Luang Prabang is a great place for food
February 7, 2017
We only stayed in Luang Prabang for 4 nights but quickly discovered it is a great place for food. We watched a youtube video of food in Laos before we left, and also talked with some people in Chiang Mai about what they like to eat in this new country. I was excited to hear about the quality of bread in Luang Prabang. It is a SE Asian country, but the influence of the french from the 1800’s until 1956 left behind many items on menus today.
Our guesthouse included breakfast. We chose our fried, scrambled, hard-boiled eggs or an omelet the night before. In the morning it was served with a plate of fresh papaya and watermelon, a slice of ham, a “sausage” that looked like a hot dog stuffed with cream cheese, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and a big baguette with butter and jam. They served dripped coffee rather than espresso as it is in Thailand. It was in an urn and you were welcome to bottomless cups. We expect that at a hotel in Canada, but coffee servings are very small here. Did I say there was bread??? We buy bread in the grocery store in Chiang Mai, and there are a couple of bakeries that serve sandwiches on crusty baguette. Cakes and donuts are for sale in Chiang Mai, but rice and noodles are the primary source of carbohydrates.
Lunches consisted of snacks since we had such a big breakfast every day. Spring rolls, lemon tarts, and sandwiches tided us over until supper. We found a restaurant, Joma, owned by a Canadian who served Bagel and Eggers and Nanaimo Bars! We met some friends from our choir at a french cafe on a day where we just seemed to move from a coffee shop to a cafe to a bakery. There was, however, a tour of the Royal Palace in between.
Royal Palace Between Meals
The monarchy was removed from Luang Prabang in 1976. Since that time, the royal palace has been turned into a museum. We were not allowed to take any pictures inside and had to have covered shoulders and knees to enter. I knew that temples require you to dress respectfully but I wasn’t prepared for it in the museum. My dress covered my shoulders alright. I usually wear yoga shorts under my dress and had to pull them down over my knees and hope they wouldn’t fall off while we were walking around! I didn’t want to miss the tour.
The palace was built in 1904. The furniture in this building was old and many pieces had been given to the former king by other countries. The bedrooms were large with high ceilings but not very much in the way of decor besides large portraits of members of the royal family and beautiful porcelain urns and plates given as gifts.
The highlight of the Royal Palace was the reception room The walls and ceilings were painted a rich cranberry red. Every surface was covered with stories and legends created from colorful cut glass pieces. There were hundreds of elephants in battles, men building villages and temples, farmers working in the fields. Everywhere you looked was another story. It was complemented with a series of pictures on the wall telling the story of a long ago Laos prince who got in trouble for giving away the lucky white elephant to the poor and was banished to the jungle.
We had 4 memorable dinners in Luang Prabang. The first was a traditional meat dish called laap It is made from chopped chicken or water buffalo mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, mint, coriander, spring onion, chili and uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried and crushed. There were handfuls of fresh herbs mixed in. A little bamboo basket of sticky rice was served on the side. It was really fresh tasting and not very spicy.
The second night we ate dinner beside the Mekong at the Mekong Fish Restaurant. I ordered the Mekong Fish, of course, which was a wonderful curry and coconut creamy stew with big chunks of succulent catfish. It was a perfect accompaniment to the beautiful sunset.
We finished just in time to catch a local storyteller and musician known as Garavek telling tales of Lao history and legends accompanied by an instrument called a khene which you can see in this video.
Five Star Restaurant
Our third dinner could have been served at any 5 star restaurant in the world. The Azerai Hotel and restaurant have only been open for a month. They had menus at the street level that we saw at one of our lunches. The chef is from the UK and his goal is to use as many local ingredients as possible. The staff had been training for a few weeks while they waited for completion of the construction. There were only a couple of other people in the restaurant and the chef came out and talked to us.
They serve small plate meals. We shared a fried fish with a salad of mint, basil and cilantro with a fresh vinaigrette. We also had fish cooked in lime with pomello. My favorite was a quinoa salad with roasted beets, carrots and fresh ricotta made on site. We shared meringue chunks topped with mango yogurt topped with passion fruit for dessert. The meal with drinks was about $50 for two. We sat out on the balcony overlooking the street but it was a bit dark so they clipped a light onto a glass so we could appreciate the food better.
Our last dinner was completely different. We had a Laos fondue at the Dyen Sabbai restaurant which was just at the top of the bamboo bridge a few doors down from our guesthouse. They brought a clay lined bucket of fire to our table and inserted it into a hole in the middle. After a metal tray was placed on top, a broth was poured into the outside. The inside of the tray was raised into a cone shape. The buffalo meat was laid on top of the cone to cook over the fire and the vegetables and noodles were cooked in the broth. Garlic and chilis were served on the side to add to the broth.
This meal just kept getting better and better. The meat juice and the cooking vegetables turned a plain stock into a savory and hearty broth. The waiter kept stopping by to add more fuel to the coals and top up the broth. It was a dining adventure to say the least.
Our final experience in Luang Prabang was not food related for me, but it was for the monks. Every morning, all the monks in the area walk down the streets of town before sunrise. The temple that has 400 monks, bus them to different parts of town to spread them out to collect alms. The local people make merit by offering food or money to them. They carry little bowls to hold the food and offer a chanted blessing back in return. The monks can only eat what they are given and have to have ingested it all by noon so they don’t eat after that.
It is a solemn ceremony. There were about 30 monks came down our street between 6:15 and 6:30 and about 6 women outside with prepared food for them. They seemed to give the first in the group a larger bag, then smaller ones for the rest. I couldn’t tell what was in them. It to see how young some of the boys were.
It was well worth travelling to Laos to manage our visa. We returned to the Chiang Mai airport and got a stamp that allows us to be a visitor to Thailand for another 30 days. We will do the same when we return from Cambodia next month.
It did feel strange to be returning from a holiday and still feel like we are on holiday.