Laos and France have an interesting and complicated history, the latter having colonized the area in the mid 19th century after moving west from Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1954 that Laos would go on to claim its own independence. Now, almost 60 years later, and with Laos quickly becoming recognized as a tourist hotspot, it maintains some of its French roots while simultaneously exhibiting its true Asian branches.
Vientiane is the national hub for business, government, finance and other major industries in Laos. Walk down Rue Charles de Gaulle and choose between the bakery selling hot baguettes and croissants next to the street vendors selling spicy larb, the national dish of Laos. Signs on bank buildings are often in both French in addition to Lao.
The city used to be known for European architecture, but saw much of that fall into disrepair with a domestic civil war and the Vietnam War happening in short succession to each other in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Today in many places, once inspired wrought iron banisters have fallen to pieces and barbed wire now replaces it. Thankfully, with the opening of more international trade and a greater acceptance of domestic capitalism, things are starting to get better.
Progress takes time, and many discerning business professionals and intrepid travelers coming through Vientiane may still struggle to find charming accommodations. The typical line up offers less than desirable guesthouses or corporate chains, which provide the same experience from Minnesota to Managua. For those who long for more after a long day of exploration or business, search no more.
Settha Palace is the only option for visitors that want a first-class hotel that reflects the soul and history of Vientiane. This hotel has navigated, degenerated and been reborn through the phases of changing government and shifting cultural influences over nearly the last 80 years.
Much of the allure of the hotel comes from the sentimentality of its history.
Settha Palace was opened as a hotel in 1932. The property was later taken over and turned into government housing during a coup in 1975. After falling into complete disrepair over the years, it took a renovation effort costing over $3 million dollars to return the hotel to operating condition in 1999. The money came from owner Billy Theodas. He has a personal connection to Settha Palace as his parents used to run the hotel when he was a child.
In the early 1990s Billy and his Mother returned to Vientiane to visit their old home. His Mother was distraught to find the building in shambles. The common areas were destroyed, ducks wandered the halls, messy clotheslines hung from the windows and the grounds hadn’t seen maintenance in decades.
Theodas purchased the property from the government for $150,000, the cost of relocating the 31 families that lived out of the old guestrooms. Billy grew up at the hotel and made a heartfelt promise to his Mother that he would make it a success once again.
Upon entering the hotel you notice many things. The rush of cool air washes over you, alleviating the heat and humidity that is Laos in May. Sharply dressed staff rush to greet you with cold towels and a refreshing welcome drink. The French architecture is perfectly restored and is complimented by the colonial décor and period furniture. The bar is made from Lao Rosewood, which provides a beautiful touch of natural color.
Once in your room the attention to detail is obvious. The traditional design is artfully balanced with modern facilities. Black and white marble tiles are an established touch opposite the new faucets and sleek shower. The guest room features mahogany wood paneling and classic four post beds.
The European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) has awarded Laos the “World’s Best Tourist Destination for 2013.” The ECTT cited Laos’ promotion of free and fair tourism, tourist safety and access to sites of cultural and historical significance as reasons to honor Laos. In 2012 tourism to Laos was up 22% with 3.3 million visitors.
Billy Theodas took on a huge task to reclaim his home and rebuild the landmark to it’s original glory. From our experience he kept his promise to his mother and has created a property to be proud of for a long time to come.
Our accommodations at Settha Palace Hotel were provided in order to do this review, but the opinions expressed above are, as always, our own.