Laos

Love letter to Lao

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I am a firm believer that there is not a country on this earth in which I couldn’t find something to fascinate me, or even just some small part that would endear itself to me. We live on an amazing planet and I for one am endlessly delighted by the people, places, birds and animals I come across.

There are however, from time to time, places that just capture my imagination and steal my heart. Lao is one of those places. It was not very far into our journey through this beautiful land that I knew that this place was special, and that it would take residence in my heart as one of the truly enchanting corners of the world.

When the first taste you get of a new land is the capital city, it can be a somewhat confusing indication of what the rest of the country is like. Cities by their nature are usually large and often bustling metropolises that jam into their interiors the most flashy, grand, and exhibitionist aspects of what their culture has to offer. Cities are of course always a reflection of the culture at large but not always the culture of the small. By that I mean, one needs to sometimes get off the road most travelled and into the countryside to the places where people live out their lives away from the tourist lens. Then you may have the chance to really breathe in what a country is all about.

Nonetheless, my first taste of Lao was the capital, Vientiane. Capital yes, city no. At least, not in my terms of a city. Vientiane has a languid and peaceful air about it that beguiles you as you wander the well kept riverside streets. I am aware that this is a capital undergoing rapid change and that it looks markedly different on the waterfront to what it did only but two years prior. But for now, it has a wonderful slow, relaxed and friendly atmosphere that is so much more fitting of a big country town than the capital of a nation. With attractive streets lined with inviting guesthouses and restaurants, I was charmed. I whiled away three lovely days dining on some of the best food I ate in Lao, sipping great coffee in cafes and sampling world class wines in a wine bar.

Vientiane was a capital that actually in many respects was a good indication of what the rest of the country was to be like… at least in terms of the relaxed and friendly approach people here have to life. Lao is not a wealthy country in an economic sense, but I did feel time and time again that in other ways they were indeed very wealthy. I was struck by how there was a real sense that people work when they need to work and rest when they don’t need to work. I doubt you would find many a Laotian dying from a heart attack brought on by endless hours slaving overtime at the office in the eternal pursuit of trying to keep the worries of the future at bay. In fact, I get the distinct impression that this is a culture that may have possibly mastered the art of living in the now. At least, better than I feel people in the West have. So many Westerners spend the majority of their time either ruminating about the past or fretting over the future. Aren’t we as humans supposed to spend our time in the present? I for one have really started to see for myself that as the days go by this year, my own personal capacity to live in the present and less in the worries of the past or the future has increased. If I am honest with myself, I think this is the first time in my life since I was a child, that I can recall, where I can really understand what it means to live in the present. Our fast paced lives in the West just don’t seem to allow a human to be a human in the way that our souls intended.

I do not want to sound like I have bathed my whole picture of Lao in some rose coloured hue and that I am blind to the challenges that exist for this country and its people, but this is my love letter and I want to focus on what I loved about Lao.

I loved that when you would go through a village you would see families sitting together on square wooden decks, sharing food, combing one another’s hair or just chilling out in the heat of the afternoon, content to lie and watch the sun slip down the sky. This relaxed approach to living seemed to permeate the whole country from people to animals. I would often see groups of cows huddled together, lying on the road and cars and buses would need to simply drive around them. Why should they move?! I think that was the thought of both parties – the cows and the drivers! Taking a snooze on the road was not just the domain of the bovines though! I am not lying when I say that I saw a person having a snooze by their motorbike on the road as our bus went cruising on past. And I do mean lying on the road.

I think if you go through life expecting to find horrible people, you will find horrible people as easily as if you approach life with the belief you will find nice people, nice people you shall find; the world over. But some countries seem to have more nice people than others! Lao is a country that I found nice people in abundance. Lao people are gentle, have a great sense of humour, are giving of their culture and eager for you to learn but similarly they are genuinely interested in you as a person and where you come from. I met a wonderful guy by the name of Hien when we were in Luang Prabang and he ended up spending two days with Damien and I when we were in that town. Hien was studying to become an English teacher and came from a village in the North of Lao. He was very happy to share his knowledge and thoughts about his country and enthusiastically invited us to come back next year to visit him in his home town.

Cities and towns and human made structures can be truly fascinating and I always appreciate visiting such places in my travels. I am a nature lover first though and Lao has an abundance of natural beauty. I was continually dazzled by the sights I saw. It seemed to me that every time I left one place I would enter yet another that made my jaw drop. The first place to set the standard for the awe inspiring countryside I would experience was Vang Vieng. Magnificent karst cliffs rise up from the flat ground below. Staying in the town you are treated with the additional eye catching scene of the Nam Song flowing past the sheer mountain backdrop. It was a sight that I could not tire of, and every time I chanced to look away and then glance back up at a later stage I was hit with the full force of its beauty.

But as I said, man made things can be beautiful too and the next town I went to, Luang Prabang, is a sterling example of this. I must add though that it is nestled in a valley between two rivers so it has a pretty special natural setting too! Luang Prabang is a monastic town that is like no other town I have been to in Asia. Unique is truly the right word to describe this place. It is such a pleasure just to stroll the streets, or sit in the cafes and restaurants and watch the world go by. But you would be doing yourself a massive disservice if you found yourself lured by the town and forgot to venture out into the countryside to the Kuang Si Falls. These are hands down the most breathtaking waterfalls I have ever seen. The falls are a series of impossibly aqua pools that tumble down several different levels, each lovely and different in its appearance. One particular level has a series of flat pools that look as if they are slices of a turquoise crystal complete with white crystal fringes. This is truly one of God’s masterpieces. Every plant, rock and crevice seems to have been placed in a way that maximises the wow factor. Its picture perfect quality leaves you feeling that something this good could almost have been designed this way by someone drawing their fantasy land.

I would require many more pages than a blog post would allow to fully detail all the amazing sights I encountered during the three and a half weeks I had in Lao, so I am going to have to restrict myself to just a few more highlights.

One of the places I was very keen to see was the Plain of Jars. This area of Lao contains what is thought to be old burial jars that are apparently thousands of years old. We visited two of the numerous sites and it was more fascinating than I think either of us expected the experience to be. However, what was even more unexpected was how intriguing we found the town of Phonsavan and the province it is in, Xieng Khouang. I was aware that Lao had been extensively bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War but visiting the town of Phonsavan and its surrounds really brought this home to me. The town is literally strewn with ordnance “memorabilia” (if I can be so crude as to call it that). Everywhere you go there is evidence of the carnage that was inflicted on the Lao people for all those years. Old bombs are used as structural supports for awnings, bullet casings for key rings, bombs are halved to use as fireplaces. But I got a sense that all these visual reminders of this dark time are more about the Lao people owning the situation they are in now and making the best use of the materials at hand.

However, the disastrous legacy this bombing has left was evident in the highly visible work that MAG (Mines Advisory Group) conduct in the fields around the town. We saw teams of locals working in the fields to clear the area of unexploded ordnance. As if to highlight the reality of the situation, whilst we were at the first Plain of Jars sight an extraordinary loud noise like massive thunder boomed into the air. It rumbled and reverberated for quite a long time and so we asked our guide what it was. He responded ever so casually (as you would I guess when you hear this all the time) that they were just detonating a bomb. Right. Yes, I think I will stick right between those markers (indicators on the ground of safe areas) for the duration of our time in the Plains, I thought.

This is a sad story to tell, I am aware, but I for one was glad to have first hand experience of what the Lao people had to endure (and still have to endure) because they were neighbours with a country America was at war with. I was also glad to have seen this part of Lao because the landscape was so different to anything we had hitherto experienced in the country. It was such a beautiful area with large, rolling hills covered in eucalypts and pine trees and it was so unnervingly like country NSW that at times I had to remind myself what country I was in! The echo of home was lovely!

One place Damien wanted me to see was Kong Lor Cave. He said that it was like nothing I would have ever experienced before. So off we set to Ban Na Hin, a village not far from the cave. An amazing cave I was anticipating, but not the gorgeous drive to Ban Na Hin! We drove through beautiful rainforest with plants of giant red flowers and heart shaped leaves. Rising out of the forest though was the most unusual rock formations! They were sheer walls that at their summit ended in extremely sharp looking jagged edges. I am sorry to say that I didn’t get any photos of them, but they are definitely another reason why I loved our trip to Kong Lor. Once you leave Ban Na Hin you then are treated to a further sensory delight. The drive to the National Park that the cave is in is via a gorgeous valley whose cliffs seem to meet at the apex where the Park commences.

But the cave! Wow! This cave is 7.5 kilometers long and goes straight through a mountain. You must go through on boat via the river that runs underneath the mountain. Inside, the cavern is enormous and the roof reaches a height up 100 meters at points. The river winds through the cave, past sandy underground beaches and stalactites and stalagmites. Lao had done it again! I was in awe of this latest amazing spectacle!

Last, but certainly not least was our final stop in Lao – Si Phan Don (4000 Islands). We rested on Don Khon (Khon Island) and had four mellow days cruising around on bikes, watching the Mekong swirl and bubble it’s way past out bungalow and just luxuriating in this amazing island gem. There were no waves like other island holidays I’ve had. Instead there was the large brown expanse of the Mekong, the heat, the palm trees, a lack of other tourists and just the villagers going about their life and I really felt that this was the quinetessential island experience. In fact, it was the perfect and fitting finale to what was one of the most chilled out and memorable countries of my trip so far.

Khop chai lai lai, Lao xoxo

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Categories: Laos, travel | 2 Comments

Heading South

We’ve met a few other travel bloggers in our journey so far, and it seems that being a few weeks behind in your posts is not uncommon! But as I sit here at a sunny café table in the ancient north German town of Verden, sipping an espresso and watching the Saturday morning crowd go about its business, I feel it’s high time I recapped where we’ve been since leaving Phonsavan.

Heading south was the main aim, and we were forced to go faster than our normal pace to make up time lost due to the accident. We’ve developed an informal guideline for this year of travel: most of the time we plan to stop for at least three nights in a given location, often longer. This allows us time to explore and absorb the local area better, and just as importantly it enables us to relax and enjoy the journey. We’ve all done the rushed holiday where you’re go-go-go the whole time, moving constantly so that you feel like you need another break at the end of it all. Avoiding that pitfall has been one of our highest priorities, and I’m happy to say that we’ve maintained a relaxed pace for nearly five months now and counting 🙂

Below is a brief summary of our last week and a half in Laos, from May 28th to June 7th, stop by stop:

Paksan – May 28th

This was where our epic bus journey from Phonsavan ended, and as Kristen noted in her account of our meeting with Victorian Fisheries researcher Ivor it’s definitely not on the tourist trail. It’s a pleasant enough place but entirely nondescript, and we would not have stayed here at all except that it was where the bus stopped. I actually stayed here two years ago when I had more time, and I don’t think it’s changed one iota since then. If you do have to rest here for any reason, then the Paksan Hotel is a gem of a place: clean and spacious rooms with hot water, aircon and wifi for just $9 a night. Bargain!

Ban Na Hin – May 29th to 30th

This small town on the road to Lak Sao has grown quite a bit in the last few years, as more tourists start to visit the amazing Kong Lo cave nearby. I visited this place two and a half years ago and it was on my must-see list for Kristen this time, even though it required a detour of several days to visit (you can read what I said about it in 2009 here). We chose to stay in Ban Na Hin itself for two nights and make a day trip to the cave, as onward travel south is easier to arrange from this town rather than Ban Kong Lo. It was the right call, as the 44km journey to the cave by sawng-theaw took nearly two and a half hours one way! In Ban Na Hin Soxsay Guesthouse is the pick of the bunch, with solid aircon rooms for $10 a night. It’s the only place in the area that has internet access, though it was broken when we visited, and the food was excellent. In fact we could tell how fresh our meals were going to be when we ordered. A couple of minutes after taking our order, our host could be spied zooming off on her scooter to the market to buy whatever it was we’d asked for! The whole fish cooked with citronella leaves was particularly awesome, and it was only available for dinner because the market didn’t stock fish until the evening!

Tha Khaek – May 31st to June 1st

This large town on the Mekong is prosperous but languid, and a fine place to while away a few days if you have them to spare. We didn’t, and intended to stay just one night, but ended up staying for two because the hotel was so inviting. After quite a few days in more basic accommodation the Inthira Hotel was an oasis of comfort, and we loved our spacious room with balcony looking over the square towards the river. The food’s pretty special too! This hotel is highly recommended for anyone stopping in Tha Khaek, though the balcony rooms are best avoided if you’re there on a Friday or Saturday and want to sleep early (the karaoke in the square plays LOUDLY until midnight those nights).

Pakse – June 2nd

A large but quiet town in southern Laos, in my opinion Pakse has the potential to become another “must-stop” destination for visitors to Laos. Its proximity to the ancient ruins of Wat Phou, the waterfalls and other attractions of the Bolaven Plateau and even elephant trekking in Ban Kiet Ngong make it the perfect place to base yourself for several days. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses but the town is still very quiet, and as tourist numbers inevitably increase there is a great opportunity for a lively bar-café to be established here (are you listening, Tony??).

We were here to arrange a two-day tour to some of the highlights of the region, deciding that the cost of the tour would be worth it to save time overall. But the cost was so expensive that we changed our minds and decided to do it ourselves (though my knowledge of the area from my previous visit certainly made this choice easier). So we only spent one night here, but made sure we had sunset cocktails and dinner at the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel with its sweeping 360-degree views of the area (highly recommended).

Champasak – June 3rd

Unlike all the other places in this post I had not previously been to Champasak, so I was excited to visit somewhere new. It’s only 35kms or so from Pakse and its only tourist attraction is Wat Phou, so the vast majority of travellers make a day trip from Pakse to the ancient ruins that pre-date (and some say were a template for) Angkor Wat in Cambodia. That’s a mistake if you have the time, because Champasak was a delightful surprise. It’s incredibly quiet, with the few accommodation options interspersed amongst the sleepy villages that line the banks of the Mekong. We only had one night here but could easily have spent several more, and Wat Phou is well worth a visit. We stayed at Anouxa Guesthouse which was recommended by the guidebook, and it was very quiet with a fine riverfront setting. It’s also next door to the excellent Champasak Spa where we had some very fine massages! The food at Anouxa is not great, but there is another Inthira Hotel here where you can eat even if you don’t want to splash out on the pricier rooms.

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Don Khon, Si Phan Don – June 4th to June 7th

Si Phan Don, or The 4000 Islands, is a legendary backpacker haven. Less than a decade ago, when you weren’t able to cross the nearby border with Cambodia easily and the roads were much poorer, getting here was a real effort and you were rewarded with the most laid-back part of the world’s most laid-back country. Super-cheap bungalows (think $2-4 a night) on the banks of the Mekong, with swimming and river dolphins and waterfalls to visit when you were in the mood, it was a place to drop out for weeks if you wanted. As the roads improved and the border crossing became easy, many people started to include at least a day or two in Si Phan Don as they headed south from Vientiane to Cambodia.

When I came here two and half years ago it still had a lovely chilled vibe, with the bungalows still very basic (shared cold-water bathrooms were the norm), only one internet café in the main village, and no wifi. I’m talking about Don Det here, the more party-oriented of the two principal islands of Si Phan Don, and my six nights here in early 2010 were delightful despite getting sacked by skype during that time![see my posts about Si Phan Don here and here]. How things change: it’s little more than two years later and Don Det has become a victim of poorly controlled development. It’s not that the standards have improved, though they have: most of the old bungalows that shared toilets now have attached bathrooms, and wifi is everywhere (the internet café has gone out of business). The problem is that new bungalows have been put up haphazardly, with little regard for the views from them (or of them), and there is a cluttered, uncomfortable atmosphere that simply didn’t exist before.

Fortunately nearby Don Khon, regarded as the more mature (read: quieter and slightly more upmarket) island is almost unchanged and remains a delightful spot to spend some days. We’d already decided to stay on Don Khon even before we discovered the changes on Don Det, and planned to stay for two days while we visited the various sights of the island. We immediately extended to three nights once we saw how nice it was, and in the end stayed a fourth because we couldn’t drag ourselves away!

The main waterfalls of Khon Pha Pheng and Li Phi remain as impressive as ever, and we tried and failed to spot the rare river dolphins one morning, but the best activity of our time here was cycling through the villages along the riverside. Apart from lounging in our spacious riverfront bungalow, that is, complete with hammocks and deckchairs facing the water. Pan’s Guesthouse has some minor issues but overall our stay was excellent, with the hosts very friendly and the food excellent. Don Khon is still a beautiful part of Laos and I urge everyone to get here soon in case it goes the way of Don Det.

It was with great reluctance that we dragged ourselves out of Laos, but the road inevitably beckons and we wanted to visit our favourite city Phnom Penh before leaving Asia. There is no doubt we’ll be returning to Laos in the future though!

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Eating Laotian food

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Australia is fortunate that as a result of the large mix of cultures that call this land home, we have a wonderful diversity of food and ways of eating. As an avid lover of all things culinary I feel this is one of the great results of multiculturalism. I think that it is fair to say that what is often referred to “Modern Australian” food is in part a fusion of Asian style cooking. I definitely have an Asian persuasion when cooking myself at home. That is of course amongst a myriad of other styles of cooking I enjoy doing, but Asian flavours are certainly one of the more dominant in my personal approach.

I think it’s no wonder that we have such a strong Asian influence in our food in Australia considering our geographic location in the world, our climate and our population mix. Now, however, I do find it very disappointing that there is a distinct lack of Laotian influence present. At least, that is, a far as I have found.

I recall when Damien returned from his four month odyssey around Asia in 2009-2010 that he raved about all things Lao. Damien spent two months of his trip in this country because he was so enamoured of it. Damien was especially keen for me to try some Lao food. We spied a Lao restaurant on Oxford Street, Sydney and went there. Damien was disappointed in the meal and said that it was really Thai food pretending to be Lao. He said it could not be a real Lao restaurant because it didn’t have sticky rice. I, for one, couldn’t see how the lack of sticky rice was so important. I did however agree that the food tasted a lot like Thai, or any other type of Asian food I had eaten before. The food we ate here did not introduce me to a new Asian culinary personality, as I had hoped.

Thus, I went to Lao with no expectations about the food and I think my discovery of how wonderful and unique it is was all the more enjoyable as a result. I learnt very quickly that khao niaw (sticky rice) is indeed central to Lao food, and that any restaurant claiming to be Lao would intrinsically know this and it would not be absent from the menu! I am going to steal from a little souvenir booklet on sticky rice that Hien (our friend from Luang Prabang) gave us:

“The people of Lao generally proudly regard the consummation of glutinous or ‘sticky’ rice as part of their cultural identity. The Lao language expression ‘to eat’ not only means ‘to eat rice’ as in the language of their Thai neighbours, but ‘to eat glutinous rice’. The cultural and national association with glutinous rice has also sometimes reflected in the people of Lao saying ‘if they did not eat glutinous rice they would not be Laotian’.

It is worth mentioning that the use of the word glutinous is misleading. Sticky rice does not contain gluten, rather it sticks together like glue. I quickly learnt that sticky rice is central to how Lao people eat their food. The rice is served in small woven containers with a lid. The rice is then used to eat with the accompanying meals. It is normal for Lao people to share a range of dishes together and they are consumed by rolling up small balls of sticky rice in the hand before dipping it into the food to eat.

I was introduced to a number of new flavours during our time in this country and one that intrigued me was citronella. Prior to coming to Lao I was only aware of citronella being used to ward off mosquitoes! However, one of the very first dishes I tried in Lao involved eating mixture of fried rice balls which had been broken up and mixed with other delicious ingredients, and then wrapped in either lettuce or betel nut leaves with a number of other leaves such as citronella stuffed inside. Unfortunately, I did not learn what all the other leaves were that I ate but citronella and betel nut were two I learnt about and identified in a number of the meals I ate.

Laap is probably one of the more widely known Lao dishes. It is similar to the Thai larb dish. Lao laap is normally fish (often raw), chicken, pork or beef minced up and mixed with a number of herbs such a mint and citronella and with some lime juice and chilli. I did also sample a lovely tofu laap (which is amongst the pictures above).

Buffalo meat is also widely consumed in this country and it is common to find it dried (sometimes complete with the hair attached), like jerky. I sampled buffalo paste that was mixed into a powerful blend with chilli and eaten with steamed greens.

Perhaps one of my favourite discoveries was khai paen. This dish originates from Luang Prabang as it is made from the river weed that grows in this area. The river weed is bashed into a paste and dried with garlic and tomatoes into sheets and coated in sesame seeds. It looks very much like nori. The sheets are then fried and make excellent snacks to accompany a Beerlao! Although this dish comes from Luang Prabang we sampled it in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Pakse as well. We even spied rolls of the sheets being sold at road side stalls during our bus trip.

Another dish which is also comes from Luang Prabang is or laam. This dish is like a stew and has an earthy flavour. I was not such a big fan of this dish but it is Damien’s favourite (other than sticky rice, that is). I asked him how he would describe the flavour and to him it has a medicinal quality. There is a particular fungus that is used in this dish that gives it its distinct flavour.

As for alcohol the national beer is Beerlao. I enjoy beer but I am definitely not a regular drinker of it, I prefer wine. That said, I really did like Beerlao a lot. It is a flavour that appeals to me. But not being a beer afficionado I can’t really describe it! I also sampled Lao-Lao a few times. Lao-Lao is a rice spirit that it is much more common for the locals to drink than the beer, as it is much more affordable. I had it with coke and it’s a potent drink to be sure (the way it was served to me, at least)! The taste is akin to drinking whisky and coke. Probably the most pleasant and drinkable mix I had of Lao-Lao was in Si Pan Don (4000 Islands) where it was served warm with lemon and honey. Tres bon!

We ate at a number of wonderful restaurants and cafes during our time in Lao, but I think the adventurous meal we ate at Tamarind in Luang Prabang was the standout. This restaurant is owned by a Lao and Australian couple. They offer patrons an opportunity to try dishes that are not readily available to tourists in restaurants and cafes. They want to offer food that is representative of the types of foods that locals would eat, as well as how they would eat them. This immediately appealed to Damien and I, so we booked ourselves in for this gustatory adventure. You must book at least a day in advance so that they have time to source the food from the local market to suit your taste buds. They specifically ask if there are any particular things you want to try, and of course those which you don’t.

The first course was served with sticky rice (of course!) and consisted of a plate of numerous delightful morsels to dip the rice into. They were:

  • Rice crackers and pork skin. The pork skin was rolled in the small rice cracker crumbs.
  • Morning glory, sauted. Morning glory is a green plant that is common throughout Asia and often cooked with garlic.
  • What we think was called “goat food” by our waiter! It was a zucchini/cucumber looking plant that was pickled.
  • Bon leep. A plant that grows on the river bank and we think we were told it was like a thistle. The plant is pounded into a paste and barbequed with garlic. It had a smoky flavour.
  • Chinese mustard powder. We were told this powder is particularly popular with old men who eat it with their sticky rice.
  • Chilli paste
  • A prawn dip
  • Khai paen (river weed) dried and pounded into a powder.
  • A dish of greens in padek (a Lao fermented fish sauce) and sesame seeds.
  • And the piece de resistance: Yellow mushrooms in a coconut cream. Simply divine! This was delectable and we both liked this offering on the plate most. However, it was this course in general that we enjoyed the most as all the dipping options were great or sensational. I would have been very happy if we could have eaten this kind of Lao food again on our travels.

The next course was a series of larger dishes and insects:

  • Fried baby frogs, holy basil, garlic and lemongrass. You are supposed to eat the whole frog which I did and I found them to be tasty, but fairly crunchy for the most part with only the legs being a bit more fleshy. Damien was not keen on eating the heads.
  • Som pa. A sour fish pickle.
  • Som mu. Sour pork pickle. Both of these dishes were okay but a little too sour for our palate.
  • Cam ba (I think, the notes from the night are slightly illegible at this point!). This was small fish and herbs cooked in a banana leaf. Neither of us liked this dish at all. I have found that in general food cooked in banana leaves have a wonderful flavour, rice for example is so much more tasty when eaten after being wrapped in a banana leaf. This dish however, was a notable exception to the rule!
  • Snake soup. This was a stew mixed with vegetables that had a strong and salty flavour. It was really tasty but there was heaps of bones which detracted from the experience a bit. After first trying snake last year in Cambodia, I think my preferred way to eat it is barbequed on a stick, a la ‘Boge because that way you can still enjoy the flavour and munch through the bones!
  • ‘Goat vegetable’ soup. We were informed that the soup was made from a different part of the plant to what we were served in the first course. We liked the other part of the plant way more. This got a massive cross next to it on our notes! It was bland.
  • Or laam. This was pork Or Laam which Damien thoroughly enjoyed and as I was feeling somewhat full at this point of the meal, I left this dish all to him to enjoy as I was not as keen on the flavours last time I tried the dish in Vang Vieng.
  • Deep fried cicadas (at least they looked like very large cicadas to me). The abdomen of these bugs were stuffed with herbs. I pulled off the wings and legs and just ate the rest. They had a nice flavour and I was surprised that I didn’t find them revolting! It is fair to say I had to psyche myself up to eating the insects!
  • The next thing I had to tackle was the beetle larvae, ever so artistically served in their cocoon. Personally, I don’t think I needed any further reminders of what I was about to put in my mouth and digest! Despite the fact that eating the larvae seemed totally wrong to me I was determined to try it. I was instructed that locals love to eat these as beer snacks and they are dipped in salt before eating. So I dipped the first fried larva in the salt and as recommended by the waiter, I ripped it in half to look inside. This was a good suggestion as it was not all gooey and pussy as I had dreaded, but firm with a light cream colour. Most surprising of all though was the flavour: it was actually really nice! I could probably even go so far as to say yummy. However, I had tackled the insect hurdle having already consumed two cicadas, so I stopped at the first larva satisfied with my hardcore cred intact and safe in the knowledge I did not have to worry about trying insects again for a very long time. I had been a tad concerned that I would gag (or worse vomit) if I ate the little critters, but I got through the meal and discovered that they genuinely aren’t disgusting as I had long suspected. It does not however erase my innate reluctance to eat things I have always seen as not food!

Damien was firmly adamant and comfortable in his decision to give the bugs a wide berth.

Our last course was dessert:

  • Condom ke mieow. Translated means, cat poo cookie! Never fear, we did not eat cat poo. It just looks like a cat poo! I don’t know if that allays any fears but suffice to say, they were tasty little cat poos! They were crunchy and looked like possibly puffed rice coated in something sweet and brown. We also saw this being sold at many road ride stalls.
  • There were then four little steamed rice desserts cut into little cubes. The green one had a coconut flavour, the brown one had a palm sugar taste, the yellow was made with coconut milk and pumpkin and the last one was pink and white but we did not catch what the flavour was.
Categories: food, Laos, travel | 2 Comments

Riding buses in Lao

One of the primary means of transport for us during our months in Asia has been by bus. We have spent roughly two working weeks on buses. If we were to add up all the other myriad of ways we have got from place to place, I am sure we could clock up a couple more working weeks.

As you can imagine all this travelling on buses has given me ample time to ponder the ins and outs and pros and cons of the Asian bus ride. One thing I have come to decide is that Asian bus riding is a little Forrest Gump: “You never know what you’re gonna get”.

I have on more occasions than I like to recall (as has anyone who has travelled in Asia I’m sure) gripped the seat hard and squirmed around as the driver executes some manoeuvre that would be more appropriate seen in a game of “chicken”, not on a road with large objects moving at great velocity. But it is not all hair raising stuff, thank goodness.

Thailand gets the prize for the most extravagant buses. These blinged out contraptions come complete with coloured flashing lights that give them the appearance of a disco on wheels. Couple this with ear bleedingly loud Thai pop music to finish off the effect. These particular buses are double decker, and they often have a massive table and lounge area downstairs. I guess this is for the purpose of keeping the party rolling! We didn’t ride on one of these buses but did spy them in some of the oddest places during our time in Thailand, such as the sleepy little fishing village of Hat Yao.

Lao has been the country where we have clocked up the most hours riding buses and they certainly have been a mixed bag!

So here’s the low down on the go round in Lao:

  • Indicated departure times are a rough guess at best. The bus will go when it is ready… and sometimes before it was supposed to be ready!
  • Humans will not be your only companions. Expect a chook or two.
  • This is not just a bus service but a postal service/mode of goods transportation.
  • Frequent stopping to drop off said goods will occur. One of my personal favourites was when the bus driver hardly down-shifted and hoiked out the window into a village a rolled up piece of paper, much like a scroll tied up with string. Someone’s letter perhaps? Someone picked it up so, I guess so!
  • Frequent stopping to pick up and drop off people will occur too. Do not be in a hurry. Actually, that is a general rule in Lao: do not be in a hurry.
  • If you are on the VIP buses (don’t get excited, this term is used loosely and has no bearing on the quality of the bus), you may get one stop at a ‘real’ toilet. Use it. Bring your own loo paper and money to pay. No, they are not Western toilets, which can be problematic if you have anything serious to do.
  • It will be more problematic if you don’t use the ‘real’ toilet though, as after that stop it’s more than likely a situation of find a bush on the side of the road and try not to moon the others doing the same. Note that local buses are all about finding a bush or a rock (VIP buses are more frequented by foreigners). Luckily it all seems to work out okay, and the guys go one way and the girls go the other.
  • Aside from ensuring you take a piss stop when the opportunity presents, it is also important to eat if you see the bus driver stop to eat. This signals it is a long stop – and the only one you most likely will get to eat. So do it! Of course, bringing snackage for the journey is always a wise move too.
  • Lao music will most likely be playing from the speakers. Although, this may sound all lovely and scene setting at the start, enough time on buses renders this increasingly annoying. I mean, how many versions of the same sounding song are there? Bringing an iPod is the remedy to that dilemma.
  • Air conditioning is usually achieved by opening your window, but this can be hazardous when the person in front decides to hock a few gollies out their window. Yep, right on my lip it landed. Unthrilled!

The roads we travelled on in Lao were mostly sealed or at least not too bad, with a couple of notable exceptions. Those being the road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and the road from Phonsavan to Paksan. That is of course ignoring the fact that a lot of Lao is mountainous and they don’t have too many guard rails near sheer cliffs. Granted guard rails may not save you from toppling over the edge, but they certainly provide a little peace of mind.

It is the epic journey that we did from Phonsavan to Paksan that I want to tell the tale of here. It is the perfect story to illustrate the observations I listed above.

We were aware that this trip could possibly take 11 hours but I think we both secretly hoped that it would be somewhat less, after all the journey was less than two hundred kilometres.

We left early to ensure we would get to the bus stop before the scheduled departure time. As we were going down the road our tuk tuk driver noticed a bus going the opposite direction and beeped his horn and gestured frantically. Luckily the bus driver noticed and stopped as it was our bus, departing 15 minutes earlier than expected.

I failed to see what all the rush was, for not more than a kilometre down the road we sat and waited for the better part of an hour. Not sure what for, but it slots in nicely with the other TIA (This is Asia) files.

It was a bus definitely from what I would describe as “yesteryear”. It was your basic seats with no air con and Lao tunes a blarin’ kinda bus. Bring it. I’m ready! It was early days to be feeling so nonchalant about all this, but I was feeling relaxed and was anticipating that the greatest of my concerns for that day would be the hours it would take. Oh well, probably best I was in the dark on this occasion!

Actually, I lie, I was a little concerned about our bus driver. He was young, had a towel wrapped around his head with aviator shades on. The fact that he could manage to exude coolness whilst having said towel wrapped around his head had me a little concerned. Were these the telltale hallmarks of a young hoon? Damien and I have developed a transport policy whilst in Asia. It is simple but usually effective. It’s called ‘wrinkles or boobs’: always go for the old guy or the chick. Chicks are a rare find but in our experience a bullet proof safety option. Young dudes however, are to be avoided wherever possible. However, when travelling on large public buses you are in the hands of Hermes and you just have to hope and pray it will be OK. But we have a secondary policy that ‘big bus beats small van’. Hoons are less able to fling a large bus onto the wrong side around a blind corner on a cliff, than a minivan. I’m not saying they won’t try – he did a few of these dare devil stunts, but they can’t do it fast – and that makes a difference, albeit a small one!

The first few hours were fairly peaceful . We wound our way through the hills and the small villages. Watched little kids running along only metres away from traffic with not a care in the world. Although long bus rides can be very same same they also afford you a voyeuristic view into the lives of the locals, as unlike at home, the division between public and private life seems less. People are literally living out their lives in full view of the road. You can see the locals relaxing on their square shaped decks; or planting new harvests of rice; kids may be playing in the puddles of rainwater on the road; people showering in streams or someone might be having a snooze on the road by their bike as the buses and trucks swerve around them and rattle on by. At one point when we were in a valley there was an unusually large group of people walking roadside and I was fascinated to see that at the head of the group there were people carrying a bamboo structure covered in brightly coloured cloth. I can’t be certain but it seemed to me that it was a funeral procession. It seemed so beautiful to me and a fitting send off to a life well lived. The manner of the people and this procession reminded me of the respectful solemnity you see when a funeral procession makes its way through an Australian country town.

Later on we were driving along some freshly laid road. Not too long after we spotted the reason for this new development. One of the many dams that the Chinese are building in Lao to produce hydro power for China was in the process of being constructed. So that’s why there is all this nice new road, so the trucks and building equipment can have easy access to the dam site. What a damned sight it is too. The impact this is going to have on Lao and the other countries along the Mekong is a very depressing situation to ponder. When we were chatting to Hien, the friend we made in Luang Prabang, he told us that the village he comes from in the north will need to relocate in 2015 because of the damming. We asked him if they would get assistance to relocate their lives and he told us that the government would provide only 50 percent of the removal costs. He also relayed another story of the cynicism locals have to the planned pathway of the Chinese-Lao train line that is to be constructed. It just so happens that the proposed area the line is to go through is also a gold rich area in Lao. Interesting. Depressing. And anger building!

To add more sobering detail to the damming of Lao is a conversation we had with Ivor one night in Paksan. As I mentioned in a previous post, Ivor works for the Victorian fisheries and he has been coming to Lao for a number of years to work collaboratively with Laotians on a fish ladder project. The purpose of this is to assist the movement of fish in response to the devastating effect all these dams will have on the ecology of the waterways in Lao. I asked him whether he felt this would save the aquatic life of the Mekong and he said bluntly, no it wouldn’t. The Mekong cannot be saved unless the Lao Government changes its decision to allow the Chinese to build all the dams. Ivor gave me a small glimmer of hope in that he said that the fish ladder project could have the potential to preserve some of the fish populations in other smaller waterways and wetlands. He went on to tell us that he has had conversations with locals in which they have said there will be civil war, when the effects of the destruction of the Mekong start to impact on the ability of the people who live along the river to provide themselves with food. Lao is a poor country and subsistence living is reality for sections of the population. It seemed so shocking to me when Ivor mentioned civil war as an outcome. However, the more I have ruminated on the plight of the people, flora and fauna of this country because of the decisions made by a government they did not elect to represent them, the more I can actually believe civil war could be possible.

The construction of the new road also blocked our pathway to our destination for at least an hour. So we sat and waited until our bus could continue on its way. Once we finally got rolling again I was gazing out the window when the girl in the seat in front of me spat out the window and my leg and hand got coated. This being the second time I have been the unfortunate recipient of a random sliming, I quickly slammed my window shut to avoid any subsequent “accidents”. And let me just say, I was mighty glad I did as I was even further revolted to see that the girl was not actually spitting out the window, she was having a good old vomit out the window. Clearly, sitting window side has its perils. Maybe Damien has got it right by always angling for the aisle!

After this incident we were moving along nicely for a way when we came to a point at which the bus driver halted next to another bus. I thought initially that this might have been a toilet stop, but upon alighting from the vehicle I was confronted with a rather unsettling and most unwelcome sight. The road came to a river with an only half constructed bridge across it. What the?! And the river looked way too deep for our bus to traverse. Pear shaped in the extreme! At this point Damien said that the owner of our guesthouse in Ponsavan had mentioned that there was a section of the road that only a big bus could get across a river to the other side – definitely no mini vans. Clearly he was the master of the understatement as there was no hope in hell of us getting across anytime soon. This was way too much water for even a big bus!

So we sat on the dirt with the ants in the heat and peered across longingly at the other side. We were so close yet so far! We were also in the middle of nowhere. This was definitely one of those occasions where I wished my command of the Lao language was a tad more extensive that it is. I had lots of questions I wanted to ask but very little way of communicating them.

There was a bus on the other side of the river. Evidently its journey was halted for the foreseeable future too. I wished we could all just swap buses by going across the river via the small boats or on one of the six wheeled mega trucks that were hauling cars across the river, at times in water that washed over the top of the wheels.

We managed to ask our driver when and if we might be able to get the bus across the river. He indicated that perhaps in another two hours the river might go down. Might. Not a particularly reassuring word at this juncture. As I looked at the sky and the grey clouds looming I was not feeling at all buoyed by this news and was contemplating what it might be like to be camped out here for a while. I was also looking at my supply of water and remaining fruit and wishing I had more! I had already eaten an apple, two lychees and two rambutans… looks like I may need to ration out my last rambutan and two mangosteens. It was well past lunch at this point and aside from breakfast the fruit was all I had eaten. I was hoping this wasn’t going to represent my food supply for the rest of the day!

Damien wanted to get across the river via a boat and wait on the other side for the bus. He was not at all keen to attempt a river crossing at any point on the bus. I on the other hand was not too thrilled about leaving the side of the river with our bus but eventually we came to agreement that we’d cross ourselves. Once on the other side I said we should at least see if we can arrange alternative transport, and Damien walked into the village in pursuit of that endeavour. The next available bus would be leaving 11 am the next day. Hot and a little put out by this turn of events, we sat in silence down by the water and waited to see how the bus saga would unfold.

Roughly two hours after our river vigil commenced the rest of the passengers of our bus came across on one of the trucks. Evidently the bus drivers had come to the same conclusion as I had that they needed to swap passengers and return back from whence they came. Halelujah! It was a good result and I was very pleased not to have to stay overnight.

But this being the kind of day it was, there was one last little hurdle. The road that ran through the village by the river was so boggy and potholed from the rain that we could not drive that way. Instead our bus driver took us via a windy, and still boggy, potholed mud track that was definitely more suited to four wheeled driving! We came to yet another part of the river and this time we were going in. Damien was rather unimpressed at this point, being the safety boy that he is. Suddenly he was out of his seat and perched on the arm rest. He said he was positioning himself so that he could leap into action should our bus end up on its side in the river! I wasn’t convinced that this would help much but thought it was rather amusing none the less!

I am pleased to say that after that we had an event free ride to Paksan and arrived almost exactly 11 hours after we had departed. We were obviously tired and headed straight for the hotel. As we sat at the table for dinner by the river, a very eager and friendly Ivor bounded on over and informed us straight away that forget the other five pages on the menu – that don’t have any of that (including, the oddly named “duck cooked as dog”) and that we should eat the beef. He had been eating the beef for the last two weeks and it was good. He then followed it up with, “What the hell are you doing in Paksan? No westerners come here!” Followed by, “I haven’t spoken anything but broken Lao for two weeks so I am starved of some easy conversation!” And, what an interesting and often hilarious conversation we had. A great end to an epic day!

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Classic Trio of Laos

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There are three places in Laos that feature in almost every itinerary for those who visit this landlocked country: the modern capital Vientiane, the idyllic riverside town of Vang Vieng, and the ancient capital Luang Prabang. In large part this is simply due to geography: there is only one major north-south road, and anyone coming down from the north (or vice versa) must pass through Luang Prabang to get onto it. Heading south from Luang Prabang there is only one route to Vientiane, and as it passes through Vang Vieng many stop there to break up the long, twisting journey.

The other reason these places feature is that they are three of the standout highlights of Laos. When planning our journey here (my return after two and a half years, Kristen’s first time) there was no question that these three stops would feature highly. The accident on Koh Lanta caused a severe alteration to our plans, and we were forced to delete some more remote places from the menu due to lack of time, and also change our direction of travel. But we still made this classic trio our first stops in Laos, and below is a brief summary of our time in each of them.

Vientiane

In my experience Vientiane tends to polarise people. Some people find it dull and uninteresting, with few tourist sights and tepid nightlife, and want to leave after a day or two; others love its laidback atmosphere and abundance of superb cafes and restaurants, and want to stay for days. We are definitely in the latter group! It’s true that there aren’t many things to see here, and we visited the main tourist sites of Patuxay and That Luang in half a day. But to me the real attraction of Vientiane is its beautiful central area near the Mekong, full of cruisy places to while away the hours chatting, reading or surfing the internet. It’s sometimes hard to believe this is a national capital, it’s so relaxed.

However there have been substantial changes since my first visit, and although still quiet the pace is picking up. The waterfront area has been completed changed, with a landscaped promenade now running for several kilometres along the river (and being expanded at both ends as we speak). There are hoardings up showcasing promised future developments, and they look so modern they would not be out of place on Singapore’s waterfront. What these will do to the atmosphere of Vientiane remains to be seen, but I can’t avoid the feeling that its character will change irrevocably once these glossy modern constructions are built.

Anyway, for the time being it’s still a wonderful place to visit and we were forced to limit ourselves to just three nights here. Once the sightseeing was out of the way this town was all about the food for us, and we sure did dine well! Makphet, a charity restaurant that trains former streetchildren in cooking and hospitality, produces sensational Modern Lao food and we ate there twice. There was another fine dinner at Amphone, an upmarket Modern Lao restaurant that I remembered fondly from my previous visit and can happily say still offers great food. And for something different, a good meal at L’Adresse de Tinay, a newish addition to the city’s extensive array of French bistros and restaurants.

The only real disappointment was that the Intercity Hotel – where I enjoyed two good stays last time – has gone considerably downhill in recent years. Its location is great but the rooms are rundown and the service mediocre. A tip for any future visitors: get dropped off on Rue Francois Ngin on arrival and simply walk around the many hotels and guesthouses on this street until you find one you like. There are plenty of smart-looking yet very affordable places here, and it’s extremely central.

Vang Vieng

This place doesn’t just polarise people, it’s schizoid. For years it’s had a reputation as a drug haven and for being one of those places that brings out the worst in western backpackers. It’s true that you can visit Vang Vieng and get well and truly messed up on any drug you choose, if you are looking for it, and there are still plenty of “TV bars” playing endless reruns of The Simpsons, Family Guy and even Friends (still!!). Unfortunately this reputation can deter people from visiting the area at all, which is a great shame as I think it is arguably the most beautiful part of Laos.

It’s easy to avoid the mayhem, and when you do you discover a spectacular landscape of jagged karst peaks, sublime river views and gentle villages. Just south the main part of town are plenty of quiet lodgings to suit any budget, and there are some fine restaurants along the waterfront (often attached to upmarket hotels). Activities such as caving, kayaking, trekking and swimming are all on offer, so it’s very easy to spend days here and not get bored. We initially planned just two nights but very quickly extended to three, and would have stayed even longer if we’d had the time.

Activity-wise we took the same day tour organised by Green Discovery that I did a couple of years ago. Combining visits to some caves, walking through the countryside and a Hmong village, lunch and kayaking down the river, it’s a great introduction to the area and we enjoyed our time with guide Toto (there were only the two of us on the tour). The following day we engaged him again to take us to a beautiful area known as The Blue Lagoon, about 7 kms away, which is a swimming hole fed by pure mountain water at the base of a steep hill with a huge cave at the top.

Food-wise, it was almost all Elephant Crossing for us. We were staying at a cheaper guesthouse next door, but the broad outdoor verandah with drop-dead gorgeous views of the mountains enticed for almost every meal during those three days. With good food and free wifi too, why not? One notable exception to our Elephant Crossing rule was a visit to the Organic Fruit Farm Café, which offered tasty fare including a creamy homemade goat cheese. It was with great reluctance we boarded our bus to Luang Prabang on that final morning…

Luang Prabang

This ancient city has tempted travellers for years, and there is something about this place that gets under your skin and doesn’t want to let you leave. Once again we extended our planned stay here soon after arrival, and ended up spending five days saying “how’s the serenity” to each other frequently with satisfaction. Our enjoyment was enhanced by our accommodation, located at it was next to Wat Nong (one of the 30+ temples) and in a quiet residential part of the old town. I should say however that our sleep was affected by local cats that serenaded us with their unmelodious howling most nights, but I still have fond memories of the place!

Tourist highlights are many in Luang Prabang, and Wat Xieng Thong did entrance us with its unique murals. Kristen has already talked of our night meeting Hien, a local man who worked in a bar and wanted to meet up with us a few days later. He took us up to Phu Si, the high hill in the centre of the town that offers great views of the rivers and the surrounding hills, and then the next day helped us get to Kuang Si waterfall. Located about 30 kms out of town, I didn’t visit this last time I was here and am sorry that I missed it then. It’s quite simply the most stunning waterfall complex I’ve ever seen, with each cascade so perfectly beautiful that it’s hard to believe it’s not artificial. We didn’t get to visit the famous Erewan Falls in Thailand due to the accident, but Kristen said that Kuang Si is even more amazing. On our final morning we got up early to watch the monks parade to receive alms from the locals, and were pleased to find that their path actually wound its way right past our guesthouse!

Yet again, and not surprisingly, the remainder of our time in Luang Prabang was taken up with food (seeing a pattern here?). Kristen will be writing separately about various food highlights, so I won’t go into much detail here. But we were especially taken with Tamarind, a restaurant run by an Australian-Lao couple that specifically aims to broaden the food horizons of its patrons. Although there is “Lao food” available everywhere in Laos, the vast majority of places you come across limit the genuinely Lao options to various kinds of laap, noodle soup and sticky rice. As Tamarind makes clear, this is just a small subset of what Lao people normally eat and they do very well in filling in the knowledge gaps. We ate a fair bit of western food in Luang Prabang too, particularly at Café Ban Wat Sene just a few minutes walk from our guesthouse, and also spent some long afternoons at Sala Café. Finally, on our last two days we also squeezed in some extensive massage time at Hibiscus Spa (also close to where we were staying). Starting from just $11 for an hour and half, who could resist??

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