Let’s say you want to plan a trip. (this is a constant state of being for me.)
You decide on your criteria. You want to go somewhere with waterfalls and boat rides, caves, a wild animal refuge, shopping into the wee hours of the night, homemade whisky, skilled artisans, excellent coffee and croissants, opportunities to meditate in spiritual surroundings, great prices, and friendly locals. Where might you go?
How many of you said Laos?
Despite a relatively short visit to Luang Prabang, the ceremonial capital of Laos, I was able to experience all the above. Here’s how it went:
I lost track of how many hours (days!) it took to fly from LA to Taipei to Bangkok to Luang Prabang. But eventually, our travelling group of 3 friends arrived, bleary-eyed, at the tranquil and gorgeous Villa Maly, our home away from home for the next several days. The villa was the former residence of Lao royalty and exudes tranquility and shelter. We are greeted with a welcome platter consisting of hibiscus and
mango juices, crispy slivers of fried banana, Mekong river weed(!), and the most incredible little peanuts – salty and spicy and citrusy and completely addictive. These are served in a charming woven bamboo mini-basket. I could get used to Laos, I think to myself.
Despite our exhaustion, we stroll out into the evening which is when the town comes alive, thanks to the night market. We take in the seemingly endless array of merchandise – herbal teas, spices and Lao coffee beans, woven fabrics, painted coconut shell bowls, cloth purses, T-shirts, harem pants, woodcrafts, lanterns, rugs, scarves, homemade whisky, and “bamboo speakers for smart phones” – that stretches on and on along Sisavangvong Road.
Dining al fresco under a canopy of brightly colored paper lanterns and feasting on flavorful chicken, veggies, and rice, I succumb to this town.
Breakfast the next morning is at the Villa in a sublime outdoor setting. There is a mix of continental offerings (croissants! coffee! freshly-made yogurt!) thanks to the still-pervasive French influence in their former protectorate (Laos was granted independence in 1954) as well as local specialties like dragon fruit, homemade pineapple and papaya jams, and a sweet coconut parcel bundled up in a banana leaf. I had read that the Lao people don’t typically greet one another with the standard “How are you?”, but instead will ask “Have you eaten?”. My kind of place.
After visiting the Royal Palace and several temples (known as wats) replete with
breathtaking golden Buddhas, we round a corner and luck out; here is a traditionally-dressed bride and groom posing for photographs.
We then wind our way outside of town to the magnificent Kyung Si waterfalls.
The force of the original 200 foot waterfall eventually carved into the surrounding landscape and created stunning tiers of water.
Perched on the edge of cascading turquoise pools, we are welcomed by dozens of graceful, purple butterflies and served a tasty picnic lunch of vegetable soup, rice, chicken and peppers, vermicelli with egg and vegetables, pork with vegetables, and tangerines and small sweet bananas.
A short walk at the water’s edge brings us to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary.
I nickname the denizens the “Varsity Bears” because each one sports a genetic white V marking on his/her chest. These lucky creatures were freed from poachers who sell bear bile to those who believe in its medicinal properties. And as if this wasn’t enough to take in on one day, we also visit a remote village where chickens
run underfoot as women weave scarves on very rustic looms (one variety – the denim and cream-colored scarves – turn out to be highly popular) and wooden furniture is being made.
After a necessary caffeine and sugar boost at Joma coffee shop in the town’s center, we take on the night market. It occurs to me that the night market favors the seller, not the buyer- heck, we are exhausted from the heat and all the activity and besides, it’s almost impossible to see merchandise clearly in the dark. But this
doesn’t prevent us from stocking up on mementos and souvenirs. My favorite purchases include local Bael leaf tea, renowned for a multitude of healing properties including gastrointestinal issues, and handmade hair “scrunchies”, sold by an enterprising young Lao girl who, when not selling her wares, sprawls behind her
merchandise and watches Disney films on her electronic device. I also pick up a beautiful embroidered skirt in peacock blue which is a bit large so the seller immediately tailors it for me on the spot (while I wait.. and… go back and purchase more hair ties from Scrunchy Girl).
The next day dawns – again cool in the morning and then warming up considerably as the hours pass by.
We ogle more golden Buddhas, heavily gilded over bronze or wood bases, in yet unvisited temples. The oldest, Wat Visoun, dates back over 500 years to 1512. We also drop in on the royal car museum where a young female attendant passes the time weaving stunning designs on fabric. Next we embark on a long, narrow boat to visit a traditional whisky-making village, high atop the riverbank. As much as we try to follow the heavily-accented explanation of the process, we keep getting distracted by the rows of glass whisky bottles sitting on makeshift wooden shelves right in front of us. There is something large IN those bottles. OH! Each one contains a…wait for it….SNAKE! The Naga, or serpent, is both magical and protective in Lao lore and we see renditions of them frequently.
Just please… not in our food or drink! We decide to forgo the whisky samples and convince ourselves the decision is solely based on the blistering temperatures.
The heat is a bit more bearable on the water and as we continue down the Mekong, we eventually arrive at Pak Ou caves, a holy site.
After balancing across a rickety woven bridge, we ascend steep stairs up into the cave where approximately 4000 (mostly wooden) Buddhas in all shapes and sizes have been placed by the locals over the past hundreds of years. It’s quite a vista from inside the cave shrine as we peer out onto the river, where our longboat awaits.
Gliding along, we arrive at a paper-making village where we encounter monks, protected from the blazing sun by big yellow umbrellas.
They stroll casually through “town” in their saffron robes and occasionally smile or chuckle. There is something magical about watching them and we congratulate ourselves on our good fortune for, at dawn tomorrow, we will be up close with more of these iconic figures.
We dock back in Luang Prabang and as we ascend the formidable hill into town; we are hot, dehydrated, and… hallucinating? Because surely that cannot be….but it is… a group of Lao teenage girls huddled around a boombox which is blasting Pitbull….
It’s going down, I’m yelling timber
You better move, you better dance
Let’s make a night, you won’t remember
I’ll be the one, you won’t forget
Good advice, actually, so we settle into another outdoor restaurant for fried lemongrass stalks.
These are delicious, stuffed with herbs and chicken, and there is also peanutty satay. For dessert, mango crisp pie and coconut ice cream. YES!
We arise at 5am the next morning for a very special treat; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which should also increase our good karma for the afterlife. We get to participate in the daily, 600 year old
Tak Bat ceremony; the distribution of alms (warm sticky rice) to the monks for their morning meal. There is a proper way to do this which includes wearing a white crossbody sash and either kneeling or sitting on a low stool, holding a lidded bamboo basket of the freshly prepared rice. Eye contact (or talking) is not permitted so as the monks appear we keep our heads low as we pinch off balls of rice and drop them into their pails. There is no quality control in play; some monks get a giant wad of rice and others receive a small spoonful worth.
We get a good view of a continuous display of bare brown feet and soon realize that the line moves very quickly. It’s all we can do to keep up (recall the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Ethel are working in the chocolate factory, conveyor belt scene?). We are discouraged from “pre-shaping” rice balls during the interludes as the monks will refuse to eat rice which is not freshly pinched. Eventually we realize that we can’t be perfect and we won’t succeed to fill every single pail; it’s enough just to be in the moment and enjoy the experience. (See —the Buddhism is already having its impact on us!).
We then visit the morning market which features a veritable cornucopia of produce, and also proteins (squirrel for dinner? how about some tiny, quivering shrimp?), fifteen kinds of rice for sale, giant pots of simmering stews, fermented river fish, tantalizingly delicious smells, fresh jackfruit being segmented, and an assault and battery incident. This occurs when I step just a smidge too close to an old woman’s collection of leafy greens and she THWACKS me on the leg with a thick bouquet of hardy lemongrass stalks. Not a pleasing sensation.
The remainder of the day gets spent strolling some lovely “off the beaten path” streets and alleys where colonial Luang Prabang is still intact before we collect our “goodbye” token from the Villa (a festive and colorful charm which is a symbol of good luck and prosperity), bid farewell to this unexpected delight of a town, and take off into the Indochina skies for Siem Reap, Cambodia.
RECIPE: LAO ROASTED PEANUTS
The very first, and thus, most memorable thing I ate while in Laos was the spicy peanuts served upon arrival at the Villa Maly for our “Welcome Treatment”. We encountered similar versions again in Cambodia, but I really wanted to recreate the Laotian dish.
Thanks to Executive Chef Rasika Weerasinghe from the Villa Maly who shared the recipe with me. I’ve adjusted it for US measurements.
Welcome Treatment Recipe: Fried Peanuts
3.5 cups raw peanuts, I used red skinned
3-4 medium to large stalks of lemongrass
1 large head of garlic, peeled and sliced or chopped finely (c. 1/3 cup peeled garlic)
5-6 fresh Kaffir lime leaves, sliced finely. You can find these at Asian grocers, or order from Amazon. You can also substitute grated lime peel from 2 large limes, but it will have a bit of a different flavor profile.
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/2 cup of oil – I use coconut oil. Vegetable, soybean or canola oil are also fine.
To prepare lemongrass, slice off the bulb at the bottom of each stalk. Then, cut off the top 1/3rd of the lemongrass stalks and discard. Now begin to remove several layers of the tough and fibrous outer leaves until you see the soft, yellow center. This is what you want to slice finely and fry. (the tough outside stalks can be used to flavor soups or stews or to boil in tea.)
Place a few layers of paper towels on one large and three small heat-proof plates
- In a frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. It’s ready when a few drops of water tossed in the pan begin to sizzle.
- Fry peanuts in oil, stirring continuously to ensure all cook evenly and thoroughly. This takes approximately 5-7 minutes until they are a light chestnut brown. Don’t let the peanuts turn dark brown as they do continue to cook a bit once off the flame.
- Once peanuts are done cooking, use a slotted spoon to move them onto the big plate/paper towels so they can drain and absorb excess oil. When cool, rub nuts together and skins will slip off. Throw skins away. It’s fine to keep some peanuts with skins still on in the mix.
- Using the same oil you just fried the peanuts in, fry the lemongrass slices in the same manner, stirring constantly. This should take about 5 minutes or until they are light brown.
- Once done, remove, place on paper towels to blot, and continue the process, first with the garlic, then with the kaffir lime leaves (if using lime zest, you can add without frying or choose to fry.) The garlic should take about 2-3 minutes to cook; the leaves 1-2 minutes. Remember to stir constantly.
- While not necessary, I prefer to pulverize the fried lemongrass for a less tough, less fibrous consistency. To do this, pulse fried lemongrass several times in a mini food processor until you have a softer mix.
- Add all the cooked items together with the salt, adjust according to your taste.
Note: I have also seen recipes for these peanuts which can include chiles, curry leaves, shallots, lemon or lime juice, and even a bit of sugar or five spice powder. Experiment to see what taste profile you prefer.