• Brent Beckham

Laos - Luang Prabang's Coffee Scene

Updated: Mar 2, 2019



Saffron Brew Bar & Roastery:


Overall winner so far.  They can do a double ristretto, which was amazing!  They also sell their own beans - 35000 kip for lowest grade (grade X) beans (Mekong Sunrise), 75000 kip for the AA (second highest) and 85000 kip for the peaberry (highest grade), which are still better than the 49-59k organic beans beans from the morning market.


I later went on their coffee tour, which was totally worth it! I found out that they have the following grades (lowest to highest) of coffee beans: X (Melong Sunrise), B (Mekong Smooth), A, AA, and peaberry.


Their coffee is also organic and profits go back into investing in the small family farms in the region - win/win/win (great tasting coffee, great place, great mission).


The only draw back is that they only had almond milk for my wife's latte (during a second visit), which made for a terrible latte.  We blamed it all on the Pacifica almond milk they had, as we’ve not liked their products in the last. The barista also knew it as soon as my wife walked back in with her drink, as he either shook the carton at her (as a a “yeah didn’t make a great drink or not good” or something) but he knew it was the milk. Without a question he took the drink back and made an Americano, at my wife's request, no problem (granted we paid for the more expensive drink, but anyways).  The Americano wasn't a wow but it was very good.


I had a V60 pour over, for which they used their peaberry beans, and it was magical!  I don't think I've had that good of a cup of coffee in a long time, or at least ever that was a pour over. It honestly rivaled the long blacks from my go-to's in Melbourne (yes, I know I'm comparing espresso drinks to a pour over which isn't exactly fair but anyways...).  I should note that they use their grade AA beans for the espresso drinks and their peaberry beans for theor alternative brewing methods: V60 pour over, French press, AeroPress, siphon, cold drip, and cold brew.


Long story short, this place would not only fit in in Melbourne (or Seattle/Portland/Fremantle/[insert other coffee city here] - sorry Sydney but keep dreaming ;) ) but do very well in my humble opinion (granted their own coffee beans would still be in Laos, so logistics aside. Ha!).


I almost forgot to mention that they have riverside seating.  So when I brought my wife back, we spent a fair bit of time down there enjoying our coffees, the view, the boats going by (our daughter's favourite), and taking plenty of pictures.

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Side note: I will have to do a separate post on the tour alone. In short, definitely do it even if you're on the fence! Spoiler, it was actually an American ex-pat that started this company and as a whole the company is all the more wonderful with the ethics they hold themselves to in how they operate and help the community and Laos. Also, one of the key people as it turns out is from Australia and was the one that recently redid their cafe, as it was originally a food first establishment. It is now coffee forward, showcasing their beans, he always changed up the types of coffees offered, introduced the other brewing methods as options, and streamlined the menu. All of which then explained how this place seemed like something that would fit in back in Melbourne in a good way. Ha! Anyways, this place definitely deserves the support, so definitely pay a visit or multiple like I have up to the time of writing this post.

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Recently, I went back with our daughter for another visit. This time I ordered the siphon brew, as I also signed up for their Brew Crew during this visit. Basically, you get a free t-shirt if order one of each of the alternative brewing methods (will have to double check the price of the shirt vs. the price of all of these drinks - Ha!). So I missed out on the V60, unless they’ll recognise it from my previous visit.


Back to the siphon brew, it was really nice with the peaberry bean. I didn‘t get the delicate fruity/floral notes as before when I had the V60 brew, which as mentioned above used with same bean. The siphon brought out the bolder nutty/caramel notes and overall the brew had a more fuller body to it. I also felt I got more coffee (volume wise) with it, which was a plus in extending our time enjoying the river side seating. Granted the down side was that it meant ensuring our daughter was also enjoying her extended time as well. Ha! 😊

 

Mali Coffee:


Cheap but organic coffee in the heart of the morning market.  Americano was solid and good overall.  Plus only 10000 kip per cup. Overall a great place to watch the world go by and enjoy a coffee.  Plus, a lovely owner that showed our daughter her pets.: Cheap but organic coffee in the heart of the morning market.  Americano was solid and good overall.  Plus only 10000 kip per cup. Overall a great place to watch the world go by and enjoy a coffee.  Plus, a lovely owner that showed our daughter her pets.

 

Mekong Coffee Lounge:


Ran by very nice people that loved our daughter (which is common here but I'll explain).  My wife got a solid latte and I got a coconesso (coconut water (I believe fresh b/c it took a while) and espresso) - which was delicious and refreshing!  Plus, a large glass, so it wasn't gone in 3 big sips like some you'll find in Melbourne.  We got our daughter a coconut, which was a huge green coconut.  Needless to say my wife and I drank most of it.  But then the owners gave our daughter a fruit plate, on the house, and later the gentleman gave her a banana, also free, after he confirmed that she liked banana and off course she said, "Yep!" Ha!  So a lovely place to hang out, grab a coffee, with a wide open view of the river.  We went back for a second visit later in our trip and overall had a positive experience.  My wife enjoyed her large, soy latte and this time I went for an Americano.  The Americano was solid, and I could tell the beans were something better than most but not quite the best I had at least had in Luang Prabang.  I later found upon paying that they sell their own labelled coffee beans by the bag but did not look more closely to see where the beans came from (assumingly a local region in Laos but not sure which) and who roasted it.  We did order the (organic) spring rolls.  We asked what was in the spring rolls and side sauce (as we are all vegan) and they at least said there was fish sauce in the sauce.  So we ordered them without the sauce.  We later found we should have pressed harder about the rolls themselves, as that was not addressed, as sure enough they came out with slice of cooked egg in them.  The picture in the menu was not clear enough and it looked like tofu, hence asking but again why we should have pressed and explicitly asked if egg or tofu.  Lesson learned and for those coming to visit: don't be afraid to over ask questions until you and the other person is absolutely clear on things.  For example, with tuk tuk pricing, food, drink, clothes or other goods being purchased, etc.  Most times we would send them back and ask for a fresh, in this case no egg, meal but our daughter was hungry and my wife was already at work pulling them apart to pull the egg out.  So there was likely some egg/oil residue left over but the egg itself came out well intact from the rolls.  However, without the egg it left the rolls with just an assortment of fresh veg (vegetables) and they still gave us a white dipping sauce that resembled ranch dressing, which we set aside.  For the second visit, coffees were above average but food below average.  We do give them bonus points because the main guy (who was working during our last visit) not only recognised us but remembered our daughter's name.  Though, she didn't get any freebies this time.  Ha!  (Not that it's needed or expected.)  :)  In all, this is still a place I would at least go back for a coffee and chill to watch the river and the world go by, or get a coffee and get some work done (they have free wifi).

 

Big Tree Cafe:


The coffee was coffee.  Not great but not horrible.  I got an espresso and it was espresso.  The beans characteristics of the beans did not really come through.  So not sure if that is a barista goof or just the type of beans they use.  My wife got an Americano and again, a cup of coffee.  However, it had a very nice and relaxing garden to sit and enjoy our drinks, plus the fruit plate we got for the 3 of us to split.  So for a relaxing sit off the busy road, it the place to be.


 

Indigo House:


Another place where the coffee was good but nothing to write home about.  Nice ambiance, plenty of food choices (full menu, baked goods that they made there, a buffet, etc.), plus hotel, and rooftop bar/restaurant (that we have yet to do).  Though again, not sure I had hype about this but overall it was alright.  I believe my wife mentioned they may have vegan food - to which nothing was labelled as such so would need to ask as she had found a blog noting that there were options. Went back for a second visit, actually third total but second for coffee, and the double espresso wasn’t too bad and definitely got better as it cooled (which I’d expect with a quality coffee). So I’d get it again versus an Americano, like the last time I got a coffee here. They definitely have an enjoyable bean they use, which I believe is their own(?).

 

Novelty Cafe:


Great place for a coffee and sandwich.  Ironically we got the vegan baguette the two times we went, and in itself it is very similar to the street food sandwiches you will find.  However, it had a delicious (likely homemade) hummus, the veggies are marinated and comes with a side salad.  The price of which is around 22000 kip, compared to the 10000-15000+ for a street sandwich.  With that you are also paying for ambiance, to which it is a lovely little cafe.  There is a wall (almost) filled with books that can be read while there or exchange a book for $5 (from what we overheard the other day).  Not to mention other coffee makers and accessories for sale.  The coffee is quality and a nice drink.  I got a ristretto, which was very good.  They also have a selection of juices, which are also delicious and refreshing.  Needless to say it is a nice go-to for us so far (written within the first half of our month long trip) and our daughter (almost 22 months at the time) loves the food and juices as well.  My wife and I keep saying it at some of these cafes but this is truly one you could show up to work, grab a coffee in the morning, a bit of lunch with a juice, and then an espresso/ristretto (or beer or wine - granted I don't drink hence the coffee) in the afternoon.  So overall, highly recommend this place.

 

Joma Cafe & Bakery (on the Nam Khan):


20000 kip for a large Americano w/free refills when dining in.  To which I got, and both were a good cup of coffee.  Overall, this place felt like an Einstein Bagels or Panera Bread Company.  Specifically, the styling of the menu behind the register to the food and drink offerings.  To my wife and I it felt very "American" in that respect, which was odd as nothing else in Luang Prabang had this feel.  Later we started reading the signs on the walls and other info around the cafe and found it was Canadian owned!  Ha!  Furthermore, they had not only the 2 locations in Luang Prabang but were elsewhere in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand or Vietnam.  I have also noticed that the location on the Nam Khan is also a stop for many tour groups.  This I find conflicting.  On the one hand I see that it makes sense as it is located on the main road that loops around the historic area of Luang Prabang, but on the other hand there are other cafes that I would more preferably promote (either ones that have a more French feeling, French/Laos feeling, more distinctly Laos, or just more local and a great all around business - Saffron).  So I don't know what kind of deal is struck but I hope the folks on these tours are getting out and about to see and experiences other places besides Joma.  That all said, I would still go back.  It does have many places to sit and relax, including a nice outside veranda upstairs facing the Nam Khan.  So could see my self enjoying the bottemless mug again and enjoying the view, or getting some work done.

 

Pasaneyom:


Super local in a good way. So definitely a must go place it you want a local coffee shop/stand.  I read about this place on another site (https://explore-laos.com/laos-top-10-coffee-luang-prabang/), and upon going realised we had walked past it a number of times.  It is situated right on a busy corner between two local open air eateries.  The menu is also super simple.  For example, black coffee, black coffee with milk (the milk is more like an icing likely made from condensed milk and served in a squeeze bottle), tea, rice porridge, cooked egg, and only a few other things.  We rocked up and found a mostly open bench that we shared with a Caucasian man (assumingly tourist as he mistakenly took what looked like a fried donut thing which appeared free to those dining/drinking in as there are just plates of them on the table but later found they were 5000 kip a plate).  Now there were only three of these benches wrapping around three sides of the serving area, plus one lone standing table in front on the road.  We ordered two black coffees, which were served from a pitcher that had a large infuser bag filled with ground coffee steeping in it.  Upon first sip you could taste how strong this coffee was and further more the punch of sweetness, and so was our first "Lao Coffee."  Needless to say, I drank this by tiny sips or larger gulps.  It wasn't completely horrible but my taste buds were no where near accustom to this in order to make it a daily go to for my coffee fix.  As I got to finishing my cup I noticed one of the women in the serving area starting to prepare cups of tea, which I noticed that gentleman next to us around had a large mug of the same.  Sure enough moments later, two cups of tea were set in front of us - to which it was a nice cup of tea and complimented the coffee well.  I should also paint a better picture of this place in general.  Seated at the far bench in the back of the place and around half the bench on the side was a group of older, local gentleman all enjoying cups of coffee or tea (they had a different one on the menu) and one another's company.  So clearly a group of local regulars, to which added to the overall awesome local feel of this place.  A couple also showed up, led by a local guide, and sat next to us.  They ordered coffee and some food from the coffee place but also were able to get a bowl of soup (if I recall correctly) from the adjacent food stand.  So there was definitely a fluid bond between at least the two local stands and likely the third as well.  Once we finished our tea, it was time to pay.  Now there are no amounts displayed on the hand carved menu sign, nor anywhere else for that matter.  So we asked in both Laos and English, "How much?" for the two black coffees, and the response was 5000 kip for each.  Ha!  So you get, a coffee and tea and self serve milk (which more closely resembled icing and from look and consistency upon seeing others use it) if you choose all for 5000 kip!  You cannot beat this price for coffee at any local cafe (maybe 8000 kip for a Lao Coffee) and not sure what other local stands charge.  The trade off is of course the very strong and sweet cup of coffee but you get a great local feel and atmosphere.

 

Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene:


According to the following website this place was supposed to have quite the deal for a baguette and pot of Coffee Lao: https://explore-laos.com/laaos-top-10-coffee-luang-prabang/.


Though upon arrival, we immediately noticed the price for a plain baguette was 10000 kip and do not recall seeing the 9000 kip for a pot of Coffee Lao.  They had moderately priced espresso drinks, latte was around 22000 and an espresso 15000 (if I recall correctly) and an Americano somewhere at or just north of that price.  There was also only one customer seated.


So it didn't have much going for it for the start.


Though I figured we were there, let's give it a shot and maybe we will be "Wow'ed".  Not so much.  We finally found that they had three set menu options, amongst the rest of their menu.  The first option for 30000 kip, which was a pot of coffee or tea, side of milk, and baguette with butter and jams.  Prior to finding that we were already going to go with our usual large soy latte for my wife, Americano for me, and a plain baguette for the three of us to split.  Though we quickly realised that that would be significantly more, versus going with the first set menu option.  So we decided to give the set menu option a go.


Upon ordering I asked if they had soy milk, as my wife would prefer to have it if an option as neither of us (as vegans) are going to use the regular milk, to which waiter had to go check.  He came back and said no, and on that point my wife then asked if they had coconut milk, which then launched into a discussion about not being able to swap for the set menu items and that it was either ta or coffee, or it was during asking for the soy milk (as we have received a hot soy drink at another cafe before).  Finally he realised we just wanted to swap the side of milk for a side of coconut milk, to which he said yes they have it and not a problem (not in those exact words).  So he went off to place the order.


Shortly after he came back to take the order of the couple that sat down next to us.  First question out of the woman's mouth was, "Do you have soy milk?" and the same waiter confidently said, "Yes."  At which point my wife and I both looked at each other with the look of, "WTF?"  Since I had my back to this I confirmed with my wife that it was indeed the same waiter.  At a further discussion we agreed that she should go ask again.  She came back more confused and she relayed that they couldn't do soy for the side but could for other (espresso?) drinks?  Or, couldn't open a bottle?  It was all strange.  The same waiter then came around to bring the coffee and explained again something about a bottle that the soy milk is in and couldn't be opened or used (we think) for the side of "milk".  All very strange.


On the plus side the bread came and was cut up to circular, toasted pieces and a couple in bigger warmed pieces and the jam wasn't too bad.


The pot of coffee was alright - it was coffee and nothing to write home about. Also not worth coming back for, especially given many other better options in town.


Interestingly, there was a couple on the other side of us that was paying the bill and also purchasing a bag of coffee.  That bag of coffee was a bag of Saffron's A grade coffee - another WTF moment at least for me.  That bean was clearly not used on the pot of coffee - fair enough.  Though it could be used on the espresso drinks.  So maybe worth a trip back for an espresso or Americano to check, though likely we won’t be back.


During all of this time I also got to wondering and question, ”How old was the above post” Sure enough, it was from October 2014 and it's now February 2019.


In the end, a few lessons learned: 1) some deals are too good to be true, 2) sometimes it's worth spending the extra money to get what you want, and 3) (most importantly) always check the date on your sources.


One final note, the ambiance of the place all seemed a touch upper scale then the normal cafe.  Nicer chair and decor inside and nice wicker seating outside.  Though the service was a bit shotty/inconsistent and the three on staff were more inclined to be chatting to each other (at least early on in our stay) versus keeping an eye outside, as at that point I kept looking trying to get their attention in order to place our order.  At that point it was my family and I and one other patron at a different table.  Interestingly, one of the waiters (I believe ours) then stood attentively by the outside door once at least one more couple showed up and definitely once all tables out front were filled (which meant one additional couple).  Again, it just added to the weirdness of the entire experience.  Up to this point we had been to wide range of establishments for coffee, food, drinks, etc. and typically received great service all around (with one other not so great one for service).  For example at Mekong Coffee Lounge, their daughter (who was quite young and I assume it was their daughter) was more attentive then the three guys on staff at this place that were roughly twice her age. 


One other not so great place was when we had been to a (likely family ran) Mekong river side restaurant where at the end all three of the people in the area with us were on their phones and the guy that got up to talk my money, that I was already holding out and standing there for a while, needed to finish the level of his shoot him up game a couple feet front of me before half looking and taking the money (I thought after the fact what would have happened if I had just left with my money still in hand because they clearly weren't jumping up for it so didn't seem like they needed it).


So aside from this place, and the river side restaurant, again most service has been good or great here in Luang Prabang.

 

Mekong Riverview: 


We stopped in for a quick coffee before catching a boat trip from one of the gents nearby. I got a double espresso and my wife an Americano. Overall that coffees were alright/good. The crown jewel for this place was a great view over where the Nam Khan River meets the Melong River. So really a lovely place to enjoy a coffee and, more so, the view.

 

Dexter:


Really good single espresso but for 18000 kip, which is pricey comparatively. I could tell they used a quality bean, to which I really pickup up on the flavours of which and could smell right away. They have perfectly raised patio seats out front. Great for watching the world go by with a coffee, or fresh squeezed orange juice in the case of my daughter (which was actually really good for OJ). The draw back here was, as noted above, it was definitely pricier for everything on the menu. Though it is located right in a busy area of the historic district (amongst other cafes, outdoor adventure business, tourist shops, morning market, night market, and day street vendors). So the higher prices made sense from that stand point. However, I would hesitate a second visit when a place like Novelty Cafe isn’t too far away, unless my wife wanted to try this place.

 

Phonheuang Cafe:


Smooth, good Americano. Nice covered patio seating on the back streets of Luang Prabang, in an overall quieter area of the historic district. So in all a nice place to relax with a coffee, Or also to order some food as we did, along with coffees. We tried the stir fried eggplant and stir fried vegetables, and overall both were very good. The eggplant had a nice sauce with a hint of spicy heat, while the veggies had a heavy tomato base sauce with a perfect mix of spices and slightly on the sweeter side (at least compared to the other dish). We would definitely come back.

 

Oct Pop Tok’s Silk Road Cafe (near their Boutique Shop):


I had double espresso during one visit. Overall the coffee was good, but not amazing and definitely not bad. It hit the spot while enjoying their nice covered garden area, which is set off and down a few steps on the busy road - so very peaceful and relaxing. They also have some nice food options. So far we’ve only had the fresh spring rolls (which were vegan and a random assortment of fillings = a random assortment of deliciousness) and the Chinese Dumplings (the veggie ones, also vegan). Both of which were deliciousness and nice accompaniment to our drinks. The first visit I got a nice watermelon juice with cayenne and something else (mint or another herb I think). Not coffee, just a nice option for a guy that doesn’t drink. My wife enjoyed their buy one cocktail get one free happy hour special, margaritas both times. All of her drinks were good both times.

 

Le Banneton:


I got an Americano my first visit, which was alright and just on the verge of being too watery. It was big and not overly strong, so likely one shot of espresso with a lot of water. Overall not a great one to leisurely enjoy. Though it was only 10000 kip (which is on the cheap end) and that made it worth it. Also a French baguette (that they bake there) for takeaway was 10000 kip - a great price!

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I came back for another sit down visit for coffee and bread (th time dining in). This time I got a double espresso, which was much better. Solid bean used, not sure which, but overall a nice one to sit back and enjoy. Volume wise it as good as well. This coffee was 15000 kip but for the size and taste was well worth it, versus a single espresso or another sub par Americano that were both 10000 kip. My daughter and I also got a baguette sliced up to enjoy while we sat.

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This place is on the quieter side of the historic district, but still draws a nice amount of business (both times the outside tables were filled, including us, and a number of tables taken up inside as well). So overall a relaxing place to sit outside and watch the world go by. 


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