After three weeks camping in Africa, two weeks hiking in Nepal and two weeks cycling in China we entered Laos in need of a rest and a return to a more casual style of travel. The border post into Laos was an open eyed blank canvas into relaxation and recovery; more like the first day of a holiday than the 243rd. We relaxed indeed but more notably we ate; Lao food punching right up there with its more famous neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. So here’s our top ten from a short two weeks in Laos: five food and five otherwise in a balance that reflects our journey. Even more than most countries, Laos was about food glorious food.
At home we refer to them as Vietnamese baguettes but Laos has a French colonial history to also donate this legacy to Lao cuisine. On a rickety table in an open air afternoon market we were whipped up two delicious baguettes balancing the texture of French bread with Asian flavours: delicious. Add these tasty treats to a very true local market feel and the eating experience became far more than just the food, it’s cultural fusion at its best.
9 – Tham Nuk Lao: Luang Prabang
Night number two and we were in the mood for a local jaunt, we hunted out a recommendation and for traditional Lao food in Luang Prabang one cannot pass Tham Nuk Lao. Roaring spicy tom yum soup, Lao larp (spicy minced dish) and a Luang Prabang salad knocked our socks off. Set in a grand colonial building our plates contained local flavour with European chic with a warm casual atmosphere, a simply gorgeous little girl dance around the restaurant all night just to complete the picture of locality and authenticity.
8 – Barbecue restaurant: Luang Prabang
From the refined heights of Tham Nuk Lao we got on our vintage ladies bikes and pedalled to the edges of town, where tourists dare not go. In a weird mix of Rural Aussie bowling club decor and vibrant Lao food festival our table was loaded up with hot coals and it was ready, steady, cook. Delicious meats, vegetables, noodles and herbs all got a dash of the sour spicy fish sauce as we dived into a food adventure far from any other foreign faces. A good friend of ours, Morgan famously said: there’s two terms that when put together get me aroused, locally and sourced. Can’t agree more.
7 – Morning Market: Luang Prabang
We don’t have eating disorders, we promise. Wandering the morning market was less about eating food and more about a window into how all this amazement is created. More food was alive and wriggling than ready to eat with goannas, fogs and fish still a long way from being food, the morning market is where it all begins with banana leaves laid out on the ground to house the never ending sea of colour and fragrant aromas far from a world of plastic packaging. Of course we did snatch up a small parcel of coconut sweet sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, outstanding.
6 – Slow Boat: Luang Prabang to Huay Xai
The mighty Mekong, what a river. Two days on a slow riverboat is the definition of letting your cares drift downstream and far far away. The smooth river slips by bubbling and whirl-pooling all the while as the long skinny boat flexes and bends on the subtly surging surface. Throw in riverbanks of wildlife, exploding jungle, caves, local life, cliffs and mountains shrouded in mist and it’s a slowly evolving picture show where stress doesn’t have a ticket to enter.
It’s still about food in Laos even when it’s not about food. Up at 5:45am we got into the local daily ceremony of giving alms to the monks on their procession through town. A tide of orange robes accepted the offerings of food with grace and appreciation granting us a glancing view into a new life. I’m not a spiritual person but a moving and beautiful opportunity was gifted to me. Maybe it’s the presence of the monks, maybe the selfless act of giving or maybe just low blood sugar levels; whatever the reason, we left feeling uplifted and warm inside. And hungry.
What a town, grand French architecture meets elegant detailed Asian design. Crowded with leafy green trees and wedged into the nook of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers Luang Prabang is chic, elegant, colourful and mystically beautiful. In the middle of it all is mount Phu Si, one hasn’t been to Luang Prabang if you haven’t climbed the spiritual heart of town. Commanding views, shrines and elegant staircases crawl over this mountain that the town swirls around. No wonder it’s essential for any Lao traveller.
3 – Bamboo Tree cooking school: Luang Prabang
Thank god, we’re back into food world and Bamboo tree tops the food experience in this very food heavy nation. Not just prepared to eat we jumped behind the burners for a cooking school set out on a deck over the river, an essential ingredient in this recipe for food immersion. Linda our chef was a guide and we were the hands to her five dish lunch, starting with stuffed lemongrass it reamins probably the best meal we has the whole time in Laos. Who’s coming for dinner?
Travel is about challenging yourself sometimes in hard ways but sometimes also in just doing something different. It may sound trite but the uber luxurious Kiridara was in its own way a challenge for us, a challenge to embrace a bit of pampering in travel minds that so routinely crave edge of the road adventure. If we had resistance we didn’t stand a chance, Kiridara was everything great about a posh place without the tacky or soulless vacuum. We needed a rest and in three days Kiridara fixed us up and sent us on our way ready for the edge of the road once more.
1 – The Gibbon Experience: Huay Xai
It was hard to think of what could top Kiridara. Now it’s hard to see anything of this year topping The Gibbon Experience, the clearest number one of the 15 countries so far. We happily throw ourselves into new adventures like hiking, zip-lining, living in a treehouse, exploring national parks, swimming in waterfalls, wildlife spotting or immersing into a local lifestyle. What about three days of all of this in one? Childlike wonder meets grand hollywood fantasy, Red Bull style adventure and National Geographic scale jungle world. It wasn’t just an experience, that would be selling it short, it deserves a whole new category that it occupies on its own.