Anthony Bourdain in Laos: 6 Spots Where Tony Ate
Laos is a massively underdeveloped country, even by Southeast Asian standards; this is in part because of the horrors literally rained down on the country by American bombers during a Secret War carried out during American involvement in the Vietnam War.
It is no surprise that this is the narrative Anthony Bourdain wanted to share with viewers during his visits to Laos; it was as integral to the story as the food, the landscape, and the people – in fact, it is perhaps at the crux of all you now experience on a visit to Laos… and Tony understood that.
Anthony Bourdain visited Laos twice, to film season 4 (episode 11) of No Reservations and season 9 (episode 3) of Parts Unknown. They were his only two visits to the country, and he told a very similar story on-screen in both.
If you’re planning a trip to Laos and want to know about the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Laos, you’ve come to the right place. Below, I’ve detailed the restaurants and markets where Anthony Bourdain ate in Laos, as well as some other Laotian foods he tried in more local villages and informal dining experiences. As they say in Laos, Sep lai (a Lao phrase meaning ‘very good’ – a kind of Laotian bon appétit.)
Want to watch the episode where Anthony Bourdain visits Laos?
The No Reservations episode is available on Amazon and Hulu; the Parts Unknown episode is available on Apple TV.
No Reservations (2008)
Bourdain’s first trip to Laos took him quickly from the capital city of Vientiane out into the countryside of misty mountains and farmlands.
Phonsavan Morning Market
First, he heads into Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khouang Province in northeast Laos. There he visits the Morning Market; like many Southeast Asian countries, Laos has a strong market culture including morning markets where people stock up on daily essentials.
Here, Bourdain tries Khao Piak Sen, a dish that’s sometimes called Lao Chicken Noodle Soup. The dish includes chicken, duck, and pork in a noodle broth with ginger paste, chili paste, green onions, and fish sauce. This is an essential Laotian dish, one that Tony eats again on his second trip.
Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres
After a few local meals, Anthony Bourdain then makes a visit to Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres, a nice hotel outside Phonsavan. There he tries some more unconventional dishes, including an ant egg omelet, grilled chicken with lemongrass, fried chicken, cabbage and mushroom soup, all served with chili paste and sticky rice.
Ban Xang Hai
For his final stop on this first trip, Tony visits Ban Xang Hai, also known as “Whisky Village.” Here, he tries the best Lao-Lao, a local spirit of rice whisky also called “Mekong River Moonshine.” While he had sipped Lao-Lao many times on this trip, he enjoys it here served with a snack of freshwater Mekong shrimp soup.
Parts Unknown (2016)
Anthony Bourdain’s second trip to Laos took place shortly after his visit to Vietnam where he sat down with President Barack Obama – who seemingly went on to visit Laos based on Tony’s comments during filming.
During this visit, he explores a few different areas of the country but tells much the same story: Laos has a horrific future made by the American Military during a “secret war” during the Vietnam War. As usual, he helps tell this story through the foods he eats and those he shares those meals with.
Tony starts out at Phosy Market in Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of Laos. He sits down with Chef James Syhabout, who is an American immigrant from Thailand with a love of Laotian food. There, the two chefs tuck into Khao Soi and Khao Piak Sien; the latter was a version of the same dish he tried on his first trip, this time with crispy sliced pork, blood cake, and broth on noodles and rice with veggies.
Ban Lao Hotel
Bourdain next visits Ban Lao Hotel, today a hotel but once the CIA headquarters during the Secret War. There he sits down with Mama Vahn, an old friend from his previous visit, and Somsanouk Mixay, a Laotian journalist.
They enjoy a homemade lunch of Imperial dishes – ones that date back to Laos before the French, the Americans, or the Communists. These include Lon Song, a local Mekong fish with shallots, garlic, chilis, coconut milk and pork, fish grilled in banana leaves with pork and ginger sauce, river crab, pork skin, and the ubiquitous sticky rice served with all Laotian meals.
Khem Khong Restaurant
Finally, Tony sits down with Ben Schrameck, a French expatriate, filmmaker, and entrepreneur who came to Laos in the 1990s and never left. The two meet at Khem Khong Restaurant, located on the banks of the Mekong, for a meal and a conversation about life in Laos.
Over beer and several dishes (not named or really even shown on the show), they continue to unpack the complex legacy of America’s role in Laotian history.
Other Laotian Foods Tony Ate
In addition to visiting the above places, Bourdain visited a number of smaller villages to try several other dishes:
- In Tanmi Sai during his first (No Reservations) visit, he has a local lunch with a bomb victim and his family; the dishes he tries include fried freshwater fish, bamboo shoots and steamed vegetables, and vegetable soup with chili paste.
- In another local village, he has a meal of salted curd swallows, two ways, fried and flame grilled (which he admits honestly on voiceover he could barely choke down), along with grilled buffalo skin and fermented fish, fried cauliflower with meat, vegetable soup, padaek (Laotian fish sauce), and sticky rice. They also have Lao-Lao, the national tipple.
- In Parts Unknown, Tony visits Long Lan Village for a local meal with some of the village elders who remember the Secret War. They enjoy vegetables and rice in sauce along with chicken, blood cake, vegetables, and rice.
- For another local meal, Bourdain meets up with Syhabout and another Laotian friend for a meal of aw lahm (wood ear mushrooms, dill, pepperwood, blood cake, and buffalo), luet paeng (buffalo blood and herbs that they jokingly call “Lao panna cotta”), and sticky rice.
- On the bank of the Mekong near Luang Prabang, Tony sits down for Lao Lao with Nuth and Oula, the owners of the Luang Prabang Motorcycle Club Bar; they also nosh on chicken feet, buffalo tendon, and dried squid – distinctly Laotian bar snacks!
- Finally, Bourdain has one last local meal of Bamboo Soup with duck while talking about bombs, the CIA vs communism, and the impact on Laotians today.
As you can tell, local meals are as big a part of visiting Laos and eating Laotian food as restaurant and market dining. This should also be a part of your plan when visiting Laos, if you trust Tony’s advice on these things.
Laos Food Tours to Try
If you’re looking for a bit more guidance on sampling Laotian cuisine, I found a few decent food tours you might consider booking during your trip to Laos.
Have any other questions about the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Laos or the foods he ate there? Let me know in the comments below.