Vietnam: jungles, mountains, green and 1,956 miles (3260 km) of coastline (not counting islands) much of it pristine, undiscovered, wide, white sand beach. “Undiscovered” by a beach-hungry Western tourist world but for how long?
The 65 mile (110 km) trip from Hue to Hoi An is a beautiful coastal drive past fishing villages, wet lands and rice paddies with the road winding through the hills of the Truong Son Mountains. The postcard fishing village of Lang Co is situated between the Pacific and a perfect crescent lagoon dotted with boats. Tourism investment money is starting to develop the beach towns, but it will, hopefully, be some time before they’re condo canyons.
We were on our way from Hue to the UNESCO Heritage village of Hoi An, some 10 miles south of Da Nang. From Hue the passenger train line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) hugs the same coast as the coastal highway, a 4 hour trip to Da Nang. From Da Nang you catch a taxi to make the 30-45 minute drive to Hoi An (cost $28 – $45/double train and taxi). As beautiful as the rail trip would be, I chose to arrange for a car and driver to make the trip to Hoi An with the option of stops on the way. For US$60/double this was a terrific day trip as well as transportation to our next destination.
I would have enjoyed wandering around the village of Lang Co, but on this day it was primarily a lunch stop. The Thanh Tam Seaside Resort is nicely designed. The main reception building contained a spacious restaurant decked over a sloping hill and opening onto a sweeping view of the Pacific at palm tree-top level. The palm trees create a large shaded sitting area at beach level. The rooms for the hotel were in separate beach front buildings. I did not see the rooms but TripAdvisor reviews are not kind. Of course there was a large store selling jewelry and clothing. There was no competition on either side of the resort for the peace of an enormous stretch of sand with beautiful views of the mountains.
For a tourist resort, the restaurant was surprisingly good. Specializing in seafood, there was a fine selection of grilledclams and oysters topped with a variety of savory sauces. Spring rolls were delicate and lightly fried. Prices were at the high end for Vietnam meaning that lunch or dinner for two will average US$25/30. (Our light lunch with espresso was $18/two).
The Hai Van Pass is the reason for making the overland trip by car – or if intrepid, by bicycle. The train dramatically hugs the coast around this finger of the Truong Son Mountains that literally juts into the Pacific Ocean creating a 1500 foot (497 m) barrier geographically dividing the country north and south. By car Highway 1 switchbacks up lush mountainsides, brushing clouds, opening vistas of the blue ocean set against the intense green of farm fields. This mountain barrier creates the moist microclimate that makes Hue and the Perfume River delta a unique ecosystem.
For over 1,000 years, Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Ocean Clouds) was the boundary between the Kingdoms of Vietnam and Champa. Even after the final conquest of Champa by Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty in the early 19th century, the Pass was deemed a strategic position through the Vietnam War. Pill boxes are next to a 19th century watch tower. Today the site’s a rather windy, shabby remnant of a violent past. One side of the road is lined with the ubiquitous tourist stalls selling the same trinkets, water, soda, cigarettes, scarves, postcards etc that you’ve seen so many times already. Your car literally will be surrounded by well meaning and persistent sales women. I admire their persistence, even while regretting that I do not need what’s for sale, because it’s certainly a peaceful pursuit after this site’s violent past millennium.
Having traveled to both Cambodia and northern Vietnam, I could see and understand the distinct break in artistic traditions between the Chinese Confucian influenced north Vietnam and the Hindu/Buddhist/Khmer Champa Kingdom of the south – there is a cultural divide. Da Nang’s Bao Tang Dieu Khac Champa Da Nang (Museum of Champa Art) is both a gem and the world’s largest repository of the exquisite sculpture of this civilization.
The rapidly sprawling rather charmless city of Da Nang looks like a new settlement. If there was a historic core or a building prior to 1975 it’s well hidden. Being both a major port and air base during the Vietnam War did make it a prime target for severe damage. With modern Vietnam’s penchant for getting on with the future there’s little to no evidence of that past war. Yet Da Nang’s future fame will result in the development of its miles of stunning beaches. Australian money has already begun to pour in starting major golf/hotel/condo resorts. Iconic China Beach is highly desirable real estate. Da Nang’s airport is undergoing major expansion. I know it would be politically correct to decry this future loss of pristine nature, but also patronizing. This is an ancient land. It changes.
There has been a river port on the Perfume, just a few miles inland of the Pacific, at least since the early 14th century. The unpredictable river has intertwined for 650 years with Nguyen dynastic intrigue to inexorably shape the modern city. Hue exudes a less frenetic pace than Hanoi – although the cyclo and tourist boat drivers are just as “persistent.” It’s a city with an attitude: “I’ve seen it all before, several times, so let’s move on.” Besides, the river moves on regardless fertilizing the farms, and frequently cresting its banks creating destructive floods even the Imperial City cannot defend against.
Before the Vietnam War’s 1968 Battle of Hue severely damaged the city, graceful French Colonial villas blended with ancient Confucian/Buddhist architecture. Much of that is gone, replaced by functional late 20th century commercial whatever. A loss? Of course, but, of course, before the French it was all Confucian/Buddhist, and yet there was that earlier Champa period and …
A four day visit is not sufficient to prove, but I have a hunch that Hue has not rediscovered its role in 21st century Vietnam – and I’m not sure they’re all that concerned. In the old commercial city on the south bank of the Perfume, Hue is still a maze of narrow streets but with few pre-1970 buildings. Many charmless new narrow 5 to 6 story hotels and condos are classically jumbled along with cafes, shoe shops, clothing stores, spas and the postcard vendor. Only a few shops noticeably cater just to tourists. Perhaps that’s because most sites for visitors are outside the city or on the north bank, such as The Imperial City.
Nearly equidistance between Hanoi and Saigon, Hue has been a meeting ground of the nation’s great cultural institutions. Confucian and Chinese Buddhist Vietnam in the north blended with Khmer/Champa Buddhism from the south and both have dealt with the French legacy of Roman Catholicism. Yet even under the Confucian Court of the Nguyen emperors, and the Socialist Republic, Hue’s mascot has been the 1602 Buddhist Thien Mu Pagoda. As in all Vietnamese cities, both Confucian and Buddhist temples built through family patronage, to publicly honor ancestors, can be found tucked away on many streets.
It is convenient to walk along the landscaped river park on both banks of the Perfume River and cross either one of two bridges that connect the Imperial City with downtown. “Convenient” as long as being comfortable with the traffic, the lack of crossing lights, stop signs and constantly being asked if you want to ride a cyclo or buy something. Otherwise, metered taxis are common and inexpensive – a couple of dollars between the Imperial City and any downtown hotel. Excursions to the Imperial Tombs and boat trips on the Perfume River – both highly recommended – should be made through your hotel (more likely to get a better boat at a fair price). I prefer the freedom of not traveling with groups. A private car and driver for a four hour excursion to some of the more remote tombs was US$30. A private dragon boat for a 7 hour trip on the Perfume River stopping at tombs, monasteries and a Garden House was US$20. Rates are less if you join a group.
Hue has several luxury hotels including the newly restored venerable Hotel Morin Saigon (1904) starting at $100/double. Although featuring the comforts of a 5-star hotel with an attractive pool/garden/cafe courtyard, it possess all the sterility that goes along with such venues. There are many excellent small hotels offering much better service than their 3-stars would indicate. Although at a rate that would make most Western tourists think twice, the US$35/double per night including buffet breakfast Orchid Hotel on Chu Van An Street in the Old City was not only the best hotel at that price in which I have ever been a guest, but a fine hotel by any standard.
Clean, modern with a staff that would never even let you push the elevator button, the Orchid’s rooms were large providing ample closets, a spacious bathroom and a desk with a high-speed desktop computer included in each room! Hue traditionally is known for its Imperial Cuisine which, unfortunately, I found in few restaurants. The Orchid only serves breakfast offering an excellent selection of items typical of Hue – chicken balls rolled in flaked green rice, fried rolls stuffed with vegetable/meat mixtures, banana pastry with caramel sauce and an incomparable Beef Pho, the Vietnamese breakfast noodle soup. A large selection of fresh fruit – including tropical varieties such as whole passion fruit – baguettes and Western dishes rounded out the buffet.
Many decent restaurants are found in the Old City all within easy walking distance of most hotels. Confetti Restaurant & Art Gallery and the Tropical Garden, both on Chu Van An Street, offer well prepared standard Vietnamese food in pleasant surroundings just like the majority of the area’s venues that are patronized by tourists. Yet there are lots of small places filled only with locals with menus not written in English, but, I’ll be blunt, the sanitation methods I can see frequently make me dubious. Getting a recommendation from your hotel for local restaurants is a must or else I’d never have eaten dinner at Am Phu Restaurant a bit further down Chu Van An Street. A calamari dish with greens, peppers and cilantro and light, moist coconut batter fried shrimp were as fine as in any dining room except I was sitting on a plastic chair under fluorescent lights with a TV soap opera playing. Dinner for 2 with beer was less than US$10.
Pastry, towel art and Swan boats on the Perfume River, shade trees and gardens, ancient tombs and palaces, markets and street merchants, mountains and house boats – they were all here 500 years ago and, despite the history Hue’s helped shaped, they’re still here today waiting to be rediscovered.
Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.
Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.
The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.
Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.
Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.
The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.
Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.
“Past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
There’s little visible evidence of Hanoi circa 1010 – the city was established by Chinese expanding southward on settlements along the Red River that had been there already for 2,000 years. Actually, there’s little evidence of Hanoi pre 1870’s. Confucian culture preserves the spirits of the ancestors, not their buildings. Even if decades of war and millions of tons of dropped bombs had not significantly damaged the city, ingrained capitalism would have dictated their presence superfluous. The drive from Hanoi’s dreary Noi Bai International Airport – 28 miles (45 km) from the city’s downtown – passes extensive rice paddies boardering high-rise office complexes, narrow mold-streaked French colonial-style town houses next to another BMW dealership before winding snake-like into the heart of Old Hanoi with it’s 21st century sensory overload.
“Charming” is a term to apply to Hanoi only if you believe Manhattan deserves the moniker as well. Frenetic is my description. The motor bike horns begin by 4:00 AM, followed by the publically broadcast music from the computer/TV store across the street starting at 8:00 AM, then the TV in the hotel’s breakfast room entertaining the owner’s young son with the Cartoon Network dubbed in Vietnamese. Outside is pandemonium if not prepared.
Hanoi is a city that would make Donald Trump proud. Everyone is an entrepreneur and quite aggressive in their selling methods whether it be a cyclo driver following you down the street because you really don’t want to walk (?), or stepping over and around another sidewalk café while saying “no” to the hundredth deep fried donut, peeling the hand of the seller off your arm because you really do not need another map of the city all the while being aware that you’re walking in the middle of the street, because there’s no sidewalk space, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Everything is for sale and streets, not just in the Old City, are frequently dedicated to a product – silversmith, watches… The Hotel Ho Guom was located on the edge of the Old City and the French Quarter and most of the surrounding shops were computer and TV stores.
Street life is not attractive compared to Thailand and Laos. The city is dirty. In Thailand and Laos both the cities and countryside were virtually trash free and yet there was not an overabundance of trash cans. Residents and shop owners simply picked up after themselves. Not so in Hanoi. There is an air of freewheeling rampant capitalism with a “me-me” attitude. It is nearly impossible to simply stop on the side of the street when walking to take a photo without having to dodge a vehicle, a person, a pile of discarded greasy food or a hawker. Yet Hanoi is a rich city. It is Southeast Asia’s most expensive real estate, everyone is either working or eating (or both), Bentley, BMW and Mercedes cars share the streets with motor bikes, high rise buildings are going up and the lakes are beautiful – even if they’re still not havens of quiet.
It is not a tourist city, it’s for business. Evidence of the horrific wars that tore the country apart are nowhere to be seen except in the museums – none of which are worth seeing unless you’re really into war and politics. The most prominent statue to a political figure is the huge monument to Emperor Lý Thái Tổ(974-1028) who ended Chinese domination over Vietnam. One of the city’s largest structures is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph (1886). Over 15% of Vietnamese are Catholic and Saturday night Mass was packed.
The Temple of Learning, built in 1070, dedicated to Confucius, functioned for more than 700 years as Vietnam’s Imperial University educating the country’s nobles, royalty, mandarins and other elite. If after years of study and a month-long series of exams, a student graduated as a Mandarin their name was engraved on stone stele that sits on large stone turtles in the temple. Annually about 8 out of every 3,000 exam takers ever reached that loftiest of degrees. The temple consists of a series of five landscaped courtyards. The first two are primarily gardens including fanciful designs and topiary. The third one has a lotus pond and the stellae. The final courtyard holds the shrine to Confucius. The northern half of Vietnam has been Confucian for centuries. More a social and political philosophy based on ethics and behavior, and quite compatible with capitalism and central government, Confucian thought – although complex – does guide Vietnam today. Ancestor worship and offerings to the animistic spirits of nature by burning incense and leaving food and drink on alters, in trees and at monuments is as common in Vietnam as anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Within the Old City are several privately owned houses many within the same family dating back several centuries and are open to the public. They give a glimpse of middle class merchant life that, in reality, still exists today. The front of the house was always the store, and directly above were the 2nd floor store rooms reached by a staircase. Behind the store is the residence dominated in front by the alter to the ancestors. At least two courtyards open the houses to outdoor light and rain water. Chinese architectural influence is paramount in these pre-19th century structures.
Most “tourist attractions” signal to me to “stay away,” but Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater is unique and well worth the US$3.00 admission (for a front row seat). Started during ancient rice harvest festivals, the flooded rice paddies were transformed into magical puppet theaters. Puppets are a beloved form of entertainment throughout Asia, but these puppet masters control their elaborate characters from behind screens and actually under the water. Fire breathing dragons compete with dainty court dancers and palm tree climbing coconut collectors. A live orchestra in traditional dress playing on traditional instruments completes the experience as one of the best cultural venues in the city!
Cuisine is not Hanoi’s forte. There are a lot of places to eat and, as usual on this Earth, they’re mediocre. The finest restaurant in Hanoi is also the most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, 3 story French art nouveau town house. Opening at 11:30 AM it is full within the hour. Founded 20 years ago by concerned Australians and Vietnamese, it is a culinary training school and refuge for disadvantaged/abused/orphaned young adults. If I had not known this in advance, I would have assumed it’s simply a superbly well trained staff serving creative dishes at moderate prices. It was the best meal I had in Hanoi. Cost for two was less than US$18.00
Unfortunately, many restaurants in Hanoi listed in guidebooks or on user reviewed travel sites were geared to tourists with Western taste (Australian beef burgers) and overpriced for the country. One important note of traveling in Vietnam is that it’s the least expensive of the Southeast Asian nations. A metered taxi (don’t travel any other way) is a couple of bucks anywhere within downtown, dinner for two with beer is under US$20, a first class hotel is overpriced if it’s rates are more than US$55-75, admission to any museum is a couple of bucks. I did have a very interesting, but not consistently well prepared, dinner at the top rated Highway 4, on a dark and dreary street north of the Water Puppet Theater. Deep fried crickets were fascinating – like eating feathery nuts, but beef flamed in foil was tough and other unexciting dishes were under seasoned. Although they advertise such exotic foods as Water Buffalo penis and fried scorpians, none of these were available. The Hotel Ho Guom, $55/double, was centrally located with an energetic and helpful staff – although the web site pics are better than reality. The room was comfortable and the breakfast provided a nice choice of traditional and Western foods.
Hanoi is not a comfortable city, and I’d suggest no more than a two day stay. Yet, for someone of my American generation it was an important visit. Barely avoiding the draft in the late 1960’s, brought up on ideas of “communist domination,” it was valuable to learn that it truly was all lies. If Vietnam is a “socialist” state, Wall Street’s full of socialist. The war was a nationalist independence movement to throw off Western domination so that they could resume the rampant capitalism Vietnam always enjoyed before the French imposed their colonial regime. Vietnam succeeded, and if, along with their Chinese cousins, they eventually dominate Southeast Asia it will be through capitalist investment not ideology.
The ceiling fan stirs the languid air as mosquitoes flirt in the shadows of verdant ferns and orchids. Roosters compete with motor bikes to break the dawn. The gray/pink haze illuminates the dust laden street with its fading blue and red tin roofed houses. A young man in his 20’s, shirtless, in red shorts, barefoot, opens a creaking gate to drag the motor bike out of the night-time safety of his house. He pauses, takes in the day – a day just like yesterday – the sun will break through and life will steam.
I sit on the rattan chair at the small dining table, close to the window away from the fluorescent ceiling lights and their harsh pools of blue/white light. The coffee is black, thick and sweetened with condensed milk, just as everyone in this ancient kingdom likes it – except me.
Other guests filter down the wide wooden staircase during the morning. Given the heat, humidity and sugar high from the coffee, I easily imagine a veritable cornucopia of characters from any number of 20th century expat-in-the-tropics novels. The fit German couple in the corner table – early 50’s but have that trekkers’ older look – bussed it overnight from the capital, 12 hours, no air-conditioning. I’ve been warned the overnight busses are not wise – theft, bandits, drivers falling asleep, other accidents. Relaxed they were with their pineapple juice, coffee and toast; they’ve faced worst dangers (?). There’s the eager well-scrubbed English 20-something travel companions planning their one-day schedule to see 14 temples, naive to the toll the jungle will take by temple # 3. The sullen early middle-aged North American couple, skin already too red from the sun, start the day badly due to the eggs (they were oddly undercooked in some sort of fat and sprinkled with ground cinnamon). Yet even though $20/night is nothing to spend on a hotel – ok, weak a/c, weaker WiFi and it’s the third world – it should include… Perhaps he needs to ask the Ta Prohm Strangler what life in the jungle should include.
Siem Reap, Cambodia, is not far from the 19th century. Just outside the town are dusty small villages still in that time warp. French annexation of the Angkor Wat region over a century ago assured its discovery as one of Earth’s great man-made sites, and Siem Reap developed a modest tourist industry. A few elegant hotels, such as the 1929 Grand Hotel d’Ankor, guest houses and a very modest Royal Residence were sprinkled on tree-lined streets in what was just a large village.
The survival of Angkor, and Siem Reap, through World War II, the French Indochina War, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the civil war (total war years: 1939 -1989) is miraculous although like all urban areas, the town and its population suffered greatly. Yet what is Siem Reap without Angkor, what is Angkor without the Khmer Empire, and what is empire without war?
The meters of bas-relief carved on many walls of the over 200 temple complexes at Angkor Thom tell the story that this was the center of an empire – political, military, economic and religious – as well as the home to thousands of people for hundreds of years. Since 1989, stability under the restored monarchy has made tourism safe again at Angkor. Still, visiting the UNESCO site at night is neither allowed nor advisable. Driving, or even being driven, at night for any long distance in rural areas outside Siem Reap is not a good idea. Bus travel to the Lao border a couple hundred miles north can take a full day. It has been this way for hundreds of years, ever since the Khmer Empire moved its capital south and the Ta Prohm Strangler moved in.
The expansionist Thais of Siam put an end to the westward growth of the Khmers in the 15th century by sacking and eventually occupying most of the Empire’s capital at Angkor Thom. Then the French took it from the Thais (1907) and gave it back to the new Khmer kingdom of Cambodia (under their “protection”). Except there’s still this issue over the 11th centuryPreah Vihear temple right on the border created after the French annexed the land so…
Siem Reap exploded during the last decade developing from a modest town into a chaotic jumble of village/tacky/new high-end without sufficient infrastructure. A new strip of luxury resort hotels, lining the road from the airport to town, seriously serving bus tours, seem incongruous interspersed with rice paddies and no beach. The old French Quarter’s charm is hidden behind questionable electrical lines and examples of exuberant marketing.
Dusty unpaved roads with small houses and even smaller tailor shops, fruit stands and tall narrow guest houses intersect with a boulevard and the ATM across the street. The night-time scene is classic: locals hawking cheap wares while children watch TV on someone’s laptop, “tuk-tuk? where are you going?” the smells of grilled meat and humid air, music thumping from dozens of open bar/restaurants, “2 dollars foot message?” lights of all shapes and colors illuminating a kaleidoscope of swirling Australians, French and Japanese dodging the motor bikes and tuk-tuks. The gods and demons of ancient Angkor would prefer if Siem Reap was grander, but I’m confident they’d approve the activity – after all, it is once again Cambodia’s cash cow. Could the Strangler be failing?
Creating a sustainable economy is difficult in a region both exhausted by strife and whose fame is based on ruins. Artisans d’Angkor operates both training facilities and retail outlets for high-end traditional Khmer silk, wood and stone arts and crafts. Training those with special physical needs is part of their mission as well. Touring both the craft shops and the silk farm is instructive and a pleasant break from tracking down the Ta Prohm Strangler.
Southeast Asians eat all the time – a grilled banana, nibble fresh pineapple, sip some cane juice, a fresh baked fish in salt, a coke, a few dried strawberries. There’s always food, and no one’s fat. Yet KFC’s here and Australian beef burgers but so are frog’s legs and sautéed freshly picked morning glory greens from the river bank.
There’s a quiet side, the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm with rooms and the restaurant surrounding and within several lush tropical garden courtyards. A private pool adds to the relaxation of spending less than $US60/double and US$20/couple for haute Khmer cuisine (US$10-20/wine).
The lure is still the past – the Royal City of Angkor Thom, the vast complex of 243 temple cities once populated with over one million people ruling an empire covering much of present day Southeast Asia. Started by Khmer kings and Hindu priests in the 9th century, reaching its zenith in the 13th as the capital of a Buddhist empire, sacked by the Thais in the 15th century, it has been sustained and ultimately saved by monks from the strangulation of neglect, changing politics, wars and the jungle.
The Strangler Fig (strangler vine to the locals) sends dozens of roots deep into the ground around rocks and buildings for hundreds of feet. It encases and crushes whatever it encounters. To kill the vine, all roots must be severed. To restore a temple, the vines must be killed.
A metaphor for the restored Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia? Can all the destructive roots of the past 500 years be severed and the orderly, yet bloody, grandeur of nationhood be reborn? Or will Siem Reap be a new Khmer model: play it day-by-day, see what happens, hope, sweat and keep the Ta Prohm Strangler at bay.
Famous local saying: “We have three seasons in Thailand – hot, hotter, and hottest.”
Tom Kha Chicken
You could say the same about Thai cuisine. I’ve seen innocent tourists sitting in a Bougainvillea bedecked cafe terrace enjoying Tom Kha Chicken at breakfast – the incomparable Thai lemongrass infused stock and coconut milk soup. Small chunks of chicken float in a fragrant white sea and the diner, concentrating on the interplay of lime, green onion, cilantro, tomato and coconut, is oblivious to the decorative slivers of red and green until teeth involuntarily release their oils into the mouth. The shock has often been audible. Now I know why crisp, cold cucumber slices are frequently at every meal – they’re an “ice pact” to your burning mouth. Given the subtle ways Thai’s can hide chilies within a dish, it’s perhaps the secret to remaining the only Southeast Asia nation never colonized. You figure.
Yet not even locals constantly bombard their taste buds with numbing capsicum overloads. At a tiny local street café I had two common noodle dishes mild hot. Next to me were dishes of dry and fresh chilies, as well as fish sauce and lime, to add my own layer of heat. Rarely will a Thai dish be made without any chili, but as common is accommodating personal taste and not just for tourists. I find too much heat masks the other flavors. I enjoy a soft to mild after burn once I’ve tasted the fresh herbs, mushrooms, fish sauce, garlic, lime and lemongrass. (Thai restaurants in North America forget that the quantities of the previous ingredients need to be generous – not merely garnish). Those two dishes cost US$2.00, total.
Thai’s like to play with their food. We’re all used to the ubiquitous stir fry with beef (upper left) but have we given a thought to making a woven edible bowl out of tarot root for a chicken stir-fry (bottom right). A noon time salad of mushrooms, tomatoes is not uncommon, but adding porcelain white varieties that look like sea plants along with a light, lime, chili and sesame oil dressing raises the bar. The miniature little fruit off to the left? They are edible, painted and decorated sweet bean paste creations that can’t help but make you smile.
Ban Roi Mai Restaurant serves a good and varied menu of Thai cuisine in an attractive garden setting (bottom right). Live music plays at night. It’s easy to find by Tuk-tuk or walking since it’s only a couple blocks from the Night Market. (Top left) The “fried chicken” was a chopped flat disk nicely seasoned with cilantro, chili, onion, lightly browned and topped with a lime sour cream mayonnaise. The chicken was surrounded with a ruffle of dry green cellophane noodles. (Top right) Sautéed Snake in Red Curry Sauce was a surprisingly mild dish. Snake really is as mild as chicken, and the curry was exceptionally light on chili to the point where I added a few. (Bottom left) The typically spicy green papaya salad – a dish that can go to the height of heat – was spiked with steamed purple crabs. (Lunch for 2 w/beer: less than US$15.)
It’s hard to top Chiang Mai’s Pongyang Angdoi Resort & Restaurant for location: on a hillside surrounded by the protective mountains and forests of Doi Inthanon National Park. A waterfall that attracts many visitors in its own right is within unobstructed view of anyone dining on the multi level stone terrace. For a restaurant that’s on everyone’s list, the food is surprisingly fresh and imaginative. (Top right) A classic dish of seasoned ground pork with lime, chilies, fresh basil, cilantro in broth, to which fresh vegetables are added as it’s consumed, had a good balance of heat and cold. Note the side dishes of fresh marinating chillies and garlic – one’s in rice wine vinegar the other in a sweetened fish sauce. Fish Sauce, which so puts people off with its initial smell actually becomes sweet once added to food. Along with lime it’s a great flavor enhancer. (Bottom center) The stir-fry of calamari was tender. (Lunch for 2 w/beer, espresso, tip was less than US$20.)
There are less expensive hotels than the Rimping Village, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one with a more friendly and helpful staff. Situated in the quiet of Chiang Mai’s east bank of the Ping River within its own extensive walled garden, the hotel is a luxurious oasis for US$90/night/breakfast. The salt water pool is immaculate along with every other square inch of the facilities. Fresh flowers grace every room and in the massive rubber tree are small alters with burning incense just to thank its spirit for adding such useful shade. The open air restaurant serves a superb breakfast buffet of both Western and Thai dishes (which change daily): pastries, breads, cereals, juices, sticky rice, tropical fruits, green salad, a couple Thai hot dishes such as Pad Thai with shrimp, stir-fry rice with vegetables as well as choices of freshly made eggs, omelets and meats.
Take away the chilies and Thai cuisine is more subtle that other Southeast Asian cultures. All the herbs and spices are there but in quantities that add soft layers of flavor rather that explode in the mouth – unless it’s chile peppers. In previous articles I’ve written about the street food. It’s no cliché; that’s the real Thai food – simple grilled, marinated, fried – with fresh chilies. (I need to mention that it’s best to observe the street techniques but recreate the dish in your own kitchen unless you’re not bothered by a lack of certain elements of street sanitation). The natural flavors of the fruit and produce, of course, are intense. Few factory farms exist in this land of small farmers with abundant time for food to ripen and many markets to sell their goods at the peak of freshness.
His Majesty the King is said to enjoy the simple yet beloved egg tart sweet so much that it’s prominently advertised by KFC in Thailand.
A quintessential Chinatown – winding narrow streets packed with people, motor vehicles and wooden carts, the ornate red and gilt gate, the smells of grilled meat and steaming soups, the sellers of dragon fruit, dried strawberries and grilled bananas, whole plucked chickens and spotted eggs, smoked ducks and dried fish, sunglasses, Apple iPods, Nike logo T-Shirts, apartment size refrigerators. Expect this isn’t part of San Francisco or New York; this is in Chiang Mai, the Kingdom of Thailand’s second largest city.
The Chinese have been investing in Southeast Asia long before its current economic boom. Since the 13th century they have been a major presence in the city on both sides of the Ping River. The market on the west bank is jammed with hundreds of vendors both in large indoor markets and nearly every square inch of the sidewalks selling literally, just about everything.
Chiang Mai, like many Southeast Asian cities, offer an abundance of shops offering custom-made clothing and shoes. Often high quality clothing can be made within 24 to 36 hours. Shops offering “2-hour” service make me question the quality of the product. The best shops offer a sizable selection of high quality materials and well designed clothing displayed on many mannequins giving you that essential “gut” feeling of confidence. The process of cloth selection, design choices, measurement and a minimum of two fittings, as well as good craftmanship, takes time (and if the store’s good they’re also busy). I was not aware that most of the sewing is accomplished using treadle machines – real hand/foot-made. It makes sense in a region of the world where power outages can be common and demand for the products are high. High quality custom hand-made clothing can frequently range 60 – 75%less than comparable ready-to-wear clothing in North America or Europe.
new Penguin treadle sewing machines for sale
No Southeast Asian city has only one market and that is certainly true of Chiang Mai. Starting at the Thapae Gate and running the length of cobble stoned Ratchadamnoen Road through the heart of the Old City, Chiang Mai’sSunday Night Market is a major attraction for both locals and visitors alike. The street is closed to traffic its entire length from 5:00 PM to midnight, but that does not mean a lack of congestion, except this time its only people.
Although touted as a venue to find quality handmade crafts I did not find this true. Most of the “crafts” were the same low quality souvenir trinkets found in abundance everywhere albeit with some imaginative displays such as the heart made of rice with inexpensive earrings on top. The market is more important as a citywide social gathering mixing expats, tourist and all age groups of locals. There’s traditional street food foods grilling and simmering and deserts rarely found on North American Thai menus. Try creamy sweetened steamed rice blended with banana, melon or pumpkin wrapped in a banana leaf cone (bottom center) or (bottom right) Kaw Tom Mud – sticky rice with sweetened coconut milk and banana or soy bean paste wrapped in a banana leaf package. Both are delicious. Most restaurants on this major Old City road are open late and become part of the market scene considering that with warm/hot evenings outside seating is common. Some of the oldest Buddhist Temples are open and beautiful to see at night.
Lights, live music and lots of sounds, aromas, colors, children scurrying about, yet there are poignant reminders of wars that past generations endured. A group of elderly musicians, playing traditional music. were raising funds for victims of land mines. The soft music and chants were in sharp contrast to the riot of noise in the market, but the real impact was the reality that the musicians were all land mine victim survivors. The yin and yang of reality, it’s all in the Sunday Night Market.
The Night Market is 7 days a week 5:00 PM – Midnight (not trafffic free) and is the real center of northern Thailand’s handmade crafts. Occupying a permanent space on the west bank of the Ping River just a couple blocks south of the Iron Bridge (great night-time views walking over the Ping River – there are sidewalks on the bridge), the market space has permanent shops, stalls, open air restaurants and live music on a central stage. Fine quality silks and decently made cotton and linen clothing are in abundance (I bought a pair of well made linen pants and a linen shirt – $10US total). Wood carvings, marionette puppets (a beloved craft), cut leather art works, some imaginative jewelry, an eclectic selection of old and new decorative art, lots of bright lamps, more smoked ducks – a lot of goods available. Of course there’s the food, and at the Night Market, fish and seafood are a specialty.
Giant prawns – as large as lobster tails – sea snails, calamari, oysters, a variety of fresh fish – many still swimming – Pacific lobsters and crabs are all available. A customer chooses exactly the specimen and quantity they want and pay by weight. The cost? Less than a third what it would be in North America or Europe. The preparation? Grilled with garlic and fresh herbs, steamed and added to an entrée salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh herbs, stir-fried with fresh vegetables and/or a variety of mushrooms, deep-fat fried tempura style – you can decide, you can create. Add an ice-cold local beer and enjoy the warm night.
After dinner perhaps you’ll want a massage – outdoors (I didn’t so I can’t comment on their quality). A foot massage may cost $2.00US (30 – 60 minutes) whereas a Thai massage – more like an hour on the rack without death – does limber your muscles and may cost as much as $7.00US/hour. Gentler Swedish or Shiatsu methods are available if you don’t want to plunge too soon into a Thai massage. Or how about tiny little fish nibbling on your feet and legs? I didn’t try it – return trip – but devotees swear that it not only feels terrific, it’s more effective than a pumice stone – and I guess fun…
(Next: Chiang Mai Part 3 – attractions in the countryside)
PS: (1) spicy chicken feet are akin to chicken wings and summer b-b-q season’s soon.
(2) take normal precaution eating raw foods in a hot, humid climate.
Actually the Buddha never visited Chiang Mai no less move there, but legions of his devotees have over the centuries from around the world – India, Laos, Vietnam, China, Australia, France, England, Canada, America. Not all of these expats are Buddhist. Hinduism from India arrived first, a few thousand years ago, followed by Buddhism somewhere around 500 AD, and all had no real issue with local Animist practices, Confucianism brought by Chinese merchants and Christianity when Europeans arrived after 1500 AD. After all, what we know today as Chiang Mai has been an important city since its turbulent days as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, wars with its arch-enemy Burma, Japanese occupation during World War II, its rise as the cultural heart of ancient northern Thailand and even the onslaught of overfed Western expats looking for a low cost of living and cheap facelifts.
As flexible as Buddhism is, modern Thai’s have few issues with Starbucks, cell phones or even fat expats, but the shorts for sale in the upper right picture are strictly for foreign women (unless you want to be a Thai woman with a tarnished reputation) and no Thai guy would go shirtless unless at the beach – which is no where close to Chaing Mai. That said, Chiang Mai is not an attractive city. Many of its old teakwood structures are found scrunched tightly among mold stained concrete buildings of more recent vintage. Like most Southeast Asian cities, sidewalks crumble under persistent floods of the Ping River during rainy season, their primary use as motor bike parking lots and spontaneous “stores” for sellers of everything from sunglasses to spicy hot chicken feet.
Like most of regions of the world with hot sunny weather, walking would seem to be the obvious choice to see the city, but this is Southeast Asia. Although many people do walk – certainly far more than any American city – “pedestrian friendly” is a concept that’s not part of Asian consciousness. With few walkable sidewalks, one shares the often narrow streets with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all. Chiang Mai has few traffic lights, except in some places on the modern expressways in the new outer parts of the city, and fewer police to calm the constant rushing traffic. To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which frequently comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and “problems” occur.
Most Thai’s without their own transportation ride the Songthaews – converted small trucks that carry up to a dozen people at a fixed rate along fixed routes like buses. They’re cheap at about $.35 – $.70 US a ride. The Saamlors and Tuk-Tuks are for short distances especially within the Old City and its immediate surroundings. There is no problem getting a Saamlor or Tuk-Tuk because their drivers “believe” that no one wants to see the city by walking. They are everywhere, and you’ll be asked by nearly every one during your walk if you “want a ride?” “where are you going?” and “one hour to see the city?” The trouble is that there are no set rates and no meters and the “one hour tour” is to any number of shops selling items you do not want but for which the driver gets a cut. To say there is a “sliding scale” on the rate is an understatement. Locals know the game quite well and the distance. What will be quoted to a local frequently is 50% – 75% less than to an obvious foreign visitor. If one does not haggle over the fare before the ride expect to pay as much as the driver believes you’re gullable, or guilty enough, to pay and be asked about “a tour” or “a good shop…” (Actually you’ll be asked this even if you do settle on a price but just be firm because the shops are rarely ones you would visit on your own.) Never expect to pay the same rate for any two rides to or from the same place. Yet in 95 degree (F) heat at 3:00 PM you might not care about the fare. On the other hand, any fare over 100 BHT ($3.00 US) to just about anywhere within center city is too much. Taxis with meters exist but your hotel must call them. They’re rarely available to flag down.
So why visit such a chaotic city? The people for one thing. The average Thai is friendly and gracious even if they’re scamming you or you’re not buying something. They’re so industrious – and I’ll add the Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese – they make the average workaholic American seem lazy. Nearly every building is a store with family living quarters in the back or above. Motor bikes and bicycles are movable stores or “freight” haulers. Where there isn’t a motor bike parked on the sidewalk there’s most likely someone who has set up a “café,” or selling jewelry and T-shirts, or water and soda, or even making fresh dumpling pot stickers. Whether the nation’s a monarchy or a “socialist” republic, Southeast Asians can’t count on a pension (unless they’re the favored few that work for large corporations) and “social security” is an unknown concept. The extended family is one’s social security and the ability to be creative with work.
There is the beautiful green countryside with villages, farms, mountains, waterfalls – and tourist traps (oh well…). It’s not surprising that as a national medical center (and for an American inexpensive care), slightly lower temperatures than steamy Bangkok, especially November through February, along with a cost of living less than half that of North America and Europe, Chiang Mai attracts one million tourist a year, over 10,000 permanent expats and numerous seasonal residents. Like everything in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai’s an experience worth a return visit.
He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns). Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang – of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.
For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, KingSisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.
In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.
What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.
Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)
Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804 That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer, release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.
At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).
There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.
Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.
There is the MorningMarket (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog. The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.
Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.
Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)
My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30). Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).
There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron(lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.