When my friend said she was going to have an arabica, I teased her for being so specific. I thought she meant the type of coffee, turns out she was referring to the cafe. We met at The Podium last 29th August for our long-time-coming meetup that got delayed no-thanks to the pandemic. So we had pizza for lunch, matcha soft-serve for dessert, then ended our meetup with good coffee from Japan, % Arabica.
% Arabica is a Japanese cafe founded by a man named Kenneth Shoji. He took a loan, which he used to buy a coffee farm in Hawaii then started trading green beans. Eventually, he opened his first cafe in Kyoto, Japan in 2014. Today, % Arabica has branches all over the globe, two of which are in the Philippines, one at Bonifacio Global City, and another (the subject of this post) in Ortigas.
I’ve been to % Arabica BGC branch in 2018 during its opening and even met the head barista and first Champion of Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship, Junichi Yamaguchi.
The cafe’s design is monochromatic minimalistic, the lighting is bright, the walls and the bar area are painted in white. I can’t say much about the seating area on the loft as it’s closed. For now, they only take orders to-go.
We both ordered a Spanish latte, only my friend had the iced version. The barista used a tablet to enter our order. Spanish tastes a bit similar to the Vietnamese coffee, maybe because they share the same ingredient, the condensed milk. So yes, this is sweeter than most lattes, but more than the sweetness, I find the tangy flavor more pronounced. Not sure if it’s there’s a difference if you take it iced. I am not a fan of acidic coffee but I must say that this Spanish latte passed to my liking.
I’ve never been a cookie person but lately, I just find them weirdly appetizing and this white chocolate cookie of %Arabica did not disappoint. It was dense, not crumbly, and a bit chewy. I love it. The cafe latte, on the other hand, is like the unsweetened version of Spanish latte.
% Arabica also sells coffee beans and grounds as well as merchandise such as canisters, tumblers, and tote bags.
In the 1900s the French colonists started building coffee plantations in the northern part of Laos. Later on, they discovered that the Bolaven Plateau in the south has a much better environment for growing coffee beans due to its mineral-rich soil and the region’s high elevation. This is how the coffee industry in Laos began and today, the country is the fifth-largest coffee exporter in the world producing over 20,000 tons of Arabica and Robusta per year. It goes without saying that cafe hunting is one of the best activities you shouldn’t miss when you go there, and in this post, I’d like to share five places worth checking out to enjoy Laos coffee.
I spotted Dada Cafe on my way to Green Box Hotel. It occupies a corner space cafe along Rue 23 Singha and Asean Street. I went there for breakfast on our last day in Vientiane. It opens as early as 7:00 in the morning and closes at 10:00 p.m. It is also a coffee roaster, inside you may buy from their good selection of coffee grounds and beans.
The baristas greeted me with a smile as I entered through the glass doors. They spoke little English, but I was able to place my orders easily by pinpointing what I liked on the menu. The place is quite spacious and well lit. There’s a bar table against the wall facing the street, a long table in the middle of the room, and a few single tables on the far left corner.
Save for a middle-aged man in business attire, there were no other customers when I came in. I ordered a latte and a croissant. The coffee was creamy but too bitter for my taste that I asked for some sugar. The croissant was flaky crumbly and soft with a hint of buttery flavor.
When my friend and I had accidentally discovered Ban Anou Night Market while trying to get to Vientiane Night Market, we passed by a hostel called Barn 1920s. On the ground floor of this small hostel is a vintage-themed coffee place called, 1920s Cafe. The place stood out with its dark green doors and windows and cream-colored painted walls.
The colonial interior design gives off a nice nostalgic ambiance. I loved everything, from the dark stained furniture, antique decors, art deco paintings, to the baristas dressed in what looked like old school uniforms.
I’ve ordered a flat white and a cheesecake. I remember loving the coffee cup because of the indentation on the side like somebody pressed a thumb into it while it was being molded. The coffee itself was just okay, nothing remarkable. The cake, however, was really good; soft, not sweet, and has a hint of a burnt taste.
In our last night in Vientiane, my friend and I went to Cafe Sinouk, a corner cafe along the Mekong riverside. This café-bistro has Parisian-style interiors, with plush cushioned seats and a terrace on the second floor. Their menu is extensive offering Thai, Laos, and European cuisines.
Champalao Bungalows Cafe
My friends and I discovered this cafe while we were walking down the town. It’s the in-house cafe of this Vang Vieng bed and breakfast called, Champalao Bungalows. The walls built with planks of wood were covered with vines. Through the casement windows, I saw a red hammock hanging inside. Curious, we entered through the single door and found an empty cafe.
As we wondered if the cafe was even opened, a thin man with a mustache and shoulder-length hair suddenly appeared from the other side of the room. We asked him if they were open to accepting customers, he said yes. After placing our orders, we waited at the alfresco area in the back part of the cafe. There lay one of the best views we’ve ever seen in Vang Vieng.
This cafe is my favorite on this list for two reasons; it has the best ambiance, second, it has the best-tasting coffee. I enjoyed a small cup of mocha latte and I remember it having this rich taste of espresso with a subtle chocolate flavor, topped with velvety creamy foam.
Iced coffee from a street kiosk
It has no name but it’s worth mentioning this coffee kiosk that I found on the side of the street. A bag of iced coffee is only 40,000 kip and I say bag because they use a big plastic bag for it as shown in the photo below. More than the size of the bag, I was more surprised at how good it tastes, yet it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
I wish I had more time to explore more cafes during this trip, but given the short time that we had, I was pretty happy that I got to try more than enough to make this post. There are plenty of options in Laos and even if you are not a coffee person, I think it’s still worth visiting at least one of them as coffee is a big part of the Lao culture.
When I was making my year-end travel plans in 2019 I didn’t consider Laos. I was set on going to Thailand then I thought to include Myanmar. I have a friend who didn’t like Laos and somehow that one negative comment took credence over the glowing reviews shared by others. What opened me up to the idea is another friend who was planning her own backpacking trip to the country. A million chats later with our other friend, we ended up starting the year 2020 in what I consider to be the most charming country I have ever visited to date. And today we will begin the story with its capital city, Vientiane.
How to get to Vientiane from Bangkok
There’s no direct flight from the Philippines to Laos, but Thailand has travel options to get to Laos (good thing Thailand was part of this trip). I booked a Nok Air flight from Bangkok to Udon Thani unaware of the direct flight from Bangkok to Vientiane. It means I traveled more than what’s necessary as the Udon Thani route entails crossing borders.
I checked out from Warm Window Silom at 10:30 p.m. and took the train to Mo Chit Station where I met my friend, Patit. We waited at the waiting shed below the BTS Station for the bus that goes to Don Mueang International Airport (DMK). When the bus arrived, we immediately hopped half-fearing we’d run out of seats. Thankfully, we were faster than other passengers. We saw the female conductor carrying this weird rectangular box that she uses to cut the ticket. She stood in the middle of a moving bus like there was nothing to it, not once did I see her losing her balance; I sat there impressed.
When we reached the DMK airport, we found a spot in to nap for a little bit. Our flight was scheduled at 5 am, we had time to kill. I was excited to see that there are wireless charger docks and it worked on my mobile phone, my friend wasn’t as lucky. I left my phone there and tried to sleep but the a/c was on full blast, I only remember shivering under my flimsy shawl.
Since we didn’t take the direct flight, our itinerary was a little bit complicated. First, we flew from Bangkok to Udon Thani and from there we took a 30-minute coach ride to catch a bus that goes to Nongkhai.
At the immigration, we fell in line with other tourists. There were a bunch of old Vietnamese women also waiting in the queue, all garbed in winter clothes. It wasn’t that cold, I wondered why they were all dressed in those big puffer coats. But more than their choice of clothing, I was more bothered by how blatantly they cut in the line. It took every ounce of my being to keep my cool as all the bad things that happened to me in Vietnam flashed through my mind. I told myself that they’re old people, I should just let it go.
Past the immigration, we hopped on this old bus that had obviously seen better days. There were vintage ceiling fans, the floor was made of wood, and the windows are left opened.
Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge
The bus drove over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, transit time is one hour and 15 minutes. This bridge passes over the Mekong River and is about 1.17 kilometers in length. It connects Nong Khai, Thailand to Vientiane Prefecture. The construction was funded by the Australian government and it officially opened on April 8, 1994. Seeing this bridge made the long trip to Vientiane worth it for me.
In Nongkhai there was another coach waiting for yet again, another land transfer to Vientiane city proper. As we waited for other passengers, we took the opportunity to buy some local SIM cards.
Vientiane City Proper
The driver dropped us somewhere that was a little too far from our respective hostels. Thus, began a long walk under the midday sun with our heavy bags. Despite this, neither of us complained because we were both mesmerized by the scenery. Vientiane used to be the administrative city during the occupation of France, and some remnants of that past remain in the city. They use the word rue, a French word to refer to their streets. The coffee culture is very much alive, and the French architecture and design are quite evident in their buildings and other infrastructures.
We stopped several times to take photos, with me muttering more wows than I could ever remember. The roads are wide and clean and there weren’t a lot of vehicles in sight.
Where to stay in Vientiane
I stayed at Green Box Hotel with another friend, Cai. For an overnight stay, I only paid ₱366.70. The hostel sits on the side of the road and a mere walking distance from some of the interesting spots in the city.
I went inside and greeted the person on the front desk. I told him my name and that I have a reservation. I was ready to show him my passport having been used to the usual check-in procedure abroad but the man just gave me the key to the room. I was thinking, That’s it? They’re not going to ask for my proof of identity? I just said thank you, took the key, and proceede to the third floor.
When I entered the room, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. It looks old and could use some maintenance.
The room has capsule-style double-bunk beds, which I imagine someone with claustrophobia may not appreciate. Surprisingly, it turned out to be quite comfortable to sleep in. I liked that the head was on the far side, away from the hall way. It effectively lessened the disturbance that one has to deal with when staying in a shared room. Because of this, plus the fact that they have the nicest staff, my disappointments were soon forgotten.
Cai took the direct flight so he didn’t have to go through the hassle of boarder crossing. He arrived a few hours later.
He befriended one of the staff, Maiphiw, or Mai for short, and asked him all sorts of questions about Laos. In one of our chats, I asked him one of the most debated things on the planet, what is the correct pronunciation of Laos? Is it Laos with an s sound or is it a silent S? He said that if you are referring to the country you have to pronounce the s at the end, but if it’s the people, it’s Lao sans s.
I shared this info to some people back home but they were still insisting the silent S arguing that the country was occupied by France, and the French don’t enunciate the letter S in their words at least most of the time. They do have a point but I’m not gonna debate a Laotian on how they say the name of their country you know. The non-believers could take it up to Lao people if they like.
What to See in Vientiane
My friends and I are seasoned travelers and we were unanimous in our opinion that Vientiane is beautiful. It is not your typical bustling, modern city; it is calm, and as my friend puts it, would make you feel like you were back in time. It has an old-town charm that would draw you in. Life there is very laid-back, hasn’t seemed to completely catch up with globalization. It managed to retain its identity despite being heavily influenced by the French culture.
Our time in the city was short but we were able to discover some of the most interesting spots to see in Vientiane such as…
We chanced upon this hemispherical structure during one of our walks and I didn’t find out what it’s called until I got back to my country. It’s called, That Dam, a 16th-century Buddhist stūpa. Old tales say that Naga, a seven-headed water serpent used to live and protect this mound-like structure. To this day, Lao people consider That Dam as the guardian spirit of the city. You can find this in a round-about road of Chantha Khoumane.
Arguably the most photographed spot in Vientiane is a war monument called, Patuxai (or Patuxay). It was built between 1957 and 1968 to commemorate the people who fought for independence from France. Originally named, Anousavali, it was designed by a Laotian soldier and sculptor, Tham Sayasthsena. It is often compared with Arc de Triomphe of France due to to their resemblance, thus, it is sometimes referred to as Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane.
Patuxai has four gateways on each side and five towers with stairways that lead to the top of the monument. Unfortunately, we were neither aware that we could climb up there to enjoy the city view nor did we know it has floors with offices, galleries, and a museum. Based on my research there is a minimal fee to pay (not sure how much) if you want to climb the monument.
Ban Anou Night Market
Whenever possible I include a visit to a public market in my travels as it is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to have that local experience. Come night time, Cai and I set out to find the Riverside Night Market to do what we know best, shop, and eat. However, Google Maps led us to Ban Anou Night Market along Rue Phai Nam. The street is lined with street vendors, most of which are selling barbecues. Since we were already there, we decided to buy some grilled skewered chicken parts to ease our hunger. Ban Anou opens from 5 pm to 11 pm daily including weekends.
Vientiane Night Market
We continued our way to our original intended destination, the night market along the Mekong River. While Ban Anou is in the residential area, the riverside market is located in a commercialized part of the city. Going there, we passed by numerous bars and restaurants, spas, and hotels. We realized that our hostel may not be in the best part of Vientiane after all as it is a little bit far from all the happenings.
My friend and I felt giddy eating street food and hunting for clothes, souvenirs, and whatnot from these long rows of canopy tents. Everything’s cheap so I indulged in buying a few items for myself like some clothes and my greatest find, this flap wallet with beautiful embroidery.
Vientiane Night Market is open daily from 6 pm to 9:30 pm.
Bor Pen Yang
This bar is a destination in itself as it is quite popular with tourists. Cai and I went there to enjoy a few drinks, he with a bottle of a local beer, I with a glass of chardonnay. They offer both western and Asian cuisines on the menu so there’s something for everyone.
Chao Anouvong Park
When we returned to Vientiane after a few days in Vang Vieng, we discovered this place that locals like to frequent, the Chao Anouvong Park. It’s a huge public space for recreation facing the Mekong River. It has a memorial park, a promenade, children’s playground, night market stalls, and picnic areas. The promenade is a perfect spot for sunset watching.
Where to Eat in Vientiane
The Thai influence is strong in Vientiane cuisine, in fact, a lot of restaurants, even those small food stalls in the night market, are serving Thai food. We had our lunch at a small eatery near our hostel where I ordered a mixed seafood fried rice for 15,000 kip ($1.66) while my friend opted for a noodle soup dish.
You will also find some banh mi stalls on the side of the streets. Pictured below is the one near our hostel.
Of course, there are the night markets where you can enjoy more food options.
The currency of Laos is called Kip and there are a few money exchange services found within the city. Thai Baht is widely accepted in the country as well, but I would still recommend using Kip if you are budget conscious. For example, I bought a coconut shake that is only worth 10,000 kips ($1.11), if you convert that it should only be 34 baht, but they asked me to pay 50 baht, that’s 4,000 more than the original price in kip.
Mode of transportation
There are buses, tuk-tuks, motorbike taxis, and cabs to help you get around Vientiane. I was only able to ride the tuk-tuk one time; we got by exploring the city on foot. On our last day, we had a hired car to take us back to the airport.
Communicating with the locals
Much like the Thais, some Laotians can understand and speak a little bit of English. You can get by buying stuff or eating in restaurants in English but make it simple so they can easily comprehend you.
Lao people are kind and somewhat shy, which is part of the reasons I have thoroughly enjoyed this trip. There is that kind of nice that is conditional when you sense that the person is only nice to you because you are a customer or a tourist. But with Laotians, you can feel their sincerity, that they treat you well because it’s in their nature.
I know I haven’t seen it all, but some time last year I reached a point in my travels that I stopped being fascinated. The province that has bewitched many failed to enchant me, the snow that I had been dreaming of seeing all my life lost its charm after just a day. I didn’t think a place could ever sway me again until I went to Laos. I realized I am not tired of traveling, maybe I wasn’t just fully immersed in the experience.
Good thing I went to Laos, it cured my travel boredom and now I have something beautiful to share in this blog. My fascination continued in our next destination, Vang Vieng. Hold tight, I’ll write about it soon.