Travelling through Laos will give you the feeling that you’re encountering something unique; that you’re keeping a secret from everyone who hasn’t yet experienced what this landlocked Southeast Asian nation has to offer.
One secret that’s too juicy not to share is the Unesco World Heritage-listed site of Luang Prabang; a true jewel in the crown of Laos. It’s an alluring city which is rich in history, steeped in culture, and a city whose captivating charm, once experienced, can never be forgotten. Luang Prabang is nestled in the heart of a mountainous region in northern Laos and is situated on a peninsula formed by the Nam Khan and mighty Mekong Rivers. Both waterways offer great vantage points for observing a curious mix of rural and urban living, beginning with the farmers who cultivate the banks of the Nam Khan River after the monsoon season is over. Once the high waters have receded, the fertile soil of the riverbank is revealed, and with nurturing, it yields produce to be sold on at the daily markets.
Even before the sun rises, you can start your culinary adventure at the aptly named Morning Market.
Markets are another sight to behold in Luang Prabang. Even before the sun rises, you can start your culinary adventure at the aptly named Morning Market. It’s a fascinating place to get a behind-the-scenes peak at the raw ingredients used in Lao cuisine. Spread over several small backstreets north of Sisavangvong Road and east of Kitsalat Road, the market, while not large, is alive and thriving from 5am until noon. Though the occasional curious traveller wanders through, it’s mostly packed with locals poking, prodding, and stocking up on fresh ingredients.
And fresh the ingredients are! As many of the vendors live in the forests, hills, and along the rivers around Luang Prabang, much of what each vendor has to offer, as small as it may be, is gathered just for the Morning Market. The fresh eggplants are firm with the skins shiny to the point of being polished, the herbs appear to be just picked and still covered in morning dew, and the fish are nearly flopping out of their buckets, just brought in as the catch of the day. Chickens are sold cleaned and plucked, as well as alive for those who prefer to butcher at home. For the more adventurous travelling souls, there are many unusual items on offer; forest rats, insects and congealed ox blood are not for the faint of heart.
If you follow the dusty Phothisalath Road south-west of Luang Prabang, either by bicycle or tuk-tuk, you will find yourself at the open-air, indoor-outdoor Phosi Market, open from 7am to 5pm every day. This is the real ‘supermarket’ of Luang Prabang, with several hundred merchants, anything you ever imagined (or would rather not imagine) eating, and just about everything else.
If you skipped breakfast in the morning and want to taste something new, try a skewer of barbequed ox meat. Perhaps it’s not the cornerstone of a nutritious breakfast, but without a doubt, it’s a tasty one. The succulent meat is marinated in a mixture of traditional Lao spices and roasted over hot coals, with the taste giving a sense of just how important spice combinations and seasonings are to Lao cuisine.
Vibrant red and green chillies are sold beside heaps of tomatoes, limes, lemongrass, fresh herbs, and ginger.
As you move through the outside market section, your curiosity will likely be piqued by the more unusual items for sale. Some vendors have tables but many simply have their goods piled on tarps spread across the ground. There are several species of dried animals, some so unfamiliar that it’s impossible to guess what they are, but some that look suspiciously like armadillo. Vibrant red and green chillies are sold beside heaps of tomatoes, limes, lemongrass, fresh herbs, and ginger, the sight of which should already be building anticipation for dinner.
Inside the market hall, the meat section offers an interesting insight into what animals and their parts are consumed by the Lao people. Foetal ox calves curl around each other in stainless steel bowls, while organs and chickens are lined up on white tile countertops. Fresh cuts of bright red ox meat are piled high and waiting to be sold, while the all-female butchers wave improvised fans to keep the flies away.
There is, however, beauty to be found among the unique selection available at the Phosi market; striking lotus flowers glowing in the morning sun.
After a day of intrepid market shopping and adventurous eating, Luang Prabang has many ways in which to spend a few quiet hours exploring. Perhaps the most well-known monastery in the city is Wat Xieng Thong, open from 6am to 5:30pm. Built in 1559, Lao kings were crowned at this temple and it is considered to be a monument to the spirit of religion, royalty, and traditional art. The backside of the main temple building is set with a stunning ‘tree of life’ mosaic and there are various spots to sit and quietly reflect.
The market is laid-back, perhaps one of the most tranquil in Southeast Asia, but the colours are rich and vibrant.
Many travellers also make an evening pilgrimage to the top of the tall hill Phu Si in order to watch the stunning sunset. After you’ve made your way down the hill in the twilight, there is no better way to enjoy the evening in Luang Prabang than at the Hmong Handicraft Night Market, open from 5:30pm to 10:30pm and located on Sisavangvong Road. The market is laid-back, perhaps one of the most tranquil in Southeast Asia, but the colours are rich and vibrant.
Crêpe sellers with hot griddles are set up at the Royal Palace end of the market, waiting to whip up the crispiest crêpe, covered with a thin layer of Nutella and topped with fresh bananas. At the Kitsalat Road end, there are countless fruit smoothie vendors, with every imaginable fruit and colour combination available.
If you haven’t yet filled up on crêpes and fruit smoothies, then your last market stop of the day simply must be the Evening Market, open from 5pm to 9pm, to sample a bit of everything when it comes to Lao cuisine. You likely won’t find the more unusual of the market ingredients used in dishes here, but the fish that was flopping out of the bucket at the Morning Market could be on the table in front of you, only this time looking more mouth-watering; stuffed with fragrant lemongrass and served on a banana leaf.
The Lao kip (LAK) has been the currency of Laos since 1952, with bills available in several denominations up to 100,000 LAK. There are cash machines in the bigger cities like Luang Prabang, but if you’re going further afield, be sure to have enough cash to cover all your basic needs, in addition to any small luxuries.
Laos does not use daylight savings time and in Standard time is GMT+7. Luang Prabang has a tropical wet and dry climate, experiencing both wet and dry seasons. The wet (monsoon) season is from April to October and the dry season from November to March. The best time to visit is between November and February, when it rains the least and isn’t too hot.
Luang Prabang is serviced by Luang Prabang International Airport, only 4km from the city centre and with direct flights to several cities within Laos and in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Most travellers require a visa to enter Laos but this is a relatively simple process done on-arrival at the airport. The fee is payable only in USD, and while the amount is dependent on your nationality, it’s generally around $35.
Taxis are available from the airport into the city for a standard fee of approximately 50,000 LAK, and most transport around the city is either by foot, rented bicycle, or tuk-tuk.
Khao niaow – A staple food in Laos, khao niaow is sticky rice. It’s eaten by Lao people with almost every meal, and is called sticky rice because once cooked, it sticks together so that you can use it to pick up bits of food or dip into spicy and tasty sauces.
Laap – Considered to be one of Laos’s national dishes, laap (sometimes called larb) is a spicy combination of either minced meat or fish, with a generous handful of fresh herbs and greens mixed in.
Tam maak hung – Also well known in Laos, tam maak hung is a spicy salad made from shredded green papaya and a combination of lime, hot chillies, salt, fish sauce, and palm sugar. It can be eaten on its own, but is also delicious with sticky rice, grilled chicken, and a side of vegetables to cool your tongue.
Orlarm – This Luang Prabang speciality used to be a spartan dish, made of just the base ingredients of sticky rice, chilli wood, lemongrass, eggplant, meat, and water, but as tastes have evolved over time, it’s become popular to add a mix of vegetables and herbs.
Beer Lao – Beer Lao is exactly what it sounds like; a Lao beer, and is available everywhere. It’s a popular, refreshing lager beer and a great way to unwind at the end of a long day.
For more information about Luang Prabang, please visit the provincial tourism site www.tourismluangprabang.org.