Luang Prabang havens – Tamarind restaurant and Sa Sa Lao ecolodge

Wat Visounnarath, an ornate temple
Temple entrances are grand.

I had spent several days in Luang Prabang without ever feeling quite the sense of overwhelming beauty that people talk about. That changed yesterday, when I decided that my town centre hostel, despite its lovely atmosphere, could be bettered. – proving that the town itself is perfectly attractive, but coming back to, or sheltering from the heat in, a place without a comfortable social area wasn’t quite what I wanted. Town centre hostels seem to mostly have long tables in the front room as their social area, and that’s about it. They are adapted from town houses, which have the front room, open to the street all day, as the focus of life. That front room is pretty full, with a TV on a wall or otherwise central, hard-looking wooden chairs around the edge, motorbikes wheeled in at night and so on. It doesn’t make for the most comfy spot.

I went wandering in the morning, aiming for a guesthouse with a view of the river. It was being rebuilt, so I went back to the hostel to pay up. In the end, Sa Sa Lao was recommended. I assumed I’d head towards the Mekong for the view and ambience I wanted, but this is the other way, back towards the airport, and overlooking the Nam Khan. I arrived and was sold immediately – a walk down a dirt side-road brings you to a tree-shaded set of buildings set amongst lush greenery. Bungalows are available for 220,000 kip (£20) – very reasonable, but not quite what my budget calls for. Might as well save while I can, and the dorm beds are 41,000 kip a night, and quite beautiful; large airy rooms, open to the air at the top. Probably more than a bit hot in peak temperatures, but there have been a couple of storms which have cooled everything down.

A dog stands looking over the river, which is a muddy brown
Panorama from the Nam Khan riverside at Sa Sa Lao

I only got a quick view of the waterfront spot when I looked and booked, before going back to get my stuff. A bit of a walk in the heat, from Thavisouk family home to here, but a shower waited at the other end. And then, the river. As well as the central area, which has a restaurant, reception and so on, there are a couple of groups of chairs in the garden, and two wooden-boarded areas looking down over the river.

 

Furniture by the roadside
Furniture shop next to Sa Sa Lao, big on the big items.

Perfect. My haven – even the sound of music and, as time went on, karaoke, drifting from the other side of the river, near the ‘new bridge’ off to the right, could spoil it. Not so much near here, and when I found a restaurant that looked open they were only serving barbecue, but I went with it and enjoyed barbecued duck with greens to dip with it. “Will you take a Beer Lao” asked the owner, and I figured I would. For a moment, as I agreed to take a seat with no further ordering needed, I wondered whether it would be expensive, but given that the barbecue was sold to me as “very Lao”, that was unlikely. Total cost – 40,000 kip.

On Saturday night, I’d met Evan and Katy for dinner. They’d been to a Lao dance evening, which had left them a little discombobulated. Walking away from the night market, outside the Royal Palace on whose campus the theatre sits, we had no clear idea where to go, but ended at a restaurant their guidebook had already recommended – Tamarind.

A hammock and several bamboo deck chairs overlooking the river
The other riverfront area. A little cooler than 5 metres closer to the road. Sunny day, so this wasn’t today!

A budget buster, with a 120,000kip set meal, but boy was it worth it. The company would have made any meal, as our conversation roamed from British to US commonplaces, through joy and fears of travelling and the meaning of ‘authenticity’ (and why it’s annoying when ‘authentic’ is used to mean ‘the experience I expect to have). The food was great, though, with each course explained by a series of staff all with excellent English. The place gives teaching courses too, which explains how that has come to be, though it is still impressive. They start you off with a flavoured rice whisky – which is fortunately not followed by several others, which has lost me a day on a previous visit. Bamboo soup to start, which is perhaps a Lao staple –

A dog sleeps under the chairs on the covered riverfront decking
Sa-Sa-Lao.

certainly I had it served me at Kham’s (friendly neighbour in Vientiane) house. Then a plate of appetisers, seaweed, Luang Prabang sausage and others, an aubergine (?) based-dish, chicken stuffed with lemongrass – pull the lemongrass aside to set free the chicken, all with sticky rice. And finally, our favourite, wrapped up in a bamboo pocket, fish, heavy on the dill; the waitress told us to be careful when opening it. “Oh,” we said, “why’s that?” as I thought perhaps it would expand. “The fish is sleeping” she said, and giggled.

Delicious. Dessert was sweet sticky rice and four fruits, only two of which I can name – Dragonfruit and Banana. The other two were interesting more for texture than taste. One seemed not to be a mixture of several fruits with a bit of ginger thrown in.

A fabulous meal with fabulous people, that set me up for a half marathon the next day.

Foliage hangs down and covers the far side of the river at dusk
A dull dusky picture over the Nam Khan.

Stayed: Sa Sa Lao (was Fan Dee, judging by some of the posters etc), booked in person (which may be cheaper – because the budget accommodation prices are so low, I suspect they put them up a little to allow for websites’ referral fees). Booking.com lets you see rough prices, though.

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