Eating: meals and restaurants


Hours before the falangs rise from their slumbers, the monks and novices of Laos trail through the streets collecting food from lay people anxious to make merit for this life and the next.

The monks, the gentlest of people, could never kill to eat but their alms bowls always contain meat and fish as well as vegetables and rice.

Their vow of humility forces them to accept what is offered: their communal life means they share and choose what they prefer.

For many travellers, too, there is an oddly ambiguous situation when it comes to eating in Laos: if you believe the guide books and travel articles, you expect a cuisine dripping in blood but, among the river fish, pork, duck and chicken dishes, vegetarians and vegans can find endless choices of vegetable and bean curd dishes.

Although Lao cuisine shares much with northern Thailand – the lemon grass, chillies, basil, coriander, crushed peanuts and coconut milk – the dishes are different; cousins rather than brothers and sisters, usually served with sticky or plain rice and washed down with the irresistible Beerlao.

The centuries of invaders have left their mark on the cuisine, not least the oddity of baguettes for breakfast, courtesy of half a century of French colonial rule.

Less odd, are the Vietnamese and Chinese influences.

Lunch might be a simple affair: spicy noodle soup with vegetables and maybe bean curd, served in a large bowl.

But dinner has to be savoured. A warm evening, a table at an open-air restaurant, a cold Beelao or maybe tea and ... well, the bean curd curry is tantalisingly good, the spicy vegetables are unforgettable, the river moss with chili is addictively good (honest!), the sticky rice ...

A few restaurants try exotic foreign desserts. Not always successfully in mere culinary terms. Our banana flambe didn't ... but what we missed in the fire, we more than made up with the delightful experience of the chef and his family coming out to watch our reaction to what must have been his first attempt. We did not disappoint.

That was the scene in Luang Prabang. Delicate, sophisticated dishes in charming, laid-back eating places.

In other places, the smaller towns and the villages, it is more hit or miss: the ever-obliging Laotians will do whatever they can if you ask politely but choice might come down to noodle soup or noodle soup.

This is not true of Vang Vieng, a small town usefully situated on Highway 13 between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

There, the Nam Song hotel (named after the river) serves French cuisine and the town centre eateries have a wide and interesting variety of local dishes and travellers' meals, usually in such portions that you need to be an 8ft backpacker who hasn't eaten for three days if you try to get through them alone. And tea comes in pint mugs, suitably chipped and cracked.

Vientiane offers far more and far less than Luang Prabang: gone is the quiet charm but, on the plus side, the range of food is far wider.

Lao cuisine is supplemented by restaurants specialising in Thai, Chinese, Indian, French and others.

For ambience and the sheer fun of it, a good choice is one of the many evening places that open by the Mekong as the sun goes down.

But we were tempted, after so much excellent Lao food, by the hugely popular Nazim Indian restaurant. And ended up going back three times to work our way through the more unusual vegetarian and vegan dishes.

For snacking in the day, there is street food – like fried bananas – and, at the other end of the price scale, the pastries in smart cafes.

In Laos, eating can be a real problem. It is all so good that it is very difficult to say 'no' ....

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