“So, you guys feel also a little too old for Vang Vieng?”
This question comes from one of the few guys our age that Todd and I have seen while tubing in Vang Vieng. We’re at the rare riverside bar where the crowd is made up of 30-somethings like us, instead of the barely legal hordes of Britiots, Billa Bongers, and Vision Questers monopolizing all the other places. Since everyone at this bar is more mature, we’re also more boring – a dozen of us are just laying around under the hot sun drinking cold beer, instead of dancing and drinking buckets of booze.
“Oh, definitely,” we laugh as we make room for Phatthana to lounge with us. A German whose family is originally from Laos, he’s on his way to visit relatives in the town of Luang Prabang, our next stop and his.
“Luang Prabang is beautiful. It’s my favorite place in Laos.” Phatthana declares. “Do you like Laotian food?” We nod. “Then, if you’d like, I can take you to have the best soup in Luang Prabang.”
Eagerly, Todd says, “Well…yeah! That’d be awesome. Let’s make a plan. When should we meet up?”
“Don’t worry. Luang Prabang is a small place. We’ll find each other.”
With this inexact reassurance, Phatthana finishes off his Beer Lao, says goodbye, and strolls down to the riverside to float some more in his tube.
A few days later, Todd and I arrive in Luang Prabang hours late because of a putt-putt of a mini-van ride through northern Laos’ scrappy mountain roads. We’ve had the bad luck to show up not only at twilight, but also during the busy week between Christmas and New Years. On top of that, a few hours ago, the regular oversold boat from Thailand discharged hundreds of hotel-seeking tourists into Luang Prabang.
Over the next two-and-a-half exhausting hours, we find nothing for less than $150 US a night. While Todd hurries, unburdened, to further afar hotels, I wait with our backpacks on a dark sidewalk wondering, “If we don’t find a place, what do we do? Sleep outside somewhere? Damn, Luang Prabang had better be worth this.”
Todd finally finds a hotel that, though clearly in a gouging mood for the holiday season, will do for one night. Relieved and starving, we head into Luang Prabang’s historic old town in search of dinner only to find that prices for food, like hotel rooms, are much higher than reasonable for Southeast Asia. Our dinner of Laotian food is pricey and disappointing. After so many indifferent, or worse, infectious, meals in Vang Vieng, I’m beginning to worry that Luang Prabang will be a foodie disaster too.
Bagels, however, rarely disappoint. The next morning, we discover that Luang Prabang’s UNESCO-endorsed charm has attracted so many foreign tourists and expat residents that Western delicacies like bagels are ubiquitous. No mere bread-rounds, these bagels are worthy bases for an egg, bacon, and cheese sandwich at Jomo Cafe.
Fueled for the day, we wear ourselves out touring Luang Prabang’s sites. At Wat Xieng Thong, a temple complex, we look at cheerfully colored mirrored mosaics depicting jataka, or Buddhist hell. We recharge with hot cups of “half-and-half,” a sludgy mix of equal parts Ovaltine and coffee. We window shop at many fair trade stores that sell locally made silk, paper, and bamboo tchotchkes for more than it costs to buy them at home at Global Exchange.
After a lot of walking, we’re in search of a place to grab a beer and let the sunset over the river color our mood mellow. Nowhere feels right until I spot a few people clustered under a bamboo lean-to that is bathed in the warm late-day sunlight, perfectly placed on a bit of land that juts into the river on the bank opposite Luang Prabang.
At the river’s edge, an old woman with a two-toothed grin sells us tickets for a bamboo bridge that is clearly a family-run and built operation. Our ticket is round-trip, making me a tad more confident that I’ll survive the crossing. Even so emboldened, I make Todd walk far behind me so our combined weight doesn’t collapse the homemade, half-baked structure.
Safely across the river, we find that the lean-to is indeed a very informal bar with a bucket filled with iced down beers and sodas, and mismatched chairs facing a panoramic, misty view of Luang Prabang silhouetted by the sunset. Distracted by the scenery, it’s a full minute before Todd and I realize that one of the other people here is Phatthana, who we last saw floating down the river in a tube in Vang Vieng.
“Hey guys! How are you? Isn’t Luang Prabang great? This is my favorite spot to come for sunset. Have you had any Laotian food yet?”
Todd says “Wow, you weren’t kidding, Phatthana – Luang Prabang is a small town. We’ve been here less than 24 hours and we’ve already found you. Yeah, we had some Laotian food for lunch at Tamarind Restaurant today–”
“Aw, C’maaawhn! Tamarind? That’s not where you should eat! Too expensive. Are you hungry now? You want to go get some dinner? We’ll go for soup.”
We take advantage of the last bit of light to cross back over the bamboo bridge. We’re joined by Juergen, another German who Phatthana just met and made friends with at the sunset point. The four of us walk into the Night Market – a distracting half-mile sprawl of vendors selling Lao-themed “Made In China” bargains. At the western edge of the sidewalk market, Phatthana slips between a table heaped with underwear and another selling fruit smoothies.
Faithfully, we follow Phatthana past the underwear into a narrow alley that’s barely wide enough for the tables that line either side, tables that overflow with heavenly Lao street food, and also groups of tourists and locals eating dinner al fresco.
The alley is a schmorgasboard of Laotian specialties like jeow, spicy dips of tomato, eggplant, greens, or bamboo; miang Lao, little lettuce leaves wrapped around mysterious gobs; sinh savanh, sweet-sour-spicy water buffalo jerky; mounds of white and brown sticky rice; and immense grills turning out whole fish and chicken pieces.
“Here, it’s only for dinner,” Phatthana says.
As we thread our way through the crowd of people in the alley, I say to Todd, “We can eat here every night and never eat the same thing twice!”
“Or we can eat here one night and try everything, then come back and do it again.”
Near the alley’s end, the serendipity of the night continues as we find an open bench right in front of Phatthana’s favorite soup vendor. He orders four bowls of off-menu soup, made special with a grilled chicken breast sliced into the soup instead of the usual shredded boiled chicken (which we have another night and is not bad either). We each pick the type of noodle we want – either wide fresh-made wheat, thin rice, or medium yellow ramen. A few minutes later, we receive our steaming bowls of the best soup in Luang Prabang.
Before slurping, there are jars of stuff and mounds of greens you use to jazz up your soup. I like mine with a dab of stinky but scrumptious shrimp paste, lots of fresh lime juice, enough chili sauce to make me sniff, a heaping teaspoon of sugar, and as much mint and basil leaves as the soup bowl will hold. Todd makes only a few additions so he can enjoy the soup’s savory chickeny-ness.
Phatthana’s tongue is trained enough that he can start right in on his boiling hot soup. While Todd and wait for our soup to cool down, we make plans with Juergen to share a boat down the Mekong River to see the Pak Ou Buddha Cavestomorrow with his friends Eeke and Markus.
We also celebrate New Years Eve with Juergen, Eeke, and Markus, waging a fierce broken balloon battle while nearby, a sloshed group of a hotel-owning family and their foreign guests dance to Job 2 Do‘s Thai hit, “Doo Tur Tum” on repeat, forever linking that song with New Years, Laos, and colorful bits of rubber.
But, that’s later. Right now, my soup is cool enough to eat.
Photos from Luang Prabang, Laos
If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.