The Laos Dining Experience

By: sachilefever on July 6, 2006 - 2:05am

Lying between Thailand and Cambodia on our itinerary, Laos may have a disadvantage in being compared to seemingly richer countries. However, we were impressed with Laos overall – it was full of scenic beauty and the traveling was easier than we expected. between Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. While we enjoyed the day trips to waterfalls and river rafting, the day’s end would bring a search for dinner in the towns.

As we walked by each restaurant and café, staff would inevitably not smile, but would instead stare to see if we chose one of their tables for a meal. Once we sat down, a menu was silently dropped in front of us and the server stood, still without a smile, staring to hear a request.

We understand that cultural cues can be very different between neighboring countries and we assume that restaurant staff in general didn’t feel we were an imposition on their evening, but after coming from Thailand – the Land of Smiles – we had to remind ourselves not to feel rushed to order and eat.  The service was good and the Lao we met were kind and courteous, but often lacked the appearance of smiling friendliness.

In other Asian countries, I hadn’t felt that need to fall back on Western food, but the local Lao dishes for me seemed to lack much flavor with the exception of straight chilli peppers. We tried more than a few stir fried dishes, curries, spring rolls, meat and sticky rice on sticks, and a few handfuls of market favorites wrapped in banana leaves. It wasn’t nearly as delicious as Thai versions.  Even the dipping sauces seemed watery and lacked the salty or sweet richness in flavor the spring rolls needed, though fresh mint added to the rolls were a nice touch. I can see why, at least for foreigners, there were many more cooking schools available for Thai cuisine.

In Vientiane, we ate well with French and Italian cuisine mixed in with a few Lao meals. It was a little embarrassing as we perceived our choices as those of “weak” travellers, but we greatly anticipated European food that wasn’t Spaghetti in tomato sauce. So, in the end, Vientiane’s lamb shank and caviar-salmon ravioli meals with smiling staff (3 course meals for 2 under US$10-12) were my favorites.

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