The Food Lover's Guide to Luang Prabang
From Laotian coffee to night market specialties, here’s how to eat like a local in Luang Prabang.
Standing in the open-air pergola of his lagoon-side cooking school, Joy Ngeuambopha begins the day’s lesson. “Lao cooking is about balance of flavors and fresh ingredients,” Mr. Ngeuambopha tells the class as he purées freshly plucked coriander leaves, garlic, chilies, eggplant, and a fermented fish sauce called padaek into a mortar and pestle. “That balance is for you to decide.” However the “Laos balance” Mr. Ngeuambopha describes is relatively unknown to the 11 students in today’s class, let alone to the outside world.
Tucked between Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in the mountains of north central Laos, Luang Prabang has gained a strong foothold along the Southeast Asia tourist trail over recent years. Its cuisine, largely reflective of the ethnic diversity of Laos and its surrounding neighbors, comprises a rich blend of French colonial, Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese influence. However, unlike the curry- and cumin-based dishes of Thailand to the west and pho-friendly noodle-based dishes of Vietnam to the east, Laotian cuisine hasn’t garnered the commercial success of its more famous neighbors.
“Landlocked Laos, with no trading port to the outside world and until recently, a relatively small emigrant population, hasn’t spread its culture globally like Thailand and Vietnam,” Mr. Ngeuambopha said.
Better known for its colonial buildings, beautiful wats and saffron-clad monks, Luang Prabang’s unique gastronomic identity has only begun to take shape over recent years. Balancing texture with bold and earthy flavors, distinctly Laotian dishes include laap—a minced meat salad peppered with a medley of fresh vegetables, and orlarm, a stew-like specialty that calls for a variety of locally grown jungle herbs, vegetables, and grilled meat. One major difference that sets Laotian food apart is the ubiquitous use of sticky rice. “It’s the staple here,” Mr. Ngeuambopha said. “Most traditional Lao dishes are designed to accompany it.”
To the uninitiated, knowing where or what to eat when visiting Laos can be tricky. However, one thing has become all too clear. From hectic markets and secluded bamboo bungalows to upscale bistros and colonial cafes, Luang Prabang boasts one of the most eclectic and diverse culinary scenes in the world today.
Morning Market: 7 a.m.
Luang Prabang may be a sleepy town compared to other Southeast Asian cities, but there’s no better way to awaken the senses and immerse yourself in the local culture than by taking a stroll through the morning market and rubbing shoulders with the locals. Located near the National Museum along Sanasongkham Road, this is the Laotian equivalent of a grocery store. Flooded with piles of vegetables, overflowing buckets of rice, fresh fish, slithery serpents, bats, and insects, the market is truly a feast for the senses. Be sure to get here early and give yourself plenty of time as there’s a lot to see, smell, and sample along the way. Treat yourself to some Lao spicy sausage—a specialty that’s not to be missed—skewers of river fish or crispy riverweed. If it’s too early for street meat, look for vendors huddled over steaming skillets cooking up khao nom kok or Lao coconut cakes. Served in a banana leaf, these bite-sized delights are as delicious as they are addictive.
Vendors start to wrap up around 10 a.m., so be sure to get here early.
Café Le Ban Vat Sene: 8 a.m. Breakfast
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Café Le Ban Vat Sene on Sakkaline Road in the heart of town offers an assortment of Western, French and Laotian dishes. The wooden desks, high ceilings, and wicker chairs are more reminiscent of a colonial-era coffeehouse than a full-fledged fusion restaurant. Either way, it’s a nice place to spend a lazy morning and try some Laotian coffee and a freshly baked croissant.
Grown on the Bolaven Plateau outside Paksong, in southern Laos, coffee (hot or iced) is a delicacy not to be missed.
Tamarind: 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Cooking Lesson
If you want to get your hands dirty and deepen your knowledge of Laotian cuisine, head to Tamarind on Kingkitsarath Road parallel to the Nam Khan River. Classes are held twice a day beside a lotus pond about twenty minutes outside of town and are the best way to experience Laotian cuisine first hand.
Students use a mortar and pestle (an essential cooking tool in Laos) and an open flame to master the fundamentals. Starting with dipping sauces, known as jeow (a tomato- or eggplant-based vegetable dip), continuing on to laap (a minced meat salad seasoned with fresh herbs including cilantro, mint, chilies, lime juice and kaffir lime leaves), and finally mok pa (lemongrass-wrapped chicken skewers), this is the joy of authentic cooking in Laos.
The lovechild of Joy Ngeuambopha, a Lao national and his wife Caroline Gaylard, Tamarind is a family business that aims to give back to the local community. Inspired by Mr. Ngeuambopha’s creative cooking style, Tamarind offers diners locally sourced ingredients as well as the most approachable Laotian tasting menu in town. Not to be missed is the platter with stir-fried bamboo and morning glories, crispy riverweed, and smoked eggplant. At the start of your dining experience, complimentary shots of honey lime Lao-Lao, a locally brewed rice-based whiskey, are served. This powerful elixir will be sure to loosen you up for the variation of bold and unique dishes to come. Enjoy!
Sign up for cooking classes in advance. Classes are available Monday through Saturday with the option of a full day class from 9am-3pm or an evening class from 4:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Transportation to and from the classes are included. Classes start at 285,000 Kip ($35 USD) per person.
Silk Road Café: Lunch
If cooking’s not your thing, head over to the Silk Road Café. Located a few minutes outside of town via complimentary tuk tuk along the banks of the Mekong River, the café is part of Ock Pop Tok, a popular craft and resource center in Luang Prabang. All ingredients are grown on a local farm, with signature dishes like pork-filled lemongrass, eggplant tempura bites, and the aforementioned laap. Established as a social enterprise working primarily in the field of textiles, handicrafts, and design, Ock Pop Tok works to empower rural women to use their traditional textile-producing skills to ensure a sustainable future for their families and villages. It also aims to create international awareness about the rich history and traditions of Lao weaving through a range of educational activities.
Viewpoint Café: 5 p.m. Happy Hour
It’s been an exhilarating day and now it’s time to kick back and relax. Viewpoint Café at the tip of the peninsula offers stunning views of the sunset over the mighty Mekong River. Owned by Swede Urban Paulsson, Viewpoint Cafe is an extension of The Mekong Riverview Hotel and offers freshly muddled fruit cocktails, including mai tai’s, margaritas, and more.
Dyen Sabai: 7 p.m. Dinner
With a little liquid courage you’ll be ready to traverse the Nam Khan River. There are a few options to make your way across depending on the time of year. Constructed by local monks in the dry season (December-May) when water levels are low, a footbridge as rickety and daunting as it is adventurous is the quickest and easiest way to reach the other side. In the rainy season, when water levels are high (June-November) and the bridge washes away, the restaurant provides a small boat service. Either way, strap on your Indiana Jones hat and make the trek to the secluded and peaceful setting of Dyen Sabai. Complete with bamboo huts and beautiful gardens, Dyen Sabai is the perfect place to try sindad, otherwise referred to as Lao fondue.
A cross between a Chinese hot-pot and Korean BBQ, sindad isn’t necessarily Laotian in origin, but the practice of grilling and marinating meat coupled with the freshness of the ingredients is very native. The basic components can include thin slices of pork, chicken, beef, or tofu, rice noodles, vegetables, mushrooms, and raw eggs. Sindad is consumed in typical Lao fashion by sitting close to or on the floor.
Sindad’s simple. You’ll be given a basket of vegetables and a grill over charcoal. Place the meat on top of the metal bowl and let the juices flow into the broth in the rim below. Put the vegetables and noodles into the rim and proceed to crack the eggs and let them boil in the broth.
When the meat is cooked sufficiently, slide it down into the broth (or into your mouth), and transfer the lot into a bowl. Add chilies and spice to your liking. It’s a delicious dish that’s only complete when you wash it down with a venerated Beerlaos.
Night Market: 9 p.m. Dessert
As the day draws to a close, it’s time to polish it all off with something sweet. Head back into town and make your way over to Sisavangvong Road, where the local night market will be in full effect and crepe and fruit stands abound. In March, when mangoes are in season, try them over sticky rice topped with coconut cream or a freshly squeezed jujube and hibiscus flower smoothie. Khao gam, a Laotian specialty of purple sticky rice is served up with slices of fresh fruit.