Exceeded expectations in Laos

August 29, 2017

It’s a short flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, but frankly, I didn’t know what to expect once I landed. Laos has always been an afterthought. I was in Thailand, and though I knew people who’d been to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma, Laos was a blank in my circles. And the more I looked into why that might be, the more I wanted to go.

The landlocked nation has a lot in common with its neighbours, some of whom were part of the same, primarily Laotian conglomerate known as Lan Xang Hom Khao, which delightfully translates as the Empire of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol. But it’s the differences that make it worth visiting.

Take, for instance, the wood I got served for lunch on my first day there.

The dish is called or lam, which my host for lunch, Peter Semone of Lanith (the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality), recommended as typically Laotian. He didn’t say anything about the wood chips — from a woody vine called sakhan — that came liberally sprinkled throughout, so at first, I didn’t say anything either. I thought it was a mistake, like leaving the herb sachet in a soup, and I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. But Semone saw me eating around them, smiled the benevolent smile of an old hand, and told me it was meant to be there, the wood’s chili fragrance being the big attraction to the buffalo and eggplant stew. The other main seasoning was galangal, a Southeast Asian variety of ginger, and the absence of any tamarind or sugar distinguished it from its Thai cousins.

Food in Laos is never sweet, but usually has some astringency to it. It’s not a natural crowd-pleaser, like everything from pad thai to meekrob is. Like Luang Prabang restaurateur Yannick Upravan told The New York Times back in 2005, referring to tourists and the Lao palate, “If they don’t like it, it doesn’t matter. They just have to try.” Which goes some way to explaining the place Laos occupies in the tourism landscape.

Laos' winding Nam Khan River.

Laos' winding Nam Khan River.

Though Luang Prabang is the tourist capital of Laos (the actual capital being Vientiane), the streets are quiet, the cafés — this was once part of Indochine — populated but calm. There are always people, but never crowds. Sitting at an open-air counter diner, ordering whatever looked good or incomprehensible (the tom yam fish was especially good), I saw the occasional tourist — a group of four white guys in their twenties crossing the street toward the Mekong, a European-looking woman and a South Asian man getting into a tuk-tuk with their toddler — but I was the only apparent foreigner eating.

As I sipped my Lao-style coffee — like Vietnamese, with condensed milk on the bottom and coffee poured on top, but with Ovaltine added into the mix — I saw a man with a cart pull up. Since I like men with carts, I paid my bill and went over to see what he was doing. What at first looked like a mobile bar with all the major international brands — I saw Bombay Sapphire and Johnnie Walker Red among them — turned out to be a mobile bar with no international brands, just local moonshine. The bottles stopped with cling wrap rather than caps or corks should have been a tip-off. I ordered one. The man, in a white singlet and loose green work pants, responded with a gesture that obviously meant, “Are you sure? It’s pretty strong, and you probably won’t like it.” I was sure. As I later learned, this was lao lao, a sort of rice whiskey — like sake, but stronger — though unlike many of the world’s moonshines, its strength was not so much aggressive as encouraging. Less nasty punch in the gut, more friendly punch in the shoulder.

It cost 5,000 kip — roughly 75 cents — so I ordered another. It was smooth, genuinely tasty, the best moonshine I’d ever tasted. I don’t know what the alcohol content was, or what other than alcohol may have been in it, but by the time I got to the riverside to board the riverboat I’d reserved a seat on earlier, the twilight felt more golden than it probably was, and the portly sixtysomething German — the only other passenger on the long, covered wooden barge-like boat — seemed a good deal more of a raconteur than he certainly was, having said only hello, giving me his name, and telling me this was his third time in Laos and he quite enjoyed it, all in German.

So I can’t tell you with absolute certainty that, in decades of boarding boats on rivers and in lakes around the world, this was the most languidly majestic, the most soothingly lambent of them all. But it certainly felt like it at the time.

The Mekong river flows through Laos.

The Mekong river flows through Laos.

I awoke early the next morning to see the alms parade, an apparently daily ritual in which Buddhists, mostly local, kneel by the side of the main road while monks in their orange wraps walk by and collect the offerings of food and other useful things — laundry detergent, string, toothpaste — the faithful bring with them by the basketful. This was followed directly by the Luang Prabang Half Marathon, which followed the same route.

I had other adventures in Laos — the tuk-tuk-driver soccer game I was invited to, the feast afterwards, the sky lanterns released into a clear night sky. It was early for Loi Krathong, the annual festival commemorated by the release of paper lanterns onto the river or into the sky, so maybe it was a tourist thing. Or maybe I imagined it: I looked through my nighttime pictures, with the dramatically lit stupa of the 16th-century CE Wat Wisunalat temple, destroyed in 1887 by marauding Chinese fleeing the massive civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion to the north, rebuilt in 1932, and now hosting the moon on its shoulder, its edges softened by air that was humid enough to be very nearly water. No sky lanterns.

Ah well. Imagine sky lanterns floating above a darkened city of 16,000, reflecting in the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers like fireflies, and it won’t be a scintilla prettier than it actually was.

Getting there

Want to experience Laos for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Laos here.

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