Contentment & cuisine in Luang Prabang
Travel writer Shelley Seale explores the tastes of Laos as she eats her way through Luang Prabang.
As I walked up to the check-out counter at the 7-Eleven store in Luang Prabang, Laos, I glimpsed a flash of saffron. It was the ubiquitous yellow, wrapped robe of the Buddhist monks who are a large part of the population here. I stepped into line behind the young monk — still a teenager — and only then did I notice that his purchases, on the glass-topped counter in front of us, consisted solely of candy and ice cream bars. Once his treats were bagged up, he pushed through the doors to where three other young monks awaited him. Giggling, they strolled away, their bright robes billowing behind them.
Teenagers, it seems, are similar the world over.
The peaceful tenets of Buddhism are the foundation of the small, land-locked country of Laos; and these harmonious beliefs reflect in every aspect of the place. Although many Asian countries are Buddhist and filled with temples and robed monks, there is something especially tranquil and serene about Laos, earning it the global nickname of “Laid-back Laos.” It is a cultural norm to avoid any and all stress, and the phrase “Baw pen nyang” (“no problem”) could easily be the national motto.
Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of the country and a UNESCO World Heritage city, is a leading Buddhist centre with hundreds of temples and monasteries, from the most humble that encompasses a mere courtyard and a few stones, to the grandest, such as Wat Ho Pha Bang, whose golden carved pillars and sloping mosaic-tiled roofs glint brightly in the sunlight. Not only is Laos a retreat of serenity for the soul amidst the loud clamour of modern life, it is also a place where gastronomic nourishment is a delight. Traditional dishes combine with the strong cultural French influence to produce some amazing culinary delights.
Begin your food (and cultural) journey at the Morning Market, located all along the alleys between the main street of Sisavangvong and the Kong River. Here you will find an array of familiar items — fruits, vegetables, live chickens, and fresh fish from the river — alongside an assortment of such local fare as grub worms and other insects, water buffalo ears, freshly-gutted tadpoles, and honeycomb filled with live, wiggling larvae. The vendors chat with each other as tourists and locals alike peruse their stalls.
There is also a famous Night Market every evening along the main street, where you’ll find not only food (including many stalls offering prepared street eats), but also artisan crafts, fine antiques, clothing, toys, flowers, and music.
À la française
As a former part of French Indochine, the strong influence of France shows itself in the coffee culture; the lovely fresh baguettes and other bread one can find at dozens of bakeries; and many incredible French restaurants. There is possibly nowhere else in the world where you eat fine French cuisine for such a low price.
Le Café Ban Vat Sene, located in an open-air colonial-style house, offers top-notch coffee, croissants, eclairs, and other baked goods, as well as excellent local food. Its fancier sister restaurant, L’Elephant, offers a combination of traditional French staples (Burgundy snails, duck breast) and creative, modern dishes with Lao ingredients and techniques (lamb shank with cardamom and exotic fruits).
Luang Prabang is definitely a place to get your relaxation on. Many open-air restaurants along the river make for a scenic place to eat or just hang out with a fresh fruit smoothie, a Lao specialty. Dyen Sabai was my favourite place in town; it’s a groovy, secluded setting of bamboo huts in a garden, all open-air with floor-cushion seating and games to play! To reach it, you cross a bamboo bridge; once there, it’s a place that encourages lingering, so plan a low-key afternoon around it. Their specialty is Lao fondue, which is a unique experience where you grill your own meats and veggies on your table.
Make your own food
Luang Prabang is an exceptional place to take a cooking class. Often held as a half-day option, classes start with a visit to the market to select ingredients, before being led through instruction and preparation of a meal. Regional specialties are often on the menu, such as nam khao (rice crêpes), mok pak (steamed vegetables wrapped in banana leaf), and panang gai (red curried chicken).
One of the most popular restaurants in town, Tamarind, also offers cooking courses in a stunning lakeside setting. Gourmet magazine touted Tamarind’s experience, where they teach students about the habits and customs that are at the heart of Lao cuisine, alongside hands-on cooking instruction. They offer full-day classes, which include a market visit, and evening classes, which do not.
Wherever you go and whatever you do in Laos, you are sure to be replenished in both body and soul.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Laos encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
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