We arrived in Luang Namtha after a long van ride from Luang Prabang. We found a guesthouse on the main road and headed to the night market for dinner.
Luang Namtha is a tiny town and the night market wasn’t much compared to other night markets we have been to.
It consisted of about 10 stalls all selling the same thing: grilled chicken, duck, and pork belly, fruit shakes, and a kilo bag of sticky rice.
That’s right, I said one kilogram of sticky rice!
The meat was amazing, especially the pork belly. And I loved being able to eat my fill of sticky rice, which is normally sold in palm-sized packages.
We ate the greasy meat with our hands and then pulled off pieces of the chewy rice, which would absorb the meat goo from our fingers. It sounds gross, but I promise, it was delicious.
In an effort to figure out where to go to see the Loy Kratong fireboats that I had read about online, we ended up talking to a tour operator and booking, not only a ride to the boat festival the next night, but also a kayak trip for the next day.
We enjoyed kayaking the next day and especially liked the lunch our guide packed. It was, unfortunately, our first taste of real Laos food in our whole month in the country.
Our guide had stopped at the local market that morning and picked up a whole fish with herbs, chicken in a gooey (but delicious) sauce, bamboo salad, nam prik (a spicy paste for dipping stuff in ) and . . . a kilo of sticky rice.
At lunch time we beached our kayaks on the bank of the river and our guide spread the meal out on a large banana leaf. After the food was laid out, he pulled a small chunk of sticky rice out of the bag and dotted it across each food item, then tossed it aside. He did this 3 times, I have no idea why. Perhaps, a Buddhist ritual?
Then we squatted down next to the banana leaf and feasted. This was probably our favorite meal in Laos. It’s hard to beat an authentic local meal eaten with your hands in a beautiful riverside setting.
That evening it was time for the festival. We were picked by a songtheow (a covered pick up truck with two rows of padded seats in the back). There were four other travelers in the back.
We were taken first to a bridge by the river. Tables selling goods were set up on the sides of the road. Many were selling small kratong, little boats decorated with flowers and candles.
As part of the holiday, locals light the candle on the kratong and release the boat into the river, sending all their “bad juju” with it.
Tissue paper lanterns were also being released in a similar cleansing ritual. Even though we were planning to participate in Chiang Mai’s huge Loy Kratong celebration the following month, we couldn’t resist releasing our own lantern.
After this our driver’s wife, who came along because she didn’t want to miss the celebration, bought some produce to share with us. The first was a root vegetable that she showed us how to peel with our fingers. They called it a yam, but we think it was a jicama. The other had purple skin and a white interior than tasted like a mix between coconut and sugar cane.
Then we drove 10km out of town to where a carnival was being held. When booking our driver, I said I wanted to go the “boat festival”. In Luang Prabang large kratong boats are lit and sent down the Mekong River. From my online searching, I thought the same type of thing happened in Luang Namtha.
After wandering the carnival to its end near the river, I thought we would see the fire boats in the water. But no. I guess my request was lost in translation. There were no fire boats.
We were invited to stay and eat at a food tent with heart-poundingly loud music. Luckily the other travelers also didn’t want to stay because we were ready to head back to the night market for dinner: greasy meat and a kilo of sticky rice!
The next morning, as much as I would have liked to stay to enjoy a few more kilos of sticky rice, it was time to return to Thailand.