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Laos: Asia's New Cultural Hot Spot

A worker makes his rounds in the Old Town.

Photo: Morgan & Owens

Fox appears nowhere on the menu of L’Eléphant, which is run by an expatriate Frenchman and his Lao partner. Because I detest gastro-porn almost as much as the saccharine delirium of online dating, I will say this about my experience: If you are lucky enough to take even one meal at L’Eléphant, you will know that you have accumulated blessings, in this life if not all the preceding ones.

That night I selected from a tasting menu of local specialties, and dined on betel-leaf soup with a confetti of minced beef; steamed pork stuffed in lemongrass stalks; chicken salad with local herbs and roasted rice powder; Mekong perch and Kaffir lime leaves steamed in a banana leaf; riverweed sautéed with sesame seed; quail and forest mushrooms and sticky rice. There was a decent white Burgundy to wash it all down. There was pineapple ice cream and, as a Gallic fillip, tuiles. The bill, with wine, came to about $30. I decided I could happily eat at L’Eléphant every week for the rest of my life.

I took the long way home from L’Eléphant to my hotel, La Résidence Phou Vao, walking the tip of the peninsula where Wat Xieng Thong, the most sublime of the city’s temples and the one most critical to its UNESCO designation, sits at the head of a broad flight of steps leading down to the Mekong. Strolling the dimly lighted lanes, with the slow-moving river on my left, I thought about a remark Somsanith made when we met. In Luang Prabang, he said, the often exalted beauty and harmony and scale of the built world is intended not so much to dazzle as to remind us of our own transience. “Appreciate just one moment, just one instant,” he said, invoking the mindfulness that is a core Buddhist precept. “All is ephemeral. This is the Lao concept, the Lao way.”

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

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