Top 10 Differences Between Laotian and Thai Cuisine

by Victoria on February 3, 2013

Laos Grilled Riverweed

Since this is my first time traveling to Laos after being to Thailand many times as an adult, I can now differentiate a few things between the cuisines of both countries. This is all based on a few conversations with the locals, as well as what I noticed when I was eating at more authentic restaurants or street vendor’s places.

  1. Thai food is overall more flavorful.
  2. Laotian cuisine tends to be saltier but less tart (less lime).
  3. The spicy meat salad (or larb) is not made quite as spicy as it is in Thailand, although they may just have been serving it that way to me, thinking I can’t handle it.
  4. There is a lot more seafood in Thailand. Well, there is also a lot more ocean surrounding it.
  5. Laos has riverweed. This comes from the fact that it has many more rivers flowing through it and it is one of the traditional dishes of the country. I have never eaten this anywhere else in the world. Has anyone else?
  6. After talking to a cook at one of the local restaurants in Luang Prabang, he did say that food in general in Laos is less spicy than in Thailand. They do tend to serve it to farang (or foreigners) without spice unless you ask to make it spicy or the “real” way, as they don’t think we can handle it. But honestly, even when I asked for spicy, I often barely could detect any heat level.
  7. The papaya salad is always made with a fermented shrimp paste (pala, in Thai). This has quite a pungent odour and taste, and it definitely puts some people off. I don’t actually mind it too much, and have tried it in a variety of dishes, but I would prefer eating items without it. While you could ask to not have this added into your papaya salad, it would still always be left with a hint of the pungent paste since they would mix it in the same mortar and pestle (unless they went to the trouble of thoroughly washing it out first).
  8. There is much less sugar in a lot of Laotian food, which is most noticeable in their shakes, desserts, and other types of drinks. In Thailand, the sugar can be completely overwhelming, and if you order a Thai iced tea, they won’t just add in a huge scoop of sugar, they also top that with sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk. Those already have enough sugar, so I always have to specify “Mai Sai Namdam.” Don’t put sugar! This is really refreshing in Laos, and I love how the kids aren’t growing up rotting their teeth out at such a young age and expecting everything to be so sweet that there’s barely any other taste sensation left to notice.
  9. Water buffalo is used in a variety of ways. Not just for grilling the skin and eating it like chips with your beer, but it’s also ground up for a special spicy chili paste that is served. It’s also another protein option for practically any dish, besides the usual chicken, pork, or tofu.
  10. In general, Laotian food is similar to the food found in Northern Thailand, specifically Issaan food. This becomes obvious with the ubiquitousness of the more traditional dishes, such as the variety of sweet and spicy sausages, larb, and the presence of pala (the fermented shrimp paste mentioned earlier) mixed into many of the sauces).

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare these two countries’ cuisines, I’ve just arrived in Cambodia and will be able to throw a third into the mix! Stay tuned…

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim November 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Victoria, thanks for the feedback on Lao/Thai food. Typical Lao and typical Siamese Thai food are actually very different. The Lao food is the food of the Lao people in Laos and northeastern Thailand (Esaan). Most western people believe that since Laos is smaller and so much less populous than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, it is more likely influenced by these countries in terms of food and cultures. But they don’t know that Laos used to be larger (as it included Esaan) and more populous before it was invaded and depopulated by Siam almost two centuries ago. First the Lao people eat primarily sticky rice, while the Thai prefer white rice. Second, dishes like papaya salad, beef jerky and a variety of Larb made of chicken, duck, fish and meat, or Lam, Jaew Bong are Lao. These dishes are very hot when prepared by typical Lao people. The Thai have developed their own version from these Lao dishes. Some Viet dishes, like Pho and Nem, are also popular in Laos. The Thai dishes are more diverse and include a lot of sea food, curries, noodle, etc. They are usually delicious and colorfully presented. The Lao have begun to improve and diversify their food since the country has opened up recently while the Thai has been a tourist mecca and advertised its food and cultures to outsiders several decades earlier. Most young Thai don’t even realize some of their favorite dishes that they enjoy eating (with usually the prefix Thai- attached on them) are actually of Lao origin.

Victoria November 18, 2013 at 12:44 am

Thanks for the additional insights, Jim! I LOVE Esaan food, so it looks like I should be thankful for Laos creating it to begin with!

Alex June 26, 2014 at 3:00 am

Yes, I’d have to agree with Jim. Many Thai dishes are influenced and/or originate from Laos. And ‘real’ Lao dishes, such as papaya salad, are actually very spicy whereas Thai dishes are more sweet, so I’d have to disagree with you there. And to reiterate what Jim has said, Thailand has always had enormous tourism in their country, unlike Laos who has just opened up their country to visitors in the last decade or so, which is why many of their dishes are believed to be Thai, when in fact, it is Lao!


Victoria June 26, 2014 at 10:39 am

Interesting! I guess I’ve eaten more southern and central Thai dishes, which are spicier and more sour than sweet, so I’m comparing different regions based on my experiences. I have to go back to Laos now and try to find out more – my two weeks there wasn’t quite enough to really get the chance to explore all of the food around the country. 🙂

Mann July 19, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Alex. We have no an evident which country originate papaya salad. But I heard that Laos people will get angry when the people say that it originate from Thai. But Thai people don’t care because everyone acknowledge that papaya salad is Thai cuisine. Lao’s culture is very like to northeastern Thailand (Esaan) culture. So, some of cuisine that originate in Esaan can influence to Lao or vise versa.

dave December 29, 2014 at 10:03 am

Jim already said parts of thailand/siam was actually laos until the French divided the lands up..its evident that the people are of lao origin so i would believe that papaya salad is of lao origin

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