The Jewel in the Crown of French Indochina
A magical town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos until the 1975 communist takeover. Invaded by the Khmer empire, the Thais, and finally "colonized" by the French (with a few other nations in between), Luang Prabang has many stories to tell.
|Sunset view from Phosy Mountain over the Mekong River|
The room I stayed in was beautifully furnished and very elegant, mainly in dark wood, beige and white tones. It was very spacious, and had fantastic views over the town, as well as a private balcony where we enjoyed drinks at night.
Over my 3 day stay, I noticed some interesting touches of the evening turn-down services - the staff would leave slippers and complimentary bottles of water by the bed, deliver ice, switch on a room aromatiser and mosquito repellent, and leave baskets of fresh fruit and freshly baked macarons every evening. Small things that showed a real eye for detail and went beyond the expected.
The sizeable infinity swimming pool is jade green, echoing the tropical vegetation around it, and facing the sun as it does, is deliciously warm.
The hotel’s Spa offers a comprehensive range of treatments in very plush settings. It has a small swimming pool which is open at night (the main swimming pool is only open until sunset), and a steam room where guests can have complimentary herbal steam baths. Steam baths are a traditional Lao custom, where men and women spend a few hours once a week - they are believed to clean the lungs and skin, and improve health.
The hotel’s restaurant faces the infinity pool, and has recently been taken over by Belgian chef Walter Andreini. Chef Wally, as he is better known, has his own restaurant in Koh Samui where he lived for the last thirteen years. I was invited into his kitchen to meet his team, and cook a selection of Laotian and European dishes that will feature in his new menu (see cookery class in ‘What to Do’ section below).
Breakfast at the hotel was excellent - but most importantly the coffee was fresh and strong. We enjoyed both the western and Laotian options, including crepes with bacon and maple syrup, Laotian Fer of rice noodles, rich beef stock and herbs, and their rice and chicken soup.
The fruit was deliciously ripe and sweet, and the French pastries and home-made jams were also excellent.
With only 34 rooms, surrounded by 3 acres of immaculately maintained tropical gardens, and with impeccable service, the hotel felt quite intimate, and a wonderful place to return after a day’s sightseeing in town. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and highly recommend La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang.
The clear flavour of sticky rice balances out the stronger bitter, salty, spicy and sour flavours found in Laos dishes. Chillies are also used, but unlike Thai food, they are served alongside the dishes rather than mixed into them. The important bitter element is provided by a variety of plants (small pea aubergines and many bitter greens and herbs) which are also served on the side. Dill and mint feature heavily as herbs. One of the most distinctive ingredients in Laos food is “padaek”, a strongly flavoured and rather pungent fermented fish sauce that provide saltiness and umami in many dishes.
Historically, Laos food has often being regarded as essentially the same as Thai food. One reason for this misconception is the popularity and spread of Issan cuisine. This region of Northeast Thailand was once Laos territory, and its food has retained many of characteristics and dishes of Laos cuisine for example laap (Laos national dish - a salad of minced buffalo, chicken, pork or fish flavoured by myriad herbs, spices and toasted rice powder), spicy green papaya salad and sticky rice.
Some restaurants in Laos offer menus that continue this confusion - dishes such as Laos green curry, sweet and sour chicken and fried-rice are presented under the inaccurate heading of “Laos Food”. And there is a practical reason why Laos cuisine differs from Thai - sticky rice. It is a staple in Laos, and is eaten with the fingers - most traditional Laos dishes were designed to accompany it. To keep fingers clean, and rice from dropping into communal food, dishes do not have a liquid consistency. This contrasts with wetter Thai dishes, many incorporating coconut milk, where steamed rice is better suited.
Laos has been influenced and colonized by other cultures over the centuries, so deciding what is authentic Laos food depends a great deal on how far back one wishes to place the starting line. From the use of a mayonnaise-style sauce for Luang Prabang Salad through baguettes and coffee, the colonial French influence is clear to see. MSG and stir-fried noodles come from China, tomatoes, dill and chillies from other nations in the 17th century, and from Vietnam “Pho”, locally known as “fer” is a popular breakfast import. Spend some time in Laos though, and look beyond the French cafes, and you will find an exciting indigenous cuisine which is highly flavoured, packed with fresh local herbs and vegetables (particularly mushrooms and greens), river fish and crustacea from the Mekong.
In Laotian style, all the other dishes were brought in simultaneously. We had a fantastic chicken laap (the best one I tried on this trip) made from minced chicken, fresh herbs and toasted rice powder which imparted a lovely nuttiness to the dish. Other noteworthy dishes included a papillote of fish and kaffir lime steamed in a banana leaf and a wonderfully tender and tasty fillet of grilled pork marinated in lemongrass.
Another highlight was Jaew Bong, a Luang Prabang specialty made of sun-dried chilli and buffalo skin, blended to a paste and served with river weed and sticky rice - it was an unusual but delicious combination of flavours.
L’Elephant was also where we bought a bottle of rather expensive Sicilian wine which had sadly lost all its fruit, and was completely flat and dead to the world. I do not know how they store their wines in the Laotian tropical heat, but if anyone from the group reads this review, they should look into it.
The Ethnic Feast menu was priced at £10 per person, and included 8 dishes, with one or two dishes from the 5 main ethnic tribes that make up the Laotian population - Hmong, Tai Lue, Akha, Kmhmu and Tai Dam.
Also from the Tai Leu, we had their fried rice with chicken, mushrooms and fermented soya beans.
|Stew of pork belly and mustard greens from the Hmong|
The stew of fresh and dried mushrooms from the Kmhmu tribe was delicious, thickened with broken rice, leavened by ginger and basil.
The pork and fermented bean dip from the Tai Dam tribe was another highlight. As with most fermented dishes, it was highly concentrated in flavour and so a good partner to the steamed vegetables it was served with.
This was one of the best meals I had in Laos, and definitely the most interesting.
After a delightful starter of fresh spring rolls with vegetables and pork served with a sour peanut sauce (£2.70), I had a Mekong river tilapia fish laap (£3.30) which was also very good.
I also enjoyed their curry of shredded chicken and minced pork, cooked in coconut milk (£3.75), which I mopped up with plenty of sticky rice.
On our visit, we tried a selection of their starters - fried chicken spring roll (£2.50), their sushi platter (£4.20), and their signature dish - ceviche (£6.70).
The spring rolls were excellent, as was their version of ceviche - river fish marinated in olive oil and lime, lemongrass and mint.
I enjoyed the creativity of the Laotian-style sushi, where slices of tilapia were again marinated in olive oil and lime, and placed over sticky rice topped with tamarind jam and sesame seeds. This would have been a better dish in my opinion had they seasoned the rice with sushi seasoning (rice vinegar, kombu and sugar).
What to Do
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham (entry 85p) often simply called Wat Mai is the largest and most richly decorated Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang. Built in the 18th century it is located near the Royal Palace Museum and is home to an emerald buddha.
The Best Massages in Luang Prabang
2. The Peninsula Sauna & Massage Centre
Prices range from £4.20 for 1 hr Lao massage to £10 for 1 hr acupuncture. Complimentary bottled water given at the end.
4. Spa Garden
5. Lao Red Cross Sauna and Massage (opposite Wat Wisunarat)
Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre
Cookery Class at La Residence Phou Vao
We made “Oh Lam”, a traditional stew of buffalo meat served in a rich broth thickened with broken rice and flavoured with pepperwood, lemongrass, sweet basil, pea aubergines and black fungus. This was utterly delicious.
We also made “Laap Kai” or chicken laap, a salad of minced chicken, seasoned with many different herbs and toasted rice powder. The Laotian fish “Amok”, unlike the Thai or Cambodian versions I have tried, was completely smooth with no chunky pieces of fish or seafood, but was equally delicious steamed in banana leaf cups.
I also got to try one of Chef Andreini’s creations for the new menu which is soon to be launched at La Residence Phou Vao. A dish of smoked fresh salmon (smoked in-house on oak) and served in a deliciously tangy saffron infused reduction flavoured with Chardonnay, shallots, tomato concasse and finished off with a knob of butter. It was delicious and a very well balanced dish.
3 PO Box 50
Luang Prabang - Lao P.D.R
Tel.856 71 252 482
At the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre
Ban Vatnong, Sakkaline Road
P.O. Box 722, Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R.
T: +856 71 253 888
63/6, Ban Xiengmouane, Rue Sisavangvong
Luang Prabang, LAO PDR
Tel +856- (0)71 260 761
Opposite Wat Mounena Somphouaram
By Wat Xieng Thong Temple
Tel: +856 (0) 20 55675282 or +856 (0) 71 253 411
Opening hours: 10.00AM - 8.00PM
Opposite Wat Sop Temple
Tel: +856 (0) 30 9235079
Opening hours: 10.00AM - 10.00PM
Tel: +856 (0) 71 212325
Opposite Wat Wisunarat
sauna open 5pm-9pm, massages 9am-9pm