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Sleepwalking in Laos- Peter and his family spend New Year in Laos

December 27

The ATR banked as it approached  Luang Prabang.  Below me I could see the familiar line of poster-quality hills outlined in the setting sun.  The peninsula of the old town stretched below, and I could see the temple up on top of Mt. Pouxi glittering.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

Inside of the plane the bulkheads were festooned with Merry Christmas and Happy New Year stickers.  This made for a much friendlier flight than the one from Bahrain, but I suppose I shouldn’t fault Gulf Air for not celebrating Christmas. 

On the ground, much had changed.  The new airport was in place, and it was no longer a walk up through the dust to get to the customs shed.   Now it was a walk up the tarmac to get to the customs shed.  Once at the shed, and in the general confusion of a line-up for visas with a planeload of Italian tourists, I had time to contemplate the changes.

For instance, I could contemplate how different countries paid different rates for their visas.  The old East Bloc countries got away at $20 a shot (and why is South Korea considered Eastern Europe?).  Asia (which is where we find North Korea) is running around $30, and Western Europe is $30 and $35, depending on who’s winning at football.  And then there’s America, under which heading there are two countries listed; USA at $35 and Canada at $42. 

After a brief tirade, Yoonhi quelled me a bit by noting that it was the same in Turkey.  It has something to do with Canada not charging for visas, we think.  In everyone else’s eyes it makes us the richest of the rich. 

There’s also a note on the window that, for flights arriving after 4:30, there’s a $1 charge for overtime.    Knowing roughly how much Lao officials get paid in this, one of the world’s poorest countries, I didn’t mind too much.  But the Irishman behind me was quite irate. 

Still, this is not the country to be irate.  The people picking us up beyond the baggage had the same graciousness I remembered from before; soft spoken, polite, and very easy on the senses.  They took us to our guest house along the Mekong, and we were ushered into the hands of the establishment’s teeming horde of staff (okay, perhaps there are only ten, but that still seems like a lot).  

This began one of our trip’s primary amusements; seeing if Scud could get his room open.  

After scrubbing the trip residue from our skins, we wandered out.  It was already dark, and becoming quite chill.  We walked along the Mekong, noting the increased traffic and general commotion of the town.  We must have seen at least three scooters , two tuktuks, and a truck in the first ten minutes. 

The little places along the river had flourished.  Blinking Christmas lights lit them up, with a somewhat odd looking Santa poster in front of one spot (does Santa mince?).  There were still only a handful of people spread out over the seats, and many of these were Lao.  Aside from one of the backpacker places, there was no overbearing music to contend with. 

We turned away from the river when we reached the corner of the old palace (a museum with elusive opening times), and were greeted by a fine selection of grilled things on sticks.  Grilled chickens (at least three ways that I could count), grilled pork, sausages on sticks, and even  hard-boiled (?) eggs on sticks, although I didn’t see them grill the last one.  These had our juices going, but we wanted a place that we could sit at.  However, I realized I was on borrowed time as far as my entourage went. 

Thanon Sakharine, in front of Mt Pouxi has now become a night market, all the woven wares of the area coming out on display every night for the tourist horde.    And again, with the exception of one place selling CD’s, I was struck by how quiet and civilized things were.  There was no aggressive selling, no blaring music; just small, cold women crouched in their shawls trying to keep warm,  patiently waiting for you to show interest in something….anything. 

But this is all the fluff of travel writing.  Our main concern was food, and finding it soon.  I had two kids and an unfed Korean on my hands, and I could feel the potential for violence beginning to brew with every stop I made to look at a piece of silk.  The initial offering of eateries did not look too promising.  There was a lot of “pizza” and “spaghetti bolognaise” on hand.  There was also the offering of Lao cuisine in the same places, but I was unsure of how well executed it might be.

I found a charcouterie, but, upon inspection, their menu looked more appropriate for breakfast or dinner.  Up the street seemed a little better, with a Swiss restaurant that I’d heard of.

But I wanted Lao food.

We settled on Tum Tum Bamboo, a branch of the Tum Tum Cheng group that I’d read about.  The group is under Chandra, from the Pakse area in the south, and his Hungarian wife.  He had had a restaurant in Budapest for years, but had come back and opened up in Luang Prabang in 2001.

We started with spring rolls with tofu, a Viet/Laos favourite.  These came out appropriately hot and blade-sharp crispy, with a nicely tart sweet sauce to set them off.  Serena had some issues with picking them up and eating them without complete disintegration, but otherwise they were quite enjoyable.

Then we had the riverweed crackers.    This is something I always remembered from my earlier trips.  Back then it was presented in folded squares fried in chili oil.  Now the fashion is to have it prepared with sesame oil and garlic slices fried in.  It has the aspect of good nori, but a thickness and juiciness you don’t get in the Korean and Japanese variants.  This something you only seem to find in Luang Prabang.   When I’ve been in Vientiane I couldn’t even find people to acknowledge that it existed.

Then there was some pork satay.  This, I must say, was generally unremarkable.  The meat was still fairly tough, not having that falling apart feel that I’ve had on satay further south (or even shaszlik in Moscow).

The house soup that came next was pleasant.  Very mild, with a medicinal smell to it.  Part of this must’ve come from the bamboo shoots and mushrooms, but there was more in there that reminded me a bit of some of the herbal cooking I’d had in Singapore earlier in 2006.

Scud had ordered some fried pork with sour lettuce.  This came out very wet, the general presentation of Lao fried dishes, and lacking enough sourness to make it really stand out.  The Lao generally like food to be very sour, and I’ve had some dishes that would just pucker you up, but this wasn’t one of them.

Fried bamboo shoots were good for their texture, but again weren’t as sour as I’d expected (or remembered) them being.

The last dish was definitely a winner.  Minced chicken, coconut milk, chilis, galanga, and other odds and ends worked into a mousse and then steamed up inside a bamboo leaf.  This was probably the best dish of the meal.

I’d been reading about their cooking school on-line, and there  were more details available here.  As I’d suspected, their claim to royal Lao recipes came from Phia Singh.   This is the cookbook for Lao dishes.  I’d seen an earlier copy many years ago.   The book was pieced together from original manuscripts ferried out of Laos just before the end in the 70’s.  Phia Singh had been not only the master of protocol at the Lao court, but also the head of the kitchen, and had kept detailed notes of the cuisine of Luang Prabang and its many peoples.

The earlier editions carried the even pages as copies of the original manuscript, and the odd pages the English transcription.  The copy that I had secured from Prospect Books in the UK lacked the original manuscript pages, but was still the only real documentation on Lao cooking.   

Having said that, one of my Lao friends (originally from Vientiane) who had the book, referred to the cuisine as “burnt food” for its reliance on charring in many of the recipes.  

Anyways, I was hooked.  I owned the book, so I was interested in seeing how the the recipes would be handled in these times.

Meanwhile, of course, I had been indulging my lost love, beer Lao.  It never tastes the same when it travels (but is still well worth drinking), and these bottles of fresh beer Lao were reawakening my most ardent desires for this country.  And then I found they had a dark now, at 6.5%, crisp, with a head to cut with a knife, and a deep maltiness that I much admired. 

So, we had one meal under our belt, and any mutiny was pre-empted for the moment.  However, the meal was not a stellar success, and I was having some trepidation about my future if I couldn’t entertain the troops’ palates better than this. 

We left the restaurant, and made our way back through the bazaar, stopping to look at the odd bit of material (Laos has some of the most beautiful hand-woven textiles to be had).  Up on the hill, the temple was lit, hanging there like a disembodied spirit house in the dark.  On the street the blankets of goods would be lit by a single lone bulb hung out on a stick, for all the world like a fishing pole staked out to catch the unwary shopper.

On the way home we stopped to admire the neighborhood creperie.  A woman and her trolley. 

She would dollop the batter onto the plate, then, with a beautiful flourish, spin the batter out over the top of the crepe pan.

A few dabs of cheese, then some meat, then some greens, and another deft movement of the wrist to flip the goods into a cone and move them into a paper container. 

We arrived home in good spirits, mocked Scud as he had to ask for help to get his door open, and then, with the children busy watching Lao-dubbed episodes of the Teen Titans, we retired to the banks of the Mekong for a couple of bottles of beer Lao.

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December 28

Languid is a word that works well in Luang Prabang.  It was 10:30 by the time we woke up, and we had obviously missed the chance to gain merit for the day. 

Instead, we made our way along the riverside - an orientation tour for the family. 

From our guest house we come soon to Nazim’s.  For no particular  reason we decided that this was as good a place as any to get some food into us.  Not our wisest choice.  After seeing the menu I limited myself to a cup of café Lao,   Scud had “fried eggs chicken” which appeared  to have shreds of chicken in the fried eggs.   For some reason, this combined consumption of mother and child left me uneasy. 

Serena had two soft-boiled eggs.  She’d asked for hard, but this was as close as it would come.  The first was edible, the second required a straw to do anything with it. 

And Yoonhi had pancakes banana honey.  This sounded presentable, but when it arrived, it was clearly that.  A pancake with diced raw bananas on top, and a little dish of honey on the side. 

Alright, it’s my own fault.  If you’re in Laos, and go into a place that’s main draw is “we have Indian cuisine” then you have some issues to work out. 

However, my coffee did come with a sachet of sugar that informed me that it was “for the good times”. 

From there we arrived at the backside of the National Museum, once the royal palace for the unfortunate monarchy of Laos.  We’d taken in the thriving charcoal sales under way, and watched a vigorous bout of boules.   There was a monkey chained to his cage, and dogs under foot.  There were even a few cars about. 

We tried to enter the Palace grounds, but the gate was shut just as we walked up the steps.  We’d missed the morning opening, it would seem. After the museum, we strolled the river, passing a promising wine bar and several other venues that looked to be worth our while.   

We also found the sign for L’Elephant. When I’d asked about dining here, this was the one restaurant that everyone had been recommending.  We popped up the one block to check it out, and found a very colonial French bistro set out on the rounded corner of the building.  Around the corner from there was The Tamarind, which had also received some good reviews. 

We returned to the river, making our way up the peninsula.   We arrived at the Nam Khan and from there rolled around the point of the city.  The kids were asking where the main road was, and I had to explain to them that there are only three roads.  

If you wanted to, you could consider the streets of Luang Prabang to be an integral part of the food processing industry.  You’re always tripping over things that have been put out to dry, such as meats, or river weed, or just about anything.

In this case, we found racks of rice cakes out soaking up the sun; the sticky rice giving up the meager moisture it had put away.

Around the corner we found both The Apsara and our appetites.  This was a happy occasion.  The dining room was very nicely done up in Indochine chic moderne, and the staff quite professional.  Yoonhi and I each ordered a glass of chardonnay, settled the children with fresh lime sodas, and then looked to the menu.

The baguettes in Luang Prabang while arguably not quite as good as in Phnom Penh, are still very attractive.   And the idea of stuffing one with home smoked ham and imported Emmenthal cheese is very attractive.  The kids go for this.  Yoonhi ordered a salad of watercress, and a dish of fried rice noodle with pork, and I cannot let pass the caramelized onion tart with pesto, with a carrot, coconut, and lemon grass soup to start.

The baguettes were as promised; the dough just pully enough, with a good crisp to the outside that had Scud sounding like a crocodile working a thighbone.  The tomatoes were fresh, and the ham was wonderful.  I purloined half of Serena’s sandwich in order to preserve her figure.  The things I do for the children……

My soup arrived, and I quite like how the coconut has lifted a bit of the heaviness out of the carrots, and the lemon grass gives both a pleasant smell and a contrast in texture as you crunch through.

Yoonhi’s watercress salad came Lao style, with eggs, mushrooms, peanuts and tomatoes, and with a dressing that had a soft but tangy flavour.

Her noodles were good, a little on the wet side, but my tart was wonderful, bleeding out brown juice with every stab it took from my fork.  The pesto was almost a chutney, and went well with the softness of the tart.

Dessert: homemade vanilla ice cream for Serena; coconut ice cream for Scud, and a fantastic vanilla coconut pannacotta with spiced pineapple sauce for Yoonhi.  

I had a beer Lao, but sniped at every one else’s food.  The pannacotta in particular is a very, very nice dessert.  Overwhelmingly rich with the coconut and cream, and set off by the chunky tartness of the pineapple sauce.

With all of that under our belts, it was time for some more walking.  Our kids hate walking.  I figure this is a good way to teach them to think about what they ask for.  Scud and Serena had had this big thing about finding a book store called  l’Etranger (next to the Hive) for which cards had been pushed into our hands the night before.  At least someone here understands marketing.  Anyways, we’d now got the kids on the equivalent  of the Bataan death march.  We came out of the peninsula, up the Nam Khen, and then drove up into the backside of Pouxi, where we found the Hive (which advertises itself as “next door to l’Etranger bookstore”) and the bookstore, and found that this isn’t quite what our kids were looking for; more of a café and lending library than a bookstore proper.

To which I say “Bo bpen nyang”  - which is the most important Lao phrase you can know.  It translates across a wide range of things, from “you’re welcome” to “it’s okay” to “please don’t worry yourself” to “stuff happens”.  Use this in Bangkok, as I do from habit, and find yourself laughed at as a farang baan nok, which is sort of like saying you’re getting in touch with your inner Appalachian.

Anyways, we did the circuit, made it back to our guest house, and started to think about dinner. We had an elephant on our minds.

L’Elephant (evening December 28th)

We arrived in trepidation.  They had to check to see if they could fit us in.  Luckily, they could.  I was shocked.  Reservations required in Luang Prabang?  What was the world coming to?  (Pay no attention to the picture above, I went back later in the trip for these shots in order not to bother the diners). Considering what it must take to run an establishment like this here, saying that L’Elephant is quite good is probably something far beyond an understatement.

Consider a stereotypical French colonial bistro.  It would exist on the rounded corner of a block of buildings.  There would be a verandah.  Due to the cold, the verandah would be covered with bamboo shutters, and tasteful fabrics draped down to cover. There would be a bar (but of course) and it would take centre place in the establishment, buttressing one of the main walls. 

There would be well traveled wood floors, there would be appropriate lighting, there would be  a ceiling whose fans would even be beyond the reach of the NBA, and there would be, beyond all else, a sense of community and, well….graciousness.

I liked L’Elephant.

We took our seats, and considered the menu.  Between the whites and reds, there must be eight or more choices by the glass.  The cellar is limited, but within reasonable reach of us working class stiffs (stop choking, you lot!).  The generic Mouton Cadet  2003 was only $25, so I ordered one of those to keep us busy.  Scud went for a virgin coloda, and Serena, the trend setter she is, had a cup of hot Ovaltine, which she devoured with a spoon.

While Gallic in nature, the table comes with very Lao touches.  A small note suggests “you feel cold?  Ask your waiter for a shawl”  Mind you, they’ve thoughtfully placed strategic coal braziers about the place to ensure that the chill never settles in the room. 

So, what about the menu?  Our order: 

1 dozen Escargot de Bourgogne (we’re the sort of a family that likes snails)


Cappellini A la Tomate et au Basalic


Mixed vegetable salad with Roquefort cream dressing.


Roasted filet mignon of pork with fresh thyme served with pan fried local mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes. 

Onion soup with Swiss ementhal.

Raw tartare (there’s a redundancy there) of buffalo, served with French fries and green salad.

Roasted duck breast with moh tau sauce and grand Marniere served with dauphinois gratin and vegetables in butter. 

This sounds too good, and Yoonhi and I bypass our usual variety of dishes to order this for both of us. Scud wanted to order the sanglier,  a fricassee of wild boar served with a Luang Prabang sauce, but found that the boar had just served its last customer, and he was left with alternate choices.  He went instead with the buffalo filet served with a garlic butter.  Myself, I would of taken their suggestion of venison as a quick switch for the boar, but it wasn’t my meal. 

Outside the drapes and bamboo, we could see the Christmas lights sparkling.  We see people turned aside now, as the seating is all taken.  Panic sets in!  Are we too late to book for New Year’s?  

At first, it seems, we are.   But then l’hostesse returned and advisesd us that she’d been negligent.  We can, of course, forgive such petty sins.  She has a table for us for the 31st.  I’d seen the menu, and was already in a state of aroused passion.  Corkage is allowed, and it’ll be pleasant to bring our own champagnes to the dinner

The onion soup is, for me perfect.  Serena objects to the presence of bread in her soup, and I roundly berate her for the barbarian she is.  Scud quietly destroyed his bowl.

The escargot arrived (sans shells), and were in turn demolished by the family.  Serena accounted for four of the twelve, myself only for four.  I must admit, I’m more interested in the garlic oil juice that rests in the cup (no shells here) as an object for dressing a good piece of bread, and the bread here is very good.  But Serena anoints these as the best she’s ever had, and even Yoonhi admits that she may be correct.

My tartare was very good; succulent.  I’ve had better, but not often.   And at Laos prices, I would not complain.  The meat was knife cut, rather than ground, and was liberally laced with cognac, capers, shallots, and all the good things that make life enjoyable.

Yoonhi was caught out a little by her salad.  It was very good, but came with a vinaigrette rather than a creamy Roquefort as advertised.  Good, but not as expected.

Scud’s buffalo was very pleasant.  Quite gamey, as they advised, but still good, and well balance with the garlic butter.  A not-quite classic steak frites.

The duck comes, dotted with squeeze bottle dabs of bright green basil oil.  I find the first bit a little tough, but that’s the only one.  The rest is just right (as Yoonhi affirms), with a good background sauce.  The potatos - the dauphinois gratin – were good enough for me to raid Yoonhi’s plate when she was distracted.

Even Serena’s pasta dish is very good for what it is. 

And the final test….dessert.  Scud orders tiramisu.  This is something done well, or not at all.  In North America, Yoonhi’s pretty much given up on ordering this.  And Scud had come back from the walking trip in Tuscany with very clear ideas of what a good dessert should be. Everyone approved. Serena, adventurous as always, went for vanilla ice cream.  But when you have home made ice cream, it’s hard to go wrong.  Yoonhi went for a jackfruit sorbet.  A wise choice, and one bourn out by the smoothness of the dessert.  Very well done.

As a comment, someone is doing a good business in homemade ice creams in LP.  We noted the same flavours throughout the town, which hints at a central source, but one we never tracked down. 

Myself, I had a Lao espresso, with a good crema, accompanied by an Armagnac du Busca, the fumes of the spirit sitting nicely upon the fullness of the coffee.

Not a bad evening.    And topped off  quite nicely by a chocolate crepe on the way home.

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December 29th morning

Getting my family out of bed before nine was becoming a task.

Scud and I needed to be at school.  We had signed up for Tum Tum Cheng’s cooking class and needed to be there by 8:30 to start. So, I decided this called for a 7:15 wake up for the boy and I.  This would give him enough time to get his door open. We were about 25 minutes early, our breath hanging in front of our faces, fog on the Mekong.  Luckily, they had coffee ready to take away the chill and to while away the time.

Chandra is the founder of the Tum Tum empire, which consists of the restaurant, cooking school, the other restaurant we were at earlier, and his Hungarian wife Lisa’s boutique, where she’s working gothic styles with Lao materials.   I may have missed a few other shops.  It seems very much the thing here to branch out into a number of options as shops come available.  Spa Garden must have three or four outlets (two on Rue Sakharine at least, and the one back near L’Elephant, which itself also covers The 3 Nagas, and Mango.

As we thought over these matters, we watched the school kids work their way down the street, cleaning up the trash from the night before.  Imagine what places like Cairo or Mumbai would look like if we could convince the children there to police the streets every day?

I spent my time working through my copy of Phia Singh’s book, thinking on which recipes to work with.  Then, by 8:30, the entire class was assembled; the boy and I; a couple from Colorado; a pleasant Australian from Melbourne; and an Hungarian from Holland.  In all, an interesting mix.  The Australian, in particular, is working his way through this Asia trip cooking school by cooking school, hitting as many venues as he can find.

8:30 comes and goes, and by a little after 9, things are ready to begin.  I notice on the board in front of the restaurant does state “class starts 9:00 A.M.”  A famous Lao saying I have to remind myself of, “Time is plastic”. 

Our choice of recipes covered six dishes, of which I could locate four of them in Phia Singh’s book.  Or Lam – the typical dish of Luang Prabang; a rich stew of buffalo (recipe # 23).  Stuffed lemon grass and stuffed bamboo – a farci, and one of those things that always distressed me when I try to do them (recipe #53B).   Chicken with red chili (recipe #87).  Laab kai –(cooked) minced chicken salad (recipe #92).  And fried rice salad and fried tofu curry with vegetable, which I could not locate in the book.

By 9:30 we were on the way to the market in the care of Phut, who advised us that he will not be cooking, but rather escorting us for a tour, as the food has already been bought.   Our tour will take in the Pho Sy market, out on the west side of town.  The old main market just below Mt. Pouxi is closed off, and something much more modern is being constructed behind raised walls.  Pity, as I liked the old market, with its dark passageways and bales of marijuana.  It reminded me of the Russian Market in Penh.

The market is as one expects, a wonderful mix of fresh greens, fruits, and dead animal bits. 

I note down the “spicey wood”- sak khan - which is used as a substitute for chilis to add heat to the dishes.  There’re beautiful der ry mushrooms.  I mistack the bpai il eua for bpai cham ploo (betel leaves), which had me excited for a few moments, as I can never find these in Bangkok (at least not where I shop.  I get called old fashioned for mentioning them). 

The knobby water cucumbers look good, and the Siamese coriander is interesting, long barbed blades on an elongated leaf.  The sopadillas are in season, as are the strawberries, and the grapes are huge, the size of my big toe (which isn’t a pretty comparison to make, but it’s what’s afoot). 

The meat and offal would make Anthony Bourdain very happy.

There are bright red cubes of buffalo blood…..in ’93, a topic with my guide had been the high cost of congealed chicken blood.  This was a particularly good accompaniment to lao lao (the local spirits…the kind you drink, that is) and was held in high esteem.  The problem was that the merchants would only sell it in units of one chicken, rather than portioning it out.  “Why can’t they just sell us the part we want, and keep the rest for the next day?”  I demurred. 

But, back to the tour, we had bristly tripe, amputated  hooves, jawbones, hearts, lungs, spleens, and most of the other makings of a good zombie movie.

And then there’s some game.  The dried dachau-like corpses of bats.  A large swamp rat, the size of my thigh (but lacking the meat and fat) stretched out alongside some off-looking stripped down birds (Phia Sing, when he talks of quail, recommends keeping them until they go slightly moldy).  And then there are other fowl still in their bright green plumage, the makings of nok noi, a delightful dish of small birds I’d seen before in Hanoi.

If you like markets, this is a place where you’ll have some fun.  My earlier trips were coming back to me, but I was still continually surprised at the extent to which the Lao could find something of value in anything.  If it had a leaf, it was there in the market.  If it had moved at some point, it was there in the market.  Heck, if there was the slightest question whatsoever, it was going to turn up in the market.

If I’d had my wits about me, I would’ve bought more at this time.  As was, I came away with some of the river weed and some of the sak khan.

On the down side, it turned out that our needs for the day’s cooking were all in hand back at the school, so we didn’t get to work at picking out the goods themselves.  I can appreciate, though, that this was pretty much the way it had to be if we were going to be done before dark.

So, we were headed back to the classroom.

December 29th – class time

We returned to the school, and found that Chandra wasn’t in the kitchen today; Linda would be taking the class. I had no complaints, as her English proved to be very competent, and her teaching skills quite good. Likewise, whereas Chandra is from the South, she’d grown up in Luang Prabang (and had studied to be an accountant). She’s been with Tum Tum Cheng since it opened in 2001.

As we sat down at the concrete table, the chill removed by cushions of big-eyed puppies (c’mon! This is a town with a main street that sounds like “saccharine”!) rice cakes were ready for us, with a tamarind paste to give them a good, sour contrast. These were just like the ones we’d seen drying outside the day before. As Linda tells us, these are the leftovers – uneaten sticky rice (khao niao) which is touched up with salt, and then worked into patties and left to dry in the sun for a day or two. This will dessicate them to the point where they will crisp when deep fried, otherwise the khao niao will never fry properly.

Linda then gave us a bit of a talk on the table manners of the Lao. Again, this is very much from the book.

In general, being old, I win out. In Laos, it is always eldest first, so, in this crowd at least, I’m getting mine before anyone else. Scud goes last. Serving drinks is a little different. The server takes the first shot, not letting the cup touch his lips. Then the eldest is served next. Everyone sits on the floor, the food being served (as in the North of Thailand) on a large bamboo tray, food taken by hand – except for a spoon for the soups – using balls of sticky rice to mop things up. Niceties out of the way, we move on to the actual business of making food. For a Lao meal, the major effort is the prep, the meez. This will take up two to four hours of your day before the actual 20 to 30 minutes of cooking. And that 20 to 30 minutes is important, as the food is meant to be eaten very fresh. For the salads, the dressing will change taste in ten minutes, so it’s important that the food come quickly to the table. This demand for freshness requires that a Lao kitchen will have a large work crew, with the aim being to bring all the dishes on the table at the same time.

For the restaurants, about 60% of the food is coming direct from the gardens (farms). If this was a home-cooked meal, that would be 60 to 70% from the jungle. I’d noticed this before when in Laos, the housewives checking anything green on the way home, and stripping the bushes when they find something with the right smell and taste.

The restaurants do tend to tone things down a bit. A pity, as I see nothing wrong with hot and bitter (I’ll make no wife jokes, I swear). For heat, there’s the spicey wood I’d mentioned before, as well as the liberal selection of chili peppers that one expects. And then the peppers, both peppercorns and the Szechuan pepper. This this is the divide in Lao cooking; hot and cool, the two balancing the dishes.

The three requirements, the Lao trinity, are galangal, lemon grass, and kaffir lime leaves. The cuisine will change as you move around the country, but these three will remain constant.

The galangal is either jullienned for eating, or else cut thick lengthwise for flavouring. The lemon grass is bottomed and thin sliced up through the white for eating and flavour, and then tamped and rough cut for flavouring and scent through the greens (but not eaten). And the lime leaves can be either dropped in whole for general flavours, or else julienned by removing from the central stem and then rolled and sliced thin, this later approach for when they’re too be eaten.

As you look around the region you see the Vietnamese not fitting into this schema at all (which makes sense considering the migration routes, but that’s another story); Cambodia being similar, but using a lot more fish sauce; the Thai are schizophrenic, with a distinct split between the North (Lanna) and Northeast(Isaan), and what the Lao call the South, but what is really central Thailand. I suppose this is pretty close to the Western Canadian concept of Ontario as the East. The real South of Thailand, down the peninsula, isn’t touched upon at all, which makes sense again on ethnic grounds.

A bit of history. Lanna and the Northern cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Saen, Lampun, et al, are tightly linked through royal ties and a shared history, so you see food culture traveling between the two regions quite easily. Isaan is a more direct linkage, with the bulk of the Lao population being moved into the Thai orbit with the destruction of the Lan Xan Kingdom in 1828. At the present time (as is often pointed out) there are more Lao speakers in Thailand than in Laos. And to this day they’d been providing most of the cheap labour, although they’re now being displaced by Burmese and Khmer as Thai standards of living creep higher.

If there’s a national dish in Laos, it’s tam mahaan, (som tam in Thai) - Papaya salad. But the Lao will also do this with cucumbers – skin on – as an alternative to the papaya. Or you could use carrots, cabbage, and/or long beans. The long beans are taken raw or cooked, in contrast to the normal green beans always taken cooked. I can bear witness to the wide variety of this dish. In Udorn back in the 90’s the place across the street from our hotel had over a dozen versions available, with lots of cold beer. We worked our way through them, and they worked their way through us.

Bamboo, like chilis, comes in many guises. But all should be boiled for one hour before cooking, and others shouldn’t be eaten no matter what. How to tell the difference is not something we dwelled upon. Lime and lemon are the same thing to the Lao, with tamarind often being used as an alternative to give the sour contrast. There are four types of basil in use. Spicy, from the jungle; minty, from the jungle; sweet (or Holy) from the garden; or a fourth, with little yellow flowers, with a bit of spice, found in the jungle. Tomatoes are commonly used; both the big sweet ones and the small sour ones. Purists rail against the introduction of the tomato to South East Asian cuisine, but just try to separate any of these people from their little red darlings. It’ll probably cost you an arm.

Morning glory comes in two types; green and small from the garden, or big and purple from the water. Mushrooms always take a special place in my heart, and Luang Prabang has beautiful fungi. Mouse ears are used heavily, as are oysters, and a huge number of others. And then there are eggplants, more than ten kinds; from the big purple aubergine we’re used to, to the tiny bitter pea-like things we find in Thai curries down south. The small purple ones – the size of a large marble – can be eaten raw, and are often served cut in half with sticky rice, while the others are all cooked. After this morning’s tour, the group had pretty much decided that if you can’t identify something, call it an eggplant.

And then there’s rice; your sticky or your steamed. The Lao grow this “dry” in the country, and there are 10 different kinds. With a three month cultivation, and a 1 kg for 9 to 10 people ratio, this can meet the food needs of a large population.

The Lao, however, don’t have a large population, and much prefer sticky rice, which takes a lot of water and 6 to 7 months to harvest. As it doesn’t expand very well, 1 kg will only feed around 4 to 5 people. It comes here in over 30 different varieties, with a host of colours.

The rice needs to be soaked for about 4 hours if it’s less than a year old. In foreign climes it’s likely it’ll be older, and would require 7 hours if it was two to three years old. It’s rinsed two or three times, and then steamed with a bamboo cover to trap in the moisture. Turn it once, steam ten more minutes, and you’re ready to put it into those cute bamboo containers to keep it moist. If it’s left out it’ll only keep for 30 minutes, so wrap it up if you don’t have the bamboo containers.

Sticky rice is only cooked twice a day. First in the morning, so that it will be ready for the monks when they make their rounds, and then for the evening meal. It doesn’t get reheated, as this can lead to stomach problems, so at the restaurant they’re constantly getting complaints from the tourists about how the rice is cold.

Given what I’ve seen in the markets, I asked if there were any restrictions on what was eaten. The answer is, basically, no. But, a lot of people have personal limits, and it’s rare to see dogs or cats eaten……and I haven’t seen a Macdonald’s here (but I think that may be more of a commercial thing, to be fair to the Golden Arches).

And thus endeth the lesson.

They’d already prepped everything for us, but took us through the exercise of cleaver prepping the meez. The galangal is enough to qualify as a work out, and we were looking around to see who’d be the first to lose a finger as we bore down on the roots. I find it’s not too difficult if you bring the weight down from your shoulders and hips, but then I probably weigh the equivalent of three Lao.

After an enthusiastic mauling of the galangal, lemon grass, eggplants, and some other items, we moved over to the stoves, of which there were four, each set over a charcoal brazier. At this point we went over the choices of seasonings.

I’m of two minds concerning this part of the course. They’re using a lot of bottled sauces, mostly of Thai origin. However, all the shop kitchens I’ve passed by have had copious bottles of stuff on the shelves, so it’s probably fair to say that this represents the “urban” side of Lao cooking (as urban as Laos gets).

One thing I do notice is that they’re making more use here of nam paa rather than the traditional padek, a chunky mix of fermented fish. However, they find the use of nam paa imparts a smell, so they’ll almost always cut it with lime juice at a 1:2 ratio (lime to nam paa) to change the smell. This makes the traditional base of much of the dressings for their salads, and, as mentioned, must go in just before the salad is served, so that the flavours don’t have too much time to change.

Their preference for oyster sauce is the Thai, which comes across a little tangier than the Chinese. Soy bean paste is used quite a bit, and both white and black soy. Regarding oils, even though you get a hotter cook from peanut oil, they avoid it due to the flavour. Sunflower is generally preferred, which makes sense, thinking back on the fields of sunflowers to the East on the Plain of Jars. Curries, so dear to the the Central Thais, isn’t much used. Only the yellow curry powder is to be seen, none of the greens and reds of a Siamese kitchen.

We begin with a couple of extra bits. First, we start preparing some rice powder. Sticky rice is dry toasted in a wok until browned, then a kaffir lime leaf and the greens of some lemon grass is tossed in for another few minutes to get the smell. Once done, it’s allowed to cool, the leaves and stalks are removed, and then the rice is pounded down and then set aside. This will keep for a few weeks if needed.

The river weed “crackers” are prepped with a quick wash in hot oil (about 2 seconds), after which they’re put in a colander to drain. We did up a few of these, served them with peanuts and the whites of some lemon grass, and had a good (if somewhat greasy) snack as we approached the next dish.

As a fast dish, they go through a chicken, tofu, and morning glory dish. First, the basics – ginger, garlic, shallots, chili. All of these go into the oil. Then some sugar, to counter the “hot”. Then morning glory goes in, with some soy bean paste and oyster sauce. Linda also recommends some green apple here, if you want, to make an interesting backdrop. Then add some white soy sauce (thinner than black) and some water.

In a parallel wok…..now there’s an engineer’s description. Running your woks in series or in parallel…..cook up the chicken in oil, then remove the chicken and introduce garlic, shallots, and ginger to the wok, adding water and oyster sauce once the aromas open up. Then some cornstarch to thicken, and a bit of nam paa and lime juice at the very last to the sauce. Bed the chicken on top of the morning glory, and then pour the sauce on top of everything.

This dish is portioned out and eaten quickly. It’s in part to show a “fast” Lao dish for unexpected guests, and also in part to stave off our hunger pangs. With this some Lao fruit liqueur is served up. This isn’t the dreaded Lao Lao, the white spirit of the Mekong, but rather a fermented “punch”, something my Lao friends back home had done up from old recipes, allowing fruits and stuff to sit and ferment, and then bottling them up. This one, a red sticky rice drink, was sweet and thick, with a couple of pieces of ice in it to drop the aromatics. Not bad, and, in the interest of young Scud’s tender years, I drink his for him.

My station is the stuffed foods – the lemon grass and bamboo shoots. The method is to slice open the middle of the bamboo and lemon grass stalks in thin cuts, and then accordion them, creating a cage within which to stuff the mince. The mince itself is a mix of diced pork, shallots, garlic, nam paa, pepper, and sugar, all squeezed out and on the verge of disgusting feeling in my hands. I took the birdcage apparatus that I’d created, and rolled it first in flour, then in egg yolks, and then in breadcrumbs. Now my hands were well beyond the verge of disgusting feeling.

Against the traditional method, the only difference of note is that Phia Sing would have grilled the mince in banana leaves prior to stuffing (as my friend said “burnt food”).

Scud’s working on the fried rice salad, composed of cooled long grain rice (old rice is not used for this), minced pork, shallots, garlic, chili powder, and egg yolks to help bind. They make a lot of use of powdered chicken stock here, added dry for salt and background flavour. Again, I wonder about the traditional element, but if it works, it works. The finished mush is then rolled up into balls, and the balls are transferred to the oil for frying.

Meanwhile, the laab of minced chicken is being prepped. This’ll be cooked, as opposed to laab dip, which is a different, raw preparation which relies on a light ceviching (and an iron digestive track) to avoid some of the unpleasantries that can occur. Along with the liver flukes in the padek, this probably killed off more CIA operatives in the Secret War than did the Vietnamese.

The chicken is prepared similar to the fried rice; the mass of minced meat being mixed up with pepper, salt, sugar, oyster sauce, and white soy. This is then rolled in flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs as was the case with my stuffed items. I’m interested in this method of frying; rolling the items into balls first. Linda explains that this will give differing contrasts in texture, from the crisp elements from the outside through to the softer, almost rare parts in the middle. The items are fried at a low heat, carefully rolled over to make certain that all of the exterior is evenly browned.

Once cooked through, the balls (rice or chicken) are broken open, allowed to cool a bit, and then “smashed”. The separated material is then mixed in with the herbs; lemon grass, galangal, spring onion, coriander, shallots, chilis, banana blossom, and rice powder for the laab gai, and lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, spring onions, long beans, chilis, mint,and peanuts for the fried rice salad - and then doused with the dressing.

For the fried rice salad, the dressing is 2 tbsp of nam paa, 1 tsp of sugar, 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of soy bean paste, and 4 tbsp of lime juice.

The laab gai is a more standard 3 tbsp of nam paa, 4 tbsp of lime juice, 1 tsp of salt, and 1/2 a tsp of Knorr’s chicken stock. Good old Knorr’s!

So, how far from the traditional is all of this? Checking back to Phia Sing, he would add a kheung lap with the minced chicken before cooking – a pounded mix of bitter eggplants, roasted garlic, seared shallots, galangal, and chilis grilled until brittle. Some or padek is added for salt, this being a reduction of padek in water which is boiled down to almost dry, bones removed, and then reconstituted. Ideally, this dish should be served with a sour soup and eggplants. However, I should qualify this. It is almost impossible to find any two Lao who will ever agree 100% on recipes for traditional dishes. It just comes down to what looks good at the moment.

The chicken with coconut cream was getting put together over on another wok. Onions, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal were fried in a couple of tablespoons of oil until golden (with a touch of sugar), and then the chicken pieces were added and messed around for a minute or so before adding a half cup of coconut milk to cover the chicken, and then chili powder, and oyster and fish sauces. This cooked for a bit, and then they came back and tossed in a selection of vegetables, the potatoes being the check point of when the whole thing is done (and acting to thicken things a bit). At the very end another half cup of coconut milk is added, along with some lime juice and a big handful of basil, which I can still smell when I close my eyes.

Again, comparing to Phia Sing, he would’ve cooked the chicken first in the coconut with onions, and then added the flavours after the chicken was cooked. The approach here, more like what William Ledeuil is doing at Ze Kitchen in Paris, infuses the flavours in the oil at the beginning, and gives a more developed, though not as fresh, flavour.

The Or Lam was a recipe I was particularly interested in. The Lao version of the pot au feu. Not only did it address my need for slow cooked meats, but it utilized the spicy wood – Sak khan – that I’d been interested in.

The method here was perhaps too simple. The meat was boiled for about 20 minutes, and then pounded eggplant, grilled chilis (green and red), and the sak khan were dropped in, and allowed to boil for another 10 minutes. Then it was flavoured with nam paa, chicken stock, and a touch more salt, before handfuls of dill, basil, and crispy pork skin were tossed in.

This diverged a fair bit from Phia Singh. In his recipe, the meat was boiled (on the bone) from the start with the other ingredients. Then, after an hour, the bones were tossed, and the grilled chilis and the eggplants were removed, then pounded, and then added back to the broth.

The tofu curry was fairly straightforward. Like the chicken, the oil is infused first with lemon grass, galangal, and some yellow curry powder. Then sugar and coconut milk are added to give a broth, seasonings are added, and the various veggies go in, holding back the cauliflower and mushrooms for a bit later in the boil. The tofu goes in at the end, followed by some more coconut cream and some fresh lime juice just before serving. One note I have is that, being bean paste, you don’t use nam paa with this, but rather rely on soy bean paste for the required salt.

And that wrapped up the class for us. We were close to starving at this point, so we moved quickly back to the puppy cushions and tucked in.

The dishes worked well. The tofu curry was somewhat mild, as expected. The chicken could’ve been spicier, but the flavours were a nice blend, so I wouldn’t complain. The stuffed lemongrass and bamboo shoots were very good, although I will warn you that the lemon grass, with its long fibers, is somewhat self-flossing. I’m a sucker for Lao salads, so the laab gai was very good and something I would revisit at home, and the rice salad was probably my favourite dish. The baseball method of frying gives a good range of texture, from the golden crispy external, to the almost underdone in the centre. This was definitely getting reworked in the home kitchen.

The only disappointment was the or lam. This came out too thin, which is to be expected from a short cooking period (only 30 minutes). The meat, like much of Lao meat, wasn’t broken down enough, and the broth was insipid, carrying the spiciness, but lacking a solid depth to fill it out. Obviously, I’d be having to try this again.

Add some sticky rice and a few bottles of beer Lao, and my new friends and I were soon comparing cooking schools and restaurants in the region.

One other comment, which isn’t a real concern, but you should be prepared, you don’t get the recipes for the dishes with the class. These are sold in a separate book for $5. A couple of us bought the book, a 23 page collection of the restaurant’s recipes. If you have Phia Singh’s book, this is a good thing to have, as there’s an interesting story in there about how some of the methods are changing.

But, all good things come to an end. We packed up our odds and ends, and headed out into the busy streets of Luang Prabang.


With Scud and I out of the way, the girls had gone for a foot massage, shampoo, and various other frivolities….for about three hours. They’d lighted upon a place called Pizza Massage, which, quite appropriately, had half the shop given over to a spa, and the other half being a pizza. Their main claim to fame, however, is that they take credit cards. The cash situation was becoming a concern, and something that I would soon have to address.

Credit card signs had also lured Yoonhi into the 3 Nagas’ Mango restaurant, where she had a “perigord” salad whose memory would linger with her for weeks after. Along with the traditional walnuts, it was dressed with a dozen slabs of smoked ham, and an equivalent serving of duck breast. Serena had had a bowl of pumpkin soup which she likewise loved (for all of one afternoon. Her short term memory tends to reset every night). Yoonhi had a main of a duck leg confit with a tomato sauce.

We’d caught up on the riverside, as communications in LP are not all they could be. In all of Laos, for that matter. I’d hoped that my Thai cell would function well enough, but 1-2-call wasn’t tied in with the local network, and Yoonhi and Scud’s Saudi based cells, which work well for texting in Thailand, weren’t of much use here.

So, there we were. Comms shut down, running low (for us) on cash, the wolves veritably at the door! Hence, I was at the Riverside catching up on my notes and drinking more of the wonder amber liquid of the Lao Brewing Company, and enjoying an order of the riverweed crackers.

After some discussion, I set out for the money issue. First I went to the bank, but a sign there advised that they would no longer make cash advances against credit cards. Then I found that most of the tour companies in town will undertake this service, at a charge of 6%. At first I balked, and then reality took over and I realized, even at a 6% surcharge, anything I spent money on here was still a fraction of its value to me. Rationalized in this manner (remember, I had been drinking a lot of beer Lao), the decision was easy. I could breathe (and shop) easier now.

Dinner that night was at Mango. Yoonhi was enthusiastic enough about her lunch that I was eager to see how their fusion menu would work for a larger meal.

For starters Yoonhi and Scud had the camembert quiche, while I ordered the riverweed (dubbed “Mekong seaweed” here) with dried beef chips and roasted sesamed, served over buckwheat noodles and a vinaigrette, and a Lao risotto just to go out on the table somewhere. The mains would be pan fried filet of pork with a confit of lime perfumed tomato for me, salmon in Lao herbs and flowers fried in a brick pastry for Yoonhi, chicken and pork Bucatini with bergamot flavoured coconut milk for Scud, and taggliatelle a la pesto for Serena.

Add on a big jug of the house Gewurtztraminer (which for some reason I found a little on the oily side), and we were ready to eat.

The river weed was nicely dressed up, and the noodles were very good. I would have to say this was more about the homemade noodles than about the weed or beef chips. Still good, but not distinguished. The risotto, while it had a wonderful aroma, suffered, as they'd used the

purple variant of sticky rice, and this doesn't quite work, not giving out enough starch into the mix. The result comes out a little crunchier than I'd hoped.

The salmon was a nice flavour, and Yoonhi quite enjoyed this, although her appetite was waning. My pork was very good, and the lime and other herbs they’d slid in worked well with this dish. Scud’s bucatini struck me as a little too wet, but the boy himself felt that it was okay. And Serena destroyed her tagliatelle before any of us could get an opinion, so we’ll assume it was good.

Armagnacs and ice creams for dessert, and then we headed home. Scud and I had saved room for a walk-by crepe-ing, and then we called it a night (once the staff had opened the door for the boy).

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December 30, 2006

It was December 30th, and pushing a respectable hour of the morning. Breakfast was foe. The verandah outside our guest house was a nicely established breakfast nook; little wooden tables, rickety stools, and bottles of condiments at the ready. Chilis in vinegar; various pastes; fish sauce; and a plastic bin of fried rice cakes, which are sort of the Lao equivalent of pickled eggs. They’re always there on the table, eternal guardians of some lost secret.

I ordered four bowls of pork broth while Yoonhi banged off the walls in the bathroom, Serena skipped about, and Scud fumbled with his door (to the amazement of his fan club, who were gathering around every morning to watch him). By the time the soup was at the table, the family was in place.

I like the foe here. The broth is rich enough to get my tastebuds going, the noodles are always fresh (I see them being delivered), and the greens have slightly different flavours from those of Hanoi. Plus, unlike Vietnam, I’ve never contracted worms from eating pho in Laos.

As we ate we laid out the day’s activities. This took us a while to get settled, as any deviation from the routine of wake up, eat, sleep, massage, and eat more takes cerebral activity that was quickly getting beyond us. The distraction of watching some of the locals take their dog for a drag behind their motorcycle didn’t help.

First up, we headed for Baan Phanom. This Thai Lu village to the east of town was a respectable tuk tuk ride away, so we ditched the kids, as our primary interest was fabric shopping. Our driver was confused about our intentions, and destination. It seems that the area’s been built up as a “site”, with the elephant camp and sundry facilities clustered here. There’s also Henri Mohout’s tomb, but I’d seen that back in ’93. However, he got us to the communal fabric market, and it was a trip down memory lane.

This building is relatively new, having shown up some time between my ’93 and ’97 visits. Fairly clean, metallic, and packed with low wooden platform, which, themselves are packed with Lao ladies and their material. The attitude is much the same, though. It’s dead calm, almost comatose, up to the point where you pull out a wallet and start putting down some baht (or kip, or dollars). Then all the fabric goes up in the air, and your besieged with a clamour of “Monsieur! Monsieur!” The more you buy, the more frantic things become. Just like the old days.

My first trip I was warned that it was an off day, and that there wouldn’t be many people in the co-op, if any. I bought one piece, and a few more people came in. I bought four more, and there was a flurry of activity. By the time I had picked up a dozen pieces, all hell had broken loose. I was told after that they didn’t put much stock in Westerner’s shopping, but would pull out all the stops if the Thai came by, as volume dealers from Chiang Mai will come here to fill their stores. That’s why, then as now, Thai baht are more commonly taken, while in town the almighty dollar has taken over (although you can still get by with baht). Now, as then, the Baan Phanom was quoting in Baht.

Like I say, it’s refreshing to find some things unchanged. “Kind of pathetic”, says Yoonhi.

I got out of there with only about a dozen pieces. The prices were better than in town, and a little more high end than the street market, comparable with the boutiques (which are way more expensive). After this we retrieved our children from the one-eyed babysitter - they were glued to a Lao dubbed version of Ed, Ed, and Eddy – and headed up the river to Pak Ou.

The boat trip to Pak Ou gets on a lot of lists as a “thing to avoid”. Admittedly, while the caves are historically very important – being royal shrines linking Buddhist Laos with its animist/shamanistic river spirit worshipping side – they’re kind of lame, and get downright claustrophobic when you fill them to the brim with boatloads of tourists. But the trip is more about the trip, taking in the Mekong on this rough stretch. And, we had to get the kids out of town at least once.

I haggled for the “last boat”, and then headed up river. As usual, our first stop was the Whiskey Village (maybe I should use the Doors for this segment on the video). It was the same but different. They’re down to one still, and the old guys I used to discuss techniques with are gone. They’ve left the kit to be minded by a kid, who’s claim to fame is his ability to dump a bucket of mash into the barrel.

The town is quite tarted up, though. Lots of “antique” shops, and every other house is selling fabric. There were even a few satellite dishes about.

They were also doing a brisk trade in what is referred to as “stuff in bottles”. It’s not enough to just make moonshine. If you want real good ‘shine, you need to put a snake, or a scorpion, or something into it. Everything imaginable ends up pickled in rotgut…sort of like my liver.

We picked up a gold bedspread for half the price of the night market, and then headed back up river.

Being old, I can reminisce about the things that used to be there. As I watched the whirlpools in the water (a sign of nagas at play), I thought back to the old days. Take the gold miners (or minors, as the case may be). They were gone in ’97, but I remember them from ’93. One of the villages on the West bank was busily digging up the sandbanks of the Mekong, and panning out the gold dust they could find. It was all young girls, and we were told that they were doing this so they could afford to buy the things they’d need if they got married. I offered to buy some of the gold, and then found out they were amalgaming the stuff on the spot over an open fire with quicksilver. I waited upwind.

And I didn’t see the traders. The road to China is in good shape now, but before there was a longtail express that would take traders up to the Chinese border of the Tai enclave of Sip Sawng Panna. The boats would blast past us. In ’97 they were still working their trade, but had picked up a bit of HSE, insisting that passengers wear helmets and life vests. The month before we’d arrived, one of the boats hit a shallow outcrop of rock and killed everyone on board.

Anyways. The cave was as expected. The hike up was good enough exercise, and it does go on for a little bit. But we didn’t dally longer than needed.

Timing was about right when we returned to town. The kids were at that happy point where they’re bored out of their skulls and about to slit our throats. Yoonhi had had about all the scenery she could take, and I found myself parched. This was now pushing late afternoon and I was still without a beer Lao!

This was readily rectified. We stopped at the riverside for ham and cheese baguettes, coffee shakes, Ovaltine, and beer…. a sunset…and what appeared to be the mother of all spiders. Now that we’d eaten, it was obviously time for dinner.

This evening we tried the 3 Nagas restaurant, across the street from the Mango they also run. This was their Lao venue. We were wise enough to have made reservations the night before, as they were quite full up when we arrived. Again, a nice room. Well renovated French colonial (as if there’s any other choice), and I do note that there are a/c vents in the ceiling, which will be important if we’re back for Pimai – the Water Festival – one of these years. Pimai is in April, when temperatures are at their worst.

So, for the details!

We had Saa Moo, a salad of pork and banana blossom. Laap krouaille; minced raw buffalo and bean sprouts. Sai Oua Moo; pork sausages. Kaeng Bpai Champoo (I’m guessing at this one); Betel leaf soup with dried beef. Kranab Pa – grilled river fish stuffed with pork and herbs, wrapped and roasted in a banana leaf.

And we decided to go with the house chardonnay.

They brought out the ubiquitous rice crackers with a tamarind sauce as an amuse bouche. The tamarind stood out very well, the tartness grabbing the front of my mouth.

The laap was well mixed with chilis, and had a great burn to it. And the fried banana blossom worked in with the minced pork is a good idea, one I’ll try at home.

The buffalo was a definite winner. Lots of chilies, and fresh long beans worked in with the bean sprouts and herbs. Far too hot for Serena, but the rest of us loved it.

As I’ve said before, and will say again, I’m quite happy to make a meal just out of the salads of Laos and Thailand.

The sausages were as expected, which is to say they were really, really good. I noticed on the menu that they refer to sai oua as “Luang Prabang” pork sausages. In places in Chiang Mai the menus will refer to these as “Lanna” sausages. Without a side-by-side taste test, it’d be hard to find any major differences in the flavours. Fried sausages in a good tight skin of intestine. Lots of chilies and herbs in with the “material”. It’s another case of the long intertwining of the affairs of the Northern Kingdoms (and one I am happy to study).

The soup was very mild, carrying the smell of the betel nut leaves to some extent, but mainly dominated by the basil. Still, with the heat of the salads, this makes a comforting match, removing some of the heat.

The fish was great. I like kranabs, the burnt smell of the banana leaf just wrapping up through my nose, holding my attention for the unwrapping of the fish inside, liberally salted with galangal, peppers, coriander and basil and pork… Pardon me for a moment. Dessert, for those who indulged, was coconut ice cream with a Lao coffee syrup.

After dinner, it was a chilly walk back down through the night market. I stopped in for a beer with Serena while Yoonhi shopped….okay, I had a beer. Serena had hot chocolate. Scud had forged ahead to wrestle with the door, otherwise we would have shot some pool.

And next door there was a beguiling selection of baked goods we’d been studying for the last few days. Serena and I bought some of the apple and coconut cakes, and took these back to the room to enjoy once Yoonhi rejoined us.

The only glum note to the day, the crepe lady wasn’t there. Business must be good.

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