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Monday 14 October 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Laos - Luang Prabang (Part 1)

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.

The richness in culture, architecture and cuisine, gained over its troubled history, makes Luang Prabang one of the most enchanting places to visit today. Most travelers stay for a couple of days en route to other destinations in Laos or nearby Cambodia and Vietnam - this is a pity as Luang Prabang is in my opinion the jewel in the crown of French Indochina and certainly merits more time.

With a great number of ancient Buddhist temples and French colonial buildings lining its narrow streets, Luang Prabang is a charming and picturesque town - not only for its architecture - but for the pace of life and the gentle, kind nature of its people.

I first fell in love with Luang Prabang eight years ago during a short stay, and was lucky enough to be able to return for 12 days on this occasion.  Here, in Part 1, I recount some of the things I have seen and done in this town, with more to follow in Part 2.

Sunset view from Phosy Mountain over the Mekong River

Where to Stay

Regarded by many as the most elegant hotel in Luang Prabang, La Residence Phou Vao is one of a select group in the Orient Express hotel collection scattered around the world. In addition to its luxury train journeys, one of which I reviewed here, other properties include the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro and Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saison in the UK.

The hotel is set atop Phou Vao Hill on the edge of the ancient royal city, within 3 acres of lush tropical gardens. The views from the rooms and particularly over the hotel’s infinity pool towards Mount Phousy Temple are breathtaking.

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.

As expected in hotels of this calibre, all mod cons were available but an unusual and welcome addition was a Nespresso coffee maker, with a variety of coffee pods. It was a great treat to wake up to the smell of a good brew.

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.

A Note on Laos Cuisine

With no trading port to the outside world and until recently with a relatively small emigrant population, landlocked Laos’ gastronomy has not experienced the same degree of global popularity as its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.

A traditional Laos meal consists of soup, sticky rice, a meat, fish or poultry dish, a vegetable dish and the ubiquitous “jeow” - a highly flavoured spicy dipping sauce. Unlike a Western meal, dishes are served simultaneously with everyone dipping in using spoons or fingers, with chopsticks used only for noodle dishes.

Mekong River Weed flavoured with sesame seeds and garlic and deep-fried

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.

A herb stall at Phosy Market

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.

Lao food is traditionally cooked over coal as opposed to gas cookers

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.

Where to Eat


L'Elephant is considered the best restaurant in town, and is part of a group of 4 restaurants all of which I visited during this stay (see Le Patio Cafe below - the other 2 restaurants Coconut Garden and Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene are reviewed in Part 2). The group is jointly owned by a French entrepreneur and a Laotian chef / restaurateur who trained in France. L’Elephant offers primarily French cuisine but the Laotian options are also noteworthy. 

We went for the “Saveurs du Laos” set menu priced at a very reasonable £13 per person (this is the most expensive restaurant in town). The meal started with a delicious, concentrated clear soup made with betel leaves, galangal and lemongrass and cubes of tender beef.

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.

Le Patio Cafe

Le Patio Cafe is a small venue located within the fascinating Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (see What to Do section below), behind Dara Market. The cafe offers a range of French pastries, coffees and teas, but we went there for their renowned Ethnic Feast menu.

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. 

We started off with meat balls from the Akha tribe, made from pork meat and blood, and various spices. This was delicious, with a nice hit of chilli. This was followed by all the other dishes, served with plenty of sticky rice, including a flavoursome stew of pork belly and mustard greens from the Hmong, a highly concentrated, refreshing vegetable salad flavoured with lemongrass, ginger and chilli from the Tai Leu.

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.

3 Nagas 

One of the more upmarket and most popular restaurants on Luang Prabang’s main road, the 3 Nagas restaurant is a beautiful spot where I had another excellent meal.

3 Nagas - one of the most beautiful restaurants in town

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.

Le Tangor

A new addition to the gastronomic scene in Luang Prabang, Le Tangor on the main Rue Sisavangvong is headed by Frenchman Mr Thibault and his wife. This is a sophisticated joint, great for people watching.

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

Cycling Around Town

The number one activity in my opinion is cycling. Most hotels provide bikes free of charge, but if that is not available, the going rate is about £1 or £2 per day. This is the best and most comfortable way to get around town, as it is too hot for long-distance walking. It is safe because there are very few cars on the roads, and I got to visit every corner of the town during my two week stay.

Visiting the Temples

Luang Prabang, as the royal capital for many centuries, is home to many beautiful, ancient buddhist temples, which are the finest in Laos and arguably in the whole of southeast Asia.  There are many to visit, but the oldest and probably most atmospheric is Wat Xieng Toung (entry £1.70).

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

Having spent nearly two weeks in Luang Prabang, and with massages priced at no more than £5 for a heavenly hour, I have carried out some thorough research on the best massage places. 

There are a number of places offering massage in Luang Prabang and even though the price does not fluctuate greatly from place to place, the standard and settings varies significantly.  Nearly all of the massage places offer Lao massage (like Thai massage, this is given without oil, while clothed in loose pyjamas using acupressure), and many also offer Thai, oil, head & shoulder, and foot massages. On leaving town, I was feeling a little tender, and probably a massage per day is not to be recommended.  Below is a list of top recommendations in my order of preference.

1. Souvanh Massage - Lao Association of the Blind (opposite Wat Mounena Somphouaram)

Highly recommended by a Laotian friend of mine as the best place in town, where locals including himself go, this was indeed and by far the best massage I experienced in Luang Prabang. All the masseurs are blind, and are registered with the Lao Association of the Blind. Souvanh Massage will not win any prizes for style or plush spa surroundings, but the 90 minute massage priced at £4.20 was the real McCoy of traditional Lao massage. Having had almost every joint cracked during this treatment, we left feeling light and very relaxed.

2. The Peninsula Sauna & Massage Centre

My second recommendation is at the end of the peninsula, close to Wat Xieng Thong, probably the quietest place in town.  The owner is Mrs Somchit, a licensed physiotherapist who has been practising Lao massage for 25 years.  According to her, the technique of Lao massage and the massage techniques that are used in Physiotherapy are very similar, and thus very effective. She personally trains all the masseurs that work for her, although on my three visits, I was never treated by Mrs Somchit herself. On one of my trips, although the massage was fantastic, I had two local women having massages either side of me, and chatting throughout, which was quite distracting. You do lack a little privacy here though,  so you must be prepared to share a room with other people having massages, with just a thin sheet of cotton between you and the person next to you if anything at all.  Mrs Somchit also offers acupuncture (she trained in Vientiane) and there is a traditional Lao Herbal Steam bath upstairs that's very popular.

Prices range from £4.20 for 1 hr Lao massage to £10 for 1 hr acupuncture. Complimentary bottled water given at the end.

3. L'Hibiscus

Opposite Wat Sop, Hibiscus is a charming place in a beautiful old colonial house with soothing spa music echoeing throughout, and massages done in private rooms on proper massage tables. Hibiscus is more like a proper spa, offering a range of beauty treatments (facials, manicures etc) along with a wide choice of massage options (Lao, herbal, hot stone, aromatherapy with hot oil, aromatherapy with milk). Price is £5 for a standard 1hr Lao massage, or with oil for £10 which is dearer than most places in town.

4. Spa Garden 

Also in a quiet spot on the peninsula, close to Wat Nong, Spa Garden offers more privacy than most places, with nice clean WC, changing room and shower facilities. They have a wide variety of treatments and massage, including some good deep tissue options. I had their traditional Lao massage which I thought was excellent. Price is £5 for a 1 hour Lao massage.

5. Lao Red Cross Sauna and Massage (opposite Wat Wisunarat)

This is the simplest of all the massage places I went, although the two massages I had there were excellent. Massages are £3.50 for a 1 hour Lao massage with oil, with all profits going to the Lao Red Cross. The steam sauna for an extra 90p is an opportunity to try a traditional Laotian experience, and to mingle with the locals. The steam room is separated by gender, is tiny, and incredibly hot. The steam is mixed with a range of herbs and lemongrass, which are burnt underneath the rooms (Laotian houses are raised on sticks). Most Laotians will spend a couple of hours going in and out of the steam rooms, heating then cooling themselves and enjoying herbal tea which is included in the fee, and catching up with friends on the weekly gossip. It is a really interesting experience for any visitor to Luang Prabang.

Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre

TAEC is home to a collection of traditional clothing and domestic textiles, jewellery, household items, handicraft tools, baskets, religious and ritual objects belonging to the 30 distinct groups that make up the Lao population. It is a small museum of three rooms, but it gives a real insight into the traditions and daily life of the population. It is also home to Le Patio Cafe, where I had one of my best meals in Lao.

Cookery Class at La Residence Phou Vao

Luang Prabang is a good place to take Laotian cookery classes. There are three restaurants with associated schools (which I feature in part II), and many hotels where classes can be taken in-house. At La Residence Phou Vao, I took a cookery class with Chef Walter Andreini and his Laotian sous-chef and got to learn a variety of local dishes.

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.

Travel Essentials


La Résidence Phou Vao
3 PO Box 50
Luang Prabang
PDR 84330

Room rates vary according to room type and season. Our room was a Phou Vao Garden Suite and cost around £265 per night during the time we were there (late August, early September).


Luang Prabang - Lao P.D.R
Tel.856 71 252 482

Le Patio Cafe
At the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre
Ban Khamyong
Luang Prabang

3 Nagas
Ban Vatnong, Sakkaline Road
P.O. Box 722, Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R. 
T: +856 71 253 888 

Le Tangor
63/6, Ban Xiengmouane, Rue Sisavangvong
Luang Prabang, LAO PDR
Tel +856- (0)71 260 761



Souvanh Massage - Lao Association of the Blind 
Opposite Wat Mounena Somphouaram

The Peninsula Sauna & Massage Centre
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

The Spa Garden
Tel: +856 (0) 71 212325
Opening hours: 10.00AM - 9.30PM

Lao Red Cross Sauna and Massage
Opposite Wat Wisunarat
Thanon Wisunalat
sauna open 5pm-9pm, massages 9am-9pm

Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre
Ban Khamyong
Luang Prabang


  1. Blimey, your brave - SE Freshwater fish contain a notorious parasite known to affect the liver, I for one (or my Thai wife) wouldn't be eating it Raw !

  2. The sushi wasn't totally raw - the fish had been cured in lime and tamarind juice


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