Those who really want to go local, head to the Dao Heuang market, one of the largest markets in the country. Found amongst the sprawling sections of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, household goods, cell phones and clothes is a food hall with vendors, tables and chairs. Go for a morning bowl of noodle soup, nibble on fried or grilled meats and sausages, grab spicy papaya salad and fresh rolls filled with herbs and noodles, and load up a container from trays of ready made vegetable, bamboo shoots, pickles, Lao curry and egg dishes. For something closer to the tourist centre, in the morning try the small central market across from Pakse Hotel.
Pakse is the business hub for the Bolaven Plateau and not surprising, there’s many cafes to refuel on java. Elegant and understated 124 Thaluang Coffee is a lovely spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and a madeleine. Find it tucked on a side street between Banque Franco-Lao on Road 13 and Vida Bakery.
Located on the ground floor of Residence Sisouk Hotel, Sinouk Cafe give patrons a slice of history with the French colonial building and good coffee—Sinouk is one of the largest coffee brands of Laos.
For a fill of familiar comfort food before striking off into wild, hit up Vida Bakery Cafe where sandwiches, wraps and bagels are made to order (28,000 kip). There’s smoothies, every kind of mocha-frappe-ccino-spresso (10,000-15,000kip), fresh salads, muesli and baked goodies that go down a treat on an overnight bus ride. Find the air-conditioned WiFi-connected cafe off of Route 13. Turn at BFL bank and follow the lane to the end. Just a heads up, the cafe does have a religious undercurrent—our WiFi password was “FATHERSLOVE” if you can read between the lines.
Now that you’re hooked on Lao coffee, buy beans direct from the Coffee Producers Cooperative (CPC), 1,855 families of small-scale farmers on the Bolaven Plateau who have joined forces to reach an international market. It’s fantastic quality. Get it from their corner office one block south of Route 13/Dao Lin Restaurant/Dok Mai Lao Italian Restaurant, close to Nangnoi Guesthouse http://www.cpc-laos.org/
Dok Mai Lao is an Italian resto with a simple menu of salads, pastas and a few meat dishes. Sit indoors or ask for the garden and be led down a narrow alley to a pleasant terrace shaded with trees at the back of the house. Though not gourmet Italian, it hits the spot if in need a plate of pasta with cheese instead of sticky rice. Plain penne and tomato sauce is 35,000 kip.
Bustling Daolin occupies the corner of the tourist strip and it will satisfy many a hungry visitor with a menu book of mostly Thai and Chinese stir-fry dishes with attractive photos to help decipher. The food is cheap and good, clearly made with a properly hot wok as the veg comes out cooked but still crunchy and flavourful. Get a whole fish prepared the way you like for 60,000 kip or for more modest sizes, there’s fried noodles for 20,000 kip, chicken wings, braised pork belly, morning glory and tofu. Many of the dishes can be made vegetarian.
For sunset, head up to Pakse Hotel’s rooftop restaurant Le Panorama. True to its name, the panoramic views over the rooftops, surrounding hills and the setting sun are terrific. The dinner menu is a safe mix of Lao, Thai and Western fare, dishes starting at 45,000 kip.
Slurp up a decent bowl of Vietnamese style beef pho in front of Lankham Hotel. While it can never compare to the pho found on the streets of Saigon or Hanoi, it does the trick and it’s easy on the wallet. A small is 20,000 kip, large 25,000 kip.
124 Thaluang Coffee: street between Road 13 and Road 21; open Tues-Sun 09:00-19:00; T: (020) 9689 0070; https://www.facebook.com/124thaluangcoffee/
CPC: corner of Road 24, one block south of Dao Lin Restaurant; open Mon-Fri 08:00-17:00; http://www.cpc-laos.org/
Daolin: Route 13 at corner with Rd 24; open daily 06:00-22:30 T: (020) 5573 3199
Dok Mai Lao Caffe Restaurant: Rd 24; open daily 11:00-22:00; T: (020) 5844 7879; https://www.facebook.com/Dok-mai-lao-caffe-restaurant-456312284445603
Lankham Pho: Route 13, lobby of Lankham Hotel.
Le Panorama: Rd 5 Ban Wat Luang (old French quarter); open daily for dinner; T: (031) 212 131; http://www.hotelpakse.com/dining/pakse-restaurant-bar.html
Sinouk Cafe: Ban Lakmuang (old French quarter under Residence Sisouk Hotel); open daily 07:00-21:00; T: (031) 214 716; http://www.sinouk-cafe.com/
Vida Bakery Cafe: Rd 12, Ban Thaluang; open Mon-Thurs 06:30-20:00, Fri 06:30-14:30, Sat 06:30-16:00; T: (020) 2925 6632; https://www.facebook.com/VidaBakeryCafe/
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.