For three nights in Luang Prabang, Laos, we called the Villa Nagara home. The lovely boutique hotel is in a restored two-story house facing the Nam Khan river, with each of the seven rooms decorated in a different jewel tone. Our upper-level suite was resplendent in amethyst and featured a small balcony with river view. To respect the customs of the owners – and to protect the wood floors – guests are asked to take off their shoes and store them in a cabinet off the lobby. The hotel supposedly has free wifi, but I couldn’t get it to work; a desktop computer is set up in the lobby for guests to use. Breakfast, included in our room rate, was served every morning on the riverside terrace opposite the hotel. The squawking chickens supplied evidence of the eggs’ freshness and the pancakes were prepared by a well-trained hand.
The bamboo bridge spanning the Nam Khan near our hotel leads to Luang Prabang’s eastern residential area. You have to pay a 5,000-kip toll to cross as the bridge has to be taken down and rebuilt every year after the rainy season, but it’s worth the 65 cents to get to Dyen Sabai restaurant. After taking a seat at one of the ceramic tables, we started with an appetizer platter of fried sheets of Mekong river seaweed, grilled pork sausage, sweet chili sauce, sesame-coated pork jerky and wonderfully smokey eggplant dip. A small basket of sticky rice came on the side. The main event was the Lao beef “fondue,” a cross between Korean barbecue and Japanese shabu-shabu. Sadly no cheese was involved. A red-hot charcoal brazier was placed inside the table and topped with a large metal pot. While vegetables and noodles simmered in broth, we grilled thin slices of beef in lard on top of the pot. The juices from the meat dripped down into what would become very flavorful soup.
While you probably can’t go wrong with any of the terrace restaurants on Th Kingkitsarat, which runs along the Nam Khan, we enjoyed Kon Kai for its delicious Lao dishes and friendly, if slow, service. Just order some BeerLao and relax while you wait. The spectacular pork sausages (say ua moo) make the time commitment worthwhile. We were delighted to find on the menu larp gai, the Lao take on the refreshing Thai salad of ground chicken, cilantro, lemongrass and lime. We tried two “casseroles” though they in no way resembled the home-style American dishes that word implies. The first one, oh pa daek, was a hearty stew of pork, basil, chili, lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce that reminded us a little of the curries we enjoyed in northern Thailand. Orlarm, the second casserole of pork, eggplant, green beans, onions and dill looked a little funky but tasted so good we were soon scraping the bottom of the bowl.
Lao Lao Garden is a delightful spot for lunch, with tables spread throughout the shady, green property, and would have been quite peaceful but for the persistent pop soundtrack. Try the orlahm, here a water buffalo saute with peppers and holy basil. We also recommend ordering the chicken laap, our favorite meat salad of many spellings. BONUS: The restaurant’s resident cats are friendly and eager to be petted. There are signs posted asking diners not to feed the cats, which I may or may not have done.
The French influence can still be felt in Luang Prabang’s European-style cafes, including Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene. If you can find a seat at lunchtime, order one of their terrific sandwiches and a refreshing Lao iced tea. Need an afternoon pick-me-up? A delectable pastry, such as a fruit tart or chocolate eclair, will surely fit the bill.