Soft drinks and juices
Brand-name soft drinks, such as 7-Up, Coca-Cola and Fanta, are widely available. Most vendors will pour the drink into a small plastic pouch packet (which is then tied with a string or rubber band and inserted with a straw) for taking away.
A particularly refreshing alternative, available in most towns with tourist restaurants, are fruit shakes (màk mâi pan), made from your choice of fruit, blended with ice, liquid sugar and condensed milk. Even more readily available are freshly squeezed fruit juices, such as lemon (nâm màk nao), plus coconut water (nâm màk phao) enjoyed directly from the fruit after it has been dehusked and cut open. Also popular is the exceptionally sweet sugar-cane juice, nâm oi.
Laos’s best coffee is grown on the Bolaven Plateau, outside Paksong in southern Laos, where it was introduced by the French in the early twentieth century. Most of the coffee produced is robusta, although some arabica is grown as well. Quality is generally very high, and the coffee has a rich, full-bodied flavour. Some establishments that are accustomed to foreigners may serve instant coffee (kafeh net, after the Lao word for Nescafé, the most common brand); if you want locally grown coffee ask for kafeh Láo or kafeh thông, literally “bag coffee”, after the traditional technique of preparing the coffee.
Traditionally, hot coffee is served with a complimentary glass of weak Chinese tea or hot water, to be drunk in between sips of the very sweet coffee, though you’re unlikely to experience this in many places. If you prefer your coffee black, and without sugar, order kafeh dam baw sai nâm tan. A perfect alternative for the hot weather is kafeh yén, in which the same concoction is mixed with crushed ice.
Black and Chinese-style tea are both served in Laos. Weak Chinese tea is often found, lukewarm, on tables in restaurants and can be enjoyed free of charge. Stronger Chinese tea (sá jin) you’ll need to order. If you request sá hâwn, you usually get a brew based on local or imported black tea, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and sugar; it’s available at most coffee vendors.
Beer Lao, the locally produced lager, is regarded by many as one of Southeast Asia’s best beers, and is the perfect companion to a Lao meal. Containing five percent alcohol, the beer owes its light, distinctive taste to the French investors who founded the company in 1971, although the company was later state-owned, with Czechoslovakian brewmasters training the Lao staff, until it was privatized in the mid-1990s. Nearly all that goes into making Beer Lao is imported, from hops to bottle caps, although locally grown rice is used in place of twenty percent of the malt. Also available is the stronger Beer Lao Dark, which has a smooth, malty flavour and is generally more expensive than regular Beer Lao.
In Vientiane, draught Beer Lao, known as bia sót and sometimes appearing on English signs as “Fresh Beer”, is available at bargain prices by the litre. Often served warm from the keg, the beer is poured over ice, though some establishments serve it chilled. There are dozens of bia sót outlets in the capital, most of which are casual outdoor beer gardens with thatch roofs. You can usually get snacks here too, known as “drinking food” or káp kâem – typical dishes include spicy papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, omelette, fried peanuts (thua jeun), shrimp-flavoured chips (khào kiap kûng) and grilled chicken.
Other Asian beers, including Tiger and Singha, are often available (sometimes on tap in Luang Prabang), and closer to the Chinese border you’ll find cheaper and less flavousome Chinese lagers on many menus.
In Vientiane, Luang Prabang and other larger, more touristy, towns, you’ll find a good range of Western spirits and liquors, and more upmarket restaurants usually have imported wine available by the glass or bottle.