Where to stay
Angsana Maison-Souvannaphoum Expect a colonial vibe with a
modern tilt, with beautiful grounds and a modest pool within reach
of bar service. It’s a short walk to the Night Market to the east, and
Phousi Market to the west.
Doubles from £110. Chao Fa Ngum Road, Ban Mano, 00 856 71 254609, angsana.com
Burasari Heritage Very personal service paired with colonial styling on a quiet corner of the Old Town. Just a handful of rooms, with breezy
common areas – and you’re a stone’s throw from the monks at Wat Xieng
Thong and the excellent pastries at Le Banneton.
Doubles from £90. Kingkitsarath Road, Old Town. 00 856 71 255031, burasariheritage.com
La Résidence Phou Vao One of the Belmond Hotels, La Résidence offers an element of seclusion just outside of the main town. Suites hug
the hillside, leaning heavily into Laos’ colonial past and gilded with
temple views and more than a hint of jungle beyond.
Doubles from £165. Phouvao Road, 00 856 71 212530, belmond.com
Sofitel Luang Prabang Serene and spacious, the former governor’s
residence is an oasis of calm nestled within the residential suburb of Ban
Mano, not far from the Old Town. The generous-sized pool appeals to those
who don’t care for a swim in the Mekong.
Doubles from £208. Mano Mai, Ban Mano, 00 856 71 260777, sofitel-luangprabang.com
Currency is the Lao kip (LAK) but US dollars are widely used. Time is seven hours ahead of GMT. Flight time from London is around 14 hours. The Laos government officially opens up to ‘post-pandemic’ tourism in April.
Thai Airways offers flights from London Heathrow, via Bangkok, to Wattay International Airport in the capital, Vientiane. thaiairways.com
Vietnam Airlines flies regularly from Heathrow to Vientiane with a
layover in Hanoi, Vietnam. vietnamairlines.com
Laos Tourism is the official tourist board and its website offers plenty of sightseeing inspiration and handy tips. laostourism.org
Where to eat
525 Chilled cocktail and tapas bar on the quiet side of town, an easy walk
from the Sofitel hotel. Englishman Andrew Sykes started this den of chic and
does great things with lemongrass and vodka. There’s enough Laos style on
the cocktail menu to delight, plus a very local twist on tapas. Cocktails from
£8. Kingkitsarath Road, 00 856 20 7713 0130, 525cocktails.com
Dyen Sabai Cradling the banks of the Nam Khan, a cluster of bamboo huts
cling to the slope and overlook the river. It’s a great atmosphere from which
to enjoy Laos cooking or barbecue at the table, but as you have to cross the
bamboo bridge when heading back over to the Old Town, it might be an
idea to go a little easy on the cocktails. Barbecue grill with jeow and a
cocktail from £12. Ban Phan Louang, 00 856 71 410185
Icon Klub Small wine bar with plenty of personality and a smattering of
poetry that is very popular with hospitality staff when their shifts are over.
Hungarian owner Elizabeth Vongsaravanh is the life of the party, in charge of
mixing the drinks and the crowds. Cocktails from £4. Sakkaline Road near the bamboo bridge, Old Town, 00 856 71 254905, iconklub.com
Le Banneton Excellent bread baked daily on site, plus a good range of
coffee, teas and pastries. Service can be slow because it’s seriously popular
with travellers who want a break from sticky rice. The baguettes are perfection
but the apple tarts are a slice of heaven. Coffee with a pastry and baguette
from £3. 03/46 Sakkaline Road, Old Town, 00 856 30 578 8340
Le Calao One of several offerings from Yannick Upravan and Gilles Vautrin
offering a colonial setting that embraces both French and Laos cuisines.
Popular hangout for local expats who want strong Laos flavours, attentive
service and a generous wine list. Six-course Laos menu from £15.
98 Khem Kong Road, 00 856 71 212100, calao-restau.com
Manda de Laos A colourful setting, nestled around a lily pond and decorated
with fairy lights. The menu is the hero, though, with all the intensity of Laos
cuisine delivered alongside excellent cocktails. Their barbecue dishes deliver
on the smoky notes and spicy sauces don’t hold back. Main, dessert and a
cocktail from £25.
10 Norrassan Road, 00 856 71 253 923, mandadelaos.com
Night Market Barbecue vendors, shake stands and crepe stalls pack into
the laneways surrounding the main street of the Old Town. Cheap and
cheerful, but with plenty of Laos flavour on offer. Large plate of noodles
and vegetables from £1.
Corner of Kingkitsalat and Sisavangvong Roads
Tamarind One of the most reliable Laos menus in town but also very
popular, so make sure to book ahead (if you can’t get a table, you could
try an evening class at their cooking school instead). Great selection of
jeow, and the mock pa fish dish is one of the best in town. Finish with an
alcohol-free enticement such as iced bael fruit tea, pineapple and ginger
or watermelon chilli granita. Mock pa and roselle granita from £10.
Kingkitsarath Road, 00 856 71 213128, tamarindlaos.com
- Jeow khing
- Dip made from ground pork skin, ginger paste and peanuts
- Jeow mak keus
- Smoky aubergine dip made from softening the vegetable over hot coals and mixing with herbs and fish sauce
- Jeow som
- Light sauce made from fish sauce, lime and chilli
- Khao chii
- Sticky rice rolled into a patty and grilled over coals
- Khao poon
- Fermented rice noodles served in a coconut curry soup
- Khao soi
- Rice noodle soup similar to pho but usually made with minced pork and herbaceous greens
- River weed (algae) seasoned with shallots and deep fried
- Salad made from chopped vegetables, often with minced chicken or pork
- Mok pa
- River fish steamed in a banana leaf with herbs and galangal
- Nam khao
- Crispy rice salad with pork, peanuts and Laos sausage
- Nem khao
- Steamed rice sheets rolled with mushrooms and pork
- Slow-cooked stew flavoured with lemongrass and spicy pepper wood, thickened with ground sticky rice
- Sai kok
- Spicy grilled pork sausage made from pork, lemongrass, lime leaves and chilli
Food and Travel Review
The jungle doesn’t so much surround the city of Luang Prabang as hug it, sending its slender green arms – well watered by two rivers – through its streets and alleys, giving it the feel of a place very much at one with nature.
Rising through this most lush of
cityscapes are the red-tiled rooftops and
the curved peaks of some of this Unesco-
protected wonder’s 33 gilded wats.
With a backdrop of richly forested mountains and the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meandering through the green, it’s almost the perfect vision of rewilding, the encouragement of the natural world to blend with modern life.
Laos’ fourth-biggest city lies on the peninsula where the two rivers meet, and at ground level you can clearly see the footprint of the people that have walked here before. The French left a bigger mark than most, despite departing more than 70 years ago, with their former mansions, schools and palaces, many of them delicately enveloped by the tentacles of the southeast Asian jungle, taking you back to an earlier time.
But impressive as their legacy is, it’s not the Europeans that made the biggest statement of intent – that was the Buddhists, with their myriad temples dressed in ochre, white and gold, most of which were standing long before the French arrived, and some for more than 500 years.
While thrill-seekers might head to the capital Vientiane for full-moon parties with all the frivolity and noise of modern travel, Luang Prabang is where you go to soak up the history, the natural world and the blended cuisine of a place where wine bars sit side by side with noodle stalls. Food and drink is always sampled with a view – in every direction mountains and forests block vistas of still more mountains and forests. Villages carve out an existence and rivers wind between the trees and slopes. Laos is a tropical green landscape where farmers do battle to push back the jungle.
In the cool of the morning air, a pocket
of Luang Prabang’s Old Town turns into a
wet market. The streets next to the former
palace are closed to traffic and filled with
produce, stalls and carefully harvested
favourites from the jungle. Why farm food when the forests are already doing
the work? You find wild mushrooms, fern
fronds, flower petals and a variety of
herbaceous leaves to add aromatic depth
to salads and soups. There’s a strong trade
for the timber of pepper wood trees, which
imbue a spicy yet numbing tone when
slow-cooked in stews.
The jungle provides protein as well. Wasp eggs are collected from forest trees, matured just enough to offer a buttery texture when squeezed. Small bats, big beetles and insect larvae are frequently on sale and change with the seasons. Fish are netted from the rivers while frogs are harvested from rice fields by emptying one paddy at a time. River crabs are bundled up with bamboo strips and sold for less than £2 a dozen.
The smaller rivers that feed the Mekong are ideal for the annual harvest of river algae, which is collected, washed and dried in the sun. Shallots, tomatoes and sesame seeds are added, then the algae (also called river weed) is dried into sheets and deep-fried for good measure. The result is kaipen, a tasty side dish with maximum crunch and minimal food miles. £1 buys you a large bagful at the market, or a few sheets when sitting down for lunch at a restaurant.
A few stalls within the market serve hot breakfast, invariably with rice. Among the residential backstreets you’ll also find plenty of khao soi stalls – as long as you get there before the pot is empty, when they close up shop. This Laos twist on pho consists of rice noodles in broth served with greens and topped with a rich pork sauce. The intense flavours come from fermenting soy beans and cooking through with minced pork and tomato, and a little goes a very long way. An alternative dish is khao poon, which uses a combination of coconut and red curry paste instead of clear broth, and pressed noodles prepared from rice grains that have been fermented for days and then ground into a paste, with lemongrass, lime and galangal as the flavour base.
By 10am the morning market stalls start to wind down and the
sun starts to break through the mist. Visitors tend to come here
during the late winter months when things are a little drier and
cooler, and misty mornings are typical.
One of the charms of this town is an
absence of beaches and nightclubs.
There’s a handful of wine bars, like
Icon Klub in the Old Town, and
cocktail bars such as 525 not far from
the Sofitel hotel, which are regular
haunts for expats and travellers
looking for quality drinks. The Sofitel
Luang Prabang is tucked away in a
neighbourhood half-way between
the Old Town and Phousi Market,
where restaurants shop for produce.
This isn’t your usual chain hotel,
being the former governor’s
residence, protected by Unesco
listing, and it’s an exceptional
hideaway for those seeking privacy,
its original buildings complemented
with elegant villas that embrace
Step outside the gates in the morning and a short walk in almost any direction will take you to breakfast.
As well as stalls selling khao soi noodles, you’ll find nem khao, freshly steamed rice sheets wrapped around diced wood- mushrooms and minced pork, served with fried shallots and plenty of jeow som (a mix of fish sauce and lime similar to Vietnamese nuoc cham).
Staying at upmarket hotels away from town requires a shuttle to get to the temples – or take one of their bikes for a slow pedal along the river. If you make it all the way down to the magnificent Wat Xieng Thong at the end of the peninsula, you can stop by 3 Nagas, which, like Sofitel, is part of the Accor group. One phone call and a shuttle will collect you and the bikes while you sip on a soda and lime.
The Old Town is full of smaller accommodation options. One stand- out is Burasari Heritage, owned by a Thai family with a penchant for quirky yet elegant style. Dark teak and heavy linen accents lean into the colonial vibe, and guests take breakfast under the shade of banana palms while watching the Nam Khan flowing past – baguettes and jam for continental palates, khao soi and extra chilli for the local option.
On the same block, French bakery
Le Banneton offers a momentary
side trip to Paris – try the tarte aux
pommes. Other notable French
influences come from Yannick
Upravan and Gilles Vautrin, who’ve
been a constant presence here for
two decades and own Le Calao.
They offer a choice of French and Laotion menus – an excellent
selection of jeow (Laos-style dips), barbecue and noodle dishes,
for example, can be sampled alongside a grand cru from Saint-Émilion.
Laotion cooking only really makes sense if you have a big basket of freshly steamed sticky rice to eat it with.
Servings of juicy jeow with fish sauce, or mushrooms and herbs steamed in a banana leaf, are typically modest, but with intense flavours. A small ball of sticky rice soaks up those punchy sour flavours and turns it into a meal. Rice is abundant but leftovers are never wasted – they’re simply made into patties and grilled over coals for breakfast.
Sticky rice is also the currency when showing care for monks. Every morning before dawn monks gather outside their Old Town temples to form a line and walk through the streets collecting alms. It’s a humbling ritual that reinforces the dependence monks have on community generosity. Locals call this tak bak, and residents dress respectfully to offer every monk a small handful of sticky rice as they silently walk past. By the end of their route each bowl of alms is nearly full, and perhaps includes the odd piece of fruit.
Monks can cross to Nam Khan on the opposite river bank via a wobbly bamboo bridge, and as this gets washed away at least once a year by high water, everyone else is charged a token fee to cross and return, to fund the inevitable reconstruction. Nam Khan is lovely, quiet and has just a handful of eateries.
But it’s the busy Mekong that makes Luang Prabang what it is today. Boats connect from all over the country, moving up and down the river like a free-flowing highway. During the day, many river boats arrive from villages further up stream, and boatmen tout to take tourists out to Pak Ou, the site of ‘the cave of a thousand Buddhas’, which is how Buddhists say ‘too many to count’. The trip makes for a great day on the water, often providing respite from the humidity. The homeward leg is the best part, with the sun turning golden behind a hazy horizon and a cooling breeze is felt from the movement of the boat. Small restaurants line the river, selling the refreshing local Beerlao pilsner along with ice-cold fruit.
After dark, the city’s main street closes to traffic and opens to vendors. Cheap eats at the Night Market see plates piled high for under £1 – grilled meats cost a little extra but are popular, as smoke fills the night sky and whole ducks spin on home- rigged rotisseries. Tropical fruits blended into ice shakes do a brisk trade. Souvenirs and textiles are also sold en masse, many of the fabrics hand made.
Those wishing to get closer to the craftspeople should head to a quiet corner of the Old Town, where a modest shop called Ma Té Sai, run by Australian Emi Weir, takes travellers on an intimate journey with Laotion textiles. The store stocks plenty of fine examples, but Emi also organises day trips into the mountains to meet the makers in the village of Nong Khiaw. The road passes a lot of rice fields, a lot of kaipen drying in the sun and a lot of jungle.
The area is rich in a variety of ethnic groups, but the weaving villages Ma Té Sai work with are mostly the matriarchal Tai Lue minority. They grow cotton in their backyards, thread it on to spools in the shade of their houses, colour with natural dyes like flowers and bark, then weave by hand using traditional wooden looms. A side benefit is sharing lunch with them, sitting down on low stools in front of a table filled with dishes that the young girls of the family have been preparing all morning. If you’re lucky they may have killed a duck that day, and cooked down the bones to make a broth that is topped with blossoming greens that grow on the edge of the forest. A good meal might include a salad of herbs and minced chicken (laab gai), jeow made from chargrilled buffalo skin and chillies, wild mushrooms braised with ginger and tamarind, and homemade kaipen. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous sticky rice. Everything on the table is sourced within walking distance and delivers on those trademark astringent and aromatic notes Lao people love. Given the chance, you will too.
Words and photography by Ewen Bell.
This feature was taken from the March 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.
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