As a single woman who spends most of her time on the road, it’s no surprise that I don’t cook. I rarely stay in accommodations with kitchen facilities and even if I did, it would be too expensive to buy all the spices and staples needed to prepare a decent meal. But though I rarely cook, I LOVE to eat! Eating local fare is one of the best ways to tap into the culture of the countries I visit, thus I’m always eager to try vegetarian dishes at street vendors, restaurants and during home stays as I travel.
Laos offered one of the most rich culinary traditions I have ever experienced. From the moment I arrived in Luang Prabang, I was tempted by mouth-watering delicacies like deep fried crispy spring rolls; sesame and seaweed crackers; sticky rice with a variety of exotic dipping sauces, and famous entrees like Padsapao and Mok Pa. By the time I arrived in Vientiane to visit my friend and fellow blogger, Candice Broom, I was hooked on Lao food, so when she offered to introduce me to one of the capital city’s gourmet restaurants I jumped at the chance.
Candice, who has been living in Laos for a number of years teaching English at a local elementary school, brought along a fellow teacher Morven Smith when we dined at Mak Phet Lao Restaurant. Between bites of dipping sauces I learned that Morven had recently opened Lao Experiences, a company that offers half-day cooking classes focusing on traditional Lao dishes made with fresh, local ingredients. Though her concept had been under development since 2010, the company had opened just one month earlier and the timing couldn’t have been better; Morven was looking for guinea pigs and I was anxious to learn more about Lao foods and cooking. Before we were halfway through dinner, she invited me to be one of her first students.
The following morning a tuk-tuk picked me up and transported me to Morven’s home along the shores of the Mekong River just beyond downtown Vientiane. Sang, Noy, and Tuk greeted me at the gates and led me into a lovely enclosed garden compound, where tables were laid with platters of gorgeous vegetables, spices, and fresh-caught Mekong fish. I tied on an apron and was quickly put to work grinding up sticky rice, spices, and chunks of fish in a traditional mortar and pestle. Once thoroughly mixed, I spooned the concoction onto a banana leaf square, folded and fastened it with a toothpick, and placed it in a wicker basket sitting over a bed of coals. While the Mok Pa steamed we skewered fresh eggplant, chilis, tomatoes, onions and garlic, basted them with black bean sauce and cumin.
While the veggies were roasting I checked on the progress of a whole salt-encrusted fish sizzling on yet another grill. The clump of lemongrass protruding from its mouth sent a scrumptious fragrance wafting through the air, making my mouth water with anticipation. I stripped the golden brown vegetables off their skewers and pulverized them in my mortar and pestle, making Continue reading
Unlike the ancient capital city of Luang Prabang, whose 32 temples coerce visitors into hurry-up mode, the current capital of Vientiane encourages a leisurely pace. Here the brown Mekong River, virtually hidden behind a high earthen berm that protects the town during annual monsoon flooding, flows sluggishly past parks and small, exquisite temples that dot the waterfront. With no high-rise buildings and broad sidewalks that lie deserted in the searing midday sun, Vientiane may be the sleepiest capital in SE Asia.
On an especially hot afternoon I strolled for hours, checking out a handful of Wats, museums, the old Presidential Palace, statues, and street after side street crammed with French colonial inspired architecture. Despite attracting thousands of visitors Continue reading
My first inkling that Phonsavan, Laos was not the sleepy little town it first appeared to be came when I walked past a row of rusty old bombs standing on the sidewalk outside Craters Restaurant. Curiosity and my growling stomach led me inside, where the owner was just putting on a documentary about the U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. For the next hour I sat, spellbound and horrified, as I watched the film unfold.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. flew 500,000 missions and dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, two tons for every man woman and child in the country, making it the most heavily bombed country in history. Nearly a million of these were cluster bombs designed to break apart in mid-air, releasing more than 600 small round bomblets loaded with explosives and ball bearings. Upon impact, the ball bearings screamed through the air at 2,000 feet per second, tearing into the flesh of anyone within half a kilometer.
Since the bombings were a violation of the Geneva Accord, which prohibited military involvement in Laos and to which the U.S. had become a signator in 1962, the CIA conducted the criminal operations in utmost secrecy. Neither the American people nor Congress were told about the campaign, which began in earnest in 1968, following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement that all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of Vietnam would cease. Missions were focused on two areas of Laos: in the north they were directed against the Pathet Lao communist insurgents who were fighting the Royal Lao Army, while bombings in the south targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a futile attempt to cut off supplies being delivered to North Vietnam.
Unfortunately, enemy troops were the least affected; civilians in rural areas bore the brunt of the bombings. Unable to plant rice due to the daily bomb runs, they fled to area caves, where they lived in a near state of starvation for years. When the criminal action was finally exposed and military operations ceased, Laotians emerged from the caves, only to confront another kind of terror. Up to 30% of the bomblets, which Lao call “bombies,” had failed to explode upon impact, leaving a legacy of 10-30 million unexploded bombies scattered across the country. Continue reading
Hoping to get a better feel for the local culture during my short stay in Phonsavan, Laos I went in search of a fresh market. I found it just off the main road near the center of town, a large open-air shed where scores of vendors had set up stalls stacked high with fresh produce, baked goods, live fish, dairy products and butchered meats. I wandered around the shadowy interior, taking care not to trip over makeshift wooden steps and cords stretched across aisles to naked bulbs that swung overhead. At the sweets aisle I sampled coconut candy and cakes; in the vegetable aisle I oohed and aahed over royal purple eggplants and three-foot long string beans.
Like dozens of other fresh markets I’ve visited around Asia, the butcher aisle announced itself long before I arrived; I breathed through my nose so as not to retch from the odor of rancid meat and marveled that fly-covered chicken carcases don’t seem to make people sick. Continue reading