It seems funny now, from the cold and snow of Siberia, to think back to our time in Laos. It was only just over a month ago, but it feels like a different world. I know I’ve said this about a few countries recently, but Laos completely stole my heart, in the few short weeks we were there it quickly became one of my very favourite South East Asian countries.
Its a beautifully laid back kind of place. We travelled from the south, starting with the sleepy 4000 islands that dot the Mekong. We stayed on Don Khong island, and were pretty much the only tourists there. We pottered around the island on creaking bicycles, weaving between potholes and children riding to school. We woke up early in the morning, watched the sunrise over the river. Meandering down puddly paths through paddy fields, we followed the local women to the market, live chickens stashed in their handbags, frogs strung in string baskets.
From there we travelled north, exploring Pakse and the coffee making Bolivan Plateau region with its spectacular, breath-taking waterfalls.
Continuing up the country, we explored central Laos on the back of a motorbike, following the Laos loop trail. This was probably my favourite part of the country, stunning karst scenery, curving roads twisting into mountains, rice paddies gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight, and little villages where children splashed and shrieked in the rivers.
I was quite a fan of my pink helmet too!
We stopped briefly in the capital, Vietienne, to witness the start of the celebrations of the boat festival. The city took on a party atmosphere, all along the riverside a carnival was set up. Stalls selling snacks lined the streets, and whole families came out to join in the games. We saw the rowers preparing to race in the back packer pit stop of Vang Vieng, then slowed right down in beautiful, beautiful Luang Prabang. A town made for lazy days, dreamy temple wanderings and evenings spent by the riverside, nibbling from snack vendors and sipping cold beers.
Here we were lucky enough to watch the end of the boat festival. By nightfall the town the streets filled with candles. Large paper boats, lit with candles and lanterns, were paraded through the streets and launched into the Mekong river to take away the bad luck, and usher in good luck for the year. In a temple we watched young monks eagerly light sky lanterns, and send them up into the night.
Of course, another thing we loved about this beautiful country was its delicious food.
Here are my top ten things to eat to Laos!
1. Ping Paa – grilled fish
Ping Paa, or grilled fish, was one of our favourite Laos treats. Whole fish are stuffed with lemon grass, then covered with salt. Cooked on a grill, they stay incredibly moist, gently infused with the lemongrass taste. We never quite managed to find out what type of fish was used, but the flesh was white and deliciously meaty under temptingly crispy skin.
2. Ping Paa – grilled chicken
We also loved Ping Kai, grilled chicken. You wouldn’t have to search too hard to find any part of the chicken you may desire secured on a stick and grilled over a flame.
At every bus stop in Laos you will be greeted by a host of ladies. As the bus slows they’ll push their hands through the window, offering you handfuls of grilled chicken on sticks. This ubiquitous snack is a Laos staple. Whilist the cold roadside offerings may be a good on a long bus ride, the grilled meats you find in the towns are delicious.
Our favourites were the half or whole chicken. Its rare to find chicken so beautifully fresh, tender and juicy.
3. Laap – Laos meat salad
We ate Laap nearly every day. A delicious salad made with ground meat and fresh herbs. The best we tasted was on the Island of Don Khone. We went to a little roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The only other people there were the owners children, home for lunch and tucking into handfuls of sticky rice. We ordered the Laap, and watched as the cook wandered around the garden, picking the herbs for our salad. Of course with the very freshest ingredients the salad was mouthwateringly good.
4. Sticky rice
In Laos most meals come with a basket of sticky rice. To eat the rice you will a ball from the wicker basket with your fingers, roll it around in the palm of your hand, and dunk it into sauce.
Sticky rice wasn’t just to be eaten with meals, it also made an excellent roadside snack, cooked in its own convenient take away packaging.
The rice is cooked in a stick of bamboo. The bamboo layers are peeled away, and the coconut cooked sticky rice is pulled out with your fingers – delicious!
Another way I loved eating sticky rice were in these rice cakes. Left over sticky rice would be dried in the sun, then deep fried until the rice puffed up. Like savoury rice crispy cakes, I stashed a big supply for every bus ride.
5. Noodle Soup
On our motorbike travels food choice was limited. We stopped at to eat at the roadsides. No menus, hardly any english spoken except for ‘soup’? We nodded hungrily.
Noodles were served in a clear, meaty broth. The soups were spinkled with spring onion, and served with a variety of meats, sausage and eggs.
Each bowl was served with a huge pile of leafy veg and herbs to stir into the soup ourselves.
6. Laos coffee
Everyday in Laos started with a Laos coffee.
Deliciously rich coffee, poured over a generous slug of condensed milk. A vigorous stir creates a rich, smooth, sugary coffee.
I’m not a coffee lover, but I couldn’t resist these coffees.
I also tried tea with condensed milk the way the locals drink it, but for me it really doesn’t work! The tea becomes tooth-achingly, sickeningly sweet. A few sips was all I could handle.
7. Laos sandwiches
Another breakfast staple were these delicious Laos style sandwiches. At around 5am, as the sun was just starting to come up, women would set up their baguette stands.
A delicious crust loaf would be spilt in half, then spread with spicy sauces and pates. The sandwiches were filled to the brim with cold meats, cucumber and pickles. Sometimes a fried egg would be added in too. They were meaty, hearty and woke us up with the tingle of spice. The perfect way to start the day!
8. Lemongrass stuffed chicken
My favourite recipe from my cooking course at Tamarind cooking school. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can read more about it here.
Chicken is pounded with herbs and spices, then stuffed into a delicately cut stem of lemon grass. The bulb is dipped in egg, then deep fried. The results are mouth watering. This is defiantly a recipe I’ll be making again once I’m home.
9. Coconut Pancakes
My dream street food, we ate these little pancakes every night we were in Luang Prabang.
Crisp on the outside, but gooey and tender in the middle.
The batter is cooked on a hot griddle, flipped once, then served in little baskets made of banana leaf. I’m going to have to try and recreate the recipe at home.
10. Beer Laos
Of course no post on Laos food would be complete without at least a small nod to our favourite Laos beverage; Beer Laos. The light, tasty beer is a source of national pride.
We drank Beer Laos everyday; sat by the Mekong as the sun went down, sipped through sun burnt lips after a long day on the back of a motorbike, under the glow of candles the night of the festival. Perhaps this is the true taste of Laos!
So there we are, my top ten foods from Laos!
Have you visited Laos? What were your favourite things to eat?