Two days days ago we flew from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. We were last here in 1995. As might be expected, things have changed.
Perhaps the biggest shock is the town at daybreak. Almost without exception, in Asia rising before dawn has guaranteed us peaceful near-empty streets. Not so here. By 6:30am Luang Prabang is buzzing with tourists, alone and in guided groups, many toting cameras and stalking alms-collecting monks like hunters in a wild game park. Not a pretty sight.
But the small morning market in the center of town is much as we remembered it: gaggles of shoppers-with-a-purpose choosing from such a plethora of fresh ingredients that it makes me ache for a local kitchen to call my own. Happily, for the kitchen-less among us there are also plenty of tempting foods to eat on the spot.
On our first morning in town we identified two stalls that will be regular stops in the coming days.
The first is operated by a mother-daughter team (cool and unsmiling, but hopefully that will change in a day or two) who make and serve Vietnamese banh cuon-like rice flour pancakes rolled around a filling of chopped pork and mushrooms. They're topped with crispy fried shallots and eaten with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, lime juice, peanuts, and chilies.
Called nem kao in Lao ('nem' means spring roll and 'kao' means white), they're larger than their Vietnamese cousins but, aside from the lime juice and peanuts in the dipping sauce, quite similar. Their combination of easy textures and bright flavors makes them just right as a first taste for a still-waking stomach.
And then there's the Lao coffee spot, operated by a meticulously made-up and manicured (but camera-shy) auntie with a generous smile. It is somewhat hidden by greenery, but we knew it by the wood-fueled boiler supporting two stainless steel pitchers of black gold.
An order of kafe Lao -- and you must specify kafe Lao, or else you'll end up with Nescafe (you might add 'mai sai Coffee Mate', while you're at it; the white powder has become a staple at stalls serving traditionally made coffee here and in Chiang Mai) -- starts with a hefty dollop of sweetened condensed milk, followed by a pour of thick brew from one of the pitchers and then a ladle of hot water from the boiler.
Hers is by far the best Lao-style coffee we've yet found here in Luang Prabang. In fact it's some of the best coffee we've had in a long time, anywhere -- hefty and full-flavored, with a bit of smoke and a hint of sourness. The sweetened condensed milk makes barely a dent.
(If you're a Lao coffee fiend, another worthwhile stop is Apsara Hotel. Their Lao coffee isn't made traditionally, but it's fantastic nonetheless -- beans freshly ground and brewed in a stove-top espresso pot.)
Nem kao and kafe Lao, Luang Prabang morning market. Look for the nem kao vendor -- there's only one. If you are facing her the coffee lady is at the next corner to your right, same side of the street. Mornings, obviously.