I’ll be honest with you: I knew nothing about Laotian food before I traveled to Laos. And I have no clue why I didn’t because there is a large Hmong population in my hometown, but only one restaurant I have heard of since. Lao cuisine is delicious and different from neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam (sorry never got to Burma to eat). The French influence is very noticeable in Laos with baguettes easily found and several French restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Because I heard so many great things from Chloe, I decided that Victor and I would take a cooking class at Tamarind, a restaurant and cooking school, in Luang Prabang.
We arrived in Luang Prabang around lunchtime and decided to eat at Tamarind. The lunch was fantastic, so that boded well for our class. One of the first things that I noticed about Lao cuisine was sticky rice. Sticky rice comes with almost every meal and when people eat with their hands, they use the rice as a base to scoop up other food. We ordered a combination plate (pictured above) which came with Lao sausage, a jerky and few small pickled salads. Lao cuisine uses plenty of fresh herbs, but I was most surprised to encounter dill, an herb I associate with Eastern European cooking. It was so hot when we arrived in Luang Prabang I had to order a cucumber salad too:
Cooking sticky rice in special bamboo baskets:
A PiA fellow who has lived in Laos for many years recommended Lao Kitchen in Vientiane. As the hotel manager circled the location for me on a map he said, “Good choice.” And it certainly was.
Lao sausage with a delicious dipping sauce and plenty of dill:
A laap salad, consists of minced meat, pleanty of herbs and a kick of heat from some chili:
Breakfast in Luang Prabang — if I had to liken it to anything, I would call it a rice noodle savory breakfast crepe:
If I ever disappear and you can’t find me, try looking in Luang Prabang, Laos. I’ll be there at a cafe sitting at one of the outside tables in the shade. I’ll have a cup of coffee on the table and a croissant on a stylish plate. I’ll have a book open on my knee, but I won’t be reading it. I’ll be people watching as the afternoon light dances in between tree branches and the occasional sound of a motorbike passing in the background gently interrupts my permanent slide into day dreams. That’s Luang Prabang, and that’s where I’ll be.
Luang Prabang really sticks out in my mind as one of the most laid-back, beautiful places I have ever visited. The city feels like an island because it is surrounded by the Mekong River on one side and the Nam Khan on the other. Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame wrote a piece I really enjoyed about how she never wants to go back to Luang Prabang and ruin what she had and remembers.
The city is famous for 33 beautiful temples and the monks who live in the town and receive offerings early in the mornings. Old French villas from the colonials days are being restored creating a fusion of East meets West in the heart of the East:
I’ll be honest with you, Laos, like Sri Lanka, wasn’t really on my radar when I moved to Asia. Then my friend Chloe went to Laos. When she came back, she told me, “You have to go.” Over a cup of coffee I listened to her talk about the charming old town of Luang Prabang and delicious French food. She also brought me back a pot of delicious black currant jam. I was sold. I contacted another PiA fellow who had been living in the capital, Vientiane, for a few years. She recommended a spot on NYTimes 36 Hours piece to start exploring. As I read more, I would encounter some dark pieces involving the Communist government. This piece was especially interesting and I recommend it to anyone before going. To put it in super simplistic terms, Laos is a complicated place. The landlocked country gets overlooked by many Americans today, yet, as the NYTimes piece notes, “Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordnance over Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.” As we strolled the night market in Vientiane, passing tables with dolls and beautiful embroidery, we also passed many with jewelry made from leftover bombs.
We had a full day to explore Vientiane, but, unfortunately, that day was a Monday. The famous Pha That Luang (Great Stupa) was closed. So instead we stayed in the center of town and visited Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in the city. I could have spent hours here looking at all of the small Buddhas.
The French descended on Laos in the 19th century and their legacy is still present:
Vientiane even has its own Arc de Triomphe. Patuxai, or the Victory Monument, was built in 1969 and Lonely Planet had this interesting description that it was built “with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport; hence expats refer to it as the ‘vertical runway.’”
ABBA music was blaring as our bus pulled out of Siem Reap headed to Phnom Penh. To be precise it was a bootleg copy of the movie Mamma Mia! that was skipping as the bus sped through the Cambodian countryside. Minus Pierce Brosnan’s laughable singing, it was actually a pretty pleasant drive and a quick lunch break in the middle of the trip made the 4.5 hour trip go by quickly. My colleague and friend in Jakarta, Christi, had lived in Phnom Penh for two years so she gave me a list of places to see. She suggested spending some time at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. We whiled away a few hours and watched the sky change over the convergence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.
I really enjoyed the days we spent in Phnom Penh. Things move slower, probably because it is a much smaller capital city than Bangkok and Jakarta. It was easy to walk everywhere and the mix of old colonial buildings was right up my alley. I even got to see a housemate from college who has been teaching in Phnom Penh. It was fun to go out with her and her boyfriend to a less touristy bar and catch up.
Locals hang out and work out next to the river:
We strolled through the laid-back city and did the pretty typical tourist itinerary as well.
Royal Palace: When I am on vacation I like to take it slow. The Royal Palace staff likes to lunch between the hours of 11 and 2, so this meant I had to speed up my morning routine. It was worth seeing the palace with its ornate buildings and gifts from French royalty. Oh and then there’s that gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds, no photography of course.
Yes, that is me. Yes, that is me holding a deep fried spider. Yes, that is the face of uncertainty, despair, curiosity and peer pressure all rolled into one. Really, I shouldn’t be so apprehensive about a spider, I did drink cobra blood already. Plus, I was the girl in college who was summoned to kill spiders for other people. I had eaten ants before at summer camp during a survival clinic. So I guess spiders were a logical progression? Plus they came on a nice plate with a dipping sauce! When Victor and I heard that insects were part of the menu in Cambodia we were both curious. They are a good source of protein and when anything is fried and seasoned it can’t be half bad, right?
So while we were in Phnom Penh we had dinner at Romdeng (74 Ph 174) and ordered some spiders. To be honest, they didn’t taste like much except for that fried taste you get whenever you deep fry something.
Just when I thought the worst was over, one of the chefs passed by our table and stopped right by me. He had a live spider crawling up his arm and held it towards my face. I shrieked so loud the whole restaurant turned to look and laugh at me. So much for keeping a cool demeanor.
While we traveled by bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we stopped to have lunch and we walked by many road side stands selling insects of all kinds for snacks:
Alright, I admit it: I put the bugs up top to drag you in. We ate a lot of terrific food while in Cambodia and none of the rest of it involved insects of any sort. Before traveling to Cambodia, I had never been exposed to any Cambodian cuisine. If I had to give a very general description, I would say it has elements of both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, its neighbors. There were plenty of vegetables and fresh salad dishes, so I was happy for the break from deep fried.
Amok was on my list of Cambodian dishes to try. Amok is a curry dish, usually with fish but I saw many options on menus. The fish is steamed in banana leaves and the curry gets a mousse-like quality. I really enjoyed this: