Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Luang Prabang: A Calm River Town With Lao Taste

Apsara restaurant
Michael Sullivan/NPR

Apsara is a boutique restaurant with outside seating by the Nam Khan River. The desserts are delectable. The poached pears and bananas flambe should not be missed.

Lunch at Three Elephant Cafe
Michael Sullivan/NPR

The Three Elephant Cafe serves authentic Lao cuisine with kaipan (Mekong River plant covered with sesame seeds), spicy garlic and chili chutney, with a cold Lao beer.

NPR.org, August 25, 2008 · While Luang Prabang, on the river in Laos, isn't quite as sleepy as it used to be, it's still a delightful throwback and a welcome antidote to the frenetic pace of the rest of Southeast Asia.

A mere 45-minute flight from Vietnam's increasingly chaotic capital, Hanoi, which is rushing headlong into the future, sits this town where time almost stands still. In Luang Prabang, even the mighty Mekong seems to flow just a little bit slower.

My advice would be to visit soon. The Lao government is trying to preserve the character of this World Heritage Site at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. But there's already talk of lengthening the runway at its tiny airport to allow wide body jets instead of the small propeller planes that are now the norm. If this happens, it runs the risk of being overrun and overbuilt — like Siem Reap in neighboring Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat.

But for now, Luang Prabang, Laos' ancient royal capital, is still lovely. It's Vietnam's Hoi An without the hype.

And while there's a faint whiff of colonial Williamsburg in Southeast Asia, it's only a whiff. Otherwise, it's languid and low key, marked by beautifully — and often lovingly — restored colonial villas and an impressive array of temples. There's a lack of hard-core hawkers pushing t-shirts or other tchotchkes. It can be a good place to unwind for a couple of days, or the jumping-off point for jungle treks, elephant rides or lazy trips down the Mekong.

Eat At The Apsara

The Apsara is a boutique restaurant and small hotel on Kingkitsarath Road, overlooking the Nam Khan River. The food is first-rate. It's best to sit outside.

Start with the red curry and lentil soup, which is thick, yet delicate, fragrant and surprisingly sweet.

The lemongrass and coriander fish cakes are a delight as well. I was expecting a Lao version of the Thai tod mun pla, but got something more akin to a fish latke — and I mean this in the nicest way. It was served with a basil and tomato sauce and was, in a word, delectable.

Even an ostensibly ordinary Greek salad managed to surprise, with a black olive tapenade and coriander dressing with a hint of mint that lent it a Southeast Asian twist.

The Luang Prabang buffalo sausages, however, were a mistake, despite the fresh ginger, peanuts and garlic. The dish was too heavy and too pungent, too overpowering and too — buffalo.

It was a minor setback, however, which was quickly made right by the arrival of the main course, tagine of young goat. I'm not a big goat fan, but something told me to try this one, and I was hugely rewarded. Tender bits of goat braised in prunes served with couscous and an Asian citrus salad — again flavored with mint — on the side.

The desserts may be even better.

The poached nashi pear in lime and ginger syrup, served with homemade coconut ice cream and a crispy (sweet) Lao papadam are worth ordering. The dish sounds too busy, but it's not. The pear and the ice cream bind to form a perfect combination of flavors.

Ditto for the bananas flambe, done in rum and honey and citrus, but with the added flavor boost of ginger ice cream, with chunks of ginger so big you could chew on them. It couldn't have been more perfect. My wife, who actually knows something about desserts, was even more impressed.

For the traditionalist, the homemade profiteroles with vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce provide a sugar rush. Perfectly acceptable but, frankly, more girl-next-door than the two heart-stopping items that preceded it.

Authentic Lao Taste

For more authentic Lao food, both the Three Nagas and the Three Elephants Cafe came highly recommended. The latter has a popular cooking school for tourists, as well. I had dinner outside at the Three Nagas, a tastefully restored villa, and lunch at the Three Elephants Cafe.

Of the two, I found the food at the Three Elephants slightly better. The green papaya salad — shaved green papaya with chilis — is far spicier than its Vietnamese cousin. The kaipan, too, is worth ordeing. The crisp, dried green Mekong River plant is covered with sesame seeds and Luang Prabang Jeobang chutney — a spicy chili, garlic and buffalo skin paste. The sindad diow — dried beef marinated in garlic, ginger and chili, is also very good, and best eaten with sticky rice.

The gaeng phet — chicken in coconut sauce with Lao basil, green beans and tiny, round eggplants — seemed very Thai, but very good. It should be washed down with a bottle of very cold, very good Lao beer (there is a new Lao dark, as well).

Another restuarant, L'Elephant, also gets high marks for food.

Where To Stay

The rooms above the Apsara restaurant are all lovely, though slightly funky, with thick wooden beamed floors, high ceilings and views of the river. These are nicer than the rooms that have been added in the building next door.

Three Nagas is another crowd favorite for rooms, as well as food. Both it and the Apsara are in the lower — and quieter — end of town, near the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Both are booked months in advance.

Slightly farther out from the center, but still an easy walk, is the recently renovated Maison Souvannaphoum, the former home of the Lao prince Souvannaphouma. Of the hotel's 26 rooms, a handful are in the original residence and larger than the rest. The Lao Room, in particular, is lovely and, according to the owners, formerly the queen's bedroom.

There are more expensive resorts outside of town, too, like the Pansea, but you can't walk to town. And for me, staying in town is part of the attraction. There are also plenty of clean, charming and cheap guesthouses in town, some along the rivers.

Have A Drink, Take A Trip

Beyond the places to stay and eat, there are a few musts. Have a drink in town at one of the riverside (Mekong) cafes around sunset. And take a trip to some of the nearby waterfalls, either by boat along the river, by car or a combination of both. And don't miss the night market. You will find the usual silk wall hangings, bed covers, table runners and more at prices far better than those charged in the trendy tourist shops — where you'll see $800 scarves and $400 wooden salad bowls.

Again — come soon, even if you don't have a lot of time. Vietnam Airlines is pushing it's new trifecta trip of Hanoi/Hailong Bay, Angkor and Luang Prabang. The airline has new routes and better connections that make all three doable in a week.

If all you've got is a week — and you fancy a Southeast Asian sojourn — better quickly than not at all, yes?

The Apsara Kingkitsarath Road/ (856) 71 254 670/ www.theapsara.com

Three Nagas Ban Vatnong Sakkaline Road/ (856) 71 253 888/ www.alilahotels.com/3nagas/

Maison Souvannaphoum Rue Chao Fa Ngum/ (856) 71 254 609/ www.coloursofangsana.com/souvannaphoum

Three Elephant Cafe Sakkaline Road/ (856) 71 252 525/ www.tamnaklao.net

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