Archive for Laos

A real lazy river

Limestone karst by the river - Vang Vieng
Miha jumping into the river - Vang Vieng

In Vang Vieng, a tiny town halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, a crowd of backpackers a few years ago discovered a mountain-bound oasis from the heat and disorder of traveling in Laos. A small river flows among hills composed of limestone karst, and enterprising locals have gathered a stock of tractor tires to rent out to tired travelers with which they can float effortlessly through the mystical landscape. In a stroke of commercial genius, they’ve also constructed bamboo platforms like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson, spaced nicely along the banks, at which “tubers” are greeted with complimentary shots of Lao Lao homemade rice whiskey and chilled Beer Lao for $1 a bottle. Sputtering sound systems blast Bob Marley and the like (and this was the first context in which it’s felt appropriate and less than grating that I’ve encountered since at least sometime in high school), and the hideaways also feature various kinds of jerry-rigged swings and zip lines. Braver people than I took turns jumping into the river using these apparati, but I was, unsurprisingly, content to drink and watch my temporary traveling companion, an enthusiastic law student from Slovenia, abandon caution and leap into the water.

You can see him in action by clicking play below.

Posted by on December 6th, 2006

Cooking in Luang Prabang

Eggs - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Barbecue Fish - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang

My best day in Luang Prabang was spent taking a cooking class, taught by a young Hmong man named Ning who was accomplished and sure in the kitchen. Along with three other students (a couple from Heidelberg and a guy from Belgium who works for EUROPOL), I paid $25 for the chance to immerse myself in Lao cuisine from 10am to 6pm. We began with a trip to Phousy Market, the central shopping location for all of Luang Prabang’s residents (excluding the hordes of tourists), where we bought some necessary ingredients and snacks for break-time munching and, more importantly, had a quick but thorough lesson in some of the crucial components of Lao cooking. After a half-hour tour, we boarded a tuk tuk and headed back to the hut that acts as the classroom for the Three Elephants Cafe cooking school.

Woman selling blood - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Palm sugar sweets

Back at the school, we started off with some palm-sugar sweets and Lao coffee while Ning and his assistant did some prep work. When the mise-en-place was set, the four of us came inside for a demonstration of the two dishes we were to cook that morning for our lunch. We began with a dish that required more composition than cooking, per se: a Luang Prabang Salad, which consisted of cucumber, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, pork and cilantro arranged over a mound of mixed lettuce greens and dressed with an intriguing mayonnaise made by pulverizing hard-boiled yolks as opposed to the traditional raw-egg base. The salad was quite refreshing, though I picked around the eggs, as the hard-boiled variety have never appealed to me–although as a child I often made my mom cook them for me just so I’d have the chance to play with our egg slicer.

Luang Prabang Salad
Fried noodles with chicken, egg, and vegetables

The other dish that was to serve as lunch was one that I anticipate making at home not infrequently: Fried Noodles with chicken, egg, and green vegetables. This dish was not only both simple and quick to prepare but also quite delicious and distinctly more authentic than just about any Asian noodles available in New York.

Longan fruit
Frying jaew bong chili paste

After lunch we watched Ning show us how to make five more dishes, of which we were to choose three to replicate ourselves, in addition to the proper techniques for steaming sticky rice (the Lao staple food) and jaew bong chili paste, the variety of that omnipresent condiment native to the region around Luang Prabang.

Frying massive amounts of garlic
Purple sticky rice

We came to a consensus on two of the choices, but the other three students all agreed on the third dish, while I dissented, hoping to perfect the green bean salad that can so easily be transformed–using cucumber, green papaya, or mango–into a healthy, tasty, and versatile standby. Since everyone else wanted to make the pork and egg stew, however, and since we were snacking on longan fruit while trying to make this decision (and that after an unusually hearty lunch!), I just went with the flow.

Banana flowers, lemongrass, and limes
Green bean salad

There is a reason that we all concurred about the other two dishes–chicken laap and eggplant with minced pork are some of the most typical Lao dishes, and certainly among the most toothsome. The laap is invigorating on a hot day, and evokes the jungle with all its wild greenery, while the pork and eggplant satisfy with their savory bath of oyster sauce.

Eggplant and pork
Dinner at cooking class

Recipes upon request–considering these photos, I’m expecting to hear from you!

Ingredients for jaew bong chili paste
Chicken laap

Posted by on November 27th, 2006

Two great meals in Laos

So far I’ve had, among many memorable meals, two unbelievable ones. The first was on my last night in Luang Namtha, on the outskirts of town near the old airport, at a restaurant called the Boat Landing, which happens to share its name with the most upscale lodgings in town (rooms go for about $20 a night). I hired a tuk tuk to take me out there after I’d showered upon returning from my kayaking adventure, since from what I’d read in brochures around town and from what the staff at Green Discovery had told me when I’d asked, this was the place to try well prepared traditional Lao food in a relaxed and somewhat upscale atmosphere. I asked the waiter for some recommendations, since the set meals were all designed for 2-3 people, and despite my desire to try a lot of dishes, that seemed slightly excessive.

Dinner - Rice, fish laap, and pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha
Pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha

I went with his vote for the fish laap, accompanied by the nam pik awng chili paste with pork, steamed rice (since I was a bit tired of sticky rice after eating it four meals straight), and a lemon-mint shake, concocted by the chef himself. None of these choices could have been better. The fish laap was green as the jungle, with finely minced river fish happily overwhelmed by chopped leaves of various herbs, like mint and cilantro, as well as garlic, chiles, scallions, ground roasted sticky rice, and crescents of shredded banana flower. The nam pik awng tasted surprisingly like a spicy, umami Bolognese ragu, and was delicious spread on top of the crisp cucumber rounds and parboiled carrots that accompanied it. The Boat House offers some of their recipes online here, and I’m fairly certain the one for tofu laap could easily be adapted to recreate the properly piscine version I had the fortune to consume.

The second meal was the dinner I ate last night, after my first real day in Luang Prabang, the third-largest city in Laos (with a population of only 16,000!). I ventured down the peninsula toward where the Kham River meets the Mekong to check out the 3 Nagas restaurant (website currently under construction). One of four eateries in town run by a pair of enterprising business partners, 3 Nagas was written up in the food section of the Times two summers ago, and it was that article (by Amanda Hesser, of whose writing I’m usually not a fan) that fanned my eagerness to travel to Laos, and especially Luang Prabang. (Since the article is only available to subscribers like myself, who may or may not have filched their mothers’ delivery account numbers to access archived articles for free, I’ll paste the full text of it below.)

Crispy rice cake with jaew maklen - 3 Nagas
Fried coconut sticky rice with sour pork - 3 Nagas

The restaurant appealed from the moment I walked by, with real wine glasses, tablecloths, and what Amanda Hesser described somewhat overdramatically in her Times piece as a floor the color of ox blood. The real star, however, was the menu, and the food that issued from it. When I first sat down, an amuse bouche–of jaew maklen chili paste on a crispy rice cake–appeared, as if by magic I’d been transported from Laos to New York or Paris. Again on the waiter’s recommendation, I started with the salad of fried coconut sticky rice and sour pork, which was one of the subtlest and most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in my entire life. The flavors were so quiet but persistent at the same time, I almost had to order a second helping to take home with me for later…though I managed some restraint. The pork with eggplant was good but not resplendent, though the jaew bong chili paste, the traditional Luang Prabang variety, shined with its dark undertones of dried buffalo skin and roasted garlic.

Jaew bong chili paste - 3 Nagas
Bamboo rice steamer - 3 Nagas

Eating these chili pastes always feels somehow verboten, as if they contained the blood of Christian children or a secret alchemical elixir of life. This food is dangerous, stuff not for sunny days but for consumption in some coven’s cavern, scooped up with fingers and placed on the tongue to facilitate communion with some dark governor.

Stir-fried pork and eggplant - 3 Nagas
Tamarind sorbet - 3 Nagas

Safer fare was to be found in the dessert section of the menu, where a tamarind sorbet tempted even my bulging belly. I washed it down with the last of my half-carafe of the house white–a sprightly cuvee snagged for just $7–and made my way back to my guesthouse, where I passed out in a gourmand’s reverie.

Full text of the New York Times article, “To Eat in Laos,” by Amanda Hesser, published July 13, 2005, follows. Click on “Read the rest of this entry” to see it.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by on November 18th, 2006

Khmu can do….

…but Sartre is smart-re, as Homer Simpson would say, if he knew that Khmu is pronounced like Camus, and that it’s the name of a tribe indigenous to the area around the Nam Ha river in Luang Namtha province here in Laos. I’ve just returned from an amazing two days of kayaking along that tributary of the Nam Tha river (itself a tributary of the mighty Mekong), during which we stopped at a number of villages, inhabited by such groups as the Khmu and the Lanten (close relatives of the Hmong).

Driver unloading kayaks from the tuk tuk - Nam Ha River
Women in a Lanten village - Nam Ha River

We left from the office of Green Discovery at 9am, after leaving our backpacks in storage there and stuffing bare essentials into dry sacks for transport in our inflatable two-person kayaks. Together we were four: a friendly Danish couple P. and S., myself, and our guide Ket (pronounced something like Get crossed with Ed). We boarded a tuk tuk and headed for the highway, on which we drove for about an hour before we reached the flooded iron-rich paths that will form the base of a new road once construction is finished. We jerked and bumped our way down toward a village for another 20 minutes or so until we reached the Nam Ha River, inflated our red kayaks, donned orange lifejackets and yellow helmets, and pushed off into the muddy water. We made our way through some minor rapids, P. and S. in one boat, me providing the engine power in front of the other while Ket maneuvered us down the course as if it were a video game.

Hut in a rice field - Nam Ha River

As we entered the Southeast Asian jungle, propelled by our own force down the chocolate river, I couldn’t help but think I was floating down the “Irriwaddy,” as the simulacrum river that flows through the Bronx Zoo, surrounded on either side by free-ranging tapirs and bathing elepants, is known, at least within the borders of the zoo (outside, it transforms back into the slightly less exotic Bronx River). Fluorescent blue birds swooped from bank to bank, while smaller aviators with black-and-white striped tails seemed to skip across the surface, pursuing some subaquatic prey, perhaps. Branches overhung the river, and I pushed them out of my face with my paddle as we passed, wary of the gigantic spiderwebs that spread among their crevices.

Sticky rice in the field - Nam Ha River
Sesame seed pods - Nam Ha River

After a while, we stopped on the right bank for lunch. Ket took a kayak to the other side to climb a banana tree and cut down some of its huge leaves with his knife, to use as both table and chairs, of a sort, back where the three of us hovered helplessly waiting for our leader to return. At this point, I was still a bit afraid to take out my camera, so lunch, like just about every other meal during the trip, passed unrecorded, except in my memory. The company staff had prepared a bountiful lunch of pork stir-fried with green beans and cauliflower, the smallest, freshest peanuts I’ve ever tasted, an omelet with dill and other, unidentified herbs, sticky rice in a bamboo basket, and wonderfully spicy chili paste, pounded with jungle-green herbs, into which we dipped our balled-up rice. After eating, I abandoned my fear and took my camera out of the dry sack, and we walked up the hill to the rice fields that soared above the river along this stretch of shore. There, we saw a hut used by the locals for resting and eating while they’re working the fields, and Ket explained to us what many of the plants would yield in a few weeks’ or months’ time: sticky rice (grown not in flooded paddies like the more common variety, but in dry fields), eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, sesame seeds, thai basil, and ginger, among a number of others for which he didn’t know the English name. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t identify the vegetables from the plants either.

Dinnertime for the piglets in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Houses in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

After lunch we resumed paddling until we noticed some huts rising above the river on the left. We had reached Ban Nalan, home to some 400-odd members of the Khmu tribe. Ket showed us around the village, pointing out the school, which was built by an NGO about eight years ago, the source of running water, in place for only a year, and the solar panels, another gift of some development agency. My favorite part was all the farm animals running around, particularly the piglets, some of which were as young as five days old. I wanted to take one home, but I figured that might be a problem at Customs (disregarding the problem it would be when my mom saw it jump out of my backpack).

Rooster by a door in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Pig in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

Once we’d had our fill of Ban Nalan, we pushed back into the river and headed another hour or so downstream to Ban Nalan Tai, or the southern village of the same name, also inhabited by Khmu people. It was here that we were to spend the night.

Tubercular woman gathering water in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Houses near our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

First, we changed out of our wet suits and shorts (and I realized that my legs were lightly seared, like good steaks should be) into warmer and drier outfits. Then we explored the village, saying hello to the women and children hanging listlessly around outside (the men were still in the rice fields, and many of them would stay there overnight, as the fields were well over an hour away from the village), soaking each other in. As the light began to fade and the mist move in (around 5pm), some of the village women came over to our hut and started preparing our festive meal. One of them slaughtered a chicken and threw it in a boiling pot of water on the fire stove inside our hut. A young girl joined in, cutting dozens of small water squash into slices, to be made into squash soup and squash curry. Later, when the cooking moved definitively inside (as the sun had certainly sunk behind the mountains), the same girl mashed up chilies with a fragrant herb called lemon balm, to make a distinctive and delicious jeow redolent of lime juice, with the nice crunch of salt to balance the sour and spicy flavors. Through Ket, who speaks not just Lao and English but also the Khmu language and that of a few other hill tribes, we found out about the culture of the Khmu, and some details of the lives of the women who had prepared our meal for us, and whom we had asked to share it with us as well.

Pet monkey in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Close-up of chicken slaughtered for our dinner in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Then, no later than 9pm, with the sky pitch dark, our bellies full, and our tongues burning, we strung mosquito nets from the ceiling and crawled inside them on the mattresses that had been laid on the rattan and bamboo floor. While it had still been light, I’d inspected my set-up for scary creatures and rated it okay, and the mosquito net instilled a sadly false sense of comfort in me. I was zonked out within five minutes of lying down. However, in a couple of hours I woke up, jerked from sleep by the sensation that things were crawling on my face and back and, lo and behold, they were. I had ants on my face, on my neck, and, yes, in my pants! They were tiny ants, nothing to be frightened of, but I was still petrified, and spent most of the night turning from side to side and swatting myself with my sleeve. It’s not like there was anywhere else to go, so I just snoozed and swatted alternately until 7am or so, when I got up, made my way to the surprisingly modern toilet, and literally shook as many of the insects off me as I could. I was ecstatic when, after a breakfast of fresh-laid eggs and sticky rice, swallowed down with two cups of Lao coffee (sweetened with condensed milk but happily likeable), I was able to jump partway in the water as I climbed back into my kayak. Ants can’t swim, can they?

Ket smoking out the bees from our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Today, we visited a village that the Lanten people call home, though this cluster of huts was in sorrier shape than the other villages we’d seen on the trip. Ket said that the Lanten people, especially in this village, have a huge problem with opium addiction, and that the addiction was at the root of their relative poverty. Even here, most people seemed to have enough to eat, what with subsistence agriculture and all, but a woman came up to us and held out her baby, whose head was a gaping, oozing, wound, and asked us (Ket translated) for money to take him to the hospital. Ket told us that his company sometimes helps the people here get medical attention, that part of the fees we’d paid go toward helping the inhabitants of the villages we visit, and that we shouldn’t give them money because they would spend it on opium. Sadly, we agreed with him and walked away. We didn’t spend too much time in this village, though each of us did buy a little handmade bracelet woven with a traditional Lanten pattern of multi-pronged asterisks.

Cows in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
High-class facilities in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Upon leaving the Lanten village, we made our way over the largest rapids we would encounter, though even they were nothing much in the dry season (Ket said they were probably only class 2 right now, though in the rainy season the same rapids can be class 3 or even 4). Then we stopped a bit further down on the left bank, sat down on some more banana leaves cut from the tree by Ket, and devoured our lunch, another chicken from Ban Nalan Tai, which they’d barbecued over a spit for about three hours before we left this morning, accompanied by more sticky rice and perhaps the best jeow yet–very salty and sour, and not quite as hot. After lunch, we only had a short way to go before the Nam Ha joined the Nam Tha and we pulled our boats out of the river, at yet another Khmu village, this one just a tiny agglomeration of homes overlooking the broad and muddy Nam Tha. We waited there for a bit until a tuk tuk came for us, and then we clambered back to town, climbing all the way over a rocky road mirroring the turns and dips of the Nam Tha.

Posted by on November 16th, 2006

The Laos-China Border

In contrast to the Paris-China Border (and if you don’t know the reference, get thee to Amazon for a copy of Salinger’s Nine Stories post haste), the Laos-China Border is a very real liminal space, one which I traversed this afternoon, partly on foot and partly in the back of a saengthaew, or a truck that’s been refitted to carry passengers as well as produce in its nether regions. I had left Beijing on a 7:30am flight on Sunday, sleeping my way across the waking giant to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, through which my brother J. and I had passed on our way to Dali and Lijiang back in March. From there I hopped another plane to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in the very south of the province, verging on both Myanmar and Laos.

Last night I wandered around Jinghong for a bit, but there wasn’t really much to see, so I ended up having a quick bite to eat and lingering over the book I was reading instead. (Now, I just need to find a backpacker cafe-cum-bookstore at which to trade it for another, lighter tome.) Then I headed back to my clean but somewhat shabby room–with a leaky sink–at the Jingyong Fandian, a hotel that Lonely Planet had recommended toward the center of town, but which I found pretty lacking. However, I must concede, the room only cost me 60 kuai (about $7.50), and the service was quite friendly.

I awoke this morning at 6am and hiked the 20 minutes up to the main bus station, where I boarded a bus to Mengla. From what I’d read, it was supposed to be near-impossible to get from Jinghong into Laos in the course of a day, due to poorly aligned bus schedules, lacksadaisical border guards on the Lao side, and the like. However, I figured I’d give it a go, since I didn’t have any desire to spend a night in Mengla, which promised to be even less interesting and offer even dingier accommodations than Jinghong. I got a seat on the first bus of the day (by bus I mean the small white vans that shuttle rural citizens around the countryside in China, often known by the nickname mienbao because they look like loaves of bread–and because they hold up about as well in case of a crash). It pulled into the long-distance bus station in Mengla just shy of noon; I hopped into a bicycle cart pedaled by a man who kept trying to get me to change money with him–unnecessary, since I had already done a black market deal with some guy standing outside the not-yet-open exchange booths at the Beijing ariport–while taking me to the Number 2 Bus Station. There, I bought a ticket for $2 for the two-hour ride to the border town of Mohan (Boten on the Lao side), took my seat on the bus, and settled in for a jolting ride over roads that switched from paved to dirt every five minutes or so, interrupted by hitchhikers making their way from village to village using the only form of public transportation around–the long-distance buses.

On both sides of the border, officials commented on the obscene number of Chinese visas in my passport. What can I say? Kafka would have had no choice but to write nonfiction if he’d been born Chinese. Despite some hemming and hawing, I was given exit stamps for China and prodded on my way toward Laos. I walked in that direction for a bit until a saengthaew driver convinced me to climb aboard for about a dollar. He wanted to take me all the way to Luang Nam Tha, my day’s final destination, but I decided to wait and see what forms of transport were gathered on the other side of Immigration before I committed, even though he’d nicely offered me half of his small piece of delicious citrus fruit (the first thing I’d eaten all day). I purchased a 30-day Lao tourist visa (the default length of stay was 15 days until just recently…now you can stay twice as long for the same amount of money–$35 for Americans, which came out to almost $40 for me since I decided to use up some extraneous Chinese cash instead of tapping into my small hoard of dollars). Then I ended up in another saengthaew in any case, but it turned out to be not a bad way of traveling on a warm day. The open sides of the back of the truck let in quite a refreshing breeze.

After a little more than an hour’s drive, we pulled into the bus station at Luang Nam Tha, and I was left with relative locations of guesthouses and restaurants from the meager descriptions in Lonely Planet, but no map, and no linguistic competence. I walked around for a bit, found a guesthouse that looked okay, put my backpack in a room, and went out to get some food. I couldn’t seem to find a restaurant for the first 15 minutes or so, but finally I found a place that looked okay, and I asked the waitress to bring me whatever she thought was good from the menu. She decided on khao soi, rice noodles in a slightly spicy broth with small pieces of beef and what I think was buffalo meat, topped with a pile of cilantro, and accompanied by more than half a dozen bottles and jars of sauces and seasonings. I doused mine with the chili sauce and fish sauce, added a splash of “Green Grade Gold Label Seasoning Sauce,” a dash of “pepper powder,” and a spoonful of chili oil. To that, I threw in some of the greens and string beans the waitress had brought me on a separate plate. The result was deliciously spicy, a harbinger of good meals to come.

After obtaining some nourishment, I walked around and found the main strip, decided to change to a different guesthouse–the recently refurbished Manychan, with a great location, a bustling and pretty good restaurant–and booked a two-day kayaking trip leaving tomorrow morning. We’ll kayak on the Nam Tha River tomorrow, spend the night in a traditional home in a Lanten village (I’m sure I’ll know more about what that’s like when I get back…), and then kayak some more on Wednesday before heading back to Luang Nam Tha. Then I wandered around town for a while, got lost in a residential area and stumbled upon some kids playing soccer and people walking water buffalo and goats (and kids!–of the goatish sort) on strings. Then I grabbed my backpack from the first guesthouse, apologized profusely to the nice woman in charge there with whom I’d conversed earlier in Chinese (our only common tongue), and headed for the comfort of Manychan. I had a quick bite downstairs, my first authentic green papaya salad (tam mak hung in Lao, som tam in Thai) with sticky rice (kao neaw), and then headed over to this nice internet cafe to let the family know I’d arrived safely and, oh yeah, post to my blog. I have some photos (of lunch and dinner, plus a couple random freebies), of course, but I’m going to wait until I have some more before I upload them. Perhaps when I get back from tackling the rapids.

Update (November 15, 9:24pm): I just posted the corresponding photos here, under “Photos from the Border.” You can see the growing collection of Laos photos on flickr in my Laos photoset.

Posted by on November 13th, 2006