When my friend suggested a “coffee crawl” through the provincial capital of Northern Laos, I was shocked. I’d heard of bar crawls but I never thought you could “café crawl”. I thought drinking tours were called “crawls” because you got so drunk that you’d hit the floor. Here, with coffee, you were less likely to collapse than spring through the ceiling. You know, because caffeine does that. Totally.
There are a lot of cafes in Luang Prabang. Most of the bank on using their views of the river to get customers’ attention. Realizing that, we strayed from the river banks and towards the main “drag” of Luang Prabang, Sisavangvong and Sakkaline Road. Call it the carotid of the city. Everything operates on and flanks this road: the sprawling night market, the narrow “vegetarian” market, and at least twenty tour agencies in addition to all the restaurants.
As we climbed the hill, crawling up blind alleys and through drowsy side streets, we stopped by three cafes, “the Saffron Cafe”, “Le Banneton”, and, finally, “the Indigo Cafe”. Here’s the lowdown.
The Saffron Café
On the approach to any new coffee shop or restaurant, I’m skeptical – especially one like this. The Saffron Cafe boasts a trendy, minimalist aesthetic. Though minimal, the décor is warm, homey, and wooden like a timber underline to the chatter of conversation. All of the classics are offered: espressos, lattes, cappuccinos, and kafe Lao, a thick brew which normally comes out of a sock. Here, the kafe Lao is light and sweet, and a touch smoky. The highlight of the Saffron Cafe is the variety of ways that they brew their house coffee, the Peabody. They offer four ways: French Press, Aero Press, V60, and Cold Drip or Cold Brew. As a Folgers man, I liked the French Press the best. When brewed as an Americano, the Peabody is gentle and sweet and barely registers on my tongue, but the French Press is rich, silky and wonderful, like a shawl of flavor dribbled over your tongue. Despite my coffee heritage, I also enjoyed the Aero Press, which delivers a good balance of flavor and body.
Not only does the Saffron Cafe do coffee well, but their food should not be ignored. My personal favorite on their list is their carrot cake. I haven’t had carrot cake for over a year and, though I was braced for disappointment, I took a bite and found myself in grandma’s kitchen. It was a little disorienting, but entirely welcome. No one else got a chance to try my carrot cake.
Folgers’ Index: 3 cups out of 4
The only traditionally French cafe on this list, Le Banneton does not disappoint. Easy-to-find on the main drag, the only issue with this place is that it is a short walk from most hotels or accommodations in the heart of the city. The interior is calm and sophisticated, following the aesthetic of the town nicely. Nothing here feels new or forced so that when you enter and are choosing your pastries, you do not think twice about whether or not this place is genuine. It just is.
While they do not offer anything exactly spectacular when it comes to coffee, the affogato is lovely: ice cream and whipped cream blended, smooth and silky with a buttery finish on your tongue. But, where Le Banneton truly shines is pastries. Their baguettes’ shells crunch when you sink your teeth into them, kicking up a fine spray of crumbs, and the soft bread yields to your teeth – you don’t even need the jam and butter served with each pastry, they are just that good. All in all, this is a good place to visit for breakfast if you want to dive back into Luang Prabang’s past, to see firsthand the French influence on the city, on the country.
Folgers’ Index: 2 cups out of 4
Last on the list, but don’t think that means “least”, is the Indigo Cafe. It rounds out my list because it is the least distinctive of the three cafes and the most expensive – only by a slim margin, however. The aesthetic is different from the previous two cafes, which built upon a French-colonial ideal that the Saffron Cafe nods to and Le Banneton demonstrates.
The theme is “indigo”: soft, white concrete with bold stripes of indigo racing down the walls and the floor. The furniture and the coffee bar are made of dark wood and, in the back of the cafe, they offer local handicrafts with an emphasis on, you guessed it, indigo. The traditional coffee you expect to find in a cafe is decently made, but the best is their kafe Lao: if you drink it before you stir in the condensed milk, you gag because it is so bitter but, afterward, like pouring melted dark chocolate over your tongue. It is the only thing I order when I come to the Indigo Cafe. They have a large menu for you to make your choices beyond that and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed – I would recommend the avocado + banana smoothie.
Folgrs’ Index: 2 cups out of 4
I couldn’t say that I was “crawling” after that tour – I only mentioned three of the six or seven cafes that I visited in two days. I had too much energy. I was practically skipping from place to place, grabbing confused looks from everyone around. The locals understood. They know the coffee scene, but the tourists were caught unawares. I didn’t exactly spring through the roof, but I was close. If you like good coffee and a strong chance to get over-caffeinated, visit this lovely old city. But, don’t just go where I recommend, find your own top three… just make sure you pace yourself. My hands are still shaking.