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SE Asia Report Part 3 Laos

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SE Asia Report Part 3 Laos

estufarian | Feb 20, 2004 02:36 PM

Crossed the Mekong from Chiang Khong to HOUIE XAY (Houesai), and everything suddenly slows down. Had lunch at the restaurant right at the dock/border control (just north of the dock). A Buffalo Vermicelli soup and a Chilli dish with 6 different chillis K25,000 ($2.50). Not memorable but quite tasty. Not sure what I found later at street stalls – thought it was small birds, but could have been bat. Evening was at a restaurant overlooking the river at the very north end of town (the one right on the bank which seemed to be accessed alongside another restaurant right next to it; take the road closest to river and turn down the first (only?) side street towards the river, about 1 km from the dock). The only sign said ‘Welcome’. Very fresh ingredients but nothing stood out for me. Tom Yum Soup with Prawns; Beef with Ginger; Whole Fish with Garlic and Limes; French Fries (after all we were now in a French heritage); River Seaweed and Sesame crisps; Stir-fried veggies (including morning glory); Chicken Laap and, of course, Sticky Rice. All respectable but unexciting. But the next morning, baguettes for breakfast – finally some decent bread!

Then down the river to BAK BENG. Another one street town with a just-opened, relatively upscale Indian restaurant (Khop Chai Deau) that has certainly upped the ante for the family restaurants in town. Started with a spectacular Cashew Nut Pakora with a sweet and spicy dip. Not a trace of grease and perfectly crunchy. The rest of the meal didn’t hit these heights and was very tasty, but a tad oily. Aloo Dopiaz (potatoes and onions); ‘Mutton’ Masala (never saw any sheep in Laos, but plenty of goats); Chicken Haryali (boneless chicken kebab with yoghurt, mint and coriander) – the brilliant green coating on the chicken is a bit unsettling at first, but comes naturally from the mint; regular Naan and garlic Roti. Too much food for two but with beer (BeerLao is excellent), soda and rice (non-sticky) K100,000 ($10) – the most expensive place in town.

Lunch on the boat next day (Pork ‘lumps’ with sticky rice and fried rice with pork and veggies) then arrive at LUANG PRABANG. Our couple of days here were extended as the plane we had planned to take out was commandeered by the Government (or so we were told) to ferry delegates to a Tourist convention in Vientiane (great planning – an ASEAN Tourist convention – except the hotel to house the delegates hadn’t been completed so they were flown in daily from Thailand – using the plane we had been scheduled on). But in Lao you just roll with the punches and pop another beer. So, numerous cafes and snacks ended up on the itinerary as we waited for a rescheduled (several times) time to leave. Difficult to direct people to these as names seemed interchangeable. For example we found at least three ‘Luang Prabang Bakery” places – with entirely different menus. Baguette sandwiches are generally excellent and LP was one of the few places that ‘real’ cheese was readily available – at one of the bakery’s I had Ham and Camembert Baguette. The French legacy continues. Found the best coffee at “JoMa Bakery Café – A Division of Healthy and Fresh” which also served a superb warm Apple Croissant and excellent Banana Muffin (also warm). Not cheap (for Lao) at K37,000 for fancy coffee drinks and snacks – but very civilized and takes one’s mind off whether you’ll ever get out of LP and make the next connection. And another highlight was the morning eggs – everything is free-range here and the taste proves it.
The more serious meals came from recommendations. Chowhound, by a very wide margin, recommended Malee – so that was Choice #1. Except it wasn’t (quite) there. In our guide books it was shown on the SW corner of an intersection on Thanon Phu Wao, and described as a stereotypical hole in the wall. But although there was a restaurant just west of the intersection it wasn’t Malee. Nevertheless, on the NW corner was a much newer restaurant ‘Maly’ which seemed to be a hangout for all the local teens (no tourists). It had an extensive menu, but the Chowhound recommendations included descriptions of about 8 different dishes – and none of these were on the menu. We were told later that this is indeed the same owners – for a while they had both restaurants, but had now closed the older one – but can’t guarantee that this info is correct. We stayed and had Steamed Preserved Luang Prabang Fish in Banana leaf with Garlic; Chicken Lao Curry; Sticky Rice and beer. Again, fresh and hot (temperature) but correct rather than inspired. All the music was western – including some Canadian content (Nickelback). Total bill K50,000 ($5) – certainly reasonable but where was the excitement?
Next night at Villa Santi (on Sakkarine Road – not to be confused with the Villa Santi resort which is south of LP) – the most upscale restaurant in LP. Apparently owned by a daughter of the last king (before the Pathet Lao (communist) takeover) and the menu designed and chefs trained by the former Royal Chef. Yumyum had recommended the sausage sampler here – although we were sceptical of sausages after Chiang Mai (see Part 2). But this was amazing. Three different styles of sausage, each with different flavours and textures – a stunning dish. We finally got to try Jiao Bong (the jellied water buffalo skin that everybody raves about) – hadn’t realized until this point that it wasn’t a dish, rather a condiment (which was why it hadn’t been on any menu) – OK it was my first time in Lao. Certainly tasty and spicy – but the aroma returns over the next few days as this passes through the system. Definitely a must try, but I haven’t gone looking for it since I got home! Lao Chicken Stew with Ginger and Coconut Milk – excellent flavours which were subtle yet persistent. Fish paste with Mushroom and Spices – a misleading title as the fish in LP is pounded to a paste then reformed into blocks (or chunks) and steamed in banana leaf. This was the best yet, fragrant, flavourful with a texture contrast from the oyster mushrooms. And the sticky rice here was a revelation. Still sticky – yet light at the same time. And a mixture of at least 3 different kinds – white, black and purple. Probably the most expensive place in town ($33 for two, plus another $10 for a half-litre of wine). But well worth it for the quality we received.
Because of the flight delays we also got to try another upscale restaurant – l’Elephant (on Ban Vat Nong, almost behind Villa Santi) famous locally for its steaks (imported from New Zealand), and which promotes itself as a French restaurant. But this isn’t in the same league as Villa Santi, although the prices are similar. Much more raucous and lively. If you have to have ‘red meat’ by all means give it a try. We had Wild Boar Friccasee on Luang Prabang Mushrooms with Roasted Potatoes (mushrooms excellent, best part of meal); Hot Pumpkin Soup with Coconut Cream; Roasted Quail stuffed with LP mushrooms (very strong gamey flavour); Crème Brulee with Coconut (disaster – best avoided); Tarte Tatin with Apple, Mango and Pineapple – quite good flavours – but not a Tarte Tatin! Total cost with wine around $45 (about same as Villa Santi, but more of a Bistro meal than dining).

Finally a flight out to VIENTIANE, but only 12 hours before our flight to Cambodia, so no time to explore – just find a restaurant that was still open after 10:30pm. Down to the main square by the Nam Phou fountain and the best looking place that was still open was La Cave des Chateaux. Had a couple of croustilles (open faced toasted baguette sandwiches) – comte cheese with apple, and goat cheese with tomato, and a glass of wine each. $16 total – a bit expensive compared to LP, but very tasty. And noted the political incorrectness of the (obviously) French owners; the wife was very pregnant yet chain-smoked and was drinking wine. Aah, the French! Then early the next morning to Cambodia.

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