Luang Prabang, Lao PDR
Baby chicks and goats. Bamboo scaffolding. Happy kids eating shit on bikes. Women gathering river weed from the Khan and Mekong to sell at the market. Leaves bigger than I am. Families cooking their dinner in quiet back alleys. A dissolving of status and borders impossible to find in Thailand.
Leaving this place tomorrow morning. Our guts today said, "Move", and so we must obey.
I'm sad to leave. This place is more magical than I could ever bother trying to convey in words or photographs. The best, most ridiculous, most enriching experiences are—as usual, when life's at its best—the ones I can't even begin to write about, that'll have to be on reserve only for my closest friends, and only in person in the right setting: over a beer or a long drive or food on a subdued night in.
So...I'll talk about the food.
The food. Holy shit. Here, you can experience some of the best and most interesting fine dining for the same price you'd spend on a meal at In'N'Out at home.
For one thing, there's Tamarind, our favorite restaurant [definitely here, and possibly everywhere].
We got dinner there, seated outside, right over the Khan River. Friendly waitstaff excitedly explained all the food to us. Water was served in glass bottles to reduce waste [there is a lot of plastic waste from packaging all over the place here--especially since everyone buys bottled water] and drinks came with bamboo straws that could be washed and reused.
Anyway, we'd gotten a fixed-price meal, which had included:
- Chilean wine and a ginger/lemongrass drink
- A soup with bamboo shoots, pumpkin, mushroom, basil, green onion, aubergines...
- A platter of dishes including local river weed [my new favorite thing], tomato dip, eggplant dip, chili and buffalo skin dip, the best pork sausage I've ever had, buffalo jerky and, of course, a thing of khao niaw [sticky rice]
- Chicken wrapped in lemongrass, local Mekong fish grilled in a banana leaf, served with a tart/herby peanut sauce
- Stir-fried pumpkin with onions, spices, and mint
- Purple sticky rice with coconut meat, amazing Lao cookies that sort of taste like a cross between rice crackers and french toast [colloquially known by Laotians as "cat poo" because that's what they look like], and sweet/sour tamarind sauce
- Local coffee with condensed milk and ground tamarind seed, and smoked green tea
ALL of that...for two people...for a TOTAL of about $30. [Also, it was some of the best food we've had, ever.]
We went back for the "Adventurous Lao" set menu, which you have to book a day in advance and put down a deposit for [because they shop for ingredients at the local market, just for you, that same morning, based on your preferences, allergies, and "how adventurous" you are, and then create a custom menu for your dinner]. They warned us that sometimes the menu might contain bat, or pig blood, or whatever--it all depended on the morning markets. We told them to go nuts.
This was our dinner:
- Bael fruit cinnamon drink and tamarind cooler
- Platter of eleven dishes: sour unripened red plum mash, barbequed plum with chili, rice powder with ginger and sugar, pig skin pork crackers, steamed local bitter greens and mushrooms in herbs and fermented fish sauce, oyster mushrooms in coconut milk, barbecued water bugs with chile [the bug dishes actually wound up being among my favorites, and this one was really fucking spicy], pumpkin leaves, baby jackfruit with long beans, grilled and seasoned river leaves at the banks [this was one of the only things I had trouble with—it tasted more like mud than food], river weed paste with chilis [one of the strangest textures of any food I've had—almost like pudding, but a lot slimier...basically, it's fresh green sludge from the bottom of the river].
- Platter of ten more dishes: fermented fish sauce with chili/lemongrass/eggplant/bamboo [this was the only thing we couldn't stomach], fresh river weed powder with garlic, raw baby ant eggs with herbs [sort of like spicy ceviche?], bamboo worms fried in garlic and kaffir lime, snails with oyster sauce, buffalo and pork meatball, pickled raw fish, a sweet dried pork thing I recognized as one of my favorite Chinese foods when I was a kid [called ro sung in Chinese], barbecued pig brains, pickled raw pork in a banana leaf.
- Grilled pork stuffed in zucchini flowers, and two soups: sour local fish tomato soup [where you ate the whole fish--bones, head, and all], spicy frog soup with chunks of pepper wood [you'd chew the wood without eating it to get the pepper flavor, and the thing basically contained a whole frog, skin and all, in frog broth].
- Six desserts: more purple sticky rice with coconut, more cat poo cookies, these incredible sesame/palm sugar/peanut wedges, pumpkin custard, grilled rice powder and coconut sugar things, and sticky rice banana balls.
- Also, they gave us shots of their own honey lime lao lao, on the house.
We couldn't even come close to finishing, though we tried [minus the fermented fish sauce, everything was actually good as well as interesting]. For BOTH of us, the meal ran $32 total. A custom fucking meal.
Anyway. We'd be there tonight, but they're closed on Sundays.
As is Saffron Cafe on the Mekong side of town, also worth a mention, and also a place we'd be today if it were open: easily some of the best coffee I've ever had. I'm not really into mochas but their Luang Prabang Malt Mocha
The founder, David, an American ex-pat, worked out a deal with some of the local hilltribes who'd been reduced to slash-and-burn agriculture [which is both highly inefficient for those practicing it, and detrimental and unsustainable for the land upon which it's practiced] after their former livelihoods of opium production became outlawed. Since then, the hilltribes have become extremely impoverished [not to mention that they're made a spectacle of by "treks" to their villages so that tourists can photograph them and basically act like they're at a human zoo]. These hilltribes live in areas ideal for coffee production, so basically, David gives them coffee trees, which they cultivate and hand-harvest, and then he buys the beans back from them. The resulting coffee is fantastic.
The street food here is noteworthy, too. Surprising, delicious...and healthy [the only possible criticism I could make against Thai street food is that it left me feeling sick after chronic indulgence]. For instance, today I got a tomato and lemon shake. Gross as it sounds, it was fucking incredible. Lao style sandwiches on baguettes have also become a favorite thing--they're big enough to split between two people, fucking delicious, healthy, and round out at about 10,000 kip [$1.25].
Some of the street vendors are hilarious. The other night, a lady who sold us some noodles kept offering us sips of Beerlao [even before we'd agreed to buy anything] then cleared a space for us to sit down on a foam mat behind her booth. A lot of others make sassy jokes at our expense rather than brownnosing. It feels much less classist here, much more laid back.
Also, the best donuts I've ever had. And they're not at the famous French bakeries in town [we've tried them there, too]—they're on the street, for a fraction of the price.