Lao cuisine has been influenced by its neighboring countries, Thailand, China and Vietnam, but also by its colonial past. The Lao love their sticky rice, which is served pretty much with every meal. The short grain rice is soaked in water overnight and steamed in bamboo steamers. Served in small bamboo baskets, it is eaten by hand, dipped into curries and sauces.

Traditional Lao dishes are larb, an herbal salad that is made with minced pork or fish (sometimes raw marinated fish, somewhat like ceviche), khao piak sen noodle soup, and tam mak hoong similar to the Thai som tam papaya salad, but made with pla daek, fermented fish sauce. Lao cuisine also has French influences and for special occasions they eat ragout (pork stew), while a common lunch item is khao chi, a baguette with paté, sliced papaya, cilantro and hot sauce.

Bars and Pubbing in Laos

Vientiane probably has the most varied nightlife in Laos from bars and pubs to nightclubs. However, there is very little partying throughout the night, with most venues closing at midnight or shortly thereafter. The more upscale bars can be found in the numerous hotels in the city, such as the Novotel, the Lao Plaza Hotel, the Green Park Boutique Hotel, and the Don Chan Palace Hotel, which also has a nightclub, the Lunar 36 (Don Chan Palace Hotel, Vientiane). For cheap drinks, head to the many bars, cafés and restaurants lining the Mekong River, which offer the popular Beer Lao. The Déjà Vu (Nam Phu, Vientiane) is a small, classy and quiet bar that serves great cocktails and is a favorite among expats. Jazz lovers should head to the Jazzy Brick (Rue Setthathilath, Vientiane), which has live music on weekends. The younger crowd will like Bor Pen Nyang (Rue Setthathilath, Vientiane).

Luang Prabang is not known for its night scene as most visitors do not go to the old capital to party. The city pretty much shuts down at 10:00 p.m. or midnight at the latest. Most of the bars are basically at the restaurants dotted the main streets, Skkaline Road and Kingkitsarath Road. Popular Lao venues are the Utopia Bar & Restaurant (along Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang), Aussie Bar (along Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang) and Blue Ice Bar (Kingkitsarat Road, Luang Prabang). The only so-called nightclub in Luang Prabang is the Dao Fah Nightclub (Route 13, Ban Naluang, Luang Prabang).

Beyond Vientiane and Luang Prabang, there is little Western-style drinking to be had in Laos. In Pakse, the only club is the Lotty (No.11 Road, Pakse) with one popular bar, the Jaidee Bar & Restaurant (No.11 Road, Pakse). In Savannakhet there are a few more options, such as the Rose Bar (Thanon Ratsavongseuk, Savannakhet), Dragon (Thanon Ratsavongseuk, Savannakhet) and Chelsea FC Club (Thanon Saenna, Savannakhet).

Dining and Cuisine in Laos

Vientiane offers a wonderful array of restaurants, ranging from cheap street stalls with affordable Lao and Western food to upscale French dining. All kinds of cuisines are present in Vientiane, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, European and even burger and pizza joints. The government has done well to keep out American fast food chains and visitors will find none here. The closest is Thailand’s Pizza Company and Swensen’s ice cream parlor that have outlets next to the Lao National Cultural Hall.

A walk along the Mekong River will help visitors find plenty of eateries along both sides of the street. Most of these are affordable and serve a mix of Lao, Thai and Western food. Most of the mid-range to high price restaurants are located on the side streets between Fa Ngum and Rue Setthathirlath and around the Nam Phu area. Expat favorites include Le Provencal (Nam Phu, Vientiane), Full Moon Café (Thanon Francois Ngin, Vientiane), La Terrace (Thanon Nokeokoummane, Vientiane), and Gondola (Rue Chao Anou, Vientiane).

For excellent Lao food, make sure to try Mak Phet (behind Wat Ong Teu, Vientiane), which is run by an organization that provides jobs to street kids. For some of the best Thai food in Vientiane, head to Kop Kap (next to Wat Pha That Luang, Vientiane). The best traditional Japanese restaurant is Fujiwara, located inside the Lao Plaza Hotel and great Asian fusion can be had at the small Yulala Café (Henbgoun Street, Vientiane). The most expensive French restaurant in the city is Le Silapa (Sihom Road, Vientiane).

Thanks to the colonial influence, there are lots of great cafés in Laos to enjoy with great pastries and light meals. In Vientiane, Le Banneton (Rue Nokeokoummane, Vientiane), Scandinavian Bakery (Nam Phu, Vientiane), JOMA Bakery (Rue Setthathilath, Vientiane), and Le Croissant d’Or (Thanon Nokeokoummane, Vientiane) are some of the best. Excellent coffee is served at The Little House (Rue Manthatourat, Vientiane), where shade-grown organic blends are roasted in–house and served with scones.

The number of international restaurants in Luang Prabang has increased significantly over the last couple years, with most located in or around Sisavangvong Road, the road along the Mekong River and Nam Kan River. The specialty here is watercress salad, a must try, and pla mok steamed fish in banana leaf. Expat favorites include the L’Elephant (Wat Nong village, Luang Prabang), which serves excellent French and European cuisine and the Blue Lagoon Restaurant (next to the National Museum), which serves both Lao and Swiss food. Some Vientiane favorites have branches in Luang Prabang, including the Scandinavian Bakery (Sakkaline Road, Luang Prabang), JOMA Bakery (Phothisaleth Road, Luang Prabang), and Le Banneton (opposite Wat Sop, Luang Prabang).

In Pakse, most of the restaurants are clustered around Road 13, near the Champasak Palace Hotel. The best Western-style food can be found at Delta Coffee (near Champasak Palace Hotel, Pakse), Tour Lao Restaurant (next to Market Hall, Pakse) for burgers and fries and Van Pisa Restaurant (Route 13, Pakse) for Italian. For local specialities, check out Ketmany Restaurant (Route 13, Pakse).