From the divine to the sumptuousComment on this story
I split my time between two cities, New York and London, commuting back and forth. I enjoy both their similarities and their contrasts and, because I am constantly shifting between the two places, I never get bored with either of them.
I often apply the same principle to holidays, avoiding a vacation in just one location for fear of becoming bored. I recently embarked on a trip involving two Asian cities that could not be more different from each other: Luang Prabang in Laos (population just under 50,000) and Delhi (population just over 22 million).
I don t know why, but I have always wanted to visit Luang Prabang. It may be something to do with the exotic musicality of its name. It may also be that the Mekong river has always fascinated me. It is nearly 3,000 miles long and flows through six countries: China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Some years ago, I planned a trip down the river in a chartered boat, starting out in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and ending up in Luang Prabang. However, a bout of illness forced me to cancel, and I have been longing to go ever since. Happily, when I finally achieved my goal, it did not disappoint.
Because we could not spare the time to get to Luang Prabang on the riverboat from Thailand, we flew there from Chiang Mai on an old turboprop aircraft, one of 11 planes operated by Lao Airways.
The many delights of this tiny, compact city the entire centre is a Unesco World Heritage site can be enjoyed in two or three days. We stayed at La Residence Phou Vao, about a mile outside the city centre on the Hill of Kites.
The hotel is charming, comfortable and efficient, its simple rose-wood decor perfectly in keeping with the look and feel of the city. We began our first day in Luang Prabang in darkness, getting up before dawn to feed the monks . At first light, emerging eerily from the darkness, orange-robed monks walk up the main street with their wooden alms bowls. Locals and tourists alike line the pavements, putting sticky rice and bananas into the bowls. This food is the monks sole sustenance for the day ahead.
We were told that 80 per cent of the male population of Laos live in monasteries between the ages of eight and 16, making them, in effect, the country s schools.
There are more than 30 temples in the city, each of them housing monks and novices, and we spent a pleasant morning wandering along the cobbled back streets visiting these sites.
But the real highlight of the day for me was cruising on the Mekong. We hired a private boat not as expensive as you might think and gently explored the river for a few hours.
The Mekong is wide, clear and beautiful at Luang Prabang. We sipped green tea as our boat headed along a golden highway towards the setting sun. This was an experience so unforgettable that I am already planning to go back and hire a boat for a few days rather than just a few hours.
Scattered among the temples and souvenir stores in the city centre are many restaurants. We had lunch at Tamarind and dinner at the Three Nagas, which had been highly recommended to us and which served typical Laotian food. But without doubt the best dish I ate during our visit was a spicy noodle soup pho khao poun served for breakfast at La Residence.
And now, as some zany Britons once said, for something completely different. Delhi is only a few hours from Luang Prabang by plane, but it is really a universe away. It was such a wonderful contrast to go from a tiny, charming backwater to a bustling metropolis.
The last time I was in Delhi was in 1973 when the streets were full of animals rather than the Mercedes and BMWs that now jam them. Instead of the rustic charm of La Residence Phou Vao, we were ushered into the utter luxury of the new Leela Palace Hotel.
When Westerners think of India, they often conjure up images of grinding poverty or the over-the-top luxury of the maharajas with their diamonds, rubies, Rolls-Royces and palaces.
The Leela Palace harks back to the days of the maharajas, with its own modern version of over-the-top Indian luxury. Everything about it is sumptuous from the lobby to the rooms and suites.
We did our fair share of sightseeing in Delhi, of course, taking in Humayun s Tomb, the Red Fort, the Qutub Minar tower and the Jama Masjid mosque. We also toured Old Delhi, whirling down the narrow alleyways at frightening speed on a rickshaw.
We had a marvellous piece of luck when our guide took us on a tour of Lutyen s New Delhi because by chance we happened upon dress rehearsals for the following day s India Day celebrations. We saw troops mounted on camels, as well as a marching band of bagpipes and drums. It is amazing how the trappings of the British Empire still live on in modern India.
As much as I enjoyed experiencing the sights and sounds of Delhi, I also adored being cocooned and pampered at the Leela Palace. The hotel has four restaurants Jamavar (Indian), Le Cirque (Italian /American), Megu (Japanese) and The Qube (international buffet). The food at Jamavar prepared by hugely talented head chef Vinod Saini was, as my friend Michael Winner would say, historic. If Michelin stars were given to restaurants in India (which, sadly, they are not at the moment), this place would have at least two, if not three.
I have to confess I was doubtful that the Delhi branch of the famous New York restaurant Le Cirque would live up to the standards of its American parent, but the Caesar Salad and ribeye steak with onion rings were every bit as tasty as I would have found them on the Upper East Side.
The spa was as impressive as you would expect in a hotel of this level: beautifully designed and with expert staff. I had an amazing treatment which involved two therapist simultaneously massaging my head and my feet.
Pleasure comes in many different forms. Staying at La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang was a delightful, simple and straightforward pleasure. The Leela Palace in Delhi was pleasure of a very different sort truly high-end, complex and sophisticated.
As a card-carrying hedonist, I have learned to take my pleasure in whatever form I can get it. And mixing these two very different cities was the perfect combination. - Mail on Sunday