Laotian cuisine is very similar to Thai food, with a few local specialties thrown in. In towns, you should be able to find old standbys like fried noodles and rice and the firey papaya salad som tam just about everywhere as well as laap, a type of spicy meat salad.
Western food is also easy to get wherever tourists gather. The French influence means baguettes are everywhere. Places catering to travellers also serve up pasta, pizzas, fruit shakes and fresh crepes or pancakes.
It’s in the countryside where things sometimes get tough. Just wander around a local market and you’ll quickly see what most Lao people eat on a day to day basis. Frogs and squirrel are not uncommon and it’s not food that tempts most westerners.
In villages or very small towns your only choice may be noodle soup at 4,000-10,000 kip a bowl. There are many variations from a thin broth with instant noodles and a few spring onions to soup with chunks of liver or with beansprouts and slices of chicken or pork. The broth is rarely very flavourful but you can use the condiments on the table including chilli sauce and fresh limes to make something to your taste.
On the road, you often see women selling grilled skewers of meat, although it’s sometimes hard to determine what kind of meat it is. Unique cuts are sometimes served up. We have been offered duck beak with the tongue still attached and part of the windpipe.
You may also see rice steamed inside bamboo with coconut – a great power snack. Other common snacks include grilled bananas and sliced, prepared fruit. Try the green mango with salty chilli sauce! Anywhere buses stop you can guarantee there will be several women selling food to go.
At shops, you can find cookies and snacks like banana chips and there’s almost always a cooler or ice box with drinks inside. Small shops also usually have a few bananas and maybe one or two other kinds of fruit for sale.
Keep an eye out for tables with a blender and a few jars of different coloured powders. Pick a flavour and then the powder is blended together with ice and a sugar syrup to make a frozen drink. Probably not so good for you in terms of artifical colours but very refreshing on a hot day and good value at only 2,000-3,000 kip.
Water in Laos isn’t particularly well monitored. It’s better not to drink it out of the tap but any ice and water you get in restaurants should be purified. For drinking water, you can buy 1 litre water bottles in a pack of 6 for less than a dollar. Otherwise, bring a filter and get pumping.