Some travelers wouldn’t even think about eating street food while traveling overseas but I salivate at the prospect. In Bangkok, I snack throughout the day from vendors that line the major avenues and in Pokhara, Nepal I patronize steel food carts that prepare everything from Tibetan momos (similar to Chinese dumplings or pot stickers) to Indian chat, a casserole of salty/spicy beans and potatoes topped with yogurt sauce. Not only is street food usually delicious, the price is cheap beyond reason.
Since Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world I had expected to eat on a budget but in Luang Prabang the price of restaurant food was surprisingly high. Instead, I went in search of street food but found none, a puzzling situation in Southeast Asia. It took me a few days but I finally solved the riddle. Every evening, the main street of Luang Prabang is closed off to traffic from 6 to 11 p.m. for hundreds of handicraft merchants who sell their wares from blankets spread beneath portable canopy tents. On the far south end of the night market, tucked into a tiny alley that runs perpendicular to the main road, scores of food vendors line both sides of the narrow lane, leaving barely enough room for two people to pass.
I pushed my way through the crowd and ogled tables heaped with Lao delicacies, nearly paralyzed by the choices. At a booth stacked with gleaming red tomatoes and giant cucumbers a woman shaved green papayas and chopped chillies for Som Tam, the famous spicy salad found all over SE Asia. On the opposite site a hefty woman hacked a roasted pig’s head to pieces with a steel-edged cleaver that glinted deadly yellow in the overhead lights. Vendors competed with cries of, “Buffet, all you can eat,” bawled out in barely understandable English. At a booth that specialized in vegetarian food I loaded a plate for less than $5 U.S.
The next night I was back, this time for what quickly became my all-time favorite Lao food, veggie spring rolls wrapped in rice paper and then deep fried to a scrumptious, melt-in-your-mouth crispy golden brown. The cost for six? Less than $3. Juicy mango slices with chilli powder; whole fish on a stick, grilled and encrusted with rock salt; sesame-embedded dried seaweed – I tried it all and then paid homage to the gods of the steel gut that protect me from ever getting sick.