Loved by tourists for its old-world romance, Luang Prabang draws visitors for its gilded temples, saffron-clad monks and faded French colonial villas. But you don’t have to be an amateur archaeologist to enjoy Luang Prabang. On my third trip to the former royal capital of Laos, I follow my stomach as I set off on a gustatory adventure.

Tucked away in the mountainous valley of Northern Laos and sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang’s kitchens are stocked with items you won’t find in fancy supermarkets. Food here comes from the river and the wild and its residents still rely as much as hunting as in gathering foodstuffs from the wild to put meals on the table. A trip to Luang Prabang’s fresh market speaks volumes about the local culinary scene.

Situated along a narrow lane that backs on to Wat Mai Monastery off Sisavangvong Road, the market is definitely worth a visit.

The market in Luang Phrabang is a sensory experience, with live animals such as ducks and chickens for sale. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee

From 5 to 10am, local vendors offer a plethora of local delicacies. Humble in one way, yet startling in many others, the market is well stocked with fresh vegetables and meats. Piles of banana flowers, cowpeas, bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms, watercress and balls of river weed dominate the stalls. Among them are such local delicacies as sticks of buffalo skin, wild birds and hornet larvae squirming in hexagonal sockets. Squirrels are displayed with their bodies slit open to show the freshness of their entrails. And there’s plenty of fish from the Mekong River, some of them as big as a newborn child.

“How much?” asks an elderly Lao woman, as she checks bamboo rings of small green frogs.

“Ten thousand kip (Bt45), granny,” the vendor replies.

Fresh Mekong river fish for sale at a street market in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee

The frogs will undoubtedly end up in a pot of curry. Once home, the old lady will make a simple curry paste from lemongrass, green chilli, diced galangal, shrimp paste and shallot and when the green frog curry is cooked, she’ll add a spoonful of the fermented-fish concoction inherent to Lao cuisine before spicing up the sauce with a handful of aromatic dill.

From market to table, we follow our noses to the food stands on the river in search of green frog curry.

Sadly frogs are not on the menu so we order sai ua (Lao sausage) and minced pork. The sausage is leaner and darker than the version you get in Thailand’s north. My teeth quickly break through the crispy paper-thin tube and reach the juicy meat. The meat has a fermented nose and tastes wonderful with a glass of Beer Lao.

Stone Buddha sculpture in the temple of Wat Visoun, Luang Phrabang. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee

The vendor also serves us generous portions of deep-fried “krai paen”, the green balls of river weed we came across earlier at the fresh market. It’s a rock algae commonly found in the Mekong and Khan and is formed into a dried thin sheet then sprinkled with tamarind and ginger juices plus sesame and garlic before being deep-fried. Nutty and salty, it is served with chilli paste mixed with diced buffalo skin.

Luang Prabang is also beautiful without food.

In between the meals we walk around gilded temples from Wat Visoun to Wat Xieng Thong before crossing the Mekong and negotiating the hilly path to Wat Chomphet.

Built by the Siamese Army in the 1860s, the chapel hall is reminiscent of those in Ayutthaya province. The view of Mekong is magnificent against the backdrop of Luang Prabang valley.

Wat Chomphet was built in the 1860s by the Siamese, and its chapel hall is reminiscent of those found in Ayutthaya province. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee

Later and once again hungry, we find our way to “Nang Tim Somtam” – a food stand opposite Wat Nong.

Luang Prabang is famous among Thai visitors for its sensational somtam or papaya salad.

Unlike the Thai version, somtam here features flat sheets of papaya rather than shreds and shrimp paste instead of salty pickled crab. Fermented fish sauce is a must. When you take your first bite, the chilli, fermented sauce and tangy lime give a sensational kick. You cannot stop eating. This is the curse of spicy food. The chilli keeps you gorging. To break the curse, you need gulps of cold beer and balls of sticky rice.

For folks with less adventurous taste buds, Luang Prabang offers a wide range of French cuisine courtesy of its years as a French protectorate. Along with gunships and rifles, the French also brought the baguettes, pate, coffee and culinary savoir faire to the old capital.

Locals in Luang Phrabang give morning alms, a long-standing tradition in Lao Buddhist culture. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee

The following morning we stop at the Pracha Niyom coffee stand on the corner of Khem Khong and Kisalat roads. The dark roasted beans spell Paris but the sharp sweet taste of condensed milk is undeniably Luang Prabang. Next to Pracha Niyom, a local woman offers huge chunks of pate-filled baguette.

Opposite Wat Nong, a short walk from Nang Tim Somtam shop, L’Elephant serves Gallic cuisine in a renovated French colonial building with wooden floors and a stencilled tree on the wall inspired by Wat Xieng Thong.

L’Elephant restaurant serves pan-fried frog legs in Luang Prabang. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee

I order the watercress soup, which is delicious and refreshing, followed by pan-fried frog legs. Cooked in provencale style, the legs are brimming with garlicky and peppery olive oil – a happy marriage of Lao ingredients and French flair.