Luang Prabang is a lovely little town in Laos that is unlike anything we expected to see in one of the world’s poorest counties. Once upon a time, Laos was a French colony and the French colonial legacy is very much alive and well in this little place along the Mekong River. Though it’s most notable in the architecture, you also can’t help but notice that some of the most popular street foods bought and sold are freshly-made baguette sandwiches. Mmmm!
And speaking of surprising food encounters, we had quite a few unique and unexpected eating experiences in our few days there. For instance, just around the corner from our hostel we stumbled upon the welcome oasis that is JoMa Café. Now, JoMa is nothing more than a coffee shop – a traditional, run-of-the mill American-type coffee shop. But please remember, we are in a developing country that didn’t reopen to foreign tourists until 1989. It was pretty remarkable to go in and order a bagel breakfast sandwich and a latte and enjoy life’s little luxuries in air-conditioned comfort while reading the newspaper! Though expensive and far from an authentic cultural experience, we loved our little JoMa Café and found ourselves there most mornings.
To counteract our unadventurous breakfasts, we had some pretty traditional dinners – including at the night market. Luang Prabang’s night market is incredible. Yes, it’s a tourist market and not a local hang-out, but the variety of products and the vibrancy of colors is something to behold. I challenge you to walk through it and not buy something. And Laos is home to non-aggressive salespeople, which was a welcome relief to us after time spent in other countries. From umbrellas, to shoes, to wallets, and artwork – we definitely had to find more room in our backpacks after this spot.
The night market also features amazing eating that entices travelers with such deals as $1 for everything you can fit on your plate. Remarkably we turned that down and opted for Mekong fish-on-a-stick. We wouldn’t have picked it ourselves based on sight, but after being treated to a bite by a friend from the slow boat, we were sold. And we topped that off with these delicious coconut rice cakes that just melt in your mouth.
On another evening away from the night market, we ate some BBQ. Laos-style. This involved a bucket of coals brought to our table, covered with an interesting frying apparatus that allowed for simultaneous cooking of soup, noodles, veggies, egg, and three different kinds of meat! So there we were BBQ-ing our own meal at the table – very unique, and delicious, indeed!
From fancy coffee shops where you least expect them, to fish-on-a-stick that exceeds all expectations, we learned that our presumptions about this quiet little Southeast Asian country were continuously going to be turned upside down.