River cruise to Pak Ou/Whiskey Village and Tamarind – the best meal in Laos

After our long day riding elephants and swimming in waterfalls, the last thing I wanted to deal with was the sound of banging drums at 4:30 am.  I failed to mention this earlier about Le Bel Air, but its proximity is close enough to a wat that you’ll be able to hear the beating of drums early in the morning.  It’s not obnoxiously loud, but if you’re a light sleeper bring your earplugs.

Our plan for the day was to take a relaxing river cruise down the Mehkong River to the Pak Ou caves and Whiskey Village.  We booked the cruise through the hotel, and for $35 (US) the cruise takes you to those two locations and includes lunch.  Our boat was the Nava Mekong.  It’s a little higher end than the cheaper cruises in that the boat was bigger and had table settings for meals.  The cheaper cruises were more like the traditional Lao long boats, but covered.

For obvious reasons, only do a river cruise if the weather is nice out.  I say this because the cruise itself was probably the best part of the tour since the two destinations weren’t exactly that amazing.  The Whiskey Village, which we had high hopes for, turned out to be nothing more than a few shacks with women selling bottles of whiskey.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing the jars of whiskey with giant scorpions and snakes was awesome, but we were hoping that there was a factory or something.  Instead, all the Whiskey Village was was a very poor moonshine outpost.  That being said, since we were there we did try some whiskey.  It tasted like very strong Saki, not bad but nothing to write home about.  We did purchase a few bottles however because they do make great display souvenirs.

From there the cruise headed to the Pak Ou caves, which was the cooler of the two stops.  The caves are split into an upper and lower cave and house several hundred mini Buddha statues.  The upper cave is a bit of a stair climb to get to and don’t forget to bring a flashlight (our iPhone flashlights worked perfectly well) because the upper cave is pitch black inside.  It definitely made the spectacle of seeing all the Buddhas a bit more exciting and mysterious.

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On the cruise back, the Nava Mekong offers a pretty delightful lunch made up of samples of Laotian cuisine and then you’re back in Luang Prabang by around 2.  We headed for a quick spa session at Hibiscus Spa, which provided a really good massage, but I wouldn’t recommend going there if you’re looking for friendly employees.  These people were polite and all, but definitely seemed exhausted and looked like they didn’t want to be there.  After that, we went to our favorite dinner experience of the whole trip.

Tamarind is one of the top restaurants to try in Luang Prabang.  They offer a cooking class that is recommended in several guidebooks and in hindsight we probably should have taken the class instead of going on the river cruise.  Regardless, we went there for dinner and it could arguably be the best meal we had the entire trip.  The employees and Tamarind obviously have a genuine interest in showing their patrons what real Laotian food is like.   The menu is very in depth; it’s part history lesson on Laos food, part FAQ on best practices for cooking and eating Laos food, and part course offerings.  What impressed us was the fact that although we took a good 20 minutes reading the history/FAQ in the menu, the wait staff didn’t disturb us the whole time. It was only when we clearly had finished reading that our waitress politely came by and asked us if we had any questions.

The food at Tamarind is authentic and excellent.  The tasters appetizer is like a Laos charcuterie with an assortment of sausages, veggies, sauces, spices, and other meats and is a must try.  The Buffalo Laap was also a highlight and that is a ground buffalo meat dish with Laos spices and tripe (apparently Laos style includes tripe).  The coolest part of the meal is how you eat all the dishes using the sticky rice.  Essentially what you do it take the sticky rice, roll it into a small patty with your hands, and use its stickiness to scoop up all the food.  It’s kind of like how you eat Ethiopian food with you hands, but instead of injera the Laotians use the sticky rice.  For desert, the Watermelon Chili sorbet is awesome; it’s cool and refreshing with a tiny bit of kick at the end as you swallow.  And the whole experience was cheap; it only cost $40 for two people.  A definite must-try meal in Luang Prabang, and I plan on returning sometime in the future for the cooking class they offer.

Wat Xieng Thong, Phu Si Hill, and the Night Market

After we decompressed for a little bit at Le Bel Air, we made our way across that freakin’ bridge and headed into town.  The walk to the main part of the town is about 15 minutes.  Our destination was Wat Xieng Thong, which is one of the key wats in the all of Laos.  It’s at the further end of the town, so don’t mistake one of the many wats you’ll pass by for it (we were fooled once and walked into the wrong wat).

Once we did find Wat Xieng Thong, the admission is 20K kip.  Unsurprisingly, the wat is a peaceful, zen-like monastery with several shrines featuring a multitude of gold Buddhas.  Monks, in the traditional orange attire, mill around and go about their day-to-day tasks.  It does feel a little strange as a tourist to essentially be wandering around their residence, but the monks we encountered seemed used to the scenario.

After Wat Xieng Thong, and a quick stop for a croissant at Le Banneton Cafe (Laos is known for their bakeries from their time as a French colony), we walked down along the Mehkong River and headed toward Phu (or Phou) Si Hill.  You should try and time this walk a little before sunset, the views along the river at that time are amazing.  It’s like something out of a movie set with the mountains, fisherman, and monks along the river’s sandy beach.

We reached Phu Si Hill along with everyone else a few minutes before sunset.  This is probably the only time Luang Prabang felt really touristy, but even then it wasn’t so bad because most people kept quiet at the top to enjoy the view.  The climb up is rather challenging, but doable, and it costs 20K kip to ascend to the top.

Once you get to the top, it’s inevitably going to be crowded, but people were pretty polite and quietly sidestepped all around to get out of the way of people taking pictures.  The sunset is a sight to see and is probably one of the must-do experiences of Luang Prabang.

 

When you’re done with the sunset, by the time you reach the bottom you’ll literally be right on top of the Night Market.  I cannot say enough about how impressed I was by this market and how enjoyable of an experience it was.  The market sold the typical touristy souvenirs and such, but the ambiance was like no other market I’ve been to (and I’ve been to quite a few).  It was so quiet; you couldn’t hear anything louder than whispers.  The vendors were all sitting politely, not in your face or loud, and their goods were all so neatly laid out we almost felt bad picking up the products and disturbing their presentation.  For the backpackers, the Night Market offers a 10K kip street buffet dinner (remember $1 = 8K kip) which was packed with hungry young people.  This market ended up being where we did the primary amount of shopping for folks back home based solely on the comfort at which we were able to shop.

For dinner I would recommend stopping in at Coconut Garden, located at the end of the Night Market (that is if you don’t do the street buffet).  Coconut Garden is a Lonely Planet selection and the guidebook lives up to their usual standards when it comes to food choices.  The restaurant offers both meat and vegetarian tasting dishes on top of their usual menu.  We orders a veggie tasting menu along with the Laos signature Steamed Mehkong Fish in Banana leaves and a Chicken/Vegetable Fried Rice w/ Fried Egg.  After that, we grabbed a beer across the street at a great little bar called Tangor to people watch before heading back to The Le Bel Air for some patio beers to finish up the day.