Luang Prabang

 
In Luang Prabang, David Whitley finds himself intrigued by the wrong market 

As night falls on Luang Prabang, the main street is shut to traffic. To be honest, a driver wouldn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of getting down there anyway. The street is taken over by temporary stalls, some selling fruit juices and those Lao baguette sandwiches that are so welcome after time spent hunting a decent sarnie in Thailand.

But most of the stalls are selling handicrafts. Suspiciously similar handicrafts too. One stall selling beautiful, colourful woven fabrics looks much the same as the other 438. The jewellery – all fairly heavy-looking, slightly mucky metal – is practically identical as you wander along too. As for carved wooden elephants, if that’s your sort of thing, then you’ve struck gold.

It’s as if an entire city has been told that the way out of poverty is filling middle class western living rooms with ethnic-chic junk. And there’s plenty of that on the Luang Prabang night market. There’s some good stuff too, but everything is so depressingly samey. It’s as if people have seen what works and are content to churn out multiple imitations of it. The entire strip of canopied stalls seems bereft of original ideas and experimentation.

Something always disturbs me about this – the same applies to Aboriginal art too. There’s a difference between enabling the genuinely creative and talented to make a living from what they do and promoting the idea that cod-creativity and half-arsed art is the only way to find work.

Luang Prabang’s morning market, running on a parallel street, is a completely different kettle of fish however. This is partly because any middle-aged tourists wandering through are incidental extras, but mainly because it provides the sort of surprises that calculating bottom-line thinking has torn away from the night market.

These include packets of weed from the Mekong River – a seaweed substitute often used in Lao cuisine, apparently. There are also packets of buffalo skin, which I can’t imagine being too tasty, but at least it’s better than the fried rats for sale. They’re sold whole – they still have their teeth in, should you wish to tuck into one as a morning snack.

There seems to be a waste-nothing culture. One stall just sells the bones left over from the meat. Another has dead beetles available for your delectation.

There are big bowls of brightly-coloured spices and peppers, chunks of fried bamboo, wondrous exotic fruits such as the always spectacular-looking dragon fruit. And there a huge bags of rice, in all its different varieties.

I’ve no interest in buying any of it and taking it back home. But it’s always fascinating to see what’s considered normal elsewhere. There’s more variety and intrigue in the market that’s not pretending to be special than the one that’s a supposed highlight of the city.

Disclosure: David is travelling in Laos as a guest of Peregrine Adventures

You can get Luang Prabang included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

Luang Prabang food

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First night in Luang Prabang, I ended up following a throng of people into a side alley off the night market. I stopped following them when I spotted the coconut waffle seller, the juice stall and the duo cooking dumplings, all of which I wolfed down. I’d only spent a couple of dollars and I was full. Then I saw it. The throng’s holy grail.

 

Several long tables crammed with heaped plates of noodles, fried vegetables, spring rolls, skewered meat and fish. It’s a simple set-up. Pay a dollar, take a plate, pile it high and enjoy. The food is flavoured to keep the majority happy (translation, not spicy enough) but it’s not half-bad.

 

Luang Prabang attracts backpackers, the affluent and everyone in between and no budget is uncatered to. At the Korean BBQ on the Mekong riverfront, a Beer Lao and plate of food costs around $5 per person. Further along is the very reasonably priced Luang Prabang Food, its extensive menu including laap (minced, usually cooled, meat cooked with garlic, chillies, lime juice, spring onion, mint and coriander) and the eponymous Luang Prabang salad with eggs, peanuts, coriander, watercress and fried garlic. Next door, DaRa’s pork steak in rum, sticky rice and fried bananas with honey lured me back twice as did the Korean food at Big Tree Cafe.

 

On the other side of Luang Prabang is the Nam Khan River. A top pick is Rosella Fusion, set up by young locals and serving dishes such as fried beef with lemongrass and basil with black sticky rice. Towards the backpacker area, S-Bar serves fine burgers, the Aussie Sports Bar does a brisk trade in comfort food while LaoLao Garden and riverview Utopia do decent food in very atmospheric surroundings. Best for ambience is Dyen Sabai, across the river via the bamboo bridge and brilliantly priced serving Lao fondue, desserts and cocktails on its riverview deck.

 

At the higher end, Apsara is a frontrunner. We dined on Lao dried beef salad with herbs, local buffalo sausage with chilli jam, pan-fried fish with tamarind sauce and Asian pears poached in wine with homemade vanilla ice cream. Other options include French restaurant L'Elephant (tip: the $10 lunch special is a winner), 3 Nagas and Tamarind, well-known for its cooking classes.

 

Former French rule has left a tasty legacy of excellent coffee, bread and pastries. The cafe scene is thriving with places such as Cafe Ban Vat Sene, Books & Tea (their Indian chai masala is made from scratch), ethically minded Saffron Cafe and Coconut Garden.

 

And this is just a taster - three weeks clearly isn’t just long enough to savour it all.

 

By Meera Dattani

 

 

You can get Laos included as a stopover on your RTW here

Published by Stuart Lodge