Phonsavan’s food scene may surprise visitors, especially those who have been on the road in remote northern Laos. The town boasts a number of good international restaurants on the main tourist strip, while tasty true Lao fare is harder to come by.
In contrast to the repetition of rice, tea and beer in northeastern Laos, Cranky T’s will satisfy cravings for bread, coffee and cocktails. The modern cafe-bar wouldn’t be out of place in capital city Vientiane, so travellers can confidently order that macchiato, martini or Malbec. The coffee is excellent, and a cup is included in the 45,000 kip all-day breakfast sets designed to get you going before jar-site-hopping. If popping in for dinner (available from 17:00-21:00), have a fresh salad with chicken teriyaki or smoked salmon, 45,000-55,000 kip. There’s indoor and outdoor seating, WiFi and a well stocked bar—this is a busy spot for a sundowner or a night cap. Adjacent to Cranky T’s is an epicerie from the same owner, where travellers can self cater with drinks, snacks and cheese.
Indian restaurants are scattered throughout northern Laos and Phonsavan has Nisha’s Indian. It does the trick, it’s cheap and has a wide range of vegetarian options, like chana masala, aloo mutter and curry, all veg dishes for just 18,000 kip each. Meat dishes like the flavourful chicken tikka masala are 30,000 kip, going well with the hot, fresh made naan.
Located just off the main road leading towards the Garden bus station/market, the curiously named Lao-Falang is an indoor Italian restaurant serving up the staple pizza and pasta. The pizza is as it should be: tasty and cheesy, starting from 45,000 kip and up when including toppings such as salami, ham or fancy cheeses. There’s a range of pastas (choose regular or pay extra for fresh made) and sauces from 65,000 kip to 100,000 kip. Compliment the meal with a salad or red wine by the glass, also 45,000 kip.
The pizza and pasta are satisfying—when it finally arrives. Be warned, it can take a while as the restaurant is popular and can get absolutely slammed. It took us a few attempts to dine here. When we did, there was only one cook in the kitchen and most of the menu, even the basic garlic bread, wasn’t available due to a supply issue.
For a laidback vibe, head to Bamboozle Restaurant and Bar. The pun reveals itself once once you see the neat rows of bamboo covering the entire interior. The menu of Lao and Western food has burgers, kebabs and schnitzel, as well as tom yum soup and traditional laap, well priced from 22,000 to 50,000 kip. Our burger was just ok though the french fries were spot on and there was a surprising assortment of condiments available, including French’s yellow mustard. Like Cranky T’s, the bar is open late (by Phonsavan standards) and offers international spirits. Located across from Nice Hotel and next to Nisha Restaurant.
Phonsavan has Lao, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants scattered throughout the town. However, you don’t have to travel far to find cheap local fare. Phoukham Garden Market is a short block north, off the main road. Find deep fried snacks like banana fritters and steamed corn on the cob, one of Xieng Khouang’s biggest crops. There are vendors with rows of pots: choose from an assortment of cooked vegetables, pickles, cooked meats and chilli dip, to be eaten with sticky rice. And of course there’s noodle soups like Lao-style feu. Grab a plastic stool and point to the noodle of choice.
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.