Laos

Asia's Best Kept Secret

I loved every single moment I spent in  Laos.

Indochina is considered Asia’s best kept secret and I would say its landscape is so beautiful to look unreal.

I didn’t know what to expect from it when I first set off from Switzerland. I was ready to give my tiny contributions to volunteer teaching English to novices in Luang Prabang and the only thing I knew was that the city was a wonderful, calm and spiritual place (exactly what I needed for my adventure).

 

My “Baptism” to Lao Culture and Landscape

After a 27 hour flight, I landed in Luang Prabang, a gorgeous UNESCO world heritage site on the banks of the Mekong. Luang Prabang is an outstanding example for both its rich architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era. Its remarkably well-preserved townscape reflects the alliance of these two distinct cultural traditions.Situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it earned UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to its well-preserved architecture that blends traditional Laos and French colonial styles.

 

I spent the first two nights in a very basic guesthouse, next to the one I would have lived during my weeks as volunteer. Beatrice, an Italian girl who  has chosen Laos as her home, was my guide and my angel and introduced me to the city and to Lao culture. I cannot stop thanking Bea for such a warm welcoming. On my first day, Bea gave me a tour of the city, just after having a glorious breakfast  in a stand by the day market. After a delicious fruit shake and sticky rice with mango, we started to stroll around the city center. I was stunned by all the beauty around me  and I every 5 min I was stopping staring at the marvelous temples which give Luang Prabang a touch of magic and spirituality.  Golden-roofed wats, decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains. It’s easy to love this town for its cute cafes with fairy lights, traditional teak wood buildings, and small golden-roofed temples. And despite the presence of numerous luxury boutique hotels and some fancy restaurants with French names, the town can welcome tourists no matter their budget. I think Luang Prabang’s appeal is mostly in its cute wooden Lao houses and former colonial mansions, and the riverside location makes it a lovely spot to unwind.

I was impressed to see such a big difference compared to the suburbs. As a visitor, I could not help but be amazed by the tidiness and cleanliness of this city, above all compared to the surroundings. The roads in the center are lined with quaint wooden guest houses, bakeries, and wine bars, and a quick stroll after dark will take you to a superbly colorful night market. The city center is undoubtedly very European, with  French influence heavily felt and almost every corner a magnificent temple grabs tourists’ attention.

The centre of the city consists of four main roads and is located on a peninsula at the confluence of Nam Khan and Mekong river.

Cultural Information

Ethnicity

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, reflecting its geographic location as a crossroads of Asia. The majority of Laos’s population is Lao which accounts for 55 percent of the whole population. About 11 percent are Khmou, 8 percent Hmong, and the rest are other small ethnic groups.

 

Urbanism and Architecture

Laos is one of the least urbanized countries in Southeast Asia. Vientiane has around 500,000 people, many in rural districts. Savannakhet and Pakse are the next most important cities, while Luang Prabang is the most important historical city. All these cities have a mixture of French colonial architecture, Buddhist architecture in temples, traditional Lao houses raised on stilts,  and new large houses that imitate Thai styles. walking around the temples, you can breathe spirituality and energy, as they have long served as repositories of wisdom, energy, and illumination that can be accessed by all.

All these cities are built alongside rivers whose banks provide major recreational spaces. Most Lao people live in rural villages clustered around a temple. Lao, Tai, and groups such as the Khmou live in houses raised off the ground on stilts.

 

 

 

 

 

Religion

Around 67 percent of the country’s population are Buddhist. Every town and village has a Buddhist temple (wat) and saffron-robed monks everywhere. The majority of Laotian also believe in spirits and are animists.

I had shivers when I first took part with my friend Julie to Alms Giving. This ceremony  sees Monks and Novices at dawn (around 05:30) collecting alms of rice or food from kneeling villagers and tourists. I was actually annoyed by seeing tourists, seated on plastic stools participating out of fun rather than sincerity to the ceremony.It  definitely reduces the authenticity of the moment. To make things worse, some were dressed inappropriately and were taking close up pictures to Monks (very inappropriate).

Food in Daily Life

or me…Laos food is vibrant, colorful, packed with herbs and chilies. Sticky rice is the staple. Spoons and forks are used for the dishes that accompany the rice, while sticky rice may be dipped directly into condiments of chili paste and fish paste. Soup is a regular feature of meals. In the countryside, people eat chopped raw meat and foods gathered from the surrounding forests.

Laab

It is my favourite Lao dish, finely chopped meat with spices, is a favorite dish that can be eaten raw or cooked. For most lowland Lao, fish dishes are a central part of the diet. Relatively little pork is eaten, and chicken, buffalo, or beef is more common.

I also tried tam mak hoong (spicy green papaya salad), nam khao (crispy rice salad), fresh or fried spring rolls, and fish prepared many ways: grilled, in a spicy or sour soup, fried whole and steamed in banana leaf with herbs. The water of the rivers is not exactly crystal clear, so I tried not to think about it when eating fish:)

 

Paeng Pet

Eating raw duck blood, or even pig or goat blood, is very common in Laos. Fresh blood is a given, and in this duck version, the blood is mixed with some cooked minced duck and organs, and again, heaps of Laos herbs like mint, green onions, and cilantro. They also often add some crispy shallots and peanuts. Jam-packed full of herbs, yet not even close to being a vegetable dish, this combination of minty-ness, lime juice, and fire-hot from raw local chilies will set you on fire. The one-two combo of rich, oily goodness from the fried duck meat as well as its gooey and creamy blood will have you coming back for breakfast the next day.

 

Sai Oo-ah

Sai Oo-ah is the perfect sausage balance of firm, springy, and juicy – the taste available in a single bite is astounding. Every millimeter of this lovely little sausage is packs absolutely incredible flavor. Using a mixture of pork belly, skin, and minced meat, it can also include diced galangal, chopped green onions, cilantro with a ton of dill, and of course a kick from the fresh chili peppers.

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