Interview in SLEEPER magazine March 2011

Duangrit Bunnag has converted and extended a derelict governor’s mansion to create an all-suite sanctuary for Alila Hotels & Resorts, in the former capital of Laos.

Alila Luang Prabang Laos

Sleeper : Hotel Design , Development & Architecture/ /Issue 35 March / April 2011/ HOTEL REVIEW
Words: Sophie Davies Photography: Courtesy of Alila Hotels & Resorts

It may come as a shock that small and sleepy Luang Prabang, idling by the mountain-fringed Mekong River, boasts more inspiring boutique hotels than many a world city. The once isolated former royal capital of Laos blends Buddhist history with French colonial charm, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Currently turning heads is Alila Luang Prabang, launched in October 2010, a seductive all-suite sanctuary that marries historic buildings and contemporary additions with understated Lao style.

Developed by Thai firm KS Resort & Spa, the hotel is managed by Alila Hotels & Resorts, dynamic trendsetters behind some of Asia’s most exciting boutique hotels from Bali to Bangalore. Alila’s name means ‘surprise’, and surprise it does on this project, driven by Thai talent Duangrit Bunnag, with support from locally-based French-Canadian architect Pascal Trahan. Founder of design firm Duangrit Bunnag Architect Limited. (DBALP), Duangrit previously collaborated with the group on Hua Hin hideaway Alila Cha-Am in Thailand, which combined linear austerity with seaside serenity.

Converted from a derelict governor’s mansion built around 1910, Alila Luang Prabang has also served time as a detention centre and traces of its prison past remain from imposing walls to dramatic watchtowers. “You’ll see steel bars on the reception and boutique windows, but not in bedrooms, and we turned the two watchtowers into a special private dining experience,” explains Duangrit. “We wanted guests to learn about the hotel’s history, but also enjoy it as something new.

” Set in the quiet Ban Mano residential quarter yet near the heart of the old town, Alila Luang Prabang hides its charms behind high, white compound walls. Once through the impressive original gateway, the hotel’s elegant, dean-lined, tiled-roof suites are arranged around a large central courtyard, with an open-air swimming pool and reflection pool. A landscaped garden, conserved trees, lounging areas and a sandy firepit dot the public space.

At the far end, informal, low-lit lounge bar-come-library Sabai beckons. Beyond, in a smaller upper courtyard, Kaipen restaurant perches above open-air cooking school Katoke opposite Spa Alila. Built new from the ground up, it’s a faithful replica of a Lao village, with three two-storey traditional wooden houses on stilts. Inspired by its Luang Prabang location, “it brings the context of the city into the hotel,” says Duangrit.

Although his brief was fairly open, “the main challenge was working within strict conservation guidelinesท in a city which must be preserved,” recalls Duangrit. “But at the same time, we had to create a hotel that people want to experience. It needed to be

aesthetically coherent but also to stand out.” The team spent a year designing the hotel, over six months getting planning permission, and then a year and a half building it. Indepth studies of Lao architecture were a key jumping-off point; “not to copy it, but to really articulate a new vocabulary that could marry the existing former colonial structures on site with coherent new spaces.”

It’s almost impossible to spot the difference between the seven renovated original buildings, and the eight seamless new structures, built to blend in. “As per UNESCO regulations, the buildings have been restored to their original glory,” explains General Manager Karin van Zyl, “so the hotel harmonises with its surroundings while also standing out as a beautiful new creation.”

The 23 spacious suites are soothing, with lofty ceilings, accentuated by fulllength curtains, shuttered windows and whirring fans. Beds are swathed in dreamy white netting (modelled on a royal bed), trad Lao dark-wood furniture is given a contemporary edge and the muted natural palette is sophisticated (think pale walls and grey concrete tiles). The only hit of colour comes care of vibrant textile ‘do not disturb’ door-hangings, hand-made by hill tribes, and signature striped fabric headboard wallcoverings, a modern mix of cream, red, deep blue and rust-brown. “We took the average pigment from hundreds of photos of the city to create the fabric’s key tones,” says Duangrit. “Rather than just use images or old pictures, we wanted to create the same effect in a more abstract, artistic way.”

The result is a subtle yet seductive sense of place. “You know you are in Luang Prabang, and feel the spirit of the city, but there’s a clean-lined purity too. We tried to capture the simplicity of the way Lao people live. The spaces aren’t ornamental and ethnic, but nor are they ultra-modern either.

” Bathrooms up the luxe factor, with deep, sinuous white baths, rain showers and double basins, with some floor-set tubs spilling into sheltered areas outside. All rooms offer private courtyards and the four stand-out corner Pool Suites feature private lap pools. Two Pool Suites also sport their own watchtowers, offering romantic views of distant mountains, the perfect spot for cocktails or dinner a deux. The two top-category Governor’s Suites boast larger living rooms and fireplaces.

Tech comforts, such as free WiFi, abound, but it’s the sensual eastern touches that up the pampering ante, from a delicate white ceramic cup of herbal tea to a white flower left on the bed at turndown.

On the food front, Kaipen, named after an edible river weed, serves seasonal, local Lao and international cuisine in a sleek wood-lined space. It’s helmed by French executive chef Sebastian Rubis, who also runs the kitchen at more classic sister hotel 3 Nagas by Alila nearby, which has earned plaudits from The New York Times for its in-house restaurant.

Just as rooms embrace the outdoors, guests can too, with a range of activities available though the hotel’s Leisure Concierge, connecting them with the community.

Cooking school adventures take in produce street markets, or you can bike through local villages, dye your own silk scarf or tour the peninsula’s 30-odd temples. Trips to see the saffron-robed monks requesting alms at dawn or to the local night market are also just a bike ride away.

Free push bikes are just one of the hotel’s eco-friendly features, as are cars for airport transfers. Along with energy-efficient airconditioning, Duangrit relied on locallymade materials often produced on site, with much of the building work constructed by hand using low-tech green tools. With its pared down trad-modern style, Alila Luang Prabang isn’t the only directional bolthole in this intriguing town – boutique retreat Amantaka, set in a former French colonial hospital, enjoys a similar grand courtyard setting, and style-savvy Satri House teams a regal residence with chic Lao accessories. For Duangrit Bunnag, though, this project marks a departure from his previous contemporary hotel outings, where more relentless modernism ruled. “In this hotel we tried to explore another topology of how to be modern and that was very exciting.” .


Alila luang Prabang Unti 4, Ban Mano, Old Prison Road, luang Prabang, 0600 lao PD.R Tel: +856 71 260777
Developer / Owner: KS Resort & Spa
Operator: Alila Hotels & Resorts
Architect: Duangrit Bunnag Architect Ltd
Local Architect: Pascal Trahan
Landscape Architect: Thiti Tritrakarn
Interior Design: Marisa Noeypatimanond


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