As a high school student, Jen Redden home-swapped in quiet Uralla, in the New England region of New South Wales, for a year as an exchange student in South Wales. Thailand. This placed her on an Asian studies course at university, and she moved to neighboring Laos 17 years ago, where she works in international development for an NGO.
The center of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is really small and easy to navigate; you can walk it in 20 minutes. Small shops, cafes and a few temples are tucked away in the side streets, and there are still a handful of beautiful old buildings from the French colonial period. Unfortunately, the old architecture is dying out as big developers buy out major sites. The Trio sources sustainably priced coffee from local producers and serves great coffee. See letriocoffee.com
The Mekong River has real magic. I enjoy spending time observing the life along the river, especially at sunset when it’s cooler and people are getting more active. Vientiane’s riverfront is ideal for people-watching in the late afternoon and early evening; enterprising fitness instructors set up small stages and speakers, people can pay around 50 cents to attend their classes. West of the Mekong River Commission building, food stalls are set up on the sidewalk – you can get a Lao beer for just over a dollar. If you’re with friends, the Lao way is to drink beer from a glass with ice – order one bottle at a time and keep filling your glasses so there’s less chance of the beer getting warm while she’s on the table. Ice cubes are fine, but avoid crushed ice, which is more likely to be produced in less hygienic conditions.
Many dishes that you think are Thai are actually from Laos, such as papaya salad (som tum in Thai or tum mak hung in Lao) and sticky rice. Larb is also Lao – I love mushroom larb and tofu larb. If you’re sitting by the river, order pun pa, grilled Mekong white fish served with salad leaves, herbs, nuts, ginger, chilli, garlic and a spicy sauce. Wrap a bit of everything in the salad leaves, like a build-your-own spring roll. If you don’t know what to do, ask the staff to show you how. Do Kha Noi, 10 minutes by tuk tuk from the city center, is a charming restaurant run by a Lao-British couple serving traditional Lao cuisine. The menu changes daily depending on the season and what’s on the market that morning. They always have some vegetarian options too. It’s good quality food in a lovely setting for $10-$20 per person, and try their gin, which they spice up with plum, pepper or lemongrass. See facebook.com/DoiKaNoi
If riverside Lao beer isn’t your drink, the upscale 525 serves cocktails and tapas and excellent negroni in a beautifully renovated old colonial house. Note that you’ll pay more for a cocktail than a laborer earns for a day’s work – but still affordable by Australian standards. Sticky Fingers was started by two Australian women 20 years ago, and they have a happy hour from 6-8 p.m. where drinks are half price. They make a great spicy tom yum margarita that you can buy by the glass or the jug.
Calling someone warm-hearted is an insult, so don’t get angry. You have to adopt the bor pen nyang, the “everything will be fine” or “it doesn’t matter” attitude. Also, avoid negotiating too hard, especially on something the seller has grown or made themselves. The economy has been hit hard in recent years of the pandemic and many people are still struggling to earn enough to support themselves and their families.
Support local industries by buying from social enterprise craft shops that operate on fair trade principles and ensure their workers are fairly compensated. The sinh is a Lao cotton or silk skirt – you will see women across the country wearing them. Laos has worked hard to maintain its textile traditions and the women take great pride in their weaving patterns and natural dyes. TaiBaan Crafts is a good choice in Vientiane. See taibaancrafts.com