For many travellers, food is one of the main ways of engaging with another culture. Food certainly plays a big role in Lao culture and society. Sharing food is the focus of any special occasion or gathering, offering food is a way to be polite and welcoming, men and women learn cooking skills from a young age and Lao people can talk about food all night.
Even if you can’t read the menu, try eating at local restaurants and food stalls to get a sense of the diversity and individuality of Lao food. Here are some basics to get you started: khao niow (sticky rice – national staple, not sweet), tam mak houng (spicy green papaya salad), laap or koy (minced meat salad) and ping gai (barbecued chicken). Every province boasts some local specialties, here are a few examples from Bokeo.
Khao soi is the most unique and arguably most ‘Lao’ of the noodle soup dishes. The sauce is not dissimilar to spaghetti bolognese, made with minced pork meat, fermented soy beans and tomatoes. It is combined with rice noodles in a hot watery broth, and you add lettuce leaves and herbs to taste. Reputedly the best khao soi in the whole country is made here in Bokeo, at Ban Nam Keung Mai village, about half an hour north of Houai Xay.
If you happen to be visiting Houai Xay on a Saturday or Sunday – you’re in luck. Ban Py Bounthong village, otherwise known as Ban Khao Pun, opens up a series of outdoor sala-style khao pun restaurants for the weekend. The town is around 15 minutes out of Houai Xay by tuk-tuk and a favourite spot for young people to hang out and eat the rice noodle dish.
The Lahu people of Ban To Lae village, Muang Meung district, make a natural forest honey using indigenous apis cerana bees. The bees make a different style of honey from the European honey bee. In fact, a number of beekeeping and honey production endeavours are underway in Bokeo.
The Talat Sao (‘morning market’) of Houai Xay is actually open all day, and it’s a great place to see how Lao people shop and eat. Located just out of town, a tuk-tuk will get you there in around 5 minutes. Prices are generally fixed at food markets, it is not appropriate to bargain.
You can taste local dishes at the ‘fast food’ stalls around the sides of Talat Sao, including ping (barbecued) meats and noodle soups. You can also buy strange and delicious khao nom (sweets and snacks), both local and imported from Thailand.
The fish section features live paa nin waiting to be sold in buckets bubbling with fresh water. Among the best fruits are locally grown mak kiang (oranges) and mak haam (tamarind – a long lumpy fruit in a brown shell). Some of the more unfamiliar products include nor mai (bamboo shoots) which are cone-shaped and yellowish, available mainly in the early months of the year.