This is Part II of a post on the magical town of Luang Prabang in Laos. For Part I, visit here.
The former royal capital is steeped in history, with over 30 Buddhist temples amongst French colonial architecture that remains relatively unchanged. It is a peaceful, elegant and culturally rich city with a laid back, cosmopolitan community and a distinctive old world charm. Unlike the fast-paced hustle and bustle of neighbouring Asian cities, the pace of life in Luang Prabang is slow and hypnotic, reflecting the tranquil landscape that surrounds it.
Prices range from around £30 to £60 per night depending on room type and season, which I thought was great value for accommodation of this calibre. During the week I was there, my room cost an average of £35 per night, and had a private balcony with lovely views to the swimming pool and the Nam Khan river. My room was spacious and tastefully furnished, with complimentary WiFi and bottled water.
The hotel is located a 15 minute walk from the town centre, on the opposite side of Nam Khan river. The hotel offers free bike loans to residents, which reduces the journey time to 5 minutes. Cycling is by far the best way to get around town, so this is an added bonus by saving the need to hire a bike elsewhere.
|View from my room balcony at My Dream Resort|
Breakfast was varied, with cereals, freshly squeezed juices and yoghurt, as well as crusty French bread, good croissants, and eggs cooked to order. If I could improve the selection, I would have added some Laotian breakfast dishes to the hot cooked options on offer. The coffee was however very good, and the freshly cut tropical fruit were ripe and beautifully sweet, both the highlights of my breakfast each morning.
Where to Eat
Tamarind is a brightly decorated and charming restaurant facing the Nam Kham River; it is also famous for its Laotian cookery classes, which I took during my stay (see What to Do section below). I enjoyed the food at Tamarind and dined there 3 times over the two-week period I was visiting the town.
Another favourite was “Barbecued Buffalo Salad” (£3.50) served with a myriad local herbs, 2 of which I had never tried and was very excited to discover - sawtooth coriander or culantro and Laotian fish leaf. The meat was incredibly tender and tasted akin to top quality fillet steak, this was a fantastic salad
I also enjoyed the vegetarian version of laap, Tofu Laap (£2.50), made from thinly sliced deep fried tofu, bean sprouts, shallots, coriander, mint, basil and fish leaf. I am always on the look out for different tofu dishes and this was certainly one that I would like to experiment with at home.
Fresh bamboo shoots are a staple in Laotian cooking, and as I had only eaten it in Brazil and Japan, I was very keen to try it here. The Laotian bamboo shoot soup (Gaeng Nor Mai £2) was a hearty local specialty made with chunks of young bamboo, pumpkin and black mushrooms served in a thick broth. The flavours were livened up by the addition of sweet basil, spring onions and other local herbs. I thoroughly enjoyed this soup, it is however a meal in its own right
Cafe Ban Vat Sene
I visited Cafe Ban Vat Sene a few times whilst in Luang Prabang but only ate there once. The menu is mainly French with various breakfast options as well as some light Western dishes like pasta and burgers. There is also a limited but well thought out list of Asian dishes on offer.
Malee Lao Food Restaurant
An assortment of different meats (pork, chicken and fish) is cooked around the top part of the grill, the juices dripping down to the lower rim where vegetables were cooking in a flavoursome chicken stock. We were given a selection of mushrooms, noodles and local herbs to cook.
To accompany it, we also had a jeow, a highly flavoured dipping condiment made of fermented soya bean and pork, which we mixed into the broth, or dipped the grilled meat into. Barbecuing over coals is the most traditional method of cooking in Lao, where conventional stoves or ovens are still rare. This method imparts a deliciously charred flavour to vegetables and meat.
We had a few bottles of Beer Lao to accompany the meal, and it was a very sociable event since we all shared the same cooking dish from which to eat. Dr G and I were the only foreigners in the restaurant. The owner did understand some English though, so I would highly recommend this restaurant if you are in town.
I enjoyed their set Lao Noy (£7), which included a Lao omelette made with dill and other local fresh herbs, grilled chicken breast marinated in garlic, and sautéed vegetables. There was also a jeow of tomato concasse and grilled chilli, which I had with sticky rice.
I also liked their fried crispy coconut rice and sour pork salad (£3.20), and fried pork ribs marinated in garlic (£3.20).
What to Do
I generally find these market visits rather gimmicky, but I must admit I found this visit of almost one hour very educational. In particular, it was good to see the many local fresh herbs in their raw state, some of which I had been eating for a few days without knowing what they looked like.
Also we were taken to a vendor who sold Laotian snacks including thinly sliced, dried and seasoned bamboo shoots and also black mushrooms, both eaten like crisps.
Following the visit, we then went to an open-air kitchen about 10 minutes outside the town centre, for the class itself. The group was varied, with two retired couples from Australia, a French university student, and a young Swiss couple. The teacher was a young Laotian man who trained as a vet and spoke good English, and from the way he conducted himself, it was clear that he was experienced in delivering the class.
We learned how to make tomato and aubergine Jeows (dipping sauces), as well as the very popular Mok Pa (river water fish steamed in banana leaves), and lemongrass stalks stuffed with minced chicken, coriander and kaffir lime leaf.
We also learned how to make buffalo laap - traditionally the meat is served raw, but we flash-fried it, and flavoured it with many herbs, toasted rice powder, buffalo tripe and bile for sourness, among many other ingredients.
We were also shown how to prepare sticky rice using a wicker steamer in the traditional manner. For dessert, we prepared purple sticky rice with coconut sauce, served with a variety of fresh fruit.
The class was quite hands-on, and a good way to spend a day, although having taught cooking classes myself for the last year, I could see a few areas for improvement. For example, the class felt rushed, and the teacher was at times impatient with the older learners. I also felt that the class lacked information on the background to Lao cooking, culture and ingredients, as opposed to simply teaching recipes. Another downside is that they repeat the same menu every day, so there is no opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of Lao cooking if you have a few days to spare.
The food, however, was delicious, and I enjoyed sharing the meal with the other members at the end of the class. If you decide to take this class, I would recommend you ask the questions you want answered because sometimes information is not otherwise forthcoming. A small booklet is given out at the end, including all the recipes cooked in the class and a few others. There is also a selection of good Laotian cookery books at the Tamarind restaurant.
One of the most interesting trips we did was to visit two of the ethnic villages near Luang Prabang where we had the opportunity to visit some local people and be invited into their homes for tea. Considering that the people had so little, and lived without running water or electricity, it was very humbling to receive their hospitality.
Elephant trekking however was for us a waste of time, money and elephants. The animals looked tired of carrying tourists on their back all day long, and we felt rather guilty as we left - never to be repeated (by us).
We enjoyed the ceremony on our first visit eight years ago, and I would recommend a visit if you happen to arrive in town while still struggling with jet-lag - a 5am start will not seem so bad.
The royal apartments have been faithfully preserved, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of the king and his family. The exhibits include royal religious objects, weapons, statues, screens, paintings from centuries past, and the crown jewels. There is also a 2,000 year-old, 83-centimetre Prabang Buddha, made from solid gold. Definitely worth a visit.
Watching the Sunset
Ban Meung Nga Village, Meung Nga Street,
Luang Prabang, Laos PDR
Phone: (+856 71) 252853 or 252198
Fax: (+856 71) 212986
Kingkitsalath Road (opposite Nan Khan River)
T. 856 71 252 482
(50 metres from corner of Phou Vao Road)
Luang Prabang - Laos