Luang Prabang food

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First night in Luang Prabang, I ended up following a throng of people into a side alley off the night market. I stopped following them when I spotted the coconut waffle seller, the juice stall and the duo cooking dumplings, all of which I wolfed down. I’d only spent a couple of dollars and I was full. Then I saw it. The throng’s holy grail.

 

Several long tables crammed with heaped plates of noodles, fried vegetables, spring rolls, skewered meat and fish. It’s a simple set-up. Pay a dollar, take a plate, pile it high and enjoy. The food is flavoured to keep the majority happy (translation, not spicy enough) but it’s not half-bad.

 

Luang Prabang attracts backpackers, the affluent and everyone in between and no budget is uncatered to. At the Korean BBQ on the Mekong riverfront, a Beer Lao and plate of food costs around $5 per person. Further along is the very reasonably priced Luang Prabang Food, its extensive menu including laap (minced, usually cooled, meat cooked with garlic, chillies, lime juice, spring onion, mint and coriander) and the eponymous Luang Prabang salad with eggs, peanuts, coriander, watercress and fried garlic. Next door, DaRa’s pork steak in rum, sticky rice and fried bananas with honey lured me back twice as did the Korean food at Big Tree Cafe.

 

On the other side of Luang Prabang is the Nam Khan River. A top pick is Rosella Fusion, set up by young locals and serving dishes such as fried beef with lemongrass and basil with black sticky rice. Towards the backpacker area, S-Bar serves fine burgers, the Aussie Sports Bar does a brisk trade in comfort food while LaoLao Garden and riverview Utopia do decent food in very atmospheric surroundings. Best for ambience is Dyen Sabai, across the river via the bamboo bridge and brilliantly priced serving Lao fondue, desserts and cocktails on its riverview deck.

 

At the higher end, Apsara is a frontrunner. We dined on Lao dried beef salad with herbs, local buffalo sausage with chilli jam, pan-fried fish with tamarind sauce and Asian pears poached in wine with homemade vanilla ice cream. Other options include French restaurant L'Elephant (tip: the $10 lunch special is a winner), 3 Nagas and Tamarind, well-known for its cooking classes.

 

Former French rule has left a tasty legacy of excellent coffee, bread and pastries. The cafe scene is thriving with places such as Cafe Ban Vat Sene, Books & Tea (their Indian chai masala is made from scratch), ethically minded Saffron Cafe and Coconut Garden.

 

And this is just a taster - three weeks clearly isn’t just long enough to savour it all.

 

By Meera Dattani

 

 

You can get Laos included as a stopover on your RTW here

Published by Stuart Lodge

Lao style BBQ

 

 

David Whitley goes to dinner in Luang Prabang, and finds himself wrapped-up in an elaborate experience that goes way beyond simple cooking 

 

I don’t profess to being a world-renowned expert on barbecues. The last time I tried to cook one, I took the slug-covered tarpaulin off the barbie to discover that everything had rusted and it was totally unusable.

 


I’ve also been known to serve up cremated sausages and pretty-much-raw burgers in the past too.

 


But I do know what one looks like. Meat, on a grill, turned over fairly regularly by a man who, otherwise, has absolutely zero interest in cooking.

 

This is not the case in Laos, it seems. It was suggested that a Lao barbecue would be a good dinner option while in Luang Prabang. I wasn’t overly enthused by the idea, but couldn’t be arsed to argue. I’m glad I didn’t.

 


The Lao-Lao Garden is an odd bar/ restaurant that climbs up numerous levels of a hillside. It boasts that it’s the only place left in town that does proper Lao barbecues, and it does them for the equivalent of £4.

 


It turns out that the meal is a mixture of dining and theatre. First come the bowls of chilli, tamarind sauce, salad and noodles. Frankly, the salad and noodles constitutes a meal in itself.

 


But it’s what they take away that’s important. The waiter comes over to the table and removes a large tile in the middle of it - underneath is what can only be described as a metal holster. It’s used for holding in place the new addition – a fiery bowl of smouldering, burning wood. On top of that goes a metal contraption that looks a little like a sunhat with the rim upturned.

 


Then even more arrives – a tankard of broth, two unshelled raw eggs and a platter of raw meat. The latter is pork, chicken or buffalo, depending on what you chose. Lao buffalo is way juicier than Lao beef, incidentally. The usual muscular, tough South-East Asian beef problem is cancelled out.

 


On top of the meat are two slabs of pork fat. They go on top of the metal grill/ hat thing, the juices slowly seeping down the sides as it is heated.

 


The broth is poured into the channel created by the upfolded rim, and the veg and noodles are tipped into that watery moat to cook. Then come the eggs – tap them on each end, then push a chopstick through, letting it slowly pour into the broth, digging out the yolk as you go.

 


The meat comes last, laid in strips against the slopes of the mountain topped by the pork fat. It sears beautifully, cooked by the fiery wood underneath.

 


Then, when the meat is cooked sufficiently, you slide it down into the veg and egg-packed broth, and transfer the lot into a bowl. Add peppers and the tamarind sauce as you see fit for flavouring, scoff, and repeat with whatever’s leftover.

 


It’s an extraordinary feast, one that’s equal parts playground, science lab, ceremony, performance and din-dins. It’s so resolutely different that it brings a gleeful grin to everyone’s face. Even those who just wanted to eat and get away as quickly as possible find themselves wrapped up in the experience.

 

If barbecues were always this much fun, I’d scrape off that rust…

 

Disclosure: David is travelling in Laos as a guest of Peregrine Adventures

You can get Laos included as a stopover on your RTW here

 

Southern Laos

 

 

Pakse’s riverside bars: Pakse is the hub town of Southern Laos. It’s where the flights to the rest of the country depart from, where the long distance buses arrive and where the tour companies that will take you to other parts of the region tend to be based. It’s a fairly unremarkable, but strangely enjoyable town that gets the riverside thing so right. 

 

 

Stretched along the bank of the Mekong, staring out at bridges and mountains, are dozens or riverside bars. They’re pretty interchangeable and get perplexingly few foreign visitors. That’s where the charm lies though – hopping between them, knowing that every single one is a genuine local hangout.

 

The 4,000 Islands: The Mekong in this part of its run from Tibet to the Delta is generally fairly sleepy. But it is wide, and thousands of islands can be found in the middle of it. These islands are generally fairly chilled, and many offer the opportunity to homestay with villagers. Of the islands, Don Det is the one that is rapidly becoming a key backpacker hangout. Once the novelty of eating ‘happy’ pizza has worn off, the islands are marvellous for kayaking around.

 

Khone Phapheng Falls: The gentleness of the Mekong ends in abrupt fashion just south of the 4,000 Islands. It breaks into a series of cascades before taking the biggest plunge of all. The Khone Phapheng Falls is a marvel of savage, thundering brutality. The sheer amount of water pouring over every second is staggering, and you can be instantly assured of death if you attempt to surf it over the falls into Cambodia.

 

The Bolaven Plateau: To the east of Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau is a relatively cool highland region with some of the most fertile soils in South-East Asia. Not particularly interesting, you might think – but this also makes it the perfect place to grow coffee. And high quality coffee too. Most of Laos’ best Arabica beans are grown on the Bolaven, and the walks through the plantations, seeing how the coffee is grown and dried are a delight. There are also tea plantations that are open to visitors too.

 

Trekking: The caffeine should be used to fuel a day or two walking on the plateau. The scenery is almost uniformly lovely, and the area is littered with waterfalls plunging into chasms. The walks to them can be steep and muddy, but they’re worth it when you get to see the likes of the Tat Fan falls.

 

Wat Phu: Even if you’re really, really bored of looking at temples in South East Asia, an exception should be made for Wat Phu. It’s in the same Khmer style as those at Angkor in Cambodia, but the difference here is the setting. It is built into the mountainside over six levels, and clearly designed to intimidate anyone approaching from the plains beneath. It’s a consummate marriage of man-made and nature. The ruins may not be as impressive as those at Angkor, but the overall effect is arguably stronger. And, handily, there are usually only a smattering of visitors – it feels like a much more personal experience.

 

You can get Laos included as a stopover on your RTW here

 

Vientiane

 
After days of dodgy dishes, David Whitley learns how to cook Lao food properly in Vientiane 

Rice is not as simple as it seems. In front of us are dozens of sacks of the stuff. And each one seems to have a different per-kilo price. Nook tries to explain that there are generally three grades of rice. Get the good stuff and you only to soak it for one hour rather than five or six.

There’s also a difference between rice grown in the mountains – which tends to be short and fat – and the longer, thinner grains grown in the lowlands. Most importantly, you need to know which rice is good for steaming and which is sticky rice.

Sticky rice is the ubiquitous staple of the Lao diet. Nook says Lao people like it more because it fills them up for longer. It’s also easier to eat with the hands – you roll it up into a ball, then dip in homemade sauces or scoop up whatever happens to be on the plate. Or, if you’re in the country, whatever happens to be on the banana leaf.

Nook is attempting to give me a crash course in Lao cuisine. She started cooking as a child. Her mother and father both worked for the government and didn’t have much time for making meals. The duty fell on the children, and Nook was the one who showed a liking for it. She has worked for hotels and opened her own small restaurant. Her new project is Lao Experiences – market tours and Lao cooking classes in a garden by the side of the Mekong in Vientiane.

Go beyond the fried rice and noodle soup – which aren’t really Lao dishes anyway - and it becomes apparent that complexity hides behind seemingly simple dishes.

Never is this more true than with the laap, which may look like minced meat with a few herbs chucked in, but it gets way trickier than that. This is partly due to the long list of ingredients. It’s a frenzy of chopping – first the chicken, then the onions, then the chillies, coriander, kaffir lime leaf, spring onions and galangal. The latter is a little like ginger if, like me, you’d never heard of it.

A key Lao ingredient, however, is the banana flower. Nook showed me one at the market – the skin is pulled back to reveal tiny yellow fronds. These are the bananas, but it’s the flower that is used to add flavour to the laap. Along with the lime juice, fish sauce and mint leaves. And then the small dose of sticky rice powder that holds it all together.

It’s not the easiest dish to replicate at home, but it’s the balance of flavours that makes it so special. Nook takes one taste when it’s ready and decides “not enough lime juice”. It’s a real skill to be able to throw in so many ingredients and know instantly which one you’ve not got the measurement right on.

When the laap – along with the other dishes rustled up over the charcoal buckets used for cooking – is ready for eating, the last rule of Lao dining comes into play. There is no cutlery.

The laap is eaten from lettuce leaves. The eggplant dip and the fish steamed in a banana leaf are scooped up with balls of sticky rice.

This fingers-in approach is perhaps why Lao food isn’t better known throughout the world. But after a week or so of mediocre meals, I’ve become a convert to it when it’s done well…

You can get Laos included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

Vientiane by bike

 

 

David Whitley hires a bike in Vientiane, and gets everything horribly wrong 

 

 

 

I’m not sure this is what people have in mind when they plump for a cycling holiday. I’m rattling along on a contraption that possibly predates the Wright Brothers and I am very, very lost.

 

The day had started with a noble theory. I wanted to go and see something that was around 6km out of town – a bit far to walk. I could have got a tuk-tuk, but that would display a pitiful lack of adventure.

 

No, I would do what is frequently suggested as a good thing in Laos – I would hire a bike and go exploring on two wheels.

 

I probably should have shopped around, but the first guest house I stumbled across was prepared to let me take the bike for the day in return for 20,000 kip. That’s approximately £1.70. Of course, the bike wasn’t exactly Chris Hoy standard. In fact, I probably could have bought it for £1.70 – it had one gear, the saddle was coming off and neither brake seemed to correspond to either the front or back wheel.

 

The second problem was that while I did have a map, the Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial was way off it. Still – it shouldn’t be too much of an issue – just follow the main road out of town, and the memorial’s on it 6km down the track.

 

In another South-East Asian capital, this would be a terrifying prospect. The traffic in Manila, Bangkok, Hanoi or Jakarta would be so gruesomely murderous that you may as well start carving yourself a bike-shaped gravestone.

 

Vientiane is a sleepy minnow by comparison. And although it is showing signs that it’s about to undergo a development boom, the six lane road that eventually becomes the country-crossing Route 13 is just about manageable.

 

That doesn’t mean it’s stress-free, however. There are some peculiarities that a greenhorn cyclist needs to be aware of. Drivers will merrily turn right out of a sideroad without looking if anything’s coming the other way. There just seems to be an assumption that anything approaching will stop.

 

There’s also the joy of being cut up as a pick-up truck swerves without indicating to park at the side of the road, while a moped darts out from the pavement and a child just stands there in the middle of your lane.

 

Treat it like a fun obstacle course, and it’s all good.

 


But you probably want to stick to that main road. I still don’t know how I managed to do it, but I ended up on another one, probably going east rather than north-east. For a while, the road was big enough to convince me that I was still on the right track. Then it got smaller, and people started smiling and laughing at me – a sure sign that not many falang make it into these parts.

 


The road soon reduced itself to a collection of mud and potholes, the urban trappings began to thin and rice fields popped up between the houses. I was irrevocably lost, but strangely enjoying it. Attempts to get directions clattered headlong into the language barrier.

 


I ploughed on, dodging increasingly large potholes, realising what is happening in the places I was going through. These are really villages that are slowly being swallowed up by the growing city. It’s a process that happens all over the world, but it’s so rare that you see a concrete example of it so close to the city centre.

 


Vientiane – and Laos – have slept for years. But the juggernaut of change is coming. In five to ten years’ time, the dirty, bumpy road will probably be roaring with cars – and the village will be just another suburb of a ruthlessly expanding capital.

 


More by luck than judgement, I guessed correctly and found myself rejoining the main road just before the Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial. It’s difficult to miss – the giant statue of Laos’ former leader is outside, shimmering away in the sunlight.

 


But, predictably enough, it is closed on a Sunday. I should have been furious, having turned myself into a giant ball of sweat by pedalling through the midday heat. But I wasn’t.

 


And rather than take the main road back, I decided to get lost again, heading roughly in the right direction. Past schools, minor temples, feeble efforts at markets and everyday humdrummery, I coaxed the rustheap through little pockets of a life that is soon going to be very different. It’s not a place where chickens will cluck across the road for much longer.

You can get Laos included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW