Nestled in a slim valley shaped by towering green mountains and surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang is Laos’ best-kept secret that is slowly being discovered by travellers. The peaceful backwater is a mere 45-minute flight from the nation’s capital city, Vientiane, yet feels like a whole other world.
While many visit this historical UNESCO heritage site for its magnificent temples that glisten under the sun, and strong Buddhist culture, the allure of Luang Prabang lies in its quiet alleyways. Although it looks like a sleepy town from the outside, wander into the city’s many unpaved areas, and you will discover beautiful hidden restaurants completely overlooked by unsuspecting tourists.
Manda de Laos
Turning in from the main Phothisalath Road and onto an unpaved road, will lead you to a humble storefront with the words “Manda de Laos.” Don’t let that fool you. Step in past the hanging lanterns, and the view will take your breath away.
Manda de Laos is the perfect restaurant for a romantic evening in a mystical setting, with tables set around a beautiful lotus pond and surrounded by lush palm trees lit up by fairy lights. This is exactly the type of restaurant you want to tell the whole world about but at the same time keep it your little secret. And right now, we are conflicted.
Manda de Laos specialises in a blend of traditional Lao delicacies with French flavours. Try the Neam Khao, a Laotian crunchy rice salad, or the wok-fried buffalo flambéed — accompanied by a glass of Lao Lao Whisky. The crème brûlée is also surprisingly delicious, rivalling its Parisian counterparts.
Tangor Restaurant Bar & Lounge
Many fine dining restaurants can be found in the 19th-century French colonial villas on the city’s main boulevards. One such establishment is Tangor Restaurant Bar & Lounge on Sisavangvong Road.
Popular amongst expats living in Luang Prabang, Tangor serves fusion food which marries the best of seasonal Lao produce with French cuisine. Coupled with excellent service, this restaurant is (quite arguably) the best French fine dining establishment in Luang Prabang.
Must-try dishes include the beef tenderloin, pork filet mignon and tapas — along with the cheese platter. The restaurant boasts an alfresco area, which is the best place to relax after an afternoon of exploring Luang Prabang — while sipping on a glass of Marius Rosé by Michel Chapoutier.
Ask any local where you can find the best coffee in Luang Prabang, and they will whisper, “Saffron.” The popular Saffron Coffee is a cafe located in a wooden house on Khem Khong Road, right by the Mekong River.
Here, you can spend an afternoon sipping quality coffee in a tranquil setting. Saffron Coffee offers two floors of comfortable seating with wifi and air conditioning (a rare find in Luang Prabang), along with a fantastic brunch menu and an extensive list of different coffee brews to choose from.
The café, which is also a social business, helps former growers of opium to cultivate coffee in the mountains right outside Luang Prabang — and guarantees that the naturally organic coffee is roasted fresh in the city. Besides its signature Lao Latte, the café also offers various brews produced using methods such as the French Press — an immersion technique that creates a silky body and rich flavour — and the Hario V60, a pour-over technique that produces a light body to highlight the delicate nuances of the coffee. Enjoying a cuppa while contributing to the local farmers’ incomes? Count us in.
Ock Pop Tok Silk Road Cafe
Driving through yet another an unpaved road leads you to The Living Craft Centre by Ock Pop Tok (which means East meets West.) Set in a tropical garden, you can spend a day here taking a free guided tour, or watching the silk weavers and craft artisans at work making textiles and handicrafts.
When you’re feeling peckish, enjoy an alfresco lunch by the Mekong River, or simply enjoy a glass of iced fruit juice while lazing on one of the vibrant hammocks (made at the centre, obviously.) Ock Pop Tock Silk Road Cafe specialises in fusion cuisine which uses the freshest ingredients sourced from its own garden, the Living Land Project, and a nearby open market.
Try the Oua Nor Mai Gai (stuffed chicken bamboo shoots) or the Moroccan-style grilled fish. Every Thursday, the cafe also transforms into a moonlight cinema, where films are showcased on a projector. This month, it’s showing award-winning movies such as La La Land and Moonlight.
Tamarind Restaurant & Cooking School
If you want to try authentic Lao cuisine minus the fusion, Tamarind Restaurant is your best bet. Here, you can try a sampling platter or create your own buffet of shared plates.
The sampling platter consists of Sai Ua Moo (Lao pork sausage), Khai Pene (dried river weed), Jeow Bong (spicy sweet chilli paste with buffalo skin), Orlarm (stew with chicken, eggplant, chilli wood and vegetables), and Soop Pak (steamed local vegetables with sesame seeds and herbs) — along with a serving of sticky rice, a staple in Lao cuisine.
Tamarind is also popular for its cooking school, where you not only learn how to make dishes, but also the habits and customs associated with Lao cuisine. The classes use fresh ingredients from Luang Prabang’s major food market. Prices start at 215,000 kip (S$37) for a half-day class.