Learning to Cook Lao Food

At Tamarind's cooking school, decked out in an apron

At Tamarind’s cooking school, decked out in an apron

Cooking classes are extremely popular in Southeast Asia and I made it a goal to take at least a few while I’m in the region. While I didn’t do one in Vietnam, I did take advantage of a cooking class in Luang Prabang with Tamarind, a Lao-Australian owned restaurant. It was not the cheapest day, as the course cost $35, but it was well worth it as I learned a lot about Lao food and eating customs.

The day started with a visit to the market, where we sampled some local snacks and learned about the produce we’d be using throughout the day. Then we were taken to Tamarind’s cooking school just outside the city, which was a peaceful garden with ponds and flowers.

We cooked three main dishes – chicken, fish, and buffalo meat – as well as sticky rice and an eggplant dip. We also made amazing purple sticky rice with coconut for dessert. I met some great fellow travelers, although as usual I was the only one going solo, and tested my culinary skills with some brand new ingredients. Learning how to stuff lemongrass with chicken was particularly challenging!

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Tad Thong Waterfalls and Ban Houay Thong

A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village

A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village

One of the best days I spent in Luang Prabang was visiting the Tad Thong Waterfalls and National Park. The trip is less popular than Kuang Si, but just as enjoyable and far more tranquil.  It’s only 6km outside of the town center and is easily reached by bicycle.

The main draw here is a circular jungle trek which passes several small waterfalls and interesting trees and flowers. However, the best part of the area is the village of Ban Houay Thong, which is uphill from the jungle trek on a narrow, dirt path. There you will find friendly locals and lots of puppies. I wish I had brought some books from Big Brother Mouse to give the children, but unfortunately I was unprepared.

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The Vats of Luang Prabang

Vat Nong in Luang Prabang

Vat Nong in Luang Prabang

The main draw of the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang is the dozens of colorful, gilded vats (or temples) that surround the area. I was a bit hesitant to take lots of pictures while visiting the temples as there are cultural sensitivities regarding the monks, especially as a woman. There are far too many tourists who intrude upon the monks’ daily lives and invade their personal space, meanwhile disrespecting ancient customs. I always make the most conscious effort to not be one of those travelers!

However, the gorgeous architecture was too enticing to resist taking photos entirely, so here are a handful as a taste of what the town has to offer.

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Kuang Si Falls

The Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

The Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’d been excited to visit Luang Prabang and the surrounding area since hearing about it from several travelers in Vietnam, and the UNESCO heritage town certainly did not disappoint. The Kuang Si waterfalls about 35km outside of town are the most popular attraction and are easily reached with one of the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers. While the falls themselves are beautiful, more impressive for me were the smaller, terraced, turquoise waterfalls below which reminded me a bit of Pamukkale in Turkey. There were swimming holes as well and the more adventurous visitors jumped off rocks and trees, doing flips into the chilly water. There was also a fairly challenging hike (at least it was a challenge in the mud with flip flops on!) to the top of the falls and excellent views of the surrounding mountains.

I found a great group of people from my hostel to go with and we had an amazing day hiking, swimming, and watching the bears and the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center which is right next to the waterfalls.

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