One dollar all you can eat dinner. That’s the one piece of advice I remembered as we boarded the small plane leaving Bangkok for Luang Prabang, Laos. It was my first time in this sometimes overlooked, landlocked Southeast Asian nation and I had no idea what to expect. I was comfortable in Thailand, I understand the people and the customs and getting around isn’t a problem. Laos was new, completely foreign and exciting, as long as I could figure out what to do and see in the former royal capital Luang Prabang. The goal was to relax, take it easy and just enjoying being in Laos, but I secretly couldn’t wait for the much ballyhooed night market that runs through the center of town.
I somehow managed to leave the all too comfortable pool chair at La Residence Phou Vou, our swank accommodations for the short week in Luang Prabang. Even though more and more tourists visit this northern town every year, many of them are of the budget variety so our options for high-end hotels were fairly limited. The Orient-Express property was perfect though and the shuttle ride into the heart of Luang Prabang only took five minutes.
That first evening, I looked out the window as we drove into town trying to get a sense of the place. Most of the buildings in Luang Prabang are one or two stories; nothing taller disrupts the skyline and instead of human construction a lush green canopy of forest and jungle appear in the horizon. The sun had set on another hot, sweltering day and I looked forward to exploring the city without the intense heat beating down on us. Without direction or recommendations, the driver dropped us off at the intersection of two busy roads, the cacophony and chaos of horns, motor scooters and low slung electrical wires crossing in every direction imaginable. To our left stood the obvious; rows upon rows of tents stretching the length of the busy street. On either side were shops and restaurants of all types, already seeing a busy night from visitors to the preserved city.
A few years ago the UN declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, which is great, except that now they won’t let anything really change in town. That’s fantastic if you want to see what a slower pace of life in Laos is like, but if you actually live in Luang Prabang I imagine it’s a bit of a hindrance. Something just rubs me the wrong way about keeping an entire city ‘cute’ for tourist consumption at the expense of development, but that’s just me. Maybe it’s that faint streak of Ayn Rand libertarianism running through my veins.
I actually didn’t think any of this though when I was in the middle of the busy motor scooter infested road. My first thought to be honest was that I needed cash. We had spent the previous week in Bangkok and not only did I not have any Laotian money, I didn’t even know what it was called. (It’s the Laos Kip as it turns out) Fortunately for me being under-prepared isn’t a concern in the 21st century and a nearby ATM beckoned. I was immediately punished though when insane numbers starting popping up, the machine wanted to know how many millions of Kip I wanted to withdraw. Surely that couldn’t be right and I had images of accidentally withdrawing our entire life savings at a dungy ATM in the middle of northern Laos. I picked the middle option, which is what I usually do when befuddled by foreign ATMs and hoped for the best. (I learned later that evening that $1 US = almost 8,000 Kips, so 1 million is $125 US. I resisted the temptation to ‘make it rain.’)
It was time to forage, to find some street food or a small restaurant as a first introduction to Laos’ cuisine. Walking through the tents at the night market was a challenge though. I’m 6’2”, my partner is 6’3” and the tents were not made for us. We had to crouch down as we walked awkwardly through the morass of stalls, one selling umbrellas the next fabrics and clothes. Clearly most of the good on sale were for tourist consumption, I doubt many Laotians would buy a Luang Prabang t-shirt. After a few minutes my back began to hurt from the inability to stand up and as an added complication low hung wires providing electricity to the stalls threatened to decapitate us every ten feet or so. Frustrated we left the tents and stood on the sidewalk, watching locals and tourists saunter by to eat, shop or both. I was a little frustrated I hadn’t found the fabled cheap food buffet promised by friends more familiar with the city than I. Instead we found an acceptable restaurant, feasted on huge bowls of Laos noodles and vegetables and mentally prepared ourselves for running the night market gauntlet again.
As we approached the ATM intersection, I noticed a lot of people walking down a small alleyway to my right. Even though I knew our shuttle would soon arrive, I hurried down the alley to see what the commotion was about. I found another world, another night market but not one for the affluent tourists, one for locals. Almost everything for sale was food or food related. Cooking supplies were the first thing I saw, vegetables, meats and spices lined the narrow alley and picky customers were trying to find the perfect ingredients for their evening meals. Then I saw it, the long awaited food stalls. On either side of the alley were grills, each packed with deliciously sizzling meats, some I recognized and others that still remain a mystery. The smells and the smoke were confusing but intoxicating at the same time. A bit further along were long tables set up with bowls of noodles, meats and soups, the $1 buffet I had heard so much about. Makeshift tables were set up and packed with backpackers enjoying a cheap but delicious meal and an ice cold Beerlao.
Kicking myself for not finding this place sooner, I couldn’t resist the cooking meat and bought a giant skewer of the roasted goodness. I have no idea what it was, but it was delicious. I felt like I was in a Medieval Times restaurant, gnawing on my bone as I was drug back to the impatient shuttle bus driver. I smiled and offered a meek apology, but I wasn’t sorry. In my hands I had what was the start of a culinary love affair with Luang Prabang. Holding a bamboo skewer as the grease poured off in one hand and an ice cold milk shake in the other, I smiled the biggest smile of the day knowing that a great adventure had just started.