Stephen Johnson visits the village of Ban Xang Hai on the Mekong River, famous for its 'rice wisky'.

Scorpions and venomous snakes are perfectly preserved in bottles of flammable sticky rice wine.

This potion, known as lao bong ya, is believed to ward off evil spirits and cure the sick, on the proviso the afflicted don't eat the pickled wildlife, as some drinkers would consume a Mexican agave worm immersed in tequila.

The small village of Ban Xang Hai, on the banks of the Mekong River in northern Laos, brews a "wisky", containing 40 per cent alcohol, in a worn-out metal drum.

This potent liquor sells in 300ml bottles for 10,000 kip, or NZ$1.60, without the captured specimens.


A less alcoholic version, brewed from red sticky rice, tastes like a sickly, cheap port and leaves an equally awful aftertaste.

Ban Xang Hai is a lazy, two-hour wooden boat ride down the Mekong from the Unesco World Heritage-listed ancient royal city of Luang Prabang.

This hamlet of wooden huts is a short ride upstream from the cave of one thousand statues known as Pak Ou, where rows of miniature Buddha statues are sheltered behind rocks and a picket-fence shaped wall high above the water.

They have been housed there since the 16th century, when King Setthathirat wanted somewhere to hide some regal treasures before Luang Prabang was a royal capital.

As we get back into the boat to cruise along the Mekong, stray buffaloes and foxy-looking dogs can be spotted along the riverbank.

Residents of small villages, wearing western-style clothing, paddle wooden canoes and collect fishing nets, held in place by floating plastic bottles.

Children splash about in the water.

Like three-quarters of the Lao population, they live in small wooden huts, some of which have dirt floors.


Chickens and turkeys run around dusty narrow alleys.

In one village, a young girl with a theatrical sense of timing runs to a bamboo weaving machine, and shows how silk garments are made in a centuries-old tradition.

In a nominally "socialist republic", the residents of this village survive under a market system.

Every night, artisans from Ban Xang Hai cart their goods to Luang Prabang's perennially-busy night markets.

Some of the vendors fall asleep as youthful western tourists buy Beerlao shirts, hand-painted paper prints, wood carvings and toy elephants.

Come daybreak, monks wearing saffron robes file out of Luang Prabang's Buddhist temples to accept offerings of sticky rice from elderly women lining the streets.

Hours later, tourists are transported to temples in three-wheeled tuk tuks along streets that are peaceful and relatively uncongested, compared to many roads in south-east Asia.

Visitors with access to air conditioned vans take trips to a bear rescue centre at Tat Si Kuang, which is next to a set of enticing water falls to swim in.

Back in Luang Prabang, political officials from communist Vietnam, clad in khaki-coloured shirts, line the steps of of a former royal palace at Vat Xieng Thong.

In another sign that communism has displaced the traditional Lao monarchy, a blue, white and red Lao flag flies in front of a golden wall motif of three golden elephants.

Cameras are not allowed inside a royal funeral chapel, which has been turned into a museum.

The cameras are out, however, as fresh produce is served at the Tamarind restaurant overlooking a steep embankment leading down to bamboo wharves on the Mekong River.

For the entree, there's sun-dried river weed with roast sesame seeds, offering a unique taste of the a river system which also winds through China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

A bamboo soup, complete with basil and pea-sized eggplants, stirs the tastebuds with an aniseed flavour.

To go with traditional sticky rice, fresh tomato and eggplant dips perfectly complement smoky pork sausages, buffalo jerky and charcoal-roasted lemongrass sticks, which have been artistically sliced and filled with chicken mince to form a lantern shape.

To wash down the best in local Lao cuisine, I would recommend an ice-cold can of Beerlao brew instead of that home-brewed rice wine.

Staying there: For a luxurious stay, the converted royal palaces of Villa Maly in Luang Prabang offers spacious resort-style rooms and a pool. It was built by Khamtan Ounkham, a grandson of Lao king Kham Souk Zakarine, in 1938, during the era of French colonialism. It has been under French management since 2007 and offers three-night room packages starting at NZ$255 for singles and NZ$469 for twin share.

The writer was a guest of Air Asia and stayed at Villa Maly, Luang Prabang.