opulence.
A stay here is a distinctly Gallic experience, from the bottles of Bordeaux that line the bar to the Belle Epoque restaurant – except, that is, for the black London cab parked out front that ferries guests to and from the airport.
At night, we joined other guests in the bar to enjoy a light apéritif before heading into the adjoining restaurant for a lesson in French cuisine – highlights included home-made foie gras and a generous serving of confit de cuisse de canard, while the knowledgeable staff recommended the finest bottles of red or white to complement the food.
With only 29 rooms, guests need not worry about overcrowding beside the kidney-shaped pool, where the perpetually attentive staff wait on guests’ every whim.
Old Marx will no doubt be spinning in his grave.
A ‘vertical runway’ might not sound like an ideal tourist attraction, but it is simply the affectionate name expats give to Patuxai, Vientiane’s replica of the Arc de Triomphe. Built in 1969 using cement donated by the US, which was intended for
a new airport, Patuxi is surrounded by greenery, making it a great spot to while away a few hours. Climb to the top for sublime panoramic views of the capital.
Get into the laid-back groove of Vientiane, known as Asia’s ‘largest village’, with a day of R&R. While your average street massage parlours are ten-a-penny, the capital boasts a number of luxury spas. Champa Spa comes highly recommended. Choose from more than ten package treatments or dozens of individual options. Be warned:
a good Lao massage is not for the faint of heart.
While there is an abundance of Buddhist temples to explore in Vientiane, no visit to the capital would be complete without a trip to Pha That Luang. Laos’ national symbol and most important monument, this gold-covered stupa is said to have been built by Indian missionaries in the 3rd Century BC to enclose a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone.
Empty those pockets
At dusk, as the sun sets over the mighty Mekong, a night market springs into life on the riverfront. Perfect for grabbing last-minute souvenirs, including the mandatory Beerlao T-shirt, one can also find numerous handicrafts and local cuisine. With curios procured, grab a bottle of Beerlao and watch the action unfold from one of the adjoining rooftop bars.
Get a map
Vientiane, compared to other capital cities in the region, is relatively traffic free. It is best mention a nearby landmark in order to successfully arrive at your desired location. What road signs there are come in French and Lao languages.
Tel: +856 21 217 581.
Website: setthapalace.com. Rates: from $221 for a Deluxe Room to $360 for an Executive Suite. Rates include daily breakfast and high-speed
“Grand design” – Since 1932, Siem Reap’s Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor has been a magnet for well-heeled travellers on a sojourn to the nearby ancient temple wonders