Think the most common word in Lao is “sabaidee”? Think again. We’d argue that the Lao say the words “kin khao” more than they say hello. Kin khao literally translates as “eat rice”, or in other words, “let’s eat” and it’s at the top of everyone’s minds, all the time. Feasting with friends and family is a favourite national pastime, and with good reason. As visitors to Luang Prabang soon discover, the town has a staggering amount of delicious chow. Read on for some of the highlights.
National dishes such as laap (mince meat salad) are a must try, as well as tam mak hoong (spicy green papaya salad), nam khao (crispy rice salad), fresh or fried spring rolls, beef/buffalo jerky and fish prepared many ways: grilled, in a spicy or sour soup, fried whole and steamed in banana leaf with herbs. Sticky rice is eaten with almost every meal. To eat, take a small ball of sticky rice with your fingers and use it to pick up morsels of meat, vegetable or spicy dip.
However, Lao cuisine is extremely regional so keep your eye out for local Luang Prabang specialties like sai oua, also known as Luang Prabang sausage, made from fatty pork, chilli, garlic and lots of herbs. You’ll often see strings of them drying on racks around town. Orlam is a spicy, peppery meat curry made from ingredients you would find in the wilderness: cloud ear mushrooms, bitter greens, pea eggplant and pepperwood. Water buffalo is usually used, with pork as a substitute. Be warned: This isn’t anything like a Thai coconut milk curry and it has very strong flavours.
Luang Prabang salad is an East-meets-West fusion dish born from French colonial days. This leafy creation has a creamy dressing, cucumber and hard boiled eggs, as well as local touches like watercress, peanuts, mint and crispy fried shallots. A bowl of the town’s famous khao soi noodle soup (see description further down) is a must. Go to a bar and you might be lucky to be served addictive snacks like peanuts fried with lemongrass and garlic, or crunchy mushrooms deep-fried in soy with kaffir limes leaves. Kaipen is a popular appetiser: It’s river weed harvested from the Mekong, seasoned and dried. To serve, it’s flash fried and accompanied with jeow bong, a smokey chilli dip with small pieces of buffalo skin.
Named after this riverweed, Khaiphaen is NGO Friends International’s training restaurant and vocational school. Their 18-month programme provides at-risk and marginalised youth with kitchen, service and language training, safe accommodation, support and work placement. Khaiphaen’s menu highlights regional ingredients and dishes like orlam (46,000 kip) and Luang Prabang sausages (40,000 kip). Food is best eaten family style, ordering different dishes to share, and most are 52,000 kip or under. The frozen cocktails, like the pineapple and chilli margarita (34,000 kip), are winners.
If you’re looking for a gentle introduction to the food and flavours of Laos, Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School is the answer. Their forte istasting platters of Lao specialties and the staff will show you the traditional way to eat them. Try the meuyang, a do-it-yourself wrap bursting with herbs and fresh veggies, and the bun pa fish feast, which must be ordered a day in advance. Wash it down with Tamarind’s custom juice blends featuring local ingredients like hibiscus flower.
If you’re brave and you want to try something more exotic, order Tamarind’s Adventurous Lao Gourmet menu featuring very local food that is not for the faint of heart or stomach. The restaurant is Westernised in its service, setting and atmosphere and their extreme popularity means it is always full in high season; reservations are essential for dinner and even for lunch. Perhaps a victim of their own success, expect a noisy and crowded experience, especially if they are hosting tour groups. For such a popular restaurant and cooking class, the prices here have remained extremely reasonable.
We love Bamboo Tree’s cooking class and the food is just as good. Delicious and affordable, you can’t go wrong with any of their laap, curries, stews and salads made with seasonal, fresh ingredients. Not just known as Tamarind’s neighbour anymore, Bamboo Tree is worthy in its own right.
Cafe Toui is a tiny favourite on the road that connects the Nam Khan to the main street. The Lao food here is some of the best to be had in town. Coconut milk curries (the fish curry is excellent) and meat steamed in banana leaves feature on the menu, as do yummy vegetarian plates and appetisers such as spring rolls. It’s all reliably delicious, not dirty and basic like some budget options in town. The prices hover around 40,000 to 60,000 kip for a main dish and higher for meat like buffalo steak or duck. The quality is what you are paying for and it’s local food without the fat and gristly bits.
A long-running backpacker favourite, the price of the tourist night market Vegetarian Buffet has remained cheap and the quality is as iffy as ever. But budget diehards will swear by it as you can fill up a whole plate of vegetarian food for an incomparable 15,000 kip. The food is oily, has liberal amounts of MSG and the flavours are very basic. There’s fried veggies, noodles, pumpkin curry, potatoes, salads and rice. Add fresh spring rolls for 1,000 kip each. The narrow alley teems with people and you’ll have to juggle filling up your plate, grabbing a cold drink from the ice bucket, squeezing into a wobbly bench and paying. Don’t forget the barbecue: grilled fish, chicken wings and legs, pork chops, all for around 20,000 kip each.
We wish we could give our stamp of approval but having seen, time and time again, travellers in Luang Prabang in general going down with epic stomach bugs, this is risky and riskiest during hot season, when unrefrigerated food spoils very quickly. Proceed with caution. The noodle soups are a safer option and we wholeheartedly approve of the griddled round Lao coconut cakes. There is a good local barbecue stand that appears in the early evening. Find it at the temple entrance in the morning market, which intersects with the back end of this tourist alley.
For a safer, tastier option than the backpacker buffet, head to a small local eatery like Phonheuang Cafe, with one-plate wonders like stir-fried chicken, vegetable curry or pad thai, for just 17,000 kip. There’s comfortable seating, a clean dining area and pleasant service. Find this welcoming, affordable place on Kounxuoa Road, on the road running between Wat Sop on the main street and the Mekong river.
Noodle soup is a common breakfast or lunch choice and the number of locals wolfing down bowls is a way to gauge how good the shop is. Generally, shops specialise in only one or two kinds and close when it runs out, sometimes as early as 11:00. Try khao soi noodles, the speciality of Luang Prabang and Luang Nam Tha that is very different from the Chiang Mai version.
Lao khao soi is flat, wide rice noodles with a bolognese of mince pork, fermented soy beans, tomato and chillies—don’t be alarmed by the red colour, that’s the tomato. Hands down, the best place is the shop on the main road across from Wat Senesoukharam. Get there before 10:00 to avoid disappointment. Another place to try it is at Muang Sing Khao Soi restaurant on Phou Vao Rd, close to the intersection with Mano Rd (this shop is open all day).
Also on Phou Vao Rd is a super tasty Lao pho, which is usually made with pork. This unnamed shop does it with crispy pork and an aromatic bone broth, served with herbs and jeow sukee, a satay-like dipping sauce. The bowl is worth the 20,000 kip and the journey over before it sells out around 12:30. Find it directly across from the Finance Department. Otherwise, almost every noodle shop, including the khao soi shop across from Wat Senesoukharam, does Lao pho. Not open on weekends.
Xiengthong Noodle, located on the main street almost at the end of the peninsula across from Wat Khili, specialises in khao piak, a fresh, chewy rice noodle with pork, fried garlic and greens. Popular with tourists, the shop’s version is only 10,000 kip and it could win the title of cleanest noodle soup shop in Laos. They are open until mid-afternoon. Our favourite local place for khao piak is across from Frangipani Spa, on the road running from 3 Nagas on the main street and the Mekong. A hearty bowl topped with crispy pork, fried shallots and a poached egg is 15,000 kip. At this restaurant, Mama also whips up other tasty, affordable Lao dishes.
Lao barbecue, sindad, is a must try, especially on chilly evenings. The experience is best described as a fusion between Chinese hotpot and Korean barbecue, where you grill thin slices of meat in the centre of the pan and cook noodles, green vegetables, mushrooms and eggs in the surrounding broth. It’s a filling inexpensive meal and fun experience when shared with a few people, costing no more than 60,000 kip per person. The restaurants are hard to miss, especially the intensely busy all-you-can-eat beast on the Mekong riverside which we eschew.
A happier place for sindad is Dyen Sabai Restaurant across the Nam Khan river, accessible by rickety bamboo bridge in dry season or restaurant-provided shuttle boat in rainy season, a memorable way to get to dinner. The bamboo garden and riverside terrace are pleasant, the sindad is clean, well prepared and the broth is not loaded with MSG. A sindad set for two is 70,000-85,000 kip. The regular menu is mostly light Lao fare with vegetarian options available. Try the eggplant dip and dried sesame pork as a perfect tapas partner to Beerlao or a cocktail—the generous happy hour from 12:00 to 19:00 means two cocktails for the price of one. Get there early as it is popular and is often full for dinner. For a local pick, the sindad scene changes frequently so ask around for a recommendation when you’re in town.
With Lao food, there are dishes that you’d have for special occasions and then there’s the home-style food that mama makes. Joy’s Restaurant is the latter and it’s Joy who cooks up the simple, good Lao-soul food based on what’s fresh. There’s beautiful steamed fish and every kind of laab and stir fried meat with lemongrass, ginger, basil or coconut, each dish from 28,000 to 50,000 kip. Find this restaurant, which also showcases her husband’s photography, close to the Mekong on a lane running between it and Nam Phou fountain.
A tourist haunt for more than a decade and with a central location on the main street, Tamnak Lao is practically an institution. Serving a full range of Lao dishes—plus the obligatory pasta and burgers—they are popular with tour groups and can get very busy at meal times, so try to make a reservation. Recommended are the pork-stuffed bamboo shoots, steamed fish with lime and lemongrass and eggplant dip served with a fresh baguette, best enjoyed from tables on the upstairs balcony.
Bamboo Tree Lao Cooking School and Restaurant Kingkitsarath Rd (Nam Khan River), Ban Wat Sene; T: (020) 2242 5499; https://www.facebook.com/Bamboo-Tree-Lao-Cooking-School-and-Restaurant-709182909127019/ .
Cafe Toui Sisavangvatthana Rd, Ban Xieng Mouane (across from Icon Klub); http://www.cafetoui.com/ Mo–Su: 12:00–21:00.
Dyen Sabai Opposite side of the Khan River, Ban Phan Luang; T: (020) 5510 4817; https://dyensabairestaurant.wordpress.com/ Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.
Joy’s Restaurant Nam Pho Rd, Ban Wat That; Mo–Sa: 12:00–21:30.
Khaiphaen 100 Sisavang Vatana Rd, Ban Vat Nong (between the French Institute and the Mekong river); T: (030) 515 5221; http://www.tree-alliance.org/ Mo–Sa: 11:00–22:30.
Khao piak khao/rice porridge morning stand Ban Wat Mai (across from Wat Mai temple); Mo–Sa: 05:30–09:00.
Khao soi noodle soup at Wat Sene Ban Wat Sene (across the road from Wat Senesoukharam); Mo–Sa: 07:00–11:00.
Night market buffet Sisavangvong Rd, east of Kitsalat Rd; Mo–Su: 17:00–22:00.
Phonheuang Cafe Khounxoa Rd, Ban Phonheuang; Mo–Su: 11:00–22:00.
Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban Wat Sene; T: (071) 213 128; http://www.tamarindlaos.com Mo–Sa: Lunch & dinner.
Tamnak Lao Sakkarine Rd, Ban Wat Sene; T: (071) 252 525; http://www.tamnaklao.net Mo–Su: 09:00–22:00.
Xiengthong Noodle Sakkarine Rd, across from Wat Khili; Mo–Su: 07:00–14:00.
Most hotels in Luang Prabang include breakfast with the room rate and even budget guesthouses often serve basic baguette, Lao coffee and some fruit. The town has a bounty of yummy morning eats so it’d be a pity if you didn’t venture away from the hotel to try a local Lao breakfast or one of the many excellent cafes.
After a week of noodle soup and grilled bananas, there’s no shame in wanting to sink your teeth into something bready. One of the cafes near the tip of the peninsula is French bakery Le Banneton, a fabulous place to linger over a cup of coffee and buttery croissant on the main street as the world awakens. A full range of insanely good baguettes and pastries is on offer here as well as cooked breakfast sets, gourmet salads and treats such as house-made ice cream. During high tourist season, it can be difficult to snag a table but it’s definitely worth trying, or take it to go for a picnic. They also sell dried cured meats, wine and imported beer.
Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, on the main street across from the primary school, is another popular breakfast and lunch spot. The menu is a crowd pleaser. There’s a variety of breakfast options and later in the day, both decent Asian and French/Western fare starting at a reasonable 45,000 kip. We always have difficulty choosing between the two worlds. Will it be the pad Thai and Lao noodle soup? Or one of their hearty salads and cheesy croque monsieur? Whatever you decide, air-con, plugs and WiFi can be found in their newly done-up upstairs, a cool, quiet respite in the hot season.
After 12 hours spooning with a stranger on an uncomfortable overnight bus, Joma Bakery Cafe is a godsend. It smells familiar, tastes familiar and who can deny the joy of a freshly baked bagel loaded with cream cheese. The modern American-style cafe offers variety, air-con, WiFi and excellent coffee, using their own beans grown in southern Laos (decaf is available). The pastries are just passable, paling in comparison to the French joints. Noteworthy are the salads, sandwiches, breads, cakes and artery clogging bagel-egger (a particularly good morning-after-bowling hangover cure). Most items hover between 24,000 and 50,000 kip.
Joma is the closest thing to “fast food” that the town has but while food is commendably fresh, the service can be slow in high season when tour groups get deposited here and food can actually take longer than a proper restaurant. The flagship location beside the post office/main intersection has become an unofficial hub, with tuk tuks from the bus station, tour companies, hotel shuttles dropping passengers off in front. So for the newly arrived or about to depart, Joma is not a bad spot to chill out, fill the belly as you get your bearings, get take away for a bus ride or refill your water bottle—the cafe is one of several around town inviting people to skip plastic and refill at their free drinking water cooler. A helpful tip for rainy season travellers: Joma sells heavy duty rain ponchos, a worthy investment. There’s a second less busy location on the Nam Khan river, just past Saynamkhan Riverview Hotel.
It will be love at first sip at Saffron Espresso Cafe, who grow and roast their own Arabica coffee beans grown in the highlands of Luang Prabang Province. A basic espresso is 10,000 kip, while aficionados can splurge for a fancier method: siphon, Hario V60, aeropress, French press or cold drip. This is also THE place to stock up on beans. Bring home as many bags as you can, you won’t regret it. There’s bready nibbles too, from 40,000 kip panini to mango coconut French toast. Find additional seating on their Mekong river deck and upstairs in the air-conditioned room. A small takeaway location can be found on the guesthouse-packed lane behind Joma.
Luang Prabang can’t seem to get enough bread and Zurich Bread Factory & Cafe is the latest addition to keep everyone well carbohydrated. It’s a small chain with locations in Phuket and the Thai-style cafe does feel a bit out of tune with the rest of the town. We don’t normally write about chains unless there’s something worth mentioning and tourists flock here for three reasons: it has a convenient, can’t-miss-it main street location across from the temples, there’s a wide variety of fresh baked breads and there’s air-con.
Cafe de Laos, in the lobby of the Chang Inn on the main street beside Wat Senesoukharam, is for coffee lovers or those looking for shade in between temple-hopping. The cafe also has siphon-brewed coffee, bringing a cup of java to almost scientific levels. Their coffee, served in twee antique cups, is a bit pricey. They do have free WiFi and the front porch swing is irresistibly inviting.
In addition to the must-try noodle soups (already outlined in the Lao section), here are some other local breakfasts:
Khao piak khao is a Lao favourite. The thick savoury rice soup (called khao tom in Thailand) usually comes with pork, scallions, crisp deep-fried garlic, slivers of ginger and cilantro. To make it heartier, ask to add an egg (khai), either poached or hardboiled in soy sauce, and deep-fried dough fritters for dipping. Once the steaming bowl arrives, locals add condiments like a chemist: lime juice, chillies, fish sauce, sugar, pepper, MSG, ubiquitous Maggi sauce and whatever else is available on the table. We think the best is the alleyway stand on the main street across from Wat Mai. Her khao piak khao does contain cubes of pig blood but if that doesn’t appeal, just ask for it without. It’s only 10,000 kip and be quick. Even with just a few rickety tables and chairs, the big pot usually sells out by 09:30, and the deep fried dough are finished well before that. The stand is usually not there on Sundays.
Find tasty Lao versions of Vietnamese classics like khao ji pate (known as banh mi in Vietnam), baguette sandwiches filled with cold cuts, pate, mayonnaise, chilli sauce, cilantro and pickled veg. It’s an odd East-meets-French combination that somehow works. Look for the stands early in the morning on Kitsalat Road near Dara Market or the baguette ladies making their rounds in local neighbourhoods.
The corner breakfast stand at the junction of the Mekong River and Kitsalat Road (near the morning market) is a Luang Prabang institution. It’s a one-stop shop for a Lao-style banh mi, soup and Lao coffee, which is boiled strong and filtered through a cloth sock-filter. Copious amounts of sweet evaporated milk is added, not unlike Vietnamese coffee.
Finally, in between the piles of fresh vegetables, raw meat and fish, the morning market is peppered with little nibbles from savoury steamed things to deep fried sweet things that locals eat at any time of day.
Cafes are certainly not just for bread and coffee in the a.m. In 2015 Big Tree Cafe moved from its Mekong deck location and namesake big tree. Luckily, it’s only a block down the river road and the pleasant cafe now has a large garden terrace. There is Lao and Western food, however, the Korean dishes are the ticket. Try the Korean-style red curry pork with rice, miso soup and delectable steamed dumplings. Come with an appetite because the Korean sets are delivered with all those little plates of extras.
Coffee dominates Luang Prabang, however tea-philes can find a haven at L’etranger Books and Tea. Snuggled behind Phousi Mountain at the Ban Aphai T-junction, it’s a nook to chill out away from the main strip. Shop for used books, browse art displays or just sit and chat over a cup of tea, many varieties available. Every night at 19:00 the tea room does double duty as a cinema; check their Facebook page for the week’s lineup.
Hidden (and we do mean hidden) down a narrow alleyway leading off of the main street towards Wat Choumkhong, locally owned Luang Prabang Artisans Cafe offers juices and snacks made from in-season ingredients. In the summer that means fresh mango, passion fruit or pineapple smoothies. It’s a charming respite if it’s open. Take the alley next to Coconut Garden Restaurant in the direction of the Mekong.
Want a spot in the heart of the main street tourist strip? Head to Novelty Cafe or Indigo Cafe, which boasts many vegetarian options. Need a vegan, gluten-free blueberry chia seed muffin? Well, Luang Prabang’s not quite there yet.
Big Tree Cafe Mekong river Rd, Ban Vat Nong; T: (020) 7777 6748; http://www.bigtreecafe.com/ .
Cafe de Laos The Chang Inn, Sakkaline Rd; T: (071) 213 345; https://www.facebook.com/CafedeLaos .
Indigo Cafe Sisavangvong Rd, Ban Pakham; T: (071) 212 264; https://www.indigohouse.la Mo–Su: 06:30–10:00.
Joma Bakery Phothisalath Rd; T: (071) 252 292; http://www.joma.biz Mo–Su: 07:00–21:00.
Le Banneton Sakkaline Rd (across from Wat Sop Sickharam); Mo–Su: 06:30–18:00.
Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene Sakkarine Rd; T: (071) 252 482; Mo–Su: 06:30–22:00.
Luang Prabang Artisans Cafe Alley off main street, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (020) 5557 1125; http://www.luangprabangartisanscafe.com .
L’etranger Books and Tea Kingkitsarath Rd; https://www.facebook.com/Booksandtea/ Mo–Sa: 07:00–22:00 Su: 10:00–22:00.
Novelty Cafe 126 Sisavangvong Road; T: (020) 5519 5023; https://www.facebook.com/NoveltyCafeLaos/ Mo–Su: 08:00–22:30.
Saffron Cafe Mekong Road, Ban Vat Nong; T: (020) 5539 9557; https://saffroncoffee.com Mo–Sa: 07:00–21:00.
In a colonial-chic building with bamboo shades, a wraparound terrace and hardwood tables, L’Elephant is a longstanding high-end favourite. This French bistro serves both Western and Lao cuisine, with comforting French fare like French onion soup, chipolata, coq au vin and slow-roasted lamb shank gracing the menu. Equally popular are the Lao dishes—try a variety with the degustation menu. The ambience is casual, the service is well trained, the menu has remained unchanged over the years, food comes quickly and there’s an extensive wine list—or rather, wine book. It’s an expensive restaurant by Lao standards but there’s always a daily special, a three-course set for no more than 100,000 kip. A reliable choice.
With a romantic terrace surrounding a natural lotus pond, Manda de Laos pairs a sigh-worthy setting with Lao and Thai cuisine, beautifully plated dishes like nam khao crispy rice salad and khao poon, a coconut milk curry noodle soup. Appetisers/salads range from 55,000 to 80,000 kip and mains 80,000 to 120,000 kip. Truthfully, we found some dishes lacking the traditional zing and punch, the flavours toned way down and some of the essence (chilli, lime, fish sauce, garlic, herbs) missing. For example, their pricey signature dish ping pa (grilled whole fish) was plain and just ok, but if it was a local restaurant, it would have been served with a big basket of herbs, lettuce and dipping sauces. Expect Lao-lite fine dining. On the upside, sunset is when the pond really shines, so it’s an alternative to a riverside sundowner. Find it at Maison Dalabua Hotel, a short cycle from the town centre.
Many of the fine dining experiences in Luang Prabang are attached to upscale hotels.
Longstanding 3 Nagas, now a MGallery branded Accor Hotel, presents a menu of refined Lao food (without the offal) in a heritage setting. In a prime main street location, the presentation and quality are first-rate and the price reflects it. The restaurant is split between the hotel’s two buildings across the road from one another. Dine in a casual candlelit garden or across the street in an old heritage building; the menu is the same.
Expect to be impressed by genial service and tasty Lao and Thai dishes at Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel, the former residence of a Lao Prince. Located in a heritage home surrounded by spacious grounds, their restaurant overlooks the pool and serene tropical garden. In high season, they have a weekly special dinner with a Lao degustation menu accompanied by a performance of traditional music and dance. It’s conveniently located just two blocks from the night market.
Blue Lagoon has formal cuisine in a hidden garden setting. The Lao chef was trained in Switzerland and not surprising, the menu highlights both Lao and European delights. From the European side, indulge in cheese fondue, schnitzel and heart-attack inducing Aelplermagaronen, a pasta bake of cream, bacon, potato and Emmental cheese. Find all the classic Lao dishes or expand your culinary horizons with their insect menu, marrying familiar fare with insects that are traditionally part of the Lao diet. Cricket starters anyone? Ant egg coconut soup? Service, garden atmosphere and air-con (it’s one of the few restaurants in town with an air-con indoor seating option) come at a price, with main dishes ranging from 50,000 to 140,000 kip. Find it tucked at the end of a local lane just east of the Royal Palace Museum.
3 Nagas Sakkarine Rd, Ban Wat Nong; T: (071) 260 777; Mo–Su: 07:00–22:00.
Blue Lagoon Ounheun Rd, Ban Choumkhong (beside Royal Palace); T: (071) 253 698; http://www.blue-lagoon-restaurant.com Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel Chao Fa Ngum Rd, Ban That Luang, in front of Nam Phou fountain; T: (071) 254 609; http://www.angsana.com/en/ap-laos-maison-souvannaphoum Mo–Su: 06:00–22:00.
Manda de Laos 10 Norrassan Rd, Ban That Luang; T: (071) 253 923; https://www.mandadelaos.com Mo–Su: 12:00–15:00 & 18:00–22:30.
Tangor has had a well-deserved meteoric rise in popularity since opening November 2012 and it remains one of our top picks. With an unbeatable location in the heart of the main street, the restaurant’s front terrace is our favourite place for a drink and some serious people watching. Tangor serves a small but perfected menu of Asian dishes, often with a French twist, and a range of cocktails, wines and imported beers. The prices are very reasonable considering the ingredients, top service and intimate, refined setting. Dishes range from 35,000 to 130,000 kip. Highly recommended are the signature fish ceviche, baked camembert and the beef tenderloin with black pepper sauce. Join for after-dinner tipple and soak in the Indochine-chic decor, with old maps and vintage posters of women in cheongsam dresses hanging on rich red walls.
Just across the street from Tangor is Coconut Garden: you can’t miss the towering coconut tree in the centre of their front garden terrace. It’s worth mentioning because the food will please the masses. Similar to the same-owned Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, Coconut Garden has a whole range of decent Lao, Asian and international dishes and is therefore ideal for groups and families who need to appeal to differing tastes. The food won’t blow you away, but the prices are good for budget-conscious travellers and the food comes quickly. And while Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene is boring in the evening, this is when Coconut Garden comes to life.
Popolo is the latest addition to Luang Prabang’s ever growing restaurant scene and it manages to stand out from the crowd. Located on a side street, the airy, beautifully designed restaurant is a welcome escape from the traffic and hustle of the tourist strip. The menu emphasises shareable cantina food, like artisanal cheese and dried meat platters, salads, wood-fire pizza and fresh burrata sourced locally from Laos Buffalo Dairy, plates starting at 30,000 kip. Wine by the glass is also 30,000 kip, while cocktails at the attached bar called Sugar are a cool 40,000 kip. Find Popolo on the street connecting the main road at 3 Nagas to the Mekong river.
Opened in 2017, French-owned Bouang Eatery sports boldly colourful decor, hipster flair and fusion food. They’ve jumped on the trend train with “Buddha bowls”, rice bowls chock full of healthy raw veg with vinaigrette, while also taking creative liberties with the green curry gnocchi. Vegetarians will be delighted with the many meat-free options, whether craving East (pumpkin red curry) or West (veggie burger). All mains around 45,000 kip. For now, the weak spot is the limited drink menu.
There is pizza and it is a secret—or it was a secret until a certain guidebook let the cat out of the bag to the mob. Started as an informal feast in an Italian expat’s backyard garden that morphed into a weekly expat hangout hideaway, Secret Pizza and its sensational thin-crust wood-fired oven pizza is now open to the public. The pizza is better than what we’ve had in Italy: it’s cheesy, with optional gourmet toppings and cooked to perfection, well worth the 60,000 to 100,000 kip a pie price tag and the journey to the outskirts of town. Lasagne, beer and red or white wine is on offer. It’s a simple, memorable affair, with a lovely relaxed atmosphere.
To find it, head south on Phou Vao Road to the end, turn right onto Route 13. After a couple hundred metres, the road splits—veer left onto Route 13. Again after a couple hundred metres, look for a narrow dirt road on your right, just before Hmong Her Motel. Take the dirt road to the very end. Note: this road is bumpy/muddy and dark at night. If you go by tuk tuk, it’s best to arrange a time for the same driver to pick you up for the return journey. Opens Tuesday and Friday only at 18:00, get there early to avoid disappointment—they do sell out and you’ll need to be quick to get a serving of their heavenly profiteroles. Check their Facebook page for any holiday closures.
Since Secret Pizza appeared, a bumper crop of other Italian restaurants have opened.
Pizza Phan Luang serves only wood-fired oven pizza, red wine and beer. If that’s all you need, then venture to the other side of the Nam Khan in Ban Phan Luang, easily accessible when the temporary bamboo bridge is up during dry season—cross, pass Dyen Sabai and go straight, it’s a block along on your lefthand side. When the bridge is gone in rainy season, you’ll have to bike the long way round via the old motorbike bridge. The pizza, starting at 45,000 kip, is good, as is the service and quaint, candlelit backyard ambience. Open for dinner only.
Close to the backpacker centre and catering to the backpacker crowd, La Silapa has jumped on the wood-fired pizza bandwagon and lucky for all, it is tasty too. All sorts of toppings are available, from your basic marinara (48,000 kip) to meaty bacon and sausage (69,000 kip). Find it in Ban Aphai, near the neighbourhood laneway to Utopia.
La Rosa is Luang Prabang’s upscale Italian offering. Diners have a white table cloth to go with that wood-fired oven pizza (starting at 45,000 kip), as well as fine house-made pastas, risotto, antipasti and cheeses. There’s both indoor and terrace seating. Find it across the road from L’Elephant Restaurant, just up from the Mekong.
Bouang Eatery Rue Sisavangvong, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (020) 5563 2600; https://www.facebook.com/Bouang.luangprabang/ Mo–Sa: 11:30–14:30 & 18:00–21:30.
La Rosa Italian Restaurant 40 Khounxoa Rd, Ban Wat Nong; T: (071) 253 937; https://www.facebook.com/La-Rosa-Italian-Restaurant-Luang-Prabang-Laos-848033761900423/ Mo–Su: 11:30–22:00.
La Silapa Phomathat Rd, Ban Aphai; https://www.facebook.com/lasilapa/ .
L’Elephant Ban Wat Nong; T: (071) 252 482; http://www.elephant-restau.com/ Mo–Su: 12:00–14:30 & 19:00–22:00.
Pizza Phan Luang Ban Phan Luang, across the bamboo bridge near Dyen Sabai; T: (020) 5692 2529; Tu–Su: 17:00_22:00.
Popolo Khounxoa Rd, Ban Phonheuang; https://www.facebook.com/PopoloCantina/ Mo–Su: 11:00-23:00.
Secret Pizza Ban Nasamphanh St 3, off of Route 13; T: (020) 5652 8881; https://www.facebook.com/pizzasecret/ Tu & Fr: 18:00–21:30.
Tangor Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Rue Sisavangvong, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (071) 260 761; http://letangor.com Mo–Su: 11:00–23:30.
On a quiet road across from Wat Choumkhong, Son Phao Restaurant & Traditional Show has a nightly 45-minute cultural show at 19:30 that’s popular with groups, though individuals can also reserve for 30,000 kip per person. The set menus are good value: the Lao selection includes laap, fish, soup and fried bamboo shoots, while the Japanese offerings hit the spot if you have a hankering for miso soup, salad, rice and breaded fried cutlet. A small is available for 60,000 kip or you can order a la carte. Drink prices are reasonable at 12,000 kip for beer or 24,000 kip for cocktails. Don’t expect sashimi and sushi in landlocked Luang Prabang, however, occasionally they do order in quality salmon as a special.
Opened in 2016, the bolthole of a Japanese restaurant Hua Hua Yim is an absolute winner. It’s a simple, low-key place with scrumptious home-style Japanese dishes. The prices are a steal. Order fried chicken or pork with steamed rice, cucumber sticks with miso paste dip, onigiri (rice balls), miso soup and silky tofu. It’s a one-woman show—the owner takes your order, cooks and serves—and don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning the next day, though be prepared, one never knows what days it’s open or closed. Find it in Ban Mano, on the road that wraps around to the front entrance of Sofitel Hotel and the UXO Visitor Centre. There’s no sign, look for the garden with two tables and white wooden fence.
If you have a hankering for a Korean feast, head to Kimsatcat and prepare to be dazzled by the continuous flow of little dishes that accompany each meal (yes, they have kimchi). The restaurant itself is a bit stark—tile floor, wooden tables and chairs, fluorescent lighting—but who cares because it’s clean, the owner is friendly, you’ll get your fill and then some. Find Kimsatcat down the slope from the backpacker area Ban Aphai, just past the wooden motorbike bridge.
Popular Atsalin is a cheapie stir-fry joint that’s a little out of the way but it fuels backpackers with its fried noodles, rice and veggie dishes for as little as 15,000 kip. Find this shop at Manomai and Kitsalat Rd—head south on Kitsalat past Dara Market and turn right onto Manomai at the roundabout. It’s almost immediately on your lefthand side. It’s best to stick to dishes with local ingredients.
For a cheap and cheerful meal, head to Bamboo Garden where the Thai-style hot-from-the-work dishes are delicious, filling and don’t come drowning in grease. It’s become a fast favourite in town and we love their pad ka pao kai, chicken stir-fried with basil, peppers and chilli, served with steamed rice for only 20,000 kip, with a fried egg for 22,000 kip. Most of the dishes on the menu, like the pork curry, ginger chicken and pad thai, are at the 20,000 kip mark. For a taste of Luang Prabang, there’s also an excellent chicken laap and Luang Prabang sausage. Find this clean, small restaurant on the alley beside the Lao Red Cross Sauna and Massage across from Wat Visoun.
Those desperate for Indian food, head to Nisha Indian Restaurant. The service is gruff, the building is grotty and general cleanliness leaves something to be desired, but they do have biriyanis, curries, chicken tikka, raita, lots of vegetarian options and good naan. A safer bet is to hit up their roti stand out front, which usually has a line of motorbikes waiting for a crispy, rich roti to go.
Bamboo Garden Visoun Rd (alley beside Lao Red Cross Sauna & Massage), Ban Visoun; T: (020) 9718 8899; https://www.facebook.com/LaoFoodRestaurant/ Mo–Su: 09:00–22:00.
Hua Hua Yim Ban Mano, next to Sofitel Luang Prabang Hotel; T: (020) 9894 1269; Tu–Sa: 11:30–15:00 & 18:00–21:00.
Kimsatcat Korean Restaurant Ban Meuna, next to old bridge; T: (020) 5855 0000; Mo–Sa: 08:00–21:30.
Nisha Indian Restaurant Kitsalat Rd; T: (071) 253 746; Mo–Su: till 22:00.
Son Phao Restaurant Ban Choumkhong, across from Wat Choumkhong; T: (071) 253 489; Mo–Su: 11:30–21:30.
Our pick for the best cheap and cheerful restaurant is Rosella Fusion on the Nam Khan. It’s incredible value, with dishes starting at only 24,000 kip. Fruit shakes with coconut milk, curries, laap and vegetarian tom yum soup are a few of the standouts. Just don’t arrive already starving as it’s a one-man, one-wok show so dishes come out slowly—a testament to how each dish is prepared fresh.
For a Mekong moment, head to The Belle Rive Hotel’s riverfront terrace. The spacious wooden deck juts out over the water allowing for expansive views as lofty palms provide shade. It’s a lovely place to catch a breeze, enjoy a cocktail, munch on kaipen and watch the boats. Or head to any one of the local bars with decks along the Mekong, where you can order Beerlao, Beerlao or …Beerlao.
The Silk Road Cafe at Ock Pop Tok’s Living Craft Centre is yet another place to experience a languid Mekong minute and dazzling river view. A two-kilometre cycle downriver from the centre, enjoy tea (like their signature silkworm poo tea) or a meal of East, West and fusion dishes on the wooden deck. Get a Thai-style khao soi coconut curry (36,000 kip) or vegetarian friendly lentil salad with roasted pumpkin and goat cheese (55,000 kip). They also host a moonlight cinema night once a week.
Rosella Fusion Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban Vat Sene; T: (020) 7777 5753; https://www.facebook.com/rosellafusion Mo–Sa: 11:00–21:30.
Silk Road Cafe Living Craft Centre, 125/10 Ban Saylom; T: (071) 212 597; https://ockpoptok.com/visit-us/silk-road-cafe/ Mo–Su: 08:00–19:00.
The Belle Rive Terrace Mekong River Road, Ban Phonehueang; T: (071) 260 733; https://www.thebellerive.com/ Mo–Su: 11:00–21:00.
Luang Prabang has no lack of watering holes boasting plenty of character. All bars and restaurants must close at 22:30 so the nightlife doesn’t impede on local life, but the curfew doesn’t put a damper on the spirits. It just means getting the party started earlier.
“You’re headed to Luang Prabang? Go to Utopia.” And that’s how the chatter goes with backpackers in Laos. Garden bar, restaurant and backpacker stronghold Utopia has unbeatable views and a chilled out vibe. Open all day, it goes from mellow to happening after 17:00 when the drink specials start up. When you tire of the view, there’s lots of other diversions like a massive volleyball court, darts, foosball table and the hugest Jenga game we’ve seen. The food can be hit or miss but this place is about the party every night. Utopia is tricky to find. Look for the path opposite Luang Prabang Sports Bar and follow the signs, or follow the hordes of backpackers streaming towards it.
Occupying a corner in a local neighbour just outside the centre, swish 525 Luang Prabang has an outdoor garden with fire pits that are a treat in the cold months, but the air-con interior is the place to be the rest of the year with its sophisticated modern decor. Settle into the banquet seating, at one of the high tables or at the luxe bar to admire the glowing selection of bottles. Whether you choose a classic or fancy cocktail (we’re smitten with their “new” old-fashioned, with a hint of maple syrup and cinnamon), it all goes down very easy, as do the tapas of mini mac and cheese and pulled pork sliders.
Icon Klub calls itself “a room for cocktails”, an accurate yet understated description of this quirky bar. Tucked on the side street just off the main road, this cosy place evokes a bohemian spirit, old Europe and shades of film noir. Evenings here are casual, random and fun as Lisa shakes up inventive cocktails to an eclectic music playlist. Don’t be surprised to see patrons playing chess, strumming a guitar or dishing out slam poetry.
To catch your favourite football or rugby club in action, head to The Sports Bar & Guesthouse LPB at the T-junction of the Ban Aphai bar area. Large screen TVs show the games (and if it’s not available by satellite, they can try to stream it). During a major sporting event, the place will be packed with a rowdy, sweaty crowd. The location at the busy corner is an interesting spot to watch the world go by.
Meet and mingle at Lao Lao Beer Garden. Take up residence at the terrace tables near the road or the candlelit garden inside. Most of the menu is given over to their drink specials—two-for-one lao lao cocktails, Red Bull and vodka buckets. For food, expect the usual bar snacks and burgers, as well as Lao barbecue. Patrons tend to hop between here and Redbul Bar just across the street. Redbul caters to people who like to drink a lot at a low price and it hosts a crew of regulars each night who worship the pool table. The bar is stocked for a motley of liquor-plus-mixer drinks so this fun, laid back backpacker joint tends to swell with people in the hour before closing.
There are only three places that are somehow allowed to be open past curfew, and true to Luang Prabang style they are all oddly random. There’s the very local nightclub Dao Fa, located next to the Chinese Market and Southern Bus Station. Think bad repetitive beats, flashy lights, a lot of Beerlao and no one dancing. At 00:30, the lights are abruptly thrown on and everyone goes home. The second is local dive bar Yensabai on Phou Vao Road. It balloons with locals, expats and tourists who can choose between Beerlao and Spy Coolers. When you’re kicked out of Utopia and Redbul at closing, a brigade of tuk tuks await for everyone to pile in to be whisked away to the legendary bowling alley. Somehow the harsh fluorescent lighting, loud pop music, warped lanes and crowds bowling in flip-flops is a recipe for a raucous, memorable experience. Open until 04:00.
525 Luang Prabang 100 Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban That Luang; T: (071) 212 424; http://525.rocks/ Mo–Su: 17:00–22:30.
Bowling Alley Highway 13, east of junction with Potoupakmao Rd; open until early morning.; .
Icon Klub Off Sakkarine Rd, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (071) 254 905; http://www.iconklub.com .
Lao Lao Garden Phousi Rd, Ban Aphai; https://www.facebook.com/laolaobeergarden/ Mo–Su: 08:00–23:30.
Redbul Ban Aphai; https://www.facebook.com/redbulbar/ Mo–Su: 17:00–23:30.
Utopia Ban Aphai, Nam Khan riverbank; http://www.utopialuangprabang.com/ Mo–Su: 9:00–23:30.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.