“You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market gardeners.”
– George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
During my week-long stay in Laos, I was determined to eat as much as possible — I knew little about Laotian food and wanted to taste what the country had to offer. I had heard from friends who had visited years before that some of the food was closer to Thai than Cambodian; either way, I knew I’d enjoy it.
There were some websites that recommended certain local dishes, but it was more difficult to find any that recommended restaurants. As an underdeveloped country in Southeast Asia, I figured Laos was better for street food anyway. And for the most part, I was right.
Searching for Food in Vientiane
The first thing I noticed about Vientiane was that there were a lot of pizza places. I mean there were a lot. Could it be that Laotians like pizza or that there are that many expats in desperate need of a pizza fix? After all the mediocre pizza I’ve tried around Asia, I wasn’t about to try out any of what was on offer in Laos–I wanted the foods I couldn’t get in Taipei (or back home).
Of course, after my journey to get to Laos with my layover in Bangkok, my first stop was a coffee shop. I asked reception at Riverside Palace Hotel for the nearest coffee shop and was directed to what sounded like a long walk in the midday heat. I headed in that direction and found a closer chain coffee shop called Café Sinouk.
Café Sinouk has some decent coffee, and I bought some to bring back to Taipei. It was, however, much more expensive than I expected. I usually bought coffee cheaper at take-away places in Taipei. But I was desperate and wanted my coffee before wandering around to see the sights on my first half-day.
Going in search of food in the early afternoon is not the best idea. Most restaurants are closed post-lunch and even street vendors don’t have much. I was fortunate enough to find a little outdoor restaurant near my hotel — I ordered a light meal of crispy noodles, vegetables, and chicken. It wasn’t anything special, but was good enough to get me out for my long walk to Patuxai. That was probably the worst meal I had in Laos, and it was still pretty good.
Later in the day I found myself still hungry and came across a street vendor cooking food I didn’t recognize. After some research, I think this is khao nom kok, a dessert made from coconut milk and filled with scallions and sometimes meat. It’s basically halved coconut dumpling made on a griddle with the scallions and meat (or possibly other stuff) added in between. It was a little sweet and salty — it was well worth the less than 50 cents I paid for two.
That evening I wandered around the night market, which did not have much in the way of food. I did, however, find an outdoor restaurant on the fringe of the market for a Lao black beer and a small plate of laap, one of the few dishes that I found recommended. Laap is minced meat (could be pork, water buffalo, or chicken, depending on what you order) with a lot of green vegetables and herbs.
It’s a rather light and spicy meal in the heat of Laos. My version had minced chicken in it with basil leaves, chili, and scallions. The sweetness of the basil matches well with the sharp, spicy chili. There were cucumber slices on the side of the plate to help cool off from the spiciness.
The next day on my bike ride around the city, I came across an outdoor organic market — I was surprised that in a developing country such as Laos that there would be a such a market for locals. Of course, I later learned that there’s a lot of organic farming around the country.
Painful and Tasty Lao Food
The following day I found a restaurant similar to the first afternoon’s for lunch and ordered papaya salad, fried spring rolls, and a dragonfruit shake. The waiter asked if it was ok that the papaya salad was spicy, and I said sure — spicy papaya salad sounded refreshing on a hot day. I almost regretted my answer.
The papaya salad was possibly the spiciest thing I have ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot of spicy food. I probably would’ve stopped eating it due to the fire in my mouth, but the flavor was wonderful. I was sweating and crying from the spiciness. I couldn’t taste the spring rolls when they came out. I was thankful for the dragonfruit shake to dull the pain.
Dining on the Mekong
As most of the restaurants around my hotel were of the non-Laotian variety (there were a lot of Indian restaurants), I headed for the nearby night market, which mostly sells clothes. Farther along the Mekong River I found tables and grilled food — it would’ve been a nice view if I could see out into the darkness.
Along the riverfront I wandered past all the restaurants — for lack of a better word because they were just a large grill and plastic tables outside — and drooled over the selection. I contemplated what to eat after all the little snacks I had already eaten. I wanted to eat everything but I knew my eyes were bigger than my stomach.
I settled on grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass and coated in salt because I always enjoy a whole grilled fish. Eating along the river after sunset was the best dining experience I could’ve had — I only wish I had discovered it sooner. It was lively along the Mekong and the aroma from all the grilled food made it better.
The fish I had wasn’t particularly good — certainly not as good as the one I had on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang — but it was a worthwhile introduction to more of Laotian cuisine. I followed up my second dinner with a trip to Laodi Rhum Bar, which was a converted shipping container across the street from the grilled food vendors.
I’m sure there was more that I missed in Vientiane, but I didn’t have a lot of time in the city. On my way back through, I spent more time enjoying the New Year’s Eve festivities before returning to Taipei.