Lao food has an incredibly fresh taste largely influenced by the wonderful use of herbs that transform simple ingredients into delicious meals.
The beef Laap dish served in most restaurants these days is made a little more palatable for westerners with the meat now being cooked rather than its traditional raw version. Herbs gave the dish great flavour, while the crunch of bean sprouts made for added texture.
A traditional clear soup of meat, herbs and vegetables, Orlam makes for a nice light meal, giving you the impression that eating it really is good for you.
To broaden your food experience beyond local Luang Prabang fare head for Le Patio Cafe at the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, which serves a range of minority dishes from various nearby provinces. The food is very good, with the menu offering the ability to taste a nice mix rather than being stuck with just one dish. Set in a lovely old building, insight is also given into the people and culture where the dish hails from. Oh and if that’s not enough, there’s also a delicious selection of French pastries to finish with.
Tamarind restaurant has a great reputation for its food, and based on my experience it’s very well deserved. Using ultra fresh ingredients it serves up a fusion of traditional local dishes with a few modern touches.
The Mok Pa (steamed fish with herbs) was simply divine – tender, fleshy fillet of fish with dill and basil, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to perfection. The melt in your mouth fish morsels were accompanied by plump, glossy grains of sticky rice, which also proved excellent for soaking up the juice.
So cool and refreshing in the blistering heat, the watermelon and chilli granita was a tantalising icy mix of sweet and spice – a drink I swore I’d be looking to replicate at home.
Meals were definitely a highlight for me in Luang Prabang, with the taste and style both in complete harmony with the heat and humidity of the environment.
A damp coolness lingers in the air as a sea of vibrant saffron seemingly floats along a deserted narrow road in the faint early morning light. Framed by lush greenery and traditional wooden architecture a smattering of locals patiently sit with their bamboo baskets filled with sticky rice as they wait to give alms. Witnessing this serene, special event also referred to as Tak-Bat was a highlight of my stay, however not every scene plays out with such reverence.
I couldn’t even bring myself to raise my camera at the alms giving that took place just outside my hotel in Luang Prabang. There were no other onlookers; I imagine this same event would have been repeated thousands of times in exactly the same manner.
Unfortunately, this was not the case in the centre of the Luang Prabang. Where I can only describe the Tak-Bat here as a circus which features these ridiculous camera-toting tourists jumping in, out and around the monks who were silently attempting to carry out this Buddhist tradition. Despite the rules of conduct being well publicised around town, the behaviour of many left me incredibly conflicted about taking my own photos and the impact of tourism on this age-old ritual.
I was a little horrified to find it has almost become a “tourism experience” with visitors being given the opportunity to take part in the tradition and give alms. The desire to give can only be commended but I question taking part in sacred religious rituals where there is no real association. In some ways I think it makes a mockery of the situation.
Poor quality food is a further complication where some monks have become sick from rice given by some unsuspecting tourists, as this is purely a money making opportunity for some.
I moved away from the main street and to my relief I found a much quieter place where I could sit at a distance and take photos. I am very thankful for my zoom lens!
So frequently it happens that visiting a place which you had enjoyed many years before, you are disappointed when returning to find the masses have discovered your once much less trodden haven, sapping its former wonderful atmosphere and cultural authenticity.
Before returning to Luang Prabang recently I feared the worst after having read many comments online about how much things have changed. It’s about 10 years or so since my last visit, and I must say, that sure things are different but on the whole I still had an amazing time. The old part of town remains a sleepy slice of cultural heritage with pretty monasteries sprinkled amongst a fabulous mix of restored French colonial and traditional Lao architecture.
One of the most profound visible differences I found were the growing number of upscale boutique resorts occupying beautifully renovated old buildings, with classic luxury vehicles standing ready to ferry around well-heeled guests.
I’ve never been one to visit every tourist attraction out there, preferring to sit and enjoy some local food whilst soaking up the ambiance of a place – Luang Prabang is simply perfect for this. I wandered aimlessly through the temples just enjoying their spectacular beauty enveloped by the light scent of lingering frangipani.
Kids hunt for the healthiest of snacks in the quiet streets by using large bamboo poles to jab away at fruit hanging high in the treetops as monks drift by, their dazzling saffron robes adding vibrancy to the lush green surrounds. Of course, these days there are many new activities for visitors to get involved in, but the majority of these seem to be quite culturally complimentary with a definite ecological slant – the cooking school and weaving centre are two that immediately spring to mind.
While relaxing with a cool drink on the banks of the mighty Mekong or Nam Khan river, as the sun dips lazily towards the horizon, is the perfect way to end the day.
Possibly one of the most influential factors on how much you enjoy your stay is your choice of accommodation – I enjoyed being in a more local part of town, which was still just a short bike ride from all the action. Although Luang Prabang has definitely grown, and is a little more polished than it was 10 years ago, it remains one of the most charming outposts in Asia.
Being located out in the Taklamakan Desert below sea level it is hard to imagine anything growing in the barren, rocky landscape however Turfan is known for its grapes, melons and the nearby flaming mountains, as well as having the notoriety of being the hottest place in China.
Built some 2,000 years ago the ancient Karez irrigation system not only brings miraculous life to the dusty plains making Turfan a productive fertile pocket of land but it also cemented the town as a key stopping point on the Silk Road for caravans and traders in years gone by.
The totally awesome ruins of Jiaohe are a fantastic place to wander and conjure up visions of what times past might have been like in its heyday.
Home to the stunning Emin Minaret, a building that well and truly caught my eye for its simple yet intricate beauty, this is one of the first stops when travelling west that you will really get a taste of Uyghur culture.
But the morning I spent exploring the local animal market was an unexpected highlight of my time in this desert oasis. Wandering among the action was a great introduction to local life and about as far away from the tourist trail as you get.
We did get lots of enquiring looks of bewilderment, with many not quite actually able to work out what could possibly be interesting about watching herders and towns-people buying and selling sheep, goats and cows.
Everyone was incredibly friendly and curious, though a little camera shy at the beginning. The Uygur food is absolutely delicious, particularly if you are a meat lover and the atmosphere in the old parts of town is magic as donkeys “clip clop” their way along the streets.
Turfan has lots to offer and is an excellent place to spend a few days getting caught up in the fabulous legends of the Silk Road.
Straddling the Sichuan / Gansu border is the simply wonderful little village of Langmusi.
The first time I visited this remote outpost was back in 1997. The location is simply stunning, located up on the sweeping grasslands of the Tibetan plateau.
There have been big changes since I first visited, apparently the roads in town have now been sealed – so no more of the muddy atmospheric images that feature here in this gallery. There are more hotels available with hot water on demand and a selection of restaurants/cafes. Back in 1997 there were no streetlights at night and just one small place to eat which by the way served the most amazing apple pies. The yak burgers were pretty good too!
Altogether a totally wonderful find on a journey which was definitely a highlight for me way back then – tourism barely even raised a glint in the eye, however our presence certainly inspired more than the occasional glance. As I recall sitting with a cup of “babao” or eight treasure tea by the fire in a restaurant in Xiahe, which used to be a full day’s journey along bumpy dirt roads, having a nomad woman examining very closely. Actually, when I say ‘very closely’, it probably doesn’t give you the full picture – her face just a couple of inches from mine as she gave me a good inspection.
Langmusi has a fantastic monastery and was one of the few mainstream places where they still practiced the traditional Tibetan sky burial.
Thought I’d delve into my massive collection of film archives to find a few images of a festival in Langmusi, which is a small town out on the Tibetan Plateau in China’s far west. Taken on the 1st June 2002 (International Children’s Day), this festival attracted nomads from all over the grasslands for a day of singing, dancing, horse racing and yak riding.
I was so incredibly fortunate to experience this event with one of my groups (I was a tour leader at the time) and it was definitely worth arriving after 2am in the morning for. We’d broken down on the grasslands in the middle of Sichuan province the previous day. The 8 hour or so wait out in the middle of nowhere while the parts for the mini-vans were driven in was an interesting experience which everyone handled fantastically. The journey was a long, slow one on a terrible road, but without a doubt totally worth it in the end!
The festival was a full day of events. First, we rushed off out into the grassland to see the horse races. I must say I was a little in awe of the youngster who won. Of course, they were riding bareback and most of the riders were under 10 years of age – absolutely put my horse riding skills to shame. Then the crowd jumped into the backs of a couple of big blue trucks and onto horses or motorbikes and took off to the next venue.
Sitting up by the road was a great perch to watch the yak-riding race taking place 50 metres or so down in the valley. It also seemed like a safe distance as I thought that yaks were fairly skittish and strange animals, so to see them being ridden along the grassland was going to be interesting. Once the riders were on board, the small crowd around the animals quickly scattered as they exploded off in all directions. They really are skittish and difficult to control, and were pretty much running all over the place while throwing their riders off. Eventually one guy got a bit of a straight run happening in the right direction and crossed the finish line.
After lunch, down by the stream the rock throwing, singing and dancing was happening, where different groups were almost having a dance off! So much colour and enjoyment both from the performers and the crowd, it truly was an amazing experience.
This was the first time the festival had been held and I actually could not tell you if it has been held since then – in all a very random event that I had heard about through a contact, and even then it was always a maybe. For me this is what made it so special!
The vibrant colours in these images are due purely to the beautiful Fuji Velvia slide film I was using in those days and gee, it really did produce amazing images.