The Francophile’s Guide to Luang Prabang
The French left Luang Prabang in the 1950s, but their heritage is baked into the city, from the colonial façades to the aroma of fresh croissants. One expat tells us where to appreciate the city’s Gallic charm.
It’s easy to daydream about getting stuck in Luang Prabang. Like the easy-flowing Mekong, life here follows a leisurely pace. There are leafy streets to stroll, coffees to sip, books to read, spicy salads to savor. But as day melts into night—when the sky flushes pink and monks chant inside golden temples—a familiar affliction may strike: cravings for cheese, bread, and a good glass of wine. That’s where Matthieu de Villechenous comes in.
About 12 years ago, Villechenous left a pharmaceutical career in Biarritz to start a new life in Laos. “What can I tell you?,” he says. “It’s the ambience. The landscapes, the streets—it is all so charming.”
He partnered with a Laotian cook descended from high-society chefs to open a small restaurant serving French and local food. While the restaurant was a success, he found himself drawn to the world of wine. When the lease ended, he decided to open Chez Matt, a wine bar in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town, surrounded by temples.
While those temples—the city has 30 in all—reflect Luang Prabang’s former status as the royal capital of Laos, the city’s architecture reveals a heavy influence from the French colonial era. The kingdom allowed French protection in 1893, after a mercenary army destroyed the city. Luang Prabang became a favorite hub for French colonists, who built wide avenues shaded with trees, lining them with brick villas whose louvered windows and wooden balconies echoed 19th-century European design. Laos declared its independence in 1953, but the French mark on the architecture remained. In 1995, Luang Prabang earned UNESCO World Heritage status and the dilapidated temples, homes, and shophouses were restored.
Chez Matt blends in with the low-slung shophouses, but step inside and you enter a Parisian bistro. The lighting is low and the bar is polished. The walls are colored with French posters, photographs of Luang Prabang, and paintings by local artists. The 16-page menu includes a mostly French wines and pairings like cheese and charcuterie. “It’s the wine bar spirit,” says Villechenous.
Predictably, Chez Matt has become a hub for homesick French expats. They are all “looking for the things they like when they are in France.” It’s a high bar, but Villechenous has his sources: a few good import companies and a trusted boulangerie, the Thai-owned Zurich Bread. “My customers always compliment the quality of the bread.” Villechenous let Rosewood Conversations in on the other spots that keep Luang Prabang’s Francophiles happy. Allons-y.
A new venture from the team behind the celebrated Manda de Laos, Gaspard serves French dishes made with ingredients from the local markets. The UNESCO-protected house was transformed by craftsmen from Brittany and Luang Prabang. Outside, a terrace sits beneath tropical flowers.
In a colonial building that wraps around the corner, L’Elephant has been a local institution for 20 years. The owners’ French-Lao lineage is reflected in the menus, which feature Gallic classics, regional specialities, and dishes that blend the two—think braised lamb with cardamom, or a tarte tatin in which mango and pineapple join the typical apples.
Cozy and romantic, Tangor serves modern fusion food with influences from Europe, Southeast Asia, and beyond. The eclectic options include Vietnamese bun cha, ratatouille and the fan-favorite ceviche.
Le Banneton is Villechenous’s favorite place in town for viennoiserie, like croissants and pain au chocolat. Along the main street and open early, it’s a perfect spot for breakfast after morning alms.
Newly opened by a French expat, Gelato del Lao serves Luang Prabang’s best ice cream. “I did a tasting with the owner,” says Villechenous. “The ice cream is excellent—Italian-style and really good.”
Anakha is a French Indochina-inspired shop that sells clothing made with fine linens and Laotian fabrics as well as housewares, accessories, and handicrafts hand-picked by the French owner.
This fine art gallery sells works by artists from Laos and throughout Asia. “It feels like a museum,” says Villechenous. “All the items are original and authentic.”
Chez Matt, Ban Xieng Mouane, opposite French Institute; +856 20 77 779 497
Zurich Bread, Sakkaline Road, at the corner of Phayameungchan Road; +856 20 58 528 953
Gaspard Restaurant, 5 Ban Wat That; +856 20 57 580 909
L’Elephant, Ban Vat Nong, Kounxoua Road; +856 71 252 482
Tangor, 63/6 Ban Xiengmouane, Sisavangvong Road; +856 71 260 761
Le Banneton, 03/46 Sakkaline Road; +856 30 57 88 340
Gelato Del Lao, Sisavangvong Road 59, Unit 04; +856 20 96 120 997
Anakha, 9 Sakkaline Road, Ban Vat Sene; +856 20 5875 4990
Asiama Gallery, 41 Ban Vat Nong; +856 71 212 682