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Lao-Lao in Laos: Luang Prabang & the “Whisky Village”

Posted by on July 15, 2014

Luang Prabang in Laos is one of my all time favourite towns: a laid-back backpacker town in the middle of the green Lao hill country, perfect for meeting fellow travellers.

Last time I was here, I woke up on the banks of the Mekong, wearing a pair of bowling shoes, so I was interested to see what was in store for us this time.

Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Nam Khan: one of two major rivers that shape Luang Prabang

Bar-restaurant on Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang, Laos

Me, Nevo and Jess in Lao Lao Garden or some such bar on Kingkitsarath back in ’09

Where to Stay in Luang Prabang?

Back in 2009, SpicyLaos Backpackers was the cheap, sociable hangout doing the word-of-mouth rounds in South East Asia and I had an amazing time there. The backpacker scene in Laos isn’t quite as it used to be. SpicyLaos is now Lemon Laos Backpackers. “Same same, but different”, they say. I say it’s had it’s day, but then again, what do I know.

This time we stayed in Khammany Inn Guest House, where rooms are surprisingly clean and can be had for somewhere between £1 – 2 per person.

Phou Si

Just like the first time I rolled into Luang Prabang, we (me, Ruth and Adam) grabbed baguettes (a Laos speciality, an improvement even on those of their ex-colonial rulers, the French) and dragon-fruit/mango smoothies from the corner of Kitsalat and Sisavangvong, blitzed the Night Market and started the short hike up Phou Si, a sacred hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.

Buddhist Shrine at Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist shrine on the trail up Mount Phou Si in Luang Prabang

Phou Si is home to several Buddhist shrines and temples and the trail winds steeply up through lush greenery to the top, where you’ll find the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si…and, especially at sunset, shitloads of tourists with cameras.

We took out our cameras and got busy.

On Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

Me atop Mount Phou Si in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Adam.

Sunset from Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

The view from Mount Phou Si at sunset

Going Out Drinking in Luang Prabang

Later we hit the town. The epicentre of the bar-restaurant scene in Luang Prabang is on Kingkitsarath Road. Many will give you a free shot of something or other just for walking in. Some are shitty, some are good, but Lao Lao Garden is probably the favourite. Fairy lights and trailing threads blend almost imperceptibly with the natural vines hanging down from the trees above the outdoor seating. There’s bamboo aplenty and the marquees make this a pleasant hangout whether the sun’s shining or the rain’s coming down hard (as it was for us).

In Lao Lao Garden Restaurant, Luang Prabang

Me and Adam caught trying fruit flavoured rice wine in Lao Lao Garden restaurant

We settled in for a night of Beerlaos, fruit flavoured rice wine and, as it progressed, several glasses of straight lao-Lao (Laotian rice whisky. The first “lao” means alcohol and the second “Lao” means Laotian or from Laos…In case you thought they were just repeating the same word.)

Apparently a Beerlao – even at only £1 – is equivalent to your average Lao’s weekly salary, which, as well as making you feel guilty, makes you realise that lao-Lao (the local’s booze of choice) is by far the most cost-effective way of drinking in Laos. Little did we know we were about to discover for ourselves, firsthand, how it is made…

That night Ruth got a message from our old friend Marion from Vang Vieng asking if we wanted to go with her, Kayla and some other travellers on a river boat up the Mekong to the Buddhist caves. I vaguely remember mumbling something to the effect of “yes” and then passing out for good.

The next day we met up with the others (Marion, Kayla, Kush, Irene and Matt) at the dock. Anticipating a long day, I came armed with a beer. It was when somebody mentioned a “whisky village” that I started to get really excited.

Mekong River Boat to Pak Ou Caves and Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

We set sail on the Mekong, beer in hand as usual. Destination? The “Whisky Village”! Oh, and some caves…

The journey up the Mekong was a pleasant one, with the cool air blowing off the water, and the Pak Ou Buddhist caves were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. (Unfortunately, photos don’t come out well in that darkness, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself.)

Boat at Pak Ou Caves on Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos

Our boat on the Mekong river, docking at the Pak Ou Buddhist caves

Climb to Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang, Laos

Steep steps climb through the jungle to the upper cave at Pak Ou.

The caves contain literally thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The upper cave, past a long rest-house where locals were sleeping on the floor (and I was tempted to join them) and up another steep hill, is the fat Buddha, who, Marion told me, was too good-looking to achieve enlightenment, so made himself fat to rid himself of the vice of pride. A noble effort.

Mekong Dock at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Adam on the banks of the Mekong at Ban Xang Hai

After Pak Ou, we docked at a village called Ban Xang Hai, put on the map for its production of lao-Lao.

Buddhist temple in Ban Xang Hai whisky village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Buddhist temple in Ban Xang Hai “whisky” village

After wandering the village, we came to what passes for a “distillery”.

The Lao-Lao Fermentation & Distillation Process

1. Soak sticky rice overnight or for at least five hours.

2. Steam it until cooked and firm.

Sticky Rice for Lao Lao at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Sticky Rice awaiting its transformation into lao-Lao at the “Whisky Village”.

3. Wash it in the river.

4. Combine with rice powder and yeast.

5. Place in open-air containers.

6. Add water.

7. Leave to ferment for five to ten days.

Sticky rice fermenting in eartherware pots in Ban Xang Hai whisky village for lao-Lao distillation

Sticky rice ferments in eartherware pots before distillation

8. Add more water.

6. Leave to ferment for another five to six days.

Lao Lao Rice Distillery in Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The lao-Lao “distillery” in Ban Xang Hai “Whisky Village”. A serious operation.

7. Transfer to a distiller known as a mo tom lao (effectively just an old metal drum).

8. A consistent temperature must be maintained by constantly adding wood to the fire beneath the mo, patching holes and wrapping it in banana fibre or cotton.

Mo Tom Lao Distiller at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The “mo tom lao” distiller must be kept at the same temperature throughout or the rice burns and the lao-Lao is ruined.

9. Extract alcohol vapour into a “recycled” bottle.

10. Replace with cold water every five to seven minutes.

11. When distillation is complete, mix all bottles together and stir to ensure an even alcohol content.

12. Send it out!

Snake whisky lao-Lao in Vang Vieng, Laos

Snake “whisky” produced at the “Whisky Village” of Ban Xang Hai

You can see me finally pluck up the courage to drink snake “whisky” on Youtube.

After being plied with free samples, we decided to give back to the local economy by stopping at a local shop and buying a round of beers. We sat in the shade around a table of pineapples and whiled away the time shooting the breeze and sharing travel stories…

Drinking Beerlao in Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The thirsty travellers stop to drink Beerlao at a local shop in the ‘Whisky Village”. Photo by Marion.

…until our boat driver came looking for us.

Later that Night

We all met up, along with Theresa from Vang Vieng, at Utopia – the main backpacker haunt in Luang Prabang with its lounge seating and volleyball court.

Volleyball Court at Utopia Bar, Luang Prabang, Laos

The volleyball court at Utopia. I remembered thee well.

Utopia brought back a lot of memories for me. Last time I was there, with Jess, a bunch of Americans and Pheung from SpicyLaos, we played volleyball, drank too many cocktails, met Nevo, a great Israeli guy, at some point moved to Lao Lao Garden, drank more cocktails and met three more (not so great) Israelis intent on shagging Jess and the American girls.

Luang Prabang, as with most places in Laos, has a curfew at around midnight. However, there is one place that, for some mysterious reason, is exempt from this rule and therefore has become something of a backpacker legend…the bowling alley! This night in Luang Prabang ended, as most do, with the bowling alley on the outskirts of town.

There was a drunken tuk tuk journey, people were met and forgotten, Beerlao was consumed en mass

Chinese Mafia Bowling Alley in Luang Prabang, Laos

I don’t remember taking this, but this is what a “Chinese mafia” run bowling alley looks like.

…and at around 3.45am, I woke up to find myself passed out on the banks of the Mekong (well, actually a tributary thereof), still in the (mud-caped) bowling shoes.

There is never any shortage of tuk tuks in the bowling alley car park, so, as soon as I’d figured out where I was, I fell into one…

…and woke up the next day in my bed in SpicyLaos with no memory of the journey home.

I’d agreed to meet Jess that day to go to the Kuang Si waterfalls, so with a terrible hangover we were soon being trundled along a dirt road in the back of a pick-up. I remember listening to the stories of an Australian girl who’d been travelling for 10 years and been turned around at the Iraq border, and it was here that I saw my first water-buffalo wallowing in the mud.

Jess told me all about what I’d missed last night – namely the three Israeli guys breaking into our hostel, trying to get into the girls’ rooms and having to be kicked out by the staff.

Rope Swing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Trying out the rope swing at Kuang Si waterfalls. Hangover forgotten. Photo by Jess.

The waterfalls were beautiful with their opaque, turquoise water tumbling over rocks golden in the patches of sunlight. A dip in that cool water was the best hangover cure I’ve ever had.

I climbed up the slippery mud track to the top, where I discovered a lone Buddhist monk bathing in the serene blue pools and dappled shade. The view of the surrounding Laos countryside – the green hills I love so much – was astounding, and I lingered as long as I could.

Buddhist Monk Bathing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist monk bathing at the top of the Kuang Si waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

I climbed out on a precarious tree branch to get this view overhanging the Kuang Si waterfalls.

Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Beautiful Laos, from the top of the Kuang Si falls

Bamboo Plumbing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Bamboo plumbing at the Kuang Si waterfalls

After messing around on the rope-swing and generally relaxing at the falls, we visited the black bear sanctuary next-door.

Black Bear Sanctuary near Kuang Si Waterfalls, Laos

There’s a black bear sanctuary next to the Kuang Si falls.

Stick Insect at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Stick insect?

Back in town, I had something to take care of. I walked to the bowling alley (about 50 minutes) to return the bowling shoes and get my boots…Only when I got there, my boots were where I’d left them, but I’d become awfully attached to the bowling shoes.

I walked out with both. I’d been told last night that the bowling alley is owned by the Chinese mafia, which would explain the late closing times, so I was shitting myself as I made off wearing stolen mafia goods.

Yes, it’s stealing. No, I don’t care. Those babies went on to be the most well-travelled bowling shoes that ever came into this world. They out-lived those boots, and another set, and I’ve even climbed mountains in them. They did finally pass away, in some exotic nation that escapes me. May they rest in peace.

Other Things to Do in Luang Prabang

The other waterfalls are the Tad Sae falls. I’ve never been, but I hear they’re equally amazing.

There’s a temple called Wat Xieng Thong that sadly didn’t make it into this story but which blew me away. There’s also Wat Wisunalat, which isn’t so impressive, but makes for a good reason to explore Luang Prabang.

Bridge over the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

A kid silhouetted on a bridge over the Nam Khan

Back in the present day, we said all our goodbyes, bundled Adam into a tuk tuk and a bus to Thailand, and set off ourselves for Vietnam.

Tuk Tuk in Luang Prabang, Laos

Adam was whisked off in a tuk tuk, never to be seen again.

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