Exploring | Luang Pragang, Laos
Luang Prabang | Laos
The small, charming Buddhist temple city of Luang Prabang is located in the mountainous north of Laos. I'm about thirty steps from my guesthouse, which is on the banks of the Nam Khan, a tributary that flows into the Mekong River a few hundred metres further on.
It’s quiet, almost unusually quiet and peaceful in comparison to other Asian cities. I draw in my sketchbook. The landscape on the opposite bank shimmers in the still bluish morning light. A group of Buddhist monks and novices cross the river in small boats. Some of the ones who go past me, especially the younger ones, stop for a second and look at me silently over their shoulder.
I get hungry and want to eat something… local cuisine, of course. I arrived last night and I want to immerse myself in the cuisine of Laos. There are many small restaurants along the banks of the river and so I choose one with a beautiful terrace. The restaurant is almost empty and there don't appear to be any menus. Further ahead, on the table diagonally opposite to me, a couple sit quietly, waiting for their meal to arrive. I told the waiter that I wanted to eat the same as them. After a while, the dishes arrived, including a Som Tam salad and Laarb. Aren't these classic Thai dishes from the Isan region? I think to myself "Hmmm… this is Thai food, isn’t it?” I ask the waiter, somewhat disappointed. "Noooo, this is original Lao food!" he responds, placing an emphasis on "original" and sporting a broad grin.
Som Tam, the famous spicy papaya salad is actually, as I later learn, not from Thailand but from Laos and the locals call it Tam Mak Hoong. Also Laarb, the salad with its marinated meats and various herbs is one of Laos national dishes.
So how is it that these Laos dishes can be found on menus throughout the world posing as classic dishes from Thailand?
Of the approximately 25 million people born in Lao, only about 6 million live in Laos, with the rest living abroad, mainly in Thailand.
Of the approximately 25 million people born in Lao, only about 6 million live in Laos, with the rest living abroad, mainly in Thailand. Many of them live in the northeast of the country in the Isan region or have migrated from there to Bangkok. Over the course of the forced and aggressive Thaification policy employed by Thailand to ensure expats from Laos were assimilated in the country, the culture and language were repressed and even became taboo. Quite a few people from Laos/Isan was so ashamed of their heritage and language that they began to feel inferior. As a consequence, those involved in gastronomy preferred to identify themselves for branding and marketing purposes with Thailand rather than Laos. When it comes to Thailand, everyone has a basic image of the country, moulded and shaped by the tourism industry, films and culture. But how many people are able to make a connection with Laos? In all honesty, the Isan-inspired Thai restaurant around the corner is probably a Lao Restaurant.
A day later, I'm sitting in a boat travelling up the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves. Along the way, the driver of the boat asks me whether I want to visit a whisky village. In the whisky village, they make a whisky distilled from sticky rice. The question is, of course, whether whisky aficionados would define this as whisky – I politely refuse.
The taste is reminiscent of a cheap and strong rice wine, but it seems to work.
The Isan-inspired Thai restaurant around your corner is probably a Lao Restaurant.
That evening, wandering through the night market at Luang Prabang, a number of shelves on stalls are full of whisky-filled bottles, just waiting to be whisked away by tourists. Sometimes they're also filled with snakes and scorpions.
The sellers call out, “whisky, whisky” instead of using their own language of “Lao Lao”, meaning “alcohol” (the first ‘Lao’), “from Laos” (the second ‘Lao’). Although they are written the same, the “Laos” are pronounced differently. It’s actually a bit of a shame, because “Lao Lao” just sounds catchier and that little bit more authentic and cute on its own than having a “Scotch”. But maybe, just like their cuisine, it simply needs a good dose of self-confidence and some time to establish itself as Lao Lao.
© Text and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist