After my disappointment with the range of food in Vang Vieng, I was desperate to find somewhere with proper authentic Lao food. Even Phonsavan where I went to see the Plain of Jars had some decent grub. I was told that Luang Prabang had a pretty good vibe and would be the perfect place to slow down. I had planned on using it as a place where I could work on a few things for the blog and meet up with a couple who I had met in San Pedro in Chile who were also passing through a few days later so I was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces.
Despite being fairly overcrowded with tourists, Luang Prabang for me still managed to provide a wide range of food and for me provided the range of Lao food that I was craving for. Throughout my limited time in Laos, I had what I felt like tidbits of what Lao food was all about. I knew it was similar to that of Thai food and although I was consciously avoiding the restaurants that offering Thai food, I would find that there would be distinct similarities between the two cuisines from the time I spent in Chiang Mai. That was when I learnt that Northern Thailand was once Lao territory, hence the reason for the similarities between the two. From the use of pungent seasoning, bitter ingredients, fragrant sausages and sticky rice as eating implements, it all brought me back memories of my time in the north of Thailand.
Overall, Lao cuisine for me is a mish mash of several cultures due to being landlocked and bordered by five different countries: China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. Throw in a period of French colonisation and you have some interesting combinations. Although I haven’t been to Myanmar, it was as though I had flashbacks of being back in those countries whilst stuffing myself with the Lao food. The stir frying influences from China, liberal use of herbs from Vietnam, grilling of meats from Cambodia and the use of shrimp paste and sticky rice from Thailand.
A unique ingredient to the Luang Prabang area that I noticed was the use of buffalo. More readily available than beef, it features on quite a few menus. Not one to waste any part of the animal, the skin is used as a snack. It’s dried and then deep fried again prior to serving. Quite tough, it has a pungent smell and requires an equally pungent dipping sauce. Dried river weed from the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers is also collected, dried and also used as a snack. As per usual, most snacks go well hand in hand with beer, such as the Beer Lao which for me is one of the best in SE Asia.
The only ingredient that I was surprised to see in the dishes was dill in the Mok Pa (steamed fish). Used to infused a freshness into the fish by steaming in banana leaf. Along with the liberal use of herbs, make them an integral part of the dish, rather than just a garnish which distinguishes it from the other SE Asian cuisines.
Cooking methods are old school still. If you go to a Lao home, chances are you’ll see them cooking over coals as gas is still relatively expensive. As a result, many food is grilled or barbecued. My kind of heaven. If they’re not grilling then they’re steaming their food wrapped in banana leaves. You also won’t see many blenders, whizzers or Thermomix’s. They still use the old fashioned mortar and pestle. Some say that the flavours from these cannot be reproduced by a blender.
Overall, the food I found was better for my tastes in Luang Prabang. The standard pho like noodle soups had a stickier consistency like you would experience in Vietnam, but also come with snake beans as garnish like you would find in a thai papaya salad as well as sliced tomatoes. I managed to find rice soup with blood jelly readily available and when ordering a laap, the restaurant staff would ask if I liked it Lao spicy or western spicy rather than dial things down automatically.
Despite its touristy nature, you can get all of this in Luang Prabang and it’s not too difficult to find. Of course there are western comforts like toasted sandwiches but they’re all concentrated along the main strip in town. Staying there for over a week gave me an appreciation for not only how good the local food was but also discover what the decent western food options was available for those who need a break at from the sticky rice. Here are a few of my favourite things to eat whilst in Luang Prabang.
Fruit juice galore
On every block there is somebody selling fruit but head to the start of Sisavanvong Road where there is a row of stalls that sell sandwiches and fruit shakes. My favourite was mango and pineapple. Nothing kick starts the day better than one of these bad boys.
My favourite pork noodle soup is at a corner restaurant with no name. It’s on the corner Kingkitsarath Rd and Kitsalat Rd in front of the Dara Market. The broth is sticky and not full of spice. For $1.50 you can’t go wrong. IF you go there at 9am then you’ll see people eating outside as well as scooters pulling up for some takeaway.
Alley way opposite Wat Mai Monastery on the main road, Sisavangvong Rd. You can’t miss it if you’re walking on the footpath on the right hand side walking towards the end of the peninsula. The woman running the show has a huge pot of rice soup and is served almost as soon as you’ve sat down. It comes with an egg braised in soy and blood jelly which adds richness.
All you can eat vegetarian
This place is a backpacker favourite. Set in the first alley way on the left as you walk into the night market (in the direction of the the end of the peninsula), you will find an assortment of stalls. Further towards the back is a stand with about fifteen dishes, mainly of the carb variety. For $1.20 you can pile as much as you want onto a plate excluding meat. Meat will cost an extra $1.20. Get in early at 5pm though as there is no rotation of food so its best to get it when its fresh, not when its been sitting there for a few hours. If it’s not your cup of tea then there are plenty of other authentic dishes. The som tum was my favourite as well there. Super spicy and pungent with fish paste, I’d eat it with some spring rolls and wash it down with a juice from across the road (point one)
This was probably my favourite meal in Luang Prabang. I had a duck laap which was packed full of flavour and it smelled incredible as well. It’s built from an old home and you are literally sitting in what feels like the lounge room. Joy provides personalised service with a huge comforting smile. You just can’t help but love it here.
Photographic prints of portraits and landscapes from around Laos feature heavily within the restaurant. They’re all taken by Joy’s husband, Paul Wagner who is an Australian award winning photographer. I didn’t realise it until I surveyed the entire building and found a list of the awards he had picked up along the way.
Pizza Phan Luang
I wouldn’t normally put pizza down as a recommendation but this place is the number one ranked restaurant in Luang Prabang for a reason. Owned by a Canadian, the pizzas are well balanced with the right amount of topping and the crust that comes out of the custom made wood fire oven is worth the walk.
From Kingkitsarath Rd, you cross the bamboo bridge and keep walking up the street for about 200m and you’ll see the sign on the left.
Outdoor BBQ Hot Pot
At the western end of Khem Khong road along the Mekong River is a BBQ Hot Pot establishment. Skewing closer to the Chinese style of cooking, you’ll be pulled back to Laos with the assortment of spicy condiments to compliment the already intense heat from the charcoal BBQ. With no name but just a huge marquee and outdoor settings, you pay around $8 for all you can eat hot pot. Make sure you finish however as they will charge you extra if there is food wasted.
I’ve made it a mission to attend a cooking class in every country or province that I go to. With five other countries bordering Laos, there is a huge influence its cuisine and a cooking class at Tamarind helped clear up any misconceptions that I had about Laos and Thai food. The chefs there are well spoken and knowledgeable and have a wicked sense of humour as well. Needless to say, for $35, I had to be rolled out of the place, I was that full from the buffalo laap, steamed mok (fish), stuffed lemongrass with chicken and a mountain of sticky rice.