Since I have some spare time during this Easter long weekend, I thought I better catch up on my long overdue posts about my last trip in South East Asia which covered Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and the last stop, Laos. My friend, five-fiddy-Phon, an Australian-born-Laotian who visited his relatives in Laos a few years back highly recommended me to check this place out, especially Luang Prabang (which will be covered in my next post) which is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Before a detour to Luang Prabang, I flew into the country via Kuala Lumpur and spent a couple of days at the capital city of Laos, Vientiane.
Vientiane is a sleepy town, everyone is rather laid back and everything seems to be a pace slower. The city kind of reminds me of my hometown, but maybe 10 years behind. Have to say there isn't much to do in this little city, but I did managed to check out a few landmarks and tourists spots. Phra That Luang, the shining golden stupa is possibly the most photographed landmark in Vientiane, a national's symbol that's an imposing 44m (144 ft.) high. The golden stupa is impressive and can be spotted from afar, but I was a little disappointed after paying the entry free and only found that I could only walk around the compound, but the temple is locked up and not for public viewing, getting inside is totally out of question.
I also managed to check out the Buddha Park, 25km outside of Vientiane. Put your haggling skill into practice with the motor-tuk driver (I remember is quite expensive, around US$12), and he will take you on a bumpy ride through villages; the Buddha Park is about 40 minutes away. The Buddha Park is not really a temple as such where people come to pay, but more of a theme park with numerous sculptures of Buddha and characters of Hindu lore. The massive leaning buddha statue is possibly the most impressive, and also a pumpkin shape sculpture which visitors can crawl inside through the mouth into the Hell, and climb up three stories to the Heaven. It was absolutely pitch black inside, the steps are getting narrower and the chute to the vantage point on top is tiny, there is no way I could fit through that. Hence, I decided to climb back down and stay in hell... ah well, people says hell is more fun anyway.
Same same but different, no I am not suddenly jumping into Paris, this is another landmark in Vientiane that worth checking out. It is the Patoxai Arch or Arch de Triomphe of Vientiane. The US donated the cement to build the airport, but they have decided to use it and built this arch to commemorate Lao who had died in battle serving their country before the revolutionary wars. I only spent half a day to check out all the tourist spots in Vientiane, and the rest of the time I found myself in air-conditioned cafe or restaurant to beat the heat. Yes, let's talk about food.
Hawker food on the riverside
If you love Thai food, then you will love Lao food. Traditional Lao food is very hot in general, but I love my food head spinning hot, so I found myself having a great time tasting all the local specialties from the food hawker stalls by the river. As night falls, the walkway along Mekong River will turn into a mini food market where you can just pull a plastic chair, sit down and relax over a cold beer.
I found most of the hawker stalls are more or less selling the same dishes, grilled meat/fish over charcoal are the most common, cook-your-own hot pot steamboat and stir fried noodle are also the popular ones. I simply sit down at a table where the stall seems to be more authentic and less crowded. It is hard to order food for one and still blogworthy without leaving excess food going to waste. Best to skip any tummy filler like rice or noodle and just order as many small dishes.
As there would be a lot of spicy and heaty grilled food tonight, I order a much needed coconut water thirst quencher from a freshly cut young coconut and also some Beer Lao which turned lukewarm within 10 minutes in a hot balmy night. Beer Lao is the only local beer you can get and it is actually quite good especially accompanied by some char grilled crispy pork ribs which is smokey with sweet caramelisation going on around the crispy edges.
I love my Som Tum, which is actually derived from this traditional Lao dish called Tam mak hoong. Tam Mak Hoong has less ingredients than a Som Tum, with only shredded unripened papaya, tomatoes and chillies all pounded in a piquant, soury, extremely hot fish sauce. This is probably the hottest green papaya salad I've had to date, even the Laotian lady sitting at the next table who ordered the same dish is struggling, making a lot of hissing noise by sucking air through the gaps of her teeth in the hope of cool air will smooth the burning tongue.
More salad. This more colorful squid salad taste more or less the same as the Tam Mak Hoong. Instead of green papaya, it is a concoction of fresh herbs, squid tentacles, shredded carrot, water spinach, tomatoes and roasted peanuts for the extra crunch. It costs me 80,000kip which is around AUD$10 for the whole meal. Seriously can't complain, and one of the best meal I've had in Laos.
I am more than happy to slurp another bowl of noodle soup for breakfast but I thought I will give the local bakery a try for a change as they do have amazing baking skills inherited from the French except this is a Scandinavian bakery. The Scandinavian Bakery in Laos is worth a visit. It is the first European bakery opened in 1994 and now they also have a franchise in Luang Prabang. It looks just like a normal bakery inside with mouth watering cookies, pastries and gorgeous cakes behind the glass displays. And of course we can't have a Scandinavian bakery without the punch rolls (vacuum cleaner) and princess cakes. If you want to try a little bit of everything like me, then go for the "cake specials" and you will get all these....
... plus a cup of coffee, for only 60,000 kip (AUD$7.65 )! Bargain! There are chocolate brownie, vanilla custard tart with strawberry icing, a sweet sugar coated scroll and four choc and butter cookies. The puff pastry on the vanilla custard tart is not as flaky as I'd hoped for due to the humidity and the bun scroll is also a little stale. I like the cookies which are crumbly and buttery, but the chocolate brownie is unfortunately tasteless and solid, I think someone must have forgotten to add sugar.
But the restaurant that I looking forward to visit the most has to be Makphet. Like KOTO in Vietnam, Makphet is a restaurant serves as a school for Lao street youth, who make up the staff there. The food is contemporary Lao, cost a little bit more but it is all for the good cause. If you have an old Lonely Planet guidebook of Laos (like the dodgy photocopied version I bought in Vietnam and regret), then it will point you to the wrong address. I had trouble locating this restaurant on my first day in Vientiane but was very lucky to stumble this restaurant on my way back to hotel the day after.
I actually already had lunch just an hour ago, so the best I can do is order a couple of entrees and safe some room for dessert. The grilled buffalo fillet rolls are elegantly presented with colourful pumpkin, green bean, red capsicum and daikon wrapped in thin slices of tender buffalo fillet which are just cooked through, accompanied by a sweet tamarind sauce which is intense, heavily coated in sesame seeds that just popped on every bite.
The next entree is Tung Tong, these moneybags are filled with pork mince and dried shrimp then deep fried until golden brown with an incredibly crunchy exterior. The parcels are good but it is the lime and chili dipping sauce that really makes the whole dish shine. More like a peanut sauce, sweet yet tarty with a subtle heat punch while ground peanuts add the texture.
I wasn't having high expectations on the desserts but oh how wrong was I. Dare I say the pumpkin cake that I had is almost as good if not better than those that we can get here in Sydney cafes. The pumpkin cake is so fluffy and soft with just the right amount of sweetness, served with a generous scoop of aromatic coconut ice cream on top which is creamy, and the palm sugar syrup just adds a touch of richness without being overpowering.
I spent a whopping total of 104,500 kip (AUD13.30) for the lunch, but it is totally worth it, not to mention it is all for good cause. If you ever get the chance to be in Vientiane, I would highly recommend Makphet as a MUST visit.
Next stop - Luang Prabang.
View Vientiane in a larger map
Addresses of restaurants/places I've visited:
Direction: Right opposite the Namphou Fountain.
Sethathirat Rd, Chanthabouly District
P: (0)21 260587
Direction: Right behind the Wat Inpeng, between Rue Chao Anou and Khun Bu Lom Road.