Piles of bright green seaweed and giant fish fresh from the nearby Mekong river, mounds of small, bright oranges, live toads and fried rats on the BBQ…the markets of Laos were some of the most exciting and colorful we’ve seen in South East Asia.
Although we had heard of fried rats in Thailand, it wasn’t until Luang Prabang’s morning market, geared towards local shoppers, where we saw a couple of stands though that offered these little rodents.
When ordering food, we would often inquire about the herbs or veggies in a dish only to be told that they were ‘from the forest, only grow in Laos’. The markets are where people from the interior would come to sell these mysterious forest vegetables.
What a spectacle, and we loved every minute of it! Many soups and stews are cooked with a branch of wood from a tree inside – apparently it adds a lot of flavor to the dishes, but of course it’s taken out of the pot before the dish is served.
Some of the main ingredients of Lao cuisine: round eggplant, lemongrass (both used for Lao curry) and green papayas – which are a vegetable and used mainly for the fresh Papaya Salads that are served everywhere.
Spicy papaya salads are made by pounding the spices (chili, garlic, tomatoes, salt) in a mortar, shaved papaya is added, and finally the whole thing is topped with peanuts and lime sauce. Delish! If you are a vegetarian, just ask not to have fish/oyster sauce added, but soy sauce instead.
These pretty little parcels (made from banana leaves) hold minced pork inside.
Lao coffee, often served in little glass cups, tends to have at least an inch of condensed milk at the bottom unless you specifically request to have it black. With a shortage of Starbucks or other coffee shops, Lao coffee is everywhere and whether you love it or hate it, throughout most the country it is the only option. Obviously, then, we have had loads of these coffees…
The biggest part of the night market in Luang Prabang is dedicated to handicrafts – woven cloths and blankets, silk scarves, plus silver jewelry, handmade masks, paintings and umbrellas.
At the end of the main road in Luang Prabang, there are several stands that sell fresh fruit smoothies for 5,000 kip ($0.63) and the typical big Lao baguettes, freshly made to your order, for 10,000 kip ($1.25). They usually have them with cheese, omelet or boiled eggs, turkey, chicken or tofu.
For truly budget eating, head down a little alley towards the south end of the market (before the baguette stands). It is a tight squeeze, but dozens of food stands line this covered walkway, fitting in tables for diners who scoop up these deals. The buffets, which cost $1.25 for all you can fit on your plate, are all vegetarian, with meat (especially freshly grilled fish) added on top.
We piled our plates high with several versions of fried noodles, rice, tofu and vegetables, along with salad and fruit at the stand we found to be the best. The dishes vary slightly from stand to stand, so it’s worth having a look around before deciding which stall to buy from – so don’t be intimidated when the first stands shove a plate in your hand right away. Just take your time for the cheapest buffet of your life!