After my first few trips to Laos, I walked away with the impression that Lao food was far less tasty than food in neighboring Thailand, and Thailand certainly has a reputation that is hard to compete with. But now having spent a little bit more time in the country, I find myself gaining a healthy respect for Lao food than I had in the past.

Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong places. Perhaps I was too overwhelmed by the high-quality foreign food brimming in the capital city to give Lao eats much of a thought.

Silly me. The healthy, natural taste in Lao dishes took some time for me to recognize, but now I can’t get enough.

Here are some you should try during your stay.

1. Sticky Rice in Bamboo Tubes

For a long time I didn’t know what this was when I saw it because it comes inside hollow pieces of

Photo by Sifu Renka

bamboo, but when I finally caught on, I was in for a real treat. As hinted before, the Laotians often cook their sticky rice inside a small section of bamboo, roasting it over an open fire, and when sold by street vendors along with barbecued meats, they leave it inside this casing.

One thing you’ll notice is that a lot of the bamboo sticky rice comes in different colors, often hinting at purples and pinks. The Laotians seem to like their sweet foods and often flavor their rice with coconut and herbs to create a nice little treat that is not overwhelming. Other chefs might infuse the rice with more savory spices.

2. Barbecue Chicken and Papaya Salad

I’m always a fiend for some barbecue chicken and papaya salad—along with regular sticky rice it

Photo by Jennifer D

completes my absolute favorite Thai comfort food. In Laos, these dishes come a bit different than in Thailand. The chicken here seems to be especially delicious, often soaked in fish sauce and spice throughout the night.

The papaya salad, on the other hand, is milder, with less emphasis on the extreme sour, sweet, and spicy flavor of the Thai versions. In Laos, it also tends to have bigger chunks of tomatoes and other vegetables.

I personally prefer the Thai-style papaya salad…shhhh…but a trip to Laos just isn’t complete without sitting at a riverside open-air restaurant eating this simple combination. Order a Beer Laos, the best beer on the continent, to bring your meal full circle.

3. Noodles, Noodles, and More Noodles

Noodles are a popular food staple in just about any Asian country, so it seems, but the Lao people inhale the stuff like nothing I’ve ever seen living in Thailand. I think this is a main reason so many Westerners avoid the food here—a lot of us just can’t seem to get excited about noodles. But sit down and order a bowl and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Many shops serve their noodle soup with a plate of fresh cut herbs and bean sprouts as well as the typical array of chilies and fish sauces for your culinary convenience. Please don’t be shy about digging into all the different seasonings and spices to make a bowl of soup that is completely your own—that’s what it’s put there for.

4. Dim Sum

This is another one I found myself not trying simply because I had no clue what to do—outside of a lot of the noodle stalls, you’ll see stacks of little baskets that the Laotians come up to and peer inside from time to time. I didn’t really think much about what was going on until a few beers allowed my curiosity to get the better of me and I started poking around.

Each stack of baskets held a different little dim sum-style treat. There was everything from bird eggs to chicken feet (soaked in a sweet sauce) to small sausages. They gave me a plate of rice and I sat down and had a little feast I’ll never forget.

5. Barbecued Som Moo

This dish stumped me too. I sat down and pointed at some delicious-looking sausages on the menu, and they brought them out with a huge plate full of fresh leaf vegetables and herbs, cold white noodles, and a sweet peanut-flavored sauce. Beside this came a small dish full of garlic, chilies, cucumbers, and a few thinly-sliced vegetables I didn’t recognize (one of them being particularly sour).

After nibbling at the lettuce a little bit and pouring all my sauce over my noodles, while wondering if they were supposed to be cold, I spied on a neighboring table and figured out what I was supposed to be doing—with all the patrons in the place, there had to be more to it. Little did I know, there was a stack of transparent spring roll wraps on my lettuce plate (I’d already taken a nibble from the stack, trying to figure out whether it was paper or some vegetable I was unfamiliar with).

Apparently a Vietnamese-inspired dish, the ideas is to make your own little spring rolls out of a chunk of sausage, some noodles, an all the veggies and herbs you could cram inside—and plenty of sauce, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever had a dish that tasted so natural and fresh. And was it ever delicious…Order a fresh coconut to drink along with it if you really want to experience heaven in Laos.

Those are a few great ones I’ve found to get you started—and I’m sure there are more to come, so stay posted. Maybe next week I’ll try the fried frog and tell you how that one turns out…