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Lotus Eaters


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#1 Peter Green

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Posted 26 December 2006 - 10:50 AM

Has it been so long? Eight years since last I dreamwalked through the Land of a Thousand Elephants? And that last time I did not get North, but was in the Panhandle chasing dolphins (but that's another story). I missed Luang Prabang.

I found the old capitol to be a drug, one that would take you away somewhere and return you blissful and groggy after a few days, or weeks, or months. I remember wonderful clear soups at Santi's place, and entrail salads at Malee's Food House. But most of all I remember the river weed, thicker than nori, folded up and fried in chili oil. That, a bottle or ten of Beer Lao, and some termites for entertainment could while away a whole afternoon.

The old French proverb for Indochine was:

The Vietnamese grow the rice
The Cambodians watch the rice grow
The Lao listen to the rice grow

And now I return.

For six days, taking us over the New Year, we shall eat, drink, shoot pool, and eat some more along the banks of the Mekong in that little gem of a town. And from there to Vientiane. A city that can be difficult to appreciate at times, but one I have many fond memories of (can you still get begneits at the domestic airport with strong kafe dam?)

What do I look forward to? My friends who have been there more recently recommend L'Elephant. Others recommend TumTum Cheng, run by an Hungarian woman and her Southern Lao husband (and who also run cooking classes, for which I shall sign up with my son in a desperate attempt to avoid museum tours with the rest of the family).

I wonder if the old wooden place along the small Nam Khaen is still there? Or have the termites reduced it to rubble? Santi prospers by all accounts, and many others are there. Can you get draft beer Lao in Luang Prabang now? Before it was only available near Vientiane.

Ah, what to expect? Please, send recommendations, any of you who've been of late.

And I shall write, of course, as the internet connections allow. However, don't be surprised if I wake seldom.

This should be fun.

#2 nakji

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Posted 26 December 2006 - 07:13 PM

Please take copious, copious notes, as I'm going across to Laos in April. I'm hoping to cross up north, through Dien Bien Phu, if it's open as they've been promising for years.

Also note Stickyrice has recently been.

#3 Peter Green

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Posted 31 December 2006 - 07:32 PM

I love Luang Prabang.

We're on limited internet access, but I'll update soon.

They almost burned down the governor's residence last night with one of the lantern balloons.

#4 Peter Green

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Posted 06 February 2007 - 10:25 AM

Sleepwalking

The ATR banked as it approached Luang Prabang. Below me I could see the familiar line of poster-quality hills outlined in the setting sun. The peninsula of the old town stretched below, and I co uld see the temple up on top of Mt. Pouxi glittering.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

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Inside of the plane the bulkheads were festooned with Merry Christmas and Happy New Year stickers. This made for a much friendlier flight than the one from Bahrain, but I suppose I shouldn’t fault Gulf Air for not celebrating Christmas.

On the ground, much had changed. The new airport was in place, and it was no longer a walk up through the dust to get to the customs shed. Now it was a walk up the tarmac to get to the customs shed. Once at the shed, and in the general confusion of a line-up for visas with a planeload of Italian tourists, I had time to contemplate the changes.

For instance, I could contemplate how different countries paid different rates for their visas. The old East Bloc countries got away at $20 a shot (and why is South Korea considered Eastern Europe?). Asia (which is where we find North Korea) is running around $30, and Western Europe is $30 and $35, depending on who’s winning at football. And then there’s America, under which heading there are two countries listed; USA at $35 and Canada at $42.

After a brief tirade, Yoonhi quelled me a bit by noting that it was the same in Turkey. It has something to do with Canada not charging for visas, we think. In everyone else’s eyes it makes us the richest of the rich.

There’s also a note on the window that, for flights arriving after 4:30, there’s a $1 charge for overtime. Knowing roughly how much Lao officials get paid in this, one of the world’s poorest countries, I didn’t mind too much. But the Irishman behind me was quite irate.

Still, this is not the country to be irate. The people picking us up beyond the baggage had the same graciousness I remembered from before; soft spoken, polite, and very easy on the senses. They took us to our guest house along the Mekong, and wewere ushered into the hands of the establishment’s teeming horde of staff (okay, perhaps there are only ten, but that still seems like a lot).

This began one of our trip’s primary amusements; seeing if Scud could get his room open.

After scrubbing the trip residue from our skins, we wandered out. It was already dark, and becoming quite chill. We walked along the Mekong, noting the increased traffic and general commotion of the town. We must have seen at least three scooters , two tuktuks, and a truck in the first ten minutes.

The little places along the river had flourished. Blinking Christmas lights lit them up, with a somewhat odd looking Santa poster in front of one spot (does Santa mince?). There were still only a handful of people spread out over the seats, and many of these were Lao. Aside from one of the backpacker places, there was no overbearing music to contend with.

We turned away from the river when we reached the corner of the old palace (a museum with elusive opening times), and were greeted by a fine selection of grilled things on sticks. Grilled chickens (at least three ways that I could count), grilled pork, sausages on sticks, and even hard-boiled (?) eggs on sticks, although I didn’t see them grill the last one. These had our juices going, but we wanted a place that we could sit at. However, I realized I was on borrowed time as far as my entourage went.

Thanon Sakharine, in front of Mt Pouxi has now become a night market, all the woven wares of the area coming out on display every night for the tourist horde. And again, with the exception of one place selling CD’s, I was struck by how quiet and civilized things were. There was no aggressive selling, no blaring music; just small, cold women crouched in their shawls trying to keep warm, patiently waiting for you to show interest in something….anything.

But this is all the fluff of travel writing. Our main concern was food, and finding it soon. I had two kids and an unfed Korean on my hands, and I could feel the potential for violence beginning to brew with every stop I made to look at a piece of silk. The initial offering of eateries did not look too promising. There was a lot of “pizza” and “spaghetti bolognaise” on hand. There was also the offering of Lao cuisine in the same places, but I was unsure of how well executed it might be.

I found a chacouterie, but, upon inspection , their menu looked more appropriate for breakfast or dinner. Up the street seemed a little better, with a Swiss restaurant that I’d heard of.

But I wanted Lao food.

We settled on Tum Tum Bamboo, a branch of the Tum Tum Cheng group that I’d read about. The group is under Chandra, from the Pakse area in the south, and his Hungarian wife. He had had a restaurant in Budapest for years, but had come back and opened up in Luang Prabang in 2001.

We started with spring rolls with tofu, a Viet/Laos favourite. These came out appropriately hot and blade-sharp crispy, with a nicely tart sweet sauce to set them off. Serena had some issues with picking them up and eating them without complete disintegration, but otherwise they were quite enjoyable.

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Then we had the riverweed crackers. This is something I always remembered from my earlier trips. Back then it was presented in folded squares fried in chili oil. Now the fashion is to have it prepared with sesame oil and garlic slices fried in. It has the aspect of good nori, but a thickness and juiciness you don’t get in the Korean and Japanese variants. This something you only seem to find in Luang Prabang. When I’ve been in Vientiane I couldn’t even find people to acknowledge that it existed.

Then there was some pork satay. This, I must say, was generally unremarkable. The meat was still fairly tough, not having that falling apart feel that I’ve had on satay further south (or even shaszlik in Moscow).

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The house soup that came next was pleasant. Very mild, with a medicinal smell to it. Part of this must’ve come from the bamboo shoots and mushrooms, but there was more in there that reminded me a bit of some of the herbal cooking I’d had in Singapore earlier in 2006.

Scud had ordered some fried pork with sour lettuce. This came out very wet, the general presentation of Lao fried dishes, and lacking enough sourness to make it really stand out. The Lao generally like food to be very sour, and I’ve had some dishes that would just pucker you up, but this wasn’t one of them.

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Fried bamboo shoots were good for their texture, but again weren’t as sour as I’d expected (or remembered) them being.

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The last dish was definitely a winner , though. Minced chicken, coconut milk, chilis, galanga, and other odds and ends worked into a mousse and then steamed up inside a bamboo leaf. This was probably the best dish of the meal.

I’d been reading about their cooking school on-line, and there were more details available here. As I’d suspected, their claim to royal Lao recipes came from Phia Singh. This is the cookbook for Lao dishes. I’d seen an earlier copy many years ago. The book was pieced together from original manuscripts ferried out of Laos just before the end in the 70’s. Phia Singh had been not only the master of protocol at the Lao court, but also the head of the kitchen, and had kept detailed notes of the cuisine of Luang Prabang and its many peoples.

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The earlier editions carried the even pages as copies of the original manuscript, and the odd pages the English transcription. The copy that I had secured from Prospect Books in the UK lacked the original manuscript pages, but was still the only real documentation on Lao cooking.

Having said that, one of my Lao friends (originally from Vientiane) who had the book, referred to the cuisine as “burnt food” for its reliance on charring in many of the recipes.

Anyways, I was hooked. I owned the book, so I was interested in seeing how the the recipes would be handled in these times.

Meanwhile, of course, I had been indulging my lost love, beer Lao. It never tastes the same when it travels (but is still well worth drinking), and these bottles of fresh beer Lao were reawakening my most ardent desires for this country. And then I found they had a dark now, at 6.5%, crisp, with a head to cut with a knife, and a deep maltiness that I much admired.

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So, we had one meal under our belt, and any mutiny was pre-empted for the moment. However, the meal was not a stellar success, and I was having some trepidations about my future if I couldn’t entertain the troops’ palates better than this.

We left the restaurant, and made our way back through the bazaar, stopping to look at the odd bit of material (Laos has some of the most beautiful hand-woven textiles to be had). Up on the hill, the temple was lit, hanging there like a disembodied spirit house in the dark. On the street the blankets of goods would be lit by a single lone bulb hung out on a stick, for all the world like a fishing pole staked out to catch the unwary shopper.

On the way home we stopped to admire the neighborhood creperie. A woman and her trolley.

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She would dollop the batter onto the plate, then, with a beautiful flourish, spin the batter out over the top of the crepe pan.

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A few dabs of cheese, then some meat, then some greens, and another deft movement of the wrist to flip the goods into a cone and move them into a paper container.

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We arrived home in good spirits, mocked Scud as he had to ask for help to get his door open, and then, with the children busy watching Lao-dubbed episodes of the Teen Titans, we retired to the banks of the Mekong for a couple of bottles of beer Lao.


December 28

Languid is a word that works well in Luang Prabang. It was 10:30 by the time we woke up, and we had obviously missed the chance to gain merit for the day.

Instead, we made our way along the riverside - an orientation tour for the family.

From our guest house we come soon to Nazim’s. For no particular reason we decided that this was as good a place as any to get some food into us. Not our wisest choice. After seeing the menu I limited myself to a cup of café Lao, Scud had “fried eggs chicken” which appeared to have shreds of chicken in the fried eggs. For some reason, this combined consumption of mother and child left me uneasy.

Serena had two soft-boiled eggs. She’d asked for hard, but this was as close as it would come. The first was edible, the second required a straw to do anything with it.

And Yoonhi had pancakes banana honey. This sounded presentable, but when it arrived, it was clearly that. A pancake with diced raw bananas on top, and a little dish of honey on the side.

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Alright, it’s my own fault. If you’re in Laos, and go into a place that’s main draw is “we have Indian cuisine” then you have some issues to work out.

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However, my coffee did come with a sachet of sugar that informed me that it was “for the good times”.

From there we arrived at the backside of the National Museum, once the royal palace for the unfortunate monarchy of Laos. We’d taken in the thriving charcoal sales under way, and watched a vigorous bout of boules. There was a monkey chained to his cage, and dogs under foot. There were even a few cars about.

We tried to enter the Palace grounds, but the gate was shut just as we walked up the steps. We’d missed the morning opening, it would seem

After the museum, we strolled the river, passing a promising wine bar and several other venues that looked to be worth our while.

We also found the sign for L’Elephant. When Id asked about regarding dining here, this was the one restaurant that everyone had been recommending. We popped up the one block to check it out, and found a very colonial French bistro set out on the rounded corner of the building. Around the corner from there was The Tamarind, which had also received some good reviews

We returned to the river, making our way up the peninsula. We arrived at the Nam Khan and from there rolled around the point of the city. The kids were asking where the main road was, and I had to explain to them that there are only three roads.

If you wanted to, you could consider the streets of Luang Prabang to be an integral part of the food processing industry. You’re always tripping over things that have been put out to dry, such as meats, or river weed, or just about anything.

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In this case, we found racks of rice cakes out soaking up the sun; the sticky rice giving up the meager moisture it had put away.

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Around the corner we found both The Apsara and our appetites. This was a happy occasion. The dining room was very nicely done up in Indochine chic moderne, and the staff quite professional. Yoonhi and I each ordered a glass of chardonnay, settled the children with fresh lime sodas, and then looked to the menu.\

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The baguettes in Luang Prabang while arguably not quite as good as in Phnom Penh, are still very attractive. And the idea of stuffing one with home smoked ham and imported Emmenthal cheese is very attractive. The kids go for this. Yoonhi ordered a salad of watercress, and a dish of fried rice noodle with pork, and I cannot let pass the caramelized onion tart with pesto, with a carrot, coconut, and lemon grass soup to start.

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The baguettes were as promised; the dough just pully enough, with a good crisp to the outside that had Scud sounding like a crocodile working a thighbone. The tomatoes were fresh, and the ham was wonderful. I purloined half of Serena’s sandwich in order to preserve her figure. The things I do for the children……

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My soup arrived, and I quite like how the coconut has lifted a bit of the heaviness out of the carrots, and the lemon grass gives both a pleasant smell and a contrast in texture as you crunch through.

Yoonhi’s watercress salad came Lao style, with eggs, mushrooms, peanuts and tomatoes, and with a dressing that had a soft but tangy flavour.

Her noodles were good, a little on the wet side, but my tart was wonderful, bleeding out brown juice with every stab it took from my fork. The pesto was almost a chutney, and went well with the softness of the tart.

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Dessert, and homemade vanilla ice cream for Serena; coconut ice cream for Scud, and a fantastic vanilla coconut pannacotta with spiced pineapple sauce for Yoonhi.

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I had a beer Lao, but sniped at every one else’s food. The pannacotta in particular is a very, very nice dessert. Overwhelmingly rich with the coconut and cream, and set off by the chunky tartness of the pineapple sauce.

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With all of that under our belts, it was time for some more walking. Our kids hate walking. I figure this is a good way to teach them to think about what they ask for. Scud and Serena had had this big thing about finding a book store called l’Etranger (next to the Hive) for which cards had been pushed into our hands the night before. At least someone here understands marketing. Anyways, we’d now got the kids on the equivalent of the Bataan death march. We came out of the peninsula, up the Nam Khen, and then drove up into the backside of Pouxi, where we found the Hive (which advertises itself as “next door to l’Etranger bookstore”) and the bookstore, and found that this isn’t quite what our kids were looking for; more of a café and lending library than a bookstore proper.

To which I say “Bo bpen nyang” - which is the most important Lao phrase you can know. It translates across a wide range of things, from “you’re welcome” to “it’s okay” to “please don’t worry yourself” to “stuff happens”. Use this in Bangkok, as I do from habit, and find yourself laughed at as a farang baan nok, which is sort of like saying you’re getting in touch with your inner Appalachian.

Anyways, we did the circuit, made it back to our guest house, and started to think about dinner.

We had an elephant on our minds.

L’Elephant (evening December 28th)

We arrived in trepidation. They had to check to see if they could fit us in. Luckily, they could. I was shocked. Reservations required in Luang Prabang? What was the world coming to? (Pay no attention to the picture below, I went back later in the trip for the shot in order not to bother the diners).

Considering what it must take to run an establishment like this here, saying that L’Elephant is quite good is probably something far beyond an understatement.

Consider a stereotypical French colonial bistro. It would exist on the rounded corner of a block of buildings. There would be a verandah. Due to the cold, the verandah would be covered with bamboo shutters, and tasteful fabrics draped down to cover. There would be a bar (but of course)
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and it would take centre place in the establishment, buttressing one of the main walls. There would be well traveled wood floors, there would be appropriate lighting, there would be a ceiling whose fans would even be beyond the reach of the NBA, and there would be, beyond all else, a sense of community and, well….graciousness.

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I liked L’Elephant.

We took our seats, and considered the menu. Between the whites and reds, there must be eight or more choices by the glass. The cellar is limited, but within reasonable reach of us working class stiffs (stop choking, you lot!). The generic Mouton Cadet 2003 was only $25, so I ordered one of those to keep us busy. Scud went for a virgin coloda, and Serena, the trend setter she is, had a cup of hot Ovaltine, which she devoured with a spoon.

While Gallic in nature, the table comes with very Lao touches. A small note suggests “you feel cold? Ask your waiter for a shawl” Mind you, they’ve thoughtfully placed strategic coal braziers about the place to ensure that the chill never settles in the room.

So, what about the menu? Our order:

1 dozen Escargot de Bourgogne (we’re the sort of a family that likes snails)

Cappellini A la Tomate et au Basalic

Mixed vegetable salad with Roquefort cream dressing.

Roasted filet mignon of pork with fresh thyme served with pan fried local mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes.

Onion soup with Swiss ementhal.

Raw tartare (there’s a redundancy there) of buffalo, served with French fries and green salad.

Roasted duck breast with moh tau sauce and grand Marniere served with dauphinois gratin and vegetables in butter. This sounds too good, and Yoonhi and I bypass our usual variety of dishes to order this for both of us.

Scud wanted to order the sanglier, a fricassee of wild boar served with a Luang Prabang sauce, but found that the boar had just served its last customer, and he was left with alternate choices. He went instead with the buffalo filet served with a garlic butter. Myself, I would of taken their suggestion of venison as a quick switch for the boar, but it wasn’t my meal.

Outside the drapes and bamboo, we could see the Christmas lights sparkling. We see people turned aside now, as the seating is all taken. Panic sets in! Are we too late to book for New Year’s?

At first, it seems, we are. But then l’hostesse returned and advisesd us that she’d been negligent. We can, of course, forgive such petty sins. She has a table for us for the 31st. I’d seen the menu, and was already in a state of aroused passion. Corkage is allowed, and it’ll be pleasant to bring our own champagnes to the dinner

The onion soup is, for me perfect. Serena objects to the presence of bread in her soup, and I roundly berate her for the barbarian she is. Scud quietly destroyed his bowl.

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The escargot arrived (sans shells), and were in turn demolished by the family. Serena accounted for four of the twelve, myself only for four. I must admit, I’m more interested in the garlic oil juice that rests in the cup (no shells here) as an object for dressing a good piece of bread, and the bread here is very good. But Serena anoints these as the best she’s ever had, and even Yoonhi admits that she may be correct.

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My tartare was very good; succulent. I’ve had better, but not often. And at Laos prices, I would not complain. The meat was knife cut, rather than ground, and was liberally laced with cognac, capers, shallots, and all the good things that make life enjoyable.

Yoonhi was caught out a little by her salad. It was very good, but came with a vinaigrette rather than a creamy Roquefort as advertised. Good, but not as expected.

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Scud’s buffalo was very pleasant. Quite gamey, as they advised, but still good, and well balance with the garlic butter. A not-quite classic steak frites.

The duck comes, dotted with squeeze bottle dabs of bright green basil oil. I find the first bit a little tough, but that’s the only one. The rest is just right (as Yoonhi affirms), with a good background sauce. The potatos - the dauphinois gratin – were good enough for me to raid Yoonhi’s plate when she was distracted.

Even Serena’s pasta dish is very good for what it is.

And the final test….dessert. Scud orders tiramisu. This is something done well, or not at all. In North America, Yoonhi’s pretty much given up on ordering this. And Scud had come back from the walking trip in Tuscany with very clear ideas of what a good dessert should be.

Everyone approved.

Serena, adventurous as always, went for vanilla ice cream. But when you have home made ice cream, it’s hard to go wrong.

Yoonhi went for a jackfruit sorbet. A wise choice, and one bourn out by the smoothness of the dessert. Very well done.

As a comment, someone is doing a good business in homemade ice creams in LP. We noted the same flavours throughout the town, which hints at a central source, but one we never tracked down.

Myself, I had a Lao espresso, with a good crema, accompanied by an Armagnac du Busca, the fumes of the spirit sitting nicely upon the fullness of the coffee.

Not a bad evening. And topped off quite nicely by a chocolate crepe on the way home.

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After which we watched Scud fumble with his door key.

#5 Pan

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Posted 07 February 2007 - 01:36 AM

Peter, I enjoyed your Luang Prabang report. Excellent writing!

#6 Peter Green

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Posted 08 February 2007 - 06:48 AM

December 29th

Getting my family out of bed before nine was becoming a task.

Scud and I needed to be at school. We had signed up for Tum Tum Cheng’s cooking class and needed to be there by 8:30 to start.

So, I decided this called for a 7:15 wake up for the boy and I. This would give him enough time to get his door open.

We were about 25 minutes early, our breath hanging in front of our faces, fog on the Mekong. Luckily, they had coffee ready to take away the chill and to while away the time.
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Chandra is the founder of the Tum Tum empire, which consists of the restaurant, cooking school, the other restaurant we were at earlier, and his Hungarian wife Lisa’s boutique, where she’s working gothic styles with Lao materials. I may have missed a few other shops. It seems very much the thing here to branch out into a number of options as shops come available. Spa Garden must have three or four outlets (two on Rue Sakharine at least, and the one back near L’Elephant, which itself also covers The 3 Nagas, and Mango.

As we thought over these matters, we watched the school kids work their way down the street, cleaning up the trash from the night before. Imagine what places like Cairo or Mumbai would look like if we could convince the children there to police the streets every day?

I spent my time working through my copy of Phia Singh’s book, thinking on which recipes to work with. Then, by 8:30, the entire class was assembled; the boy and I; a couple from Colorado; a pleasant Australian from Melbourne; and an Hungarian from Holland. In all, an interesting mix. The Australian, in particular, is working his way through this Asia trip cooking school by cooking school, hitting as many venues as he can find.

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8:30 comes and goes, and by a little after 9, things are ready to begin. I notice on the board in front of the restaurant does state “class starts 9:00 A.M.”

A famous Lao saying I have to remind myself of, “Time is plastic”.

Our choice of recipes covered six dishes, of which I could locate four of them in Phia Singh’s book. Or Lam – the typical dish of Luang Prabang; a rich stew of buffalo (recipe # 23). Stuffed lemon grass and stuffed bamboo – a farci, and one of those things that always distressed me when I try to do them (recipe #53B). Chicken with red chili (recipe #36). Laab kai –(cooked) minced chicken salad (recipe #92). And fried rice salad and fried tofu curry with vegetable, which I could not locate in the book.

By 9:30 we were on the way to the market in the care of Phut, who advised us that he would not be shopping, per se, but rather escorting us for a tour, as the food has already been bought. Our tour will take in the Pho Sy market, out on the west side of town. The old main market just below Mt. Pouxi is closed off, and something much more modern is being constructed behind raised walls. Pity, as I liked the old market, with its dark passageways and bales of marijuana. It reminded me of the Russian Market in Penh.

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The market is as one expects, a wonderful mix of fresh greens, fruits, and dead animal bits.

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I note down the “spicey wood”- sak khan - which is used as a substitute for chilis to add heat to the dishes. There were beautiful "der ry" mushrooms. I mistook the bpai il eua for bpai cham ploo (betel leaves), which had me excited for a few moments, as I can never find these in Bangkok (at least not where I shop. I get called old fashioned for mentioning them).

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The knobby water cucumbers looked good, and the Siamese coriander is interesting, long barbed blades on an elongated leaf. The sopadillas are in season, as are the strawberries, and the grapes are huge, the size of my big toe (which isn’t a pretty comparison to make, but it’s what’s afoot).
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As for the meat and offal..... Anthony Bourdain would be very happy.

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There are bright red cubes of buffalo blood…..in ’93, a topic with my guide had been the high cost of congealed chicken blood. This was a particularly good accompaniment to lao lao (the local spirits…the kind you drink, that is) and was held in high esteem. The problem was that the merchants would only sell it in units of one chicken, rather than portioning it out. “Why can’t they just sell us the part we want, and keep the rest for the next day?” I demurred.

But, back to the tour, we had
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bristly tripe,

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amputated hooves,
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jawbones, hearts, lungs, spleens, and most of the other makings of a good zombie movie.

And then there’s some game. The dried dachau-like corpses of bats. A large swamp rat, the size of my thigh (but lacking the meat and fat) stretched out alongside some off-looking stripped down birds (Phia Sing, when he talks of quail, recommends keeping them until they go slightly moldy). And then there are other fowl still in their bright green plumage, the makings of nok noi, a delightful dish of small birds I’d seen before in Hanoi.

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If you like markets, this is a place where you’ll have some fun. My earlier trips were coming back to me, but I was still continually surprised at the extent to which the Lao could find something of value in anything. If it had a leaf, it was there in the market. If it had moved at some point, it was there in the market. Heck, if there was the slightest question whatsoever, it was going to turn up in the market.

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If I’d had my wits about me, I would’ve bought more at this time. As was, I came away with some of the river weed and some of the sak khan.

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On the down side, it turned out that our needs for the day’s cooking were all in hand back at the school, so we didn’t get to work at picking out the goods themselves. I can appreciate, though, that this was pretty much the way it had to be if we were going to be done before dark.

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So, we were headed back to the classroom.

We returned to the school, and found that Chandra wasn’t in the kitchen today; Linda would be taking the class. I had no complaints, as her English proved to be very competent, and her teaching skills quite good. Likewise, whereas Chandra is from the South, she’d grown up in Luang Prabang (and had studied to be an accountant). She’s been with Tum Tum Cheng since it opened in 2001.

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As we sat down at the concrete table, the chill removed by cushions of big-eyed puppies (c’mon! This is a town with a main street that sounds like “saccharine”!) rice cakes were ready for us, with a tamarind paste to give them a good, sour contrast. These were just like the ones we’d seen drying outside the day before. As Linda tells us, these are the leftovers – uneaten sticky rice (khao niao) which is touched up with salt, and then worked into patties and left to dry in the sun for a day or two. This will dessicate them to the point where they will crisp when deep fried, otherwise the khao niao will never fry properly.

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Linda then gave us a bit of a talk on the table manners of the Lao. Again, this is very much from the book.

In general, being old, I win out. In Laos, it is always eldest first, so, in this crowd at least, I’m getting mine before anyone else. Scud goes last.

Serving drinks is a little different. The server takes the first shot, not letting the cup touch his lips. Then the eldest is served next.

Everyone sits on the floor, the food being served (as in the North of Thailand) on a large bamboo tray, food taken by hand – except for a spoon for the soups – using balls of sticky rice to mop things up.

Niceties out of the way, we move on to the actual business of making food. For a Lao meal, the major effort is the prep, the meez. This will take up two to four hours of your day before the actual 20 to 30 minutes of cooking. And that 20 to 30 minutes is important, as the food is meant to be eaten very fresh. For the salads, the dressing will change taste in ten minutes, so it’s important that the food come quickly to the table. This demand for freshness requires that a Lao kitchen will have a large work crew, with the aim being to bring all the dishes on the table at the same time.

For the restaurants, about 60% of the food is coming direct from the gardens (farms). If this was a home-cooked meal, that would be 60 to 70% from the jungle. I’d noticed this before when in Laos, the housewives checking anything green on the way home, and stripping the bushes when they find something with the right smell and taste.

The restaurants do tend to tone things down a bit. A pity, as I see nothing wrong with hot and bitter (I’ll make no wife jokes, I swear). For heat, there’s the spicey wood I’d mentioned before, as well as the liberal selection of chili peppers that one expects. And then the peppers, both peppercorns and the Szechuan pepper. This this is the divide in Lao cooking; hot and cool, the two balancing the dishes.

The three requirements, the Lao trinity, are galangal, lemon grass, and kaffir lime leaves. The cuisine will change as you move around the country, but these three will remain constant.

The galangal is either jullienned for eating, or else cut thick lengthwise for flavouring. The lemon grass is bottomed and thin sliced up through the white for eating and flavour, and then tamped and rough cut for flavouring and scent through the greens (but not eaten). And the lime leaves can be either dropped in whole for general flavours, or else julienned by removing from the central stem and then rolled and sliced thin, this later approach for when they’re too be eaten.

As you look around the region you see the Vietnamese not fitting into this schema at all (which makes sense considering the migration routes, but that’s another story); Cambodia being similar, but using a lot more fish sauce; the Thai are schizophrenic, with a distinct split between the North (Lanna) and Northeast(Isaan), and what the Lao call the South, but what is really central Thailand. I suppose this is pretty close to the Western Canadian concept of Ontario as the East. The real South of Thailand, down the peninsula, isn’t touched upon at all, which makes sense again on ethnic grounds.

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A bit of history. Lanna and the Northern cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Saen, Lampun, et al, are tightly linked through royal ties and a shared history, so you see food culture traveling between the two regions quite easily. Isaan is a more direct linkage, with the bulk of the Lao population being moved into the Thai orbit with the destruction of the Lan Xan Kingdom in 1828. At the present time (as is often pointed out) there are more Lao speakers in Thailand than in Laos. And to this day they’d been providing most of the cheap labour, although they’re now being displaced by Burmese and Khmer as Thai standards of living creep higher.

If there’s a national dish in Laos, it’s tam mahaan, (som tam in Thai) - Papaya salad. But the Lao will also do this with cucumbers – skin on – as an alternative to the papaya. Or you could use carrots, cabbage, and/or long beans. The long beans are taken raw or cooked, in contrast to the normal green beans always taken cooked. I can bear witness to the wide variety of this dish. In Udorn back in the 90’s the place across the street from our hotel had over a dozen versions available, with lots of cold beer. We worked our way through them, and they worked their way through us.

Bamboo, like chilis, comes in many guises. But all should be boiled for one hour before cooking, and others shouldn’t be eaten no matter what. How to tell the difference is not something we dwelled upon.

Lime and lemon are the same thing to the Lao, with tamarind often being used as an alternative to give the sour contrast.

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There are four types of basil in use. Spicy, from the jungle; minty, from the jungle; sweet (or Holy) from the garden; or a fourth, with little yellow flowers, with a bit of spice, found in the jungle.

Tomatoes are commonly used; both the big sweet ones and the small sour ones. Purists rail against the introduction of the tomato to South East Asian cuisine, but just try to separate any of these people from their little red darlings. It’ll probably cost you an arm.

Morning glory comes in two types; green and small from the garden, or big and purple from the water.

Mushrooms always take a special place in my heart, and Luang Prabang has beautiful fungi. Mouse ears are used heavily, as are oysters, and a huge number of others.

And then there are eggplants, more than ten kinds; from the big purple aubergine we’re used to, to the tiny bitter pea-like things we find in Thai curries down south. The small purple ones – the size of a large marble – can be eaten raw, and are often served cut in half with sticky rice, while the others are all cooked. After this morning’s tour, the group had pretty much decided that if you can’t identify something, call it an eggplant.

And then there’s rice; your sticky or your steamed. The Lao grow this “dry” in the country, and there are 10 different kinds. With a three month cultivation, and a 1 kg for 9 to 10 people ratio, this can meet the food needs of a large population.

The Lao, however, don’t have a large population, and much prefer sticky rice, which takes a lot of water and 6 to 7 months to harvest. As it doesn’t expand very well, 1 kg will only feed around 4 to 5 people. It comes here in over 30 different varieties, with a host of colours.

The rice needs to be soaked for about 4 hours if it’s less than a year old. In foreign climes it’s likely it’ll be older, and would require 7 hours if it was two to three years old. It’s rinsed two or three times, and then steamed with a bamboo cover to trap in the moisture. Turn it once, steam ten more minutes, and you’re ready to put it into those cute bamboo containers to keep it moist. If it’s left out it’ll only keep for 30 minutes, so wrap it up if you don’t have the bamboo containers.

Sticky rice is only cooked twice a day. First in the morning, so that it will be ready for the monks when they make their rounds, and then for the evening meal. It doesn’t get reheated, as this can lead to stomach problems, so at the restaurant they’re constantly getting complaints from the tourists about how the rice is cold.

Given what I’ve seen in the markets, I asked if there were any restrictions on what was eaten. The answer is, basically, no. But, a lot of people have personal limits, and it’s rare to see dogs or cats eaten……and I haven’t seen a Macdonald’s here (but I think that may be more of a commercial thing, to be fair to the Golden Arches).

And thus endeth the lesson.

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They’d already prepped everything for us, but took us through the exercise of cleaver prepping the meez. The galangal is enough to qualify as a work out, and we were looking around to see who’d be the first to lose a finger as we bore down on the roots. I find it’s not too difficult if you bring the weight down from your shoulders and hips, but then I probably weigh the equivalent of three Lao.

After an enthusiastic mauling of the galangal, lemon grass, eggplants, and some other items, we moved over to the stoves, of which there were four, each set over a charcoal brazier. At this point we went over the choices of seasonings.

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I’m of two minds concerning this part of the course. They’re using a lot of bottled sauces, mostly of Thai origin. However, all the shop kitchens I’ve passed by have had copious bottles of stuff on the shelves, so it’s probably fair to say that this represents the “urban” side of Lao cooking (as urban as Laos gets).

One thing I do notice is that they’re making more use here of nam paa rather than the traditional padek, a chunky mix of fermented fish. However, they find the use of nam paa imparts a smell, so they’ll almost always cut it with lime juice at a 1:2 ratio (lime to nam paa) to change the smell. This makes the traditional base of much of the dressings for their salads, and, as mentioned, must go in just before the salad is served, so that the flavours don’t have too much time to change.

Their preference for oyster sauce is the Thai, which comes across a little tangier than the Chinese. Soy bean paste is used quite a bit, and both white and black soy.

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Regarding oils, even though you get a hotter cook from peanut oil, they avoid it due to the flavour. Sunflower is generally preferred, which makes sense, thinking back on the fields of sunflowers to the East on the Plain of Jars.

Curries, so dear to the the Central Thais, isn’t much used. Only the yellow curry powder is to be seen, none of the greens and reds of a Siamese kitchen.

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We begin with a couple of extra bits. First, we start preparing some rice powder. Sticky rice is dry toasted in a wok until browned, then a kaffir lime leaf and the greens of some lemon grass is tossed in for another few minutes to get the smell. Once done, it’s allowed to cool, the leaves and stalks are removed, and then the rice is pounded down and then set aside. This will keep for a few weeks if needed.

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The river weed “crackers” are prepped with a quick wash in hot oil (about 2 seconds), after which they’re put in a colander to drain. We did up a few of these, served them with peanuts and the whites of some lemon grass, and had a good (if somewhat greasy) snack as we approached the next dish.

As a fast dish, they go through a chicken, tofu, and morning glory dish. First, the basics – ginger, garlic, shallots, chili. All of these go into the oil. Then some sugar, to counter the “hot”. Then morning glory goes in, with some soy bean paste and oyster sauce. Linda also recommends some green apple here, if you want, to make an interesting backdrop. Then add some white soy sauce (thinner than black) and some water.

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In a parallel wok…..now there’s an engineer’s description. Running your woks in series or in parallel…..cook up the chicken in oil, then remove the chicken and introduce garlic, shallots, and ginger to the wok, adding water and oyster sauce once the aromas open up. Then some cornstarch to thicken, and a bit of nam paa and lime juice at the very last to the sauce. Bed the chicken on top of the morning glory, and then pour the sauce on top of everything.

This dish is portioned out and eaten quickly. It’s in part to show a “fast” Lao dish for unexpected guests, and also in part to stave off our hunger pangs.

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With this some Lao fruit liqueur is served up. This isn’t the dreaded Lao Lao, the white spirit of the Mekong, but rather a fermented “punch”, something my Lao friends back home had done up from old recipes, allowing fruits and stuff to sit and ferment, and then bottling them up. This one, a red sticky rice drink, was sweet and thick, with a couple of pieces of ice in it to drop the aromatics. Not bad, and, in the interest of young Scud’s tender years, I drink his for him.

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My station is the stuffed foods – the lemon grass and bamboo shoots. The method is to slice open the middle of the bamboo and lemon grass stalks in thin cuts, and then accordion them, creating a cage within which to stuff the mince. The mince itself is a mix of diced pork, shallots, garlic, nam paa, pepper, and sugar, all squeezed out and on the verge of disgusting feeling in my hands. I took the birdcage apparatus that I’d created, and rolled it first in flour, then in egg yolks, and then in breadcrumbs. Now my hands were well beyond the verge of disgusting feeling.

Against the traditional method, the only difference of note is that Phia Sing would have grilled the mince in banana leaves prior to stuffing (as my friend said “burnt food”).

Scud’s working on the fried rice salad, composed of cooled long grain rice (old rice is not used for this), minced pork, shallots, garlic, chili powder, and egg yolks to help bind. They make a lot of use of powdered chicken stock here, added dry for salt and background flavour. Again, I wonder about the traditional element, but if it works, it works. The finished mush is then rolled up into balls, and the balls are transferred to the oil for frying.

Meanwhile, the laab of minced chicken is being prepped. This’ll be cooked, as opposed to laab dip, which is a different, raw preparation which relies on a light ceviching (and an iron digestive track) to avoid some of the unpleasantries that can occur. Along with the liver flukes in the padek, this probably killed off more CIA operatives in the Secret War than did the Vietnamese.

The chicken is prepared similar to the fried rice; the mass of minced meat being mixed up with pepper, salt, sugar, oyster sauce, and white soy. This is then rolled in flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs as was the case with my stuffed items.

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I’m interested in this method of frying; rolling the items into balls first. Linda explains that this will give differing contrasts in texture, from the crisp elements from the outside through to the softer, almost rare parts in the middle. The items are fried at a low heat, carefully rolled over to make certain that all of the exterior is evenly browned.

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Once cooked through, the balls (rice or chicken) are broken open, allowed to cool a bit, and then “smashed”. The separated material is then mixed in with the herbs; lemon grass, galangal, spring onion, coriander, shallots, chilis, banana blossom, and rice powder for the laab gai, and lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, spring onions, long beans, chilis, mint,and peanuts for the fried rice salad - and then doused with the dressing.

For the fried rice salad, the dressing is 2 tbsp of nam paa, 1 tsp of sugar, 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of soy bean paste, and 4 tbsp of lime juice.

The laab gai is a more standard 3 tbsp of nam paa, 4 tbsp of lime juice, 1 tsp of salt, and 1/2 a tsp of Knorr’s chicken stock. Good old Knorr’s!

So, how far from the traditional is all of this? Checking back to Phia Sing, he would add a kheung lap with the minced chicken before cooking – a pounded mix of bitter eggplants, roasted garlic, seared shallots, galangal, and chilis grilled until brittle. Some or padek is added for salt, this being a reduction of padek in water which is boiled down to almost dry, bones removed, and then reconstituted. Ideally, this dish should be served with a sour soup and eggplants.

However, I should qualify this. It is almost impossible to find any two Lao who will ever agree 100% on recipes for traditional dishes. It just comes down to what looks good at the moment.

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The chicken wih coconut cream was getting put together over on another wok. Onions, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal were fried in a couple of tablespoons of oil until golden(with a touch of sugar), and then the chicken pieces were added and messed around for a minute or so before adding a half cup of coconut milk to cover the chicken, and then chili powder, and oyster and fish sauces. This cooked for a bit, and then they came back and tossed in a selection of vegetables, the potatoes being the check point of when the whole thing is done (and acting to thicken things a bit). At the very end another half cup of coconut milk is added, along with some lime juice and a big handful of basil, which I can still smell when I close my eyes.

Again, comparing to Phia Sing, he would’ve cooked the chicken first in the coconut with onions, and then added the flavours after the chicken was cooked. The approach here, more like what William Ledeuil is doing at Ze Kitchen in Paris, infuses the flavours in the oil at the beginning, and gives a more developed, though not as fresh, flavour.

The Or Lam was a recipe I was particularly interested in. The Lao version of the pot au feu. Not only did it address my need for slow cooked meats, but it utilized the spicy wood – Sak khan – that I’d been interested in.

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The method here was perhaps too simple. The meat was boiled for about 20 minutes, and then pounded eggplant, grilled chilis (green and red), and the sak khan were dropped in, and allowed to boil for another 10 minutes. Then it was flavoured with nam paa, chicken stock, and a touch more salt, before handfuls of dill, basil, and crispy pork skin were tossed in.

This diverged a fair bit from Phia Singh. In his recipe, the meat was boiled (on the bone) from the start with the other ingredients. Then, after an hour, the bones were tossed, and the grilled chilis and the eggplants were removed, then pounded, and then added back to the broth.

The tofu curry was fairly straightforward. Like the chicken, the oil is infused first with lemon grass, galangal, and some yellow curry powder. Then sugar and coconut milk are added to give a broth, seasonings are added, and the various veggies go in, holding back the cauliflower and mushrooms for a bit later in the boil. The tofu goes in at the end, followed by some more coconut cream and some fresh lime juice just before serving. One note I have is that, being bean paste, you don’t use nam paa with this, but rather rely on soy bean paste for the required salt.

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And that wrapped up the class for us. We were close to starving at this point, so we moved quickly back to the puppy cushions and tucked in.

The dishes worked well. The tofu curry was somewhat mild, as expected. The chicken could’ve been spicier, but the flavours were a nice blend, so I wouldn’t complain. The stuffed lemongrass and bamboo shoots were very good, although I will warn you that the lemon grass, with its long fibers, is somewhat self-flossing. I’m a sucker for Lao salads, so the laab gai was very good and something I would revisit at home, and the rice salad was probably my favourite dish. The baseball method of frying gives a good range of texture, from the golden crispy external, to the almost underdone in the centre. This was definitely getting reworked in the home kitchen.

The only disappointment was the or lam. This came out too thin, which is to be expected from a short cooking period (only 30 minutes). The meat, like much of Lao meat, wasn’t broken down enough, and the broth was insipid, carrying the spiciness, but lacking a solid depth to fill it out.

Obviously, I’d be having to try this again.

Add some sticky rice and a few bottles of beer Lao, and my new friends and I were soon comparing cooking schools and restaurants in the region.

One other comment, which isn’t a real concern, but you should be prepared, you don’t get the recipes for the dishes with the class. These are sold in a separate book for $5. A couple of us bought the book, a 23 page collection of the restaurant’s recipes. If you have Phia Singh’s book, this is a good thing to have, as there’s an interesting story in there about how some of the methods are changing.

But, all good things come to an end. We packed up our odds and ends, and headed out into the busy streets of Luang Prabang.

Meanwhile…..

With Scud and I out of the way, the girls had gone for a foot massage, shampoo, and various other frivolities….for about three hours. They’d lighted upon a place called Pizza Massage, which, quite appropriately, had half the shop given over to a spa, and the other half being a pizza. Their main claim to fame, however, is that they take credit cards. The cash situation was becoming a concern, and something that I would soon have to address.

Credit card signs had also lured Yoonhi into the 3 Nagas’ Mango restaurant, where she had a “perigord” salad whose memory would linger with her for weeks after. Along with the traditional walnuts, it was dressed with a dozen slabs of smoked ham, and an equivalent serving of duck breast. Serena had had a bowl of pumpking soup which she likewise loved (for all of one afternoon. Her short term memory tends to reset every night). Yoonhi had a main of a duck leg confit with a tomato sauce.

We’d caught up on the riverside, as communications in LP are not all they could be. In all of Laos, for that matter. I’d hoped that my Thai cell would function well enough, but 1-2-call wasn’t tied in with the local network, and Yoonhi and Scud’s Saudi based cells, which work well for texting in Thailand, weren’t of much use here.

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So, there we were. Comms shut down, running low (for us) on cash, the wolves veritably at the door!

Hence, I was at the Riverside catching up on my notes and drinking more of the wonder amber liquid of the Lao Brewing Company, and enjoying an order of the riverweed crackers.

After some discussion, I set out for the money issue. First I went to the bank, but a sign there advised that they would no longer make cash advances against credit cards. Then I found that most of the tour companies in town will undertake this service, at a charge of 6%.

At first I balked, and then reality took over and I realized, even at a 6% surcharge, anything I spent money on here was still a fraction of its value to me.

Rationalized in this manner (remember, I had been drinking a lot of beer Lao), the decision was easy. I could breathe (and shop) easier now.

Dinner that night was at Mango. Yoonhi was enthusiastic enough about her lunch that I was eager to see how their fusion menu would work for a larger meal.

For starters Yoonhi and Scud had the camembert quiche, while I ordered the riverweed (dubbed “Mekong seaweed” here) with dried beef chips and roasted sesamed, served over buckwheat noodles and a vinaigrette, and a Lao risotto just to go out on the table somewhere.

The mains would be pan fried filet of pork with a confit of lime perfumed tomato for me, salmon in Lao herbs and flowers fried in a brick pastry for Yoonhi, chicken and pork Bucatini with bergamot flavoured coconut milk for Scud, and taggliatelle a la pesto for Serena.

Add on a big jug of the house Gewurtztraminer (which for some reason I found a little on the oily side), and we were ready to eat.

The river weed was nicely dressed up, and the noodles were very good. I would have to say this was more about the homemade noodles than about the weed or beef chips. Still good, but not distinguished.

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The risotto, while it had a wonderful aroma, suffered, as they'd used the purple variant of sticky rice, and this doesn't quite work, not giving out enough starch into the mix. The result comes out a little crunchier than I'd hoped.

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The salmon was a nice flavour, and Yoonhi quite enjoyed this, although her appetite was waning.

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My pork was very good, and the lime and other herbs they’d slid in worked well with this dish.

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Scud’s bucatini struck me as a little too wet, but the boy himself felt that it was okay.

And Serena destroyed her tagliatelle before any of us could get an opinion, so we’ll assume it was good.

Armagnacs and ice creams for dessert, and then we headed home. Scud and I had saved room for a walk-by crepe-ing, and then we called it a night (once the staff had opened the door for the boy).

#7 Peter Green

Peter Green
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  • Location:Middle East/Bangkok

Posted 15 February 2007 - 08:18 AM

It was December 30th, and pushing a respectable hour of the morning. Breakfast was foe. The verandah outside our guest house was a nicely established breakfast nook; little wooden tables, rickety stools, and bottles of condiments at the ready. Chilis in vinegar; various pastes; fish sauce; and a plastic bin of fried rice cakes, which are sort of the Lao equivalent of pickled eggs. They’re always there on the table, eternal guardians of some lost secret.

I ordered four bowls of pork broth while Yoonhi banged off the walls in the bathroom, Serena skipped about, and Scud fumbled with his door (to the amazement of his fan club, who were gathering around every morning to watch him).

By the time the soup was at the table, the family was in place.
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I like the foe here. The broth is rich enough to get my tastebuds going, the noodles are always fresh (I see them being delivered), and the greens have slightly different flavours from those of Hanoi. Plus, unlike Vietnam, I’ve never contracted worms from eating pho in Laos.

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As we ate we laid out the day’s activities. This took us a while to get settled, as any deviation from the routine of wake up, eat, sleep, massage, and eat more takes cerebral activity that was quickly getting beyond us.

The distraction of watching some of the locals take their dog for a drag behind their motorcycle didn’t help.

First up, we headed for Baan Phanom. This Thai Lu village to the east of town was a respectable tuk tuk ride away, so we ditched the kids, as our primary interest was fabric shopping.
Our driver was confused about our intentions, and destination. It seems that the area’s been built up as a “site”, with the elephant camp and sundry facilities clustered here. There’s also Henri Mohout’s tomb, but I’d seen that back in ’93.

However, he got us to the communal fabric market, and it was a trip down memory lane.
This building is relatively new, having shown up some time between my ’93 and ’97 visits. Fairly clean, metallic, and packed with low wooden platform, which, themselves are packed with Lao ladies and their material. The attitude is much the same, though. It’s dead calm, almost comatose, up to the point where you pull out a wallet and start putting down some baht (or kip, or dollars). Then all the fabric goes up in the air, and your besieged with a clamour of “Monsieur! Monsieur!” The more you buy, the more frantic things become. Just like the old days.

My first trip I was warned that it was an off day, and that there wouldn’t be many people in the co-op, if any. I bought one piece, and a few more people came in. I bought four more, and there was a flurry of activity. By the time I had picked up a dozen pieces, all hell had broken loose. I was told after that they didn’t put much stock in Westerner’s shopping, but would pull out all the stops if the Thai came by, as volume dealers from Chiang Mai will come here to fill their stores. That’s why, then as now, Thai baht are more commonly taken, while in town the almighty dollar has taken over (although you can still get by with baht). Now, as then, the Baan Phanom was quoting in Baht.

Like I say, it’s refreshing to find some things unchanged.

“Kind of pathetic”, says Yoonhi.

I got out of there with only about a dozen pieces. The prices were better than in town, and a little more high end than the street market, comparable with the boutiques (which are way more expensive).

After this we retrieved our children from the one-eyed babysitter - they were glued to a Lao dubbed version of Ed, Ed, and Eddy – and headed up the river to Pak Ou.

The boat trip to Pak Ou gets on a lot of lists as a “thing to avoid”. Admittedly, while the caves are historically very important – being royal shrines lining Buddhist Laos with its animist/shamanistic river spirit worshipping side – they’re kind of lame, and get downright claustrophobic when you fill them to the brim with boatloads of tourists. But the trip is more about the trip, taking in the Mekong on this rough stretch.

And, we had to get the kids out of town at least once.

I haggled for the “last boat”, and then headed up river. As usual, our first stop was the Whiskey Village (maybe I should use the Doors for this segment on the video). It was the same but different. They’re down to one still, and the old guys I used to discuss techniques with are gone. They’ve left the kit to be minded by a kid, who’s claim to fame is his ability to dump a bucket of mash into the barrel.
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The town is quite tarted up, though. Lots of “antique” shops, and every other house is selling fabric. There were even a few satellite dishes about.

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They were also doing a brisk trade in what is referred to as “stuff in bottles”. It’s not enough to just make moonshine. If you want real good ‘shine, you need to put a snake, or a scorpion, or something into it. Everything imaginable ends up pickled in rotgut…sort of like my liver.
We picked up a gold beadspread for half the price of the night market, and then headed back up river.

Being old, I can reminisce about the things that used to be there. As I watched the whirlpools in the water (a sign of nagas at play), I thought back to the old days. Take the gold miners (or minors, as the case may be). They were gone in ’97, but I remember them from ’93. One of the villages on the West bank was busily digging up the sandbanks of the Mekong, and panning out the gold dust they could find. It was all young girls, and we were told that they were doing this so they could afford to buy the things they’d need if they got married. I offered to buy some of the gold, and then found out they were amalgaming the stuff on the spot over an open fire with quicksilver. I waited upwind.

And I didn’t see the traders. The road to China is in good shape now, but before there was a longtail express that would take traders up to the Chinese border of the Tai enclave of Sip Sawng Panna. The boats would blast past us. In ’97 they were still working their trade, but had picked up a bit of HSE, insisting that passengers wear helmets and life vests. The month before we’d arrived, one of the boats hit a shallow outcrop of rock and killed everyone on board.

Anyways. The cave was as expected. The hike up was good enough exercise, and it does go on for a little bit. But we didn’t dally longer than needed.
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Timing was about right when we returned to town. The kids were at that happy point where they’re bored out of their skulls and about to slit our throats. Yoonhi had had about all the scenery she could take, and I found myself parched. This was now pushing late afternoon and I was still without a beer Lao!

This was readily rectified. We stopped at the riverside for ham and cheese baguettes, coffee shakes, Ovaltine, and beer….and a sunset.
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Now that we’d eatend, it was obviously time for dinner.
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This evening we tried the 3 Nagas restaurant, across the street from the Mango they also run. This was their Lao venue. We were wise enough to have made reservations the night before, as they were quite full up when we arrived.

Again, a nice room. Well renovated French colonial (as if there’s any other choice), and I do note that there are a/c vents in the ceiling, which will be important if we’re back for Pimai – the Water Festival – one of these years. Pimai is in April, when temperatures are at their worst.
So, for the details!

We had Saa Moo, a salad of pork and banana blossom.

Laap krouaille; minced raw buffalo and bean sprouts.

Sai Oua Moo; pork sausages

Kaeng Bpai Champoo (I’m guessing at this one); Betel leaf soup with dried beef

Kranab Pa – grilled river fish stuffed with pork and herbs, wrapped and roasted in a banana leaf.
And we decided to go with the house chardonnay.

They brought out the ubiquitous rice crackers with a tamarind sauce as an amuse bouche. The tamarind stood out very well, the tartness grabbing the front of my mouth.

The laap was well mixed with chilis, and had a great burn to it. And the fried banana blossom worked in with the minced pork is a good idea, one I’ll try at home.

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The buffalo was a definite winner. Ltos of chilis, and fresh long beans worked in with the bean sprouts and herbs. Far too hot for Serena, but the rest of us loved it.
As I’ve said before, and will say again, I’m quite happy to make a meal just out of the salads of Laos and Thailand.

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The sausages were as expected, which is to say they were really, really good. I noticed on the menu that they refer to sai oua as “Luang Prabang” pork sausages. In places in Chiang Mai the menus will refer to these as “Lanna” sausages. Without a side-by-side taste test, it’d be hard to find any major differences in the flavours. Fried sausages in a good tight skin of intestine. Lots of chilis and herbs in with the “material”. It’s another case of the long intertwining of the affairs of the Northern Kingdoms (and one I am happy to study).

The soup was very mild, carrying the smell of the betel nut leaves to some extent, but mainly dominated by the basil. Still, with the heat of the salads, this makes a comforting match, removing some of the heat.

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The fish was great. I like kranabs, the burnt smell of the banana leaf just wrapping up through my nose, holding my attention for the unwrapping of the fish inside, liberally salted with galangal, peppers, coriander and basil and pork… Pardon me for a moment.

Dessert, for those who indulged, was coconut ice cream with a Lao coffee syrup.
After dinner, it was a chilly walk back down through the night market. I stopped in for a beer with Serena while Yoonhi shopped….okay, I had a beer. Serena had hot chocolate. Scud had forged ahead to wrestle with the door, otherwise we would have shot some pool.

And next door there was a beguiling selection of baked goods we’d been studying for the last few days. Serena and I bought some of the apple and coconut cakes, and took these back to the room to enjoy once Yoonhi rejoined us.
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The only glum note to the day, the crepe lady wasn’t there. She'd obviously gone home early, based upon the remnants in the gutter. Business must be good.

#8 Peter Green

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Posted 23 February 2007 - 12:40 AM

There were problems with viewing some of the last pictures, so I'm reposting them here (I can't get in to edit the post).



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These are the two morning foe (pho) shots. There's something about the colours of the table that makes the morning a lot easier to take.

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Above are the moonshining pictures. Not quite the same as a tour of the Hennessy facilities......


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Things in bottles.

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Just a picture of some boats.....

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Mandatory Mekong sunset shot.

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Entry to the 3 Nagas


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Laap krouaille; minced raw buffalo and bean sprouts.


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Sai Oua Moo; pork sausages and the Kaeng Bpai Champoo - Betel leaf soup with dried beef

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Kranab Pa – grilled river fish stuffed with pork and herbs, wrapped and roasted in a banana leaf.

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And, the last shot, the baked goods out on the street. An odd little stand.

#9 Peter Green

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Posted 23 February 2007 - 03:30 AM

The last day of 2006.

This was the time to get all of the year’s business out of the way, and start with a clean slate.

We all slept in, so we didn’t make the monk’s route that day.

After foe, we headed into town. Yoonhi needed to find a massage, and was checking out the different offerings on the main drag. Pizza massage had been okay, but she was looking for more of a work-over. Spa Garden had been recommended by the folks at L’Elephant, and Yoonhi spotted a couple of their outlets on Rue Sakharine.

Strolling up the road, we came across more of the local food processing industry. This time it was the charcuterie business, just hanging out on the corner of the street.
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We wandered back down the main drag and figured this was as good a time as any to do the museum thing.

We figure wrong, as usual. By the time we arrived and got our shoes off, they’d closed admissions for the morning.

It was apparent. We needed to go for food.

We exited from the rear of the Palace grounds and hung a right. We’d enjoyed the setting at Café Mekong Fish the day before. We’d only snacked there, but their Lao menu had looked good, putting paid to my earlier condecension towards restaurants advertising a mix of Western and Lao food. Having grown up with “Western & Chinese cuisine – our motto: we can’t do either well” as a kid sort of scars you for life.
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We clambered down the battle ship staircase to the lower level, looking out over the river, said our hellos to the wait staff, and settled down.

First things first, we ordered a bottle of the Listel Chardonnay. A pleasant, crisp Golfe de Lion white, that went very well with the Mekong below. At $10 for a bottle it was a great deal, especially considering the work the staff had to go through in terms of climbing back up the banks of the river and cutting across the street to the restaurant proper.

Not that he went over with such a minor order. We also called for fresh coconuts and a cup of Ovaltine for the girl.


Serena, always on the cutting edge of cuisine, ordered a “beef burger with cheese”. I did try to steer her towards the pork burger, but that was a little too avante garde for her tastes.

And then Scud failed me, too, indulging in a ham and bacon pizza. At least there was pork on his.

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This left Yoonhi and I to hold the line. We ordered some riverweed to tide us over while we reviewed the menu (back up the river bank goes the waiter), and came to a few easy choices.

We had the gai mok, another kranab of chicken. We could compare this with the one from the first night.

And we had a “Mekong fish” in coconut, which sounded like the Khmer fish amok.

Having passed their brethren drying in the street, I had to have more sai oua, the local sausage.

I figured those three dishes would be enough to get us through the next couple of hours.

One of the great, and simplest pleasures, of Asia is drinking a fresh coconut on a warm day. It’s a wonderful way to rehydrate. Another great, but less simple, pleasure, is to scrape out the coconut meat after you’ve had the fluid, and take the flavour out of that, bite by bite.

We asked our waiter, who was still getting over the vertical nature of our ordering, if he could open the coconuts. He looked at us as if we were space aliens for a second, and then took our nuts away to the table behind us, where he had at them with a machete.

I wondered if this could mar the finish of the table, but held that thought to myself.

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After about five minutes of brutality, he gave Scud his coconut. Then Yoonhi asked for hers to be opened. Given that he was panting, with a machete in hand, this might not have been the best moment. But, then again, the Lao are always gracious.

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The sausages were good, but not quite herbed up to the extent that the 3 Nagas were. Nor would they quite compare with Chiang Mai. Still, I had no qualms about finishing them.

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The fish mok was very gentle. The broth was extremely rich, worked up from coconut milk and fish stock. There was no burn to speak of, just potatos, green beans, bamboo, and, of course, kaffir lime leaves.

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And the kranab kai – the chicken mousse – was extremely good. I appreciated that the galangal had been julienned so that it could be eaten, whereas the one from the first night had been coarsely cut for the aroma and flavouring. Yoonhi preferred that earlier version for that reason, while I liked the taste in my mouth as I crunched through.

And meanwhile Scud’s pizza was quite acceptable. I suppose I shouldn’t rail at the children for taking a break from Lao food from time to time. It’s a path I follow often enough in dining. I was pleased to see that the pizza came with a choice of condiments that included chilis in vinegar.

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For dessert there was more home made ice cream……it’s beginning to dawn upon me that in a country with little to no industrial infrastructure, home-made isn’t such a big draw. Actually, it had taken the trips out of town the last few days to convince Yoonhi that the fabrics were indeed hand woven, and that there wasn’t some big Korean factory hidden just over the hills.

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When it came time to pay, we were happy to see that they accepted MasterCard. We used this as an opportunity for Scud to get used to using his card. We wanted to instill a sense of independence; we wanted to get him used to taking financial responsibility; mainly we wanted to avoid having to hike up the staircase until we absolutely had to.

After about half an hour, we were beginning to wonder what had happened to the boy. We climbed up to streetside to find him getting off of a motorcycle. It seems that when they say they “take MasterCard” it means that they have another shop somewhere within a day’s travel that does.

The afternoon saw us split up. I went off templing, while the rest of them stopped in at Spa Garden for a workover.

I did the tour. I wandered in and out of a dozen of the more than 125 wats that make up Luang Prabang, chatting with the monks, who are all eager to work on their English, and filling up my cameras.

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The highlight at this end of town is Wat Xieng Thong; where the old royal barges are kept, and where you find some of the prettiest carvings.

From there I ambled back through town, following the parade route down Sakkarine, past the palace, and beyond Pouxi to where the road becomes Chao Fa Ngum Road (Fa Ngum being the founder of the royal house way back when), past the fountain (that I never saw working), up into Wat Pramahathat, through another name change to Phothisarath Road, and then past the old Legion d’Etrangers barracks and across the old parade grounds to Wat That Luang.

I came back to the guest house some time later to find Yoonhi and the kids already at rest. Spa Garden, while a professional set-up, wasn’t fully staffed. They could a little of this or that, but without an appointment they didn’t have the people on hand who were trained for the different specialties (facials, scrubs, etc).

As Yoonhi says, this is a good sign, at least. It means that their people are trained, and they’re not just hacking away at whatever anyone asks for.

So, she made an appointment for New Year’s Day for the three of them, and headed home.

As she read on the verandah, there was a steady stream of people coming in, looking for a room, any room. We’d noticed the same about town that day. People pleading for a bed to sleep in…preferably for twelve dollars or less.

The Antique House, the bar next door to us, was advertising all you could eat and drink for $10 for New Years. I suspect it was going to be pretty full.




We ambled our way back into town, stopping to shoot a bit of pool en route, while putting back some beer Lao. The karaoke place boasts two tables in mediocre condition, but the complete lack of customers inside ensured that Scud, Serena, and I could play without having to make room for others.

New Year’s Eve dinner was the much awaited return to L’Elephant.

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We started with some puff pastries topped with cheese and ham. This was followed by a Mekong fish and crab meat ravioli in crème brulee style with parmesan for Yoonhi, Scud, and I. This came across agreeably smooth, the “crème brule style” doing what it should to the palate.
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Serena, for her part, had to have the onion soup, baked with a topping of Gruyere.

After this Serena ordered the pan-fried gambas with pastis on a “Gindara fish” mousse cake with mixed greens dressed with almond oil. This was extremely soft and buttery, sitting well with the crunch of the greens on the plate. There was a bed of blanced watercress between the gambas and the mouse that worked particularly well, and little dots of crimson pomegranate oil around the plate.

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Scud ordered the venison terrine with Cep Mushrooms, cognac flavoured, with a mango and pineapple chutney. Agreeably chunky, this was perfect with a bit of baguette. The pineapple chutney wiggled temptingly, and bits of star fruit gave a nice contrast along with the balsamic on the greens. Dabs of basil oil set the whole thing off.


Yoonhi had the pan-fried foie gras with red fruits on a sweet potato bed. The sauce bled liberally against the soft glistening fat of the foie…..(I’m drooling again). I wish I’d had a picture of this, but she wasn’t waiting for my camera for this one.

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And I ordered the foie gras mi-cuit maison (with toasts). How could I turn down a nice stand-up terrine? I lathered my toast with the “butter” then topped it with a bite of the foie.

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For the mains, I ordered the duck filet with red fruit gravy and caramelized peach, potatos, and a green vegetable mousse. Yoonhi, likewise, had the same. The duck chewed very well, and the moussse was beautiful. By now we’d forgotten the details of the dishes, and bit into this thinking it a pesto mash, and finding something much more about fresh vegetables.

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Scud had the lamb for his main. A roasted saddle with fresh thyme gravy and fried sage leaves, served with a potato gratin, and a green vegetable mousse.

And Serena went for the mixed mushrooms lasagna with Gorgonzola sauce.

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The salad was a mixed greens with Roquefort dressing and shavings of Nashi pears, with an apple cider vinaigrette.

The room is bustling, with all the tables filled out. Down the street there’s a band playing,

One comment on L’Elephant, which does apply to many of the restaurants; pouring. Wine comes to the table, and from that point on, it’s up to you. Don’t wait patiently for your glass to be poured. Once you realize this, of course, it’s no hardship, and you can avoid the typical problem in South East Asia (aside from Singapore) of having your wine glass topped off to the brim.

A selection of petits fours came out which we nibbled upon, and then the desserts; a “warm chocolat fondant with lightly salted caramel custard” for Serena, and Omelette Norvegienne avec glace au miel-gingembre et sorbet a la Roselle et son Coulis aux fruits rouges; or rather a Baked Alaska cake.

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Serena’s chocolate fondant was as advertised, and had her happily nestled in her seat.

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The baked Alaska (a Norwegian omelet, eh?) was just right. The ginger ice cream down in the lowest part was a pretty little taste to go with it all.

I took an espresso to finish, along with an armagnac, and Yoonhi some tea. The boy was quite content with the little bit of champagne we’d afforded him, and the girl had a hot chocolate to go with the mignardises.

Content, we settled the bill, and, with some two hours left in the year, we went to the Governor’s residence to see the old out, and the new in.

On entering I did my part for the local economy and purchased a large, warm bottle of Beer Lao, and fancy hats for the women folk. There was little question that these were hand made.

On stage there was a continual string of speeches and variety acts – karaoke, national dances, and general invitations for everyone to come up and dance along, which Serena did with alacrity. Scud, meanwhile, prayed for a swift death.

Part of the purpose for all of this was to raise money for the poverty eradication fund. Last year they had raised a total of $350 for the province….it sounds like a lot more when you say 3,500,000 kip. I did my part by buying another beer.

In typical Lao fashion, it was decided that they’d waited long enough, and New Year’s was brought in 12 minutes early, with the traditional anthem of Auld Lang Syne being ditched in favour of “A Hundred Miles Away From Home”, to which they were line dancing. After watching this, Scud has advised that he’s scarred for life.

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The prettiest part was the release of the balloons; hand-made paper sacks with small burners inside. I’ve admired these often as they drift through the skies, looking for a bit of dryness to land upon and set ablaze.

“Pyromancy”, muttered Scud, wishing he was somewhere – preferably somewhere with electronics - else.

And the highlight of the night, which did get a grin out of the boy, was when one of the balloons caught fire and fell onto the governor’s roof. This had the local fire truck (which had been standing by) roll up and spray down the building.

What more could you ask for?

And Scud managed to get his door open by himself.

#10 insomniac

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Posted 23 February 2007 - 04:06 AM

Peter, I have been glued to your wonderful reports. Laos is one of my favourite places on earth and you bring back so many memories; I can smell your posts (sounds silly). the last time I was going there and had the visa in my passport there were a few bombings etc and I was loathe to take the kids. (they got there anyway on 2 school trips through the French school they were going to in Hong Kong and also just loved it.)
Now I'm just itching to return, thanks so much to you and your family for sharing your experiences.
Oh, how is flying internally these days?? Must admit my legs used to shake getting on the old Russian planes that seemed to crash with monotonous regularity :sad:

#11 Peter Green

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Posted 23 February 2007 - 08:39 AM

2007 – A new beginning

A miracle happened. I woke up early.

It was dark. It was quiet. It was cold. Real cold. I bundled myself up, slipped out of the room, and then had to wake up one of the staff to let me out the door. They must be used to it, as they keep one guy sleeping behind the desk all night long.

Outside it was still dark. I was coming to the conclusion that the lack of sunlight probably played a large part in this.

I looked in on the Antique House as I headed up the Mekong. There was still a small group of people talking over bottles of Beer Lao, while others snoozed, huddled against the cold on the wooden benches. I was glad we had hotel reservations.

Past the Museum, and there was the odd vendor trying to sell a bag of sticky rice for $5. “For the monks”, and giving me quite the hard look when I begged off.

This was not what I’d expected.

All up the Rue Sakarine there were tour buses pulling up. These would be on the East of the street, while on the West side there were reserved packets of pavement with sticky rice containers lined up. There’s probably a nice little piece in there of life passing away to the West, but it was too damn early for such things.

It was quite the spectacle. The Saphron Trail, they’re calling it. I understand now the posters I’d been observing all about town. Please show respect. Please observe silence. Please don’t chase the monks with your tour buses (honest, that was on the poster). The crowds were, by Luang Prabang standards, enormous. I know that there’s a developed section for “resorts” outside of town, beyond the UNESCO zoning, but I hadn’t appreciated how big it had to be, given the number of buses I was seeing jamming up the streets.

Each bus had a local agent, cell phone jammed against his or her ear. They were checking the placement of the rice containers, straightening the mats, and checking their watches as they waited for their charges.

When the tourists came, they were mainly Chinese and Thai. Of these, it was hard to stereotype the behaviour. Some were quite respectful and new what was expected of them, others, and not just the young, were not. I can picture one, a 50-something Thai lady yelling into her cell phone in a Bangkok accent while dropping rice into the monks’ bowls as they went by

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Still, with the bad comes the good. Regardless of the crowd, the monks exist outside of themselves once they begin the walk. I recognized some of the young men I’d talked with the day before, and they weren’t the same people while they were out here.

And there was no shortage of food. The monks would empty their bowls into sacks carried by others, and would pass out food to some of the needier looking children who were begging from them (but this wasn’t seen on the main street).

I watched everything from a respectful distance, across the street with the bus drivers, a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging around them. Once I’d soaked up enough, I headed back to the room, stopping first to check out the internet at the local travel agent.

I was caught off guard, as were the Thai. The New Year’s bombings in Bangkok were a surprise. I don’t know if you could say they were unexpected, but, even with the years of violence in the South of Thailand, and the few thwarted terrorist operations in the capitol, this blindsided many. I suppose it was just a case of being lulled by the remoteness of the troubles.



Still, in the initial investigations, it wasn’t clear if this was linked to the South. One string had it that it went back to forces backing the Thai Rak Thai. The way things go in this part of the world, we may never know. It was several years ago that there was a string of bicycle bombings in Laos. They came, some people got hurt, and they stopped. The best my sources could ever come up with was that there’d been a power play between the pro-Vietnamese old guard and the China faction. China’s done a fairly effective job of buying off Cambodia, and by bringing Prathet Lao into their camp they would have Vietnam well-isolated.

Sobered by the news, I collected the family and we did breakfast at the Café des Arts. This was the small place on the Rue Sakarine that advertised chacouterie. Scud had recognized it as the home of the MasterCard machine he’d used the day before, so we thought we could give it a try.

This was not a wise move.

The breads disappointed, which is a sad thing in this land of bounteous baguettes. And their escargot, although served in the shell, were a dismal disappointment in comparison to what we’d had at L’Elephant. I ordered their chacouterie platter, and was likewise underwhelmed.

Also of interest, the same Listel Chardonnay I’d enjoyed at their sister venue, Café Mekong Fish, was available here, but for $17 bottle, as opposed to $10.

Ah well, live and learn.

We went by the museum to check that it was closed. It was (we never did catch it open), and then walked up Mount Pouxi to take in the view.

The same old anti-aircraft mounting is still up there. It appeared to have been subject to regular oiling and maintenance so that it could be used as a toy for the local kids, who were engaging in the universal game of “spin around in circles until you throw up”.

We came down the backside of the hill, and walked up the Nam Khan, looking for the Khem Karn Food Garden, one of the older restaurants in town, going back to my first trip. I remember hours of fun spent here watching termites eat through the furniture while a goat bleated on the sandbar down below.

Hey, you find your fun where you can.

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This was a far better meal. We had ice coffee and beer Lao (dark), and ordered up way too much food.


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The river weed crackers here were thicker, with a better texture than elsewhere. They’ve likewise gone to the sesame and garlic method, but it still had a difference to it here. The fried pork with “yoster” was a bit on the tough side, a complaint I had of much of the pork in Luang Prabang.

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Mind,you, the fried wild boar was excellent. It had been done up in a dry red curry, and had a good juicy drip to it as you worked the meat with your molars.

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The squid was tender, almost melting as it and the piles of onions made their merry way into your gullet. The basil and kaffir filled the table when this was placed down.

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I decided to try the spring rolls here, and was very satisfied. They’d been stuffed with a variety of mushrooms, noodles, and banana blossoms. Their only detraction was that they were not crispy enough and a little greasy (they must’ve been impatient, not waiting for the oil to heat fully).

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A large bottle of beer Lao (regular) and some canned ice tea for the kids, and I was in an expansive mood. All was well under heaven. We strolled back through town, and Idecided to check out the Palace grounds, even if the museum was never going to be open to us.

While I was thus engaged, the rest of the clan were being beaten to a pulp. They’d checked themselves in for three hours of spa treatment, and weren’t expected to surface for some time. They were running the gamut of foot massages, facials, shampoos, aromatherapies, body scrubs, and full body massages. The last sort of fell apart when Serena began giggling, which in turn spread to the staff, all of whom were killing themselves with chuckles. Somehow, general hilarity doesn’t go with with a relaxing massage, says Yoonhi.

That took much of the rest of the afternoon. I camped out at the Pack Luck Liquor wine bar across the street from their massage. A well appointed, pretty little place, with comfortable seating on the streetside. By the bottle they had a good selection of French, Italian, Australian, and Chilean wines. By the glass, though, they were rather restricted as a wine bar, having only a Chilean sauvignon blanc and a South African pinotage.

I started with the sauvignon blanc. A little warm for the afternoon, but a good fruity wine, with a nice dig at the back of the throat. I took this as I read the daily papers in from Bangkok with the morning flights. The news was of the bombs, and you could hear the echos in the conversations about the street.

Finished with the white, I called for a glass of the pinotage. This was a good, strong wine for an Indochine afternoon, and I worked on my notes and people watched as I enjoyed the red.

Part of my people watching consisted of the two young pirates who were working the crowd for trinket sales. Bored, the young entrepreneurs managed to upset an umbrella onto the table next to me. But, rather than the rancour one might expect in such a case, the table of Laos caught the umbrella, laughed roundly, and put things back to rights. The kids giggled and scampered off.

Also, for people watching, after five days I could start to recognize some of our fellow travelers. The thing was, I didn’t necessarily recognize their faces right away, but rather their clothes. Some of these people had been wearing the same thing for the better part of a week. And this in a town where every other building is either a guest house or a laundry.

The spa disgorged the family, and the little girl who’d been patiently waiting now approached Serena to sell her a bracelet for a dollar. Serena was happy, the little girl was happy, I was a dollar down but that was okay.

Exhausted from all this physical exertion, I proposed dropping down to the Mekong for a bottle of Georges Duboeuf Cuvee Blanc.

Actually, I’d wanted another bottle of the Listel, and a sunset, but we’d finished off their stock the other day. The Cuvee Blanc was a compromise. A little oily, but nothing like the Gewurtz we’d had at Mango a couple of nights before.

We used this interlude to give some thought to dinner. We decided we were returning to the Apasara, to see if the evening meal would be as good as the lunch we’d had there a few days before.

It was.

We sat outside in the early dark. Across the Nam Khan there were some fireworks being put up, and we took that in with the kind of stillness you don’t find in a lot of places.

Serena had the penne carbonara (from which we had them drop the chilis), and Yoonhi ordered a “local dish of chicken cooked with exotic green leaves, apple, aubergine, and flavoured with dill”.

To start we ordered the prawn and green papaya salad, dressed with chilis and coconut, and another salad of tomatos, spring onion, and basil, topped with balsamic and olive oil.

The papaya salad was very interesting. The papaya was only lightly pounded, more like fettuccine than the usual pounded shreds, perhaps closer to the Vietnamese papaya salads I’ve had. And the dressing comes across very smooth, lacking the cut I was expecting. I nice easy opener to the meal.

The other salad was very much about the tomatoes. These are very sweet, the glossy red set against the green of the fresh herbs on top (I wish that photo had worked).

Yoonhi’s chicken dish is interesting. Again, there’s a hint of the medicinal in the smell, and we do trace this to the bamboo in the broth.

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I couldn’t turn away from the pork belly; braised and served on roasted pumpkin with aubergine chutney and a star anise broth. When this came out it was the anise that hit you in the nose at first, and then crisp smell of the coriander. After that I was too far gone into the basic goodness of the pig fat to notice much of anything else.

It was now official, the Apsara does have the best baguettes. Their bread is the best of the trip.

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And the wine was interesting - in a good way. A Sicilian; Lamura Nero d’Avola 2005. Almost treacly in the poor, with a very strong flavour. “A manly wine”, said Yoonhi…..mind you, she says that when I’m complaining, too.

We finished with bananas flambé with rum and honey ginger ice cream for Yoonhi and Scud, and chocolate and coconut ice cream for Serena. I content myself with a calvados.

As this was our last night, we ditched the kids in the room and headed out to see what the nightlife was like. We walked back up past the old market site to check out the Brown Sugar bar, which looked like it could be interesting…..at least in the daytime. With darkenss it became apparent that they were not open for business, so we headed back behind Mt. Pouxi to see if the Hive was all it was (self) said to be.

I liked the Hive. Dead quiet, but likeable. We’d been warned that the inside could be too loud, but the backyard - done up with a beer Lao Christmas tree, beer Lao Christmas lights, and bamboo reindeer – was really quite festive. Thankfully, they didn’t play any Christmas tunes. With the kids out of the way, we were quite content to enjoy our beers and recap our year past.
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A stumble back to the Guest House, some more beer at the Antique House (no bodies about), and our time was done.

#12 hsimay

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Posted 01 March 2007 - 06:14 AM

Hey Peter,
great read! Wish I have read it before I went to Lao (its suppose to be the correct spelling) during the Chinese lunar new year period.
It would have made my trip a little better!

Spent a day in Vietiane before heading to Luang Prabang for 2 days. I had only 4 days to spare and it was a pretty rush trip. Amazingly after being accustomised to plentiful afforable lodging around SouthEast Asia, Lao was a shock in finding decent affordable rooms, I had spend hours finding places both in Vietiane and Luang Prabang, I had to beg for rooms!

Didnt like Vietiane on my first day, so i made a long bus ride to Luang Prabang, a wonderful decision, I would have been miserable in Vietiane.

Had a few difficulty in finding local food places here, the laotians seem to like their meat hidden in their vegetables. I'm semi-vegetarian so it was quite an effort finding local places serving just vegetarian. Any vegetable dish had some minced meat hidden in it somewhere! Sneaky!

During my walks around the ancient city, past a shop, and saw a few locals eating their lunches. I looked longingly at some local laotian while they had their lovely home-cooked food filled with sticky rice , dips and fresh vegetables and wraps. Wish I could find them in local restaurants. The locals had a huge communal plate filled with the various dips, fresh vegetables, some kind of fried summer rolls and sticky rice. Some noodle dips were wrapped with a kind of lettuce before eating and others were dipped with sticky rice which were rolled into a ball before eating.

Alas non of that for me! I had to keep looking for food!
all they had was small little pho noodle shops filled with meats and innards of buffalo and pork. I guess the Laotians don't really eat out much! Way too many tourist food places, where are the locals!

I did find a decent food lane near the Hmong Night market serving rather hearty vegetarian food. These little stalls open only at night and it seem most stalls were offering their version of "Vegetarian Buffet" for us$0.50. Extremely decent, this was the best dinner I had in Lao! It also came with a dessert of fried sugared battered banana fritter. Bargain!
The fritt had this overly sweet yet tasty burnt sugar crunch with bits of banana in it. It tasted much better than the one i had on Xiang Thong road - the main touristy bit of the city, which cost me $1 for just a couple of cut up fritts and tasteless batter.


On my last day, a chance finding of this up-coming restaurant Tamarind Cafe serving Laotian food set up by an expat. It is situated opposite to a Wat temple. It served pretty fresh laotian dips and pretty decent local dishes. The owner was pretty enthusiastic in explaining the dishes. I did have a good impression of Laotian food finally after all the dreadful disappointment. Was introduced to tomato chilli dip which was charred bbq before being pulverised into a dip. Smoked eggplant dip was my favorite, charred again to give that burnt favor, tasty, tangy and very healthy indeed!

Pity they only open during the day from 11am to 6pm and open late only on friday for their 20 seater Taste of Lao BBQ fish night

The most disappointing meal was at Indochina Spirite, recommended as one of the better restaurant serving the best Laotian food by. The manager from my hostel mentioned it was one of the most expensive restaurant in the city. It was rather overpriced for the quality of food served, uttler disappointment. Their "popular" dishes, Larp fish (minced fish salad), something with minced eggplant and some shrimp fish dish, the lao papaya salad were pretty saltish and mediocre. The only saving grace was the Chai Penne, the pulverised green river moss snack with dried tomato and garlic fried. It was pretty tasty and became one of my favorites.

Spent a late morning at the Phosi market, thats where i got a couple of Laotian food stuff like a big bag of Chai Penne, some moist brown sugarcane block sprinkled with chopped peanuts.Lao coffee, lao burnt tea and some unknown brown sugar which looked more like globs of burnt honeycombs. Boy they sure like their stuff burnt!

I must admit I have been spoilt by the affordable places such as cambodia, thailand, indonesia, malaysia and singapore, Lao takes a little getting use.

Question!
I do need some help from a Laotian food expert. Fried some Chai Penne and it tasted bland and definately not crispy like the ones at the restaurant. No wanting to waste my precious river moss for experiment, any suggestions on frying the river moss? I tried frying at slow low heat, the Chai penne only manage to stay crisp for a couple of minutes. High quick heat that burnt the extremely thin sheet brown.
Do you add anything to the oil and whats the best frying method for the Chai penne to stay crisp.

#13 Peter Green

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Posted 01 March 2007 - 06:38 AM

Question!
I do need some help from a Laotian food expert. Fried some Chai Penne and it tasted bland and definately not crispy like the ones at the restaurant. No wanting to waste my precious river moss for experiment, any suggestions on frying the river moss? I tried frying at slow low heat, the Chai penne only manage to stay crisp for a couple of minutes. High quick heat that burnt the extremely thin sheet brown.
Do you add anything to the oil and whats the best frying method for the Chai penne to stay crisp.

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Hsimay,

For the river weed, you need to use sunflower oil or canola at a high heat (not peanut oil, although it would get hotter, the flavours not right for the Lao).

I've been playing with the stuff I brought back. Cut it up first into manageable squares, then just "wash it" in the hot oil. Maybe a five count, that's all. Put it into a metal sieve as you work up a few sheets for snacks. After that, let collect it on some paper towels (it is way oily on the hands) and serve it up quick before it cools off.

As you'd seen, too low and it's soggy. Too long and its horribly burnt.

LP is really short on rooms. It's okay if nothing's happening, but for New Year's, Pimai, Tet, whatever, you can find yourself living in the street.

And, yes, it is not vegetarian friendly, I must admit. As a partial vegetarian, you can get by, but a true Vegan wouldn't be able to get around the padek and other elements of dead stuff that gets into everything. Heck, pig fat is almost guaranteed in everything.

The "burned" element is also common to LP cuisine. A lot of the ingredients are charred prior to use, giving a smokiness to the flavour I quite like.

Tamarind looked interesting, but like you said, it's only open for a limited time for lunch, and when we did drop by they were shut for New Year's.

I'll get the write-up on Vientiane added in here soon. I must admit, the town is a bit of an acquired taste. A lot of people have a bad first reaction to it.....and a second.....but it can grow on you with time.

#14 XiaoLing

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Posted 01 March 2007 - 08:32 AM

WOW! Thank you for posting such beautiful pics!!

Laos was always on the bottom of my list of places to visit but I think I will have to bump it up now! It's sounds and looks mouth watering! A true eye opener!

#15 Peter Green

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Posted 02 March 2007 - 04:17 AM

Vientiane - Leaving Lao

What a difference a day makes.

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We’d left in the late morning from Luang Prabang - heavily laden with luggage -flying down to Vientiane on Lao Aviation. The flight was indifferent, which meant that nothing bad happened. I did note that Icelandic Air did not appear to have the operating concession anymore (years earlier I was intrigued to see 6 foot plus blonde pilots and stewardesses about – the air sickness bag gave away their affiliation).

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The plane was small, but well kept. As opposed to my earlier flights in-country, there were no poultry or large rodents roaming the cabin at will (it was a bad sign when those big marmots from Xieng Khouang gnawed through their cage in the back of the car). Also gone are the days when the Chinese knock-offs of Russian twin props were banned from Thai overflights – based upon their unfortunate habit of falling out of the sky on Thai homes. This made trips down to the Panhandle a pain. But I digress.

It was kind of fun coming through the domestic terminal at Wattay. The new international terminal looks too much like all other international terminals. The old one still has character (and good begneit, to dip in Lao café), the upper deck packed with Lao who have come to watch the planes land and take off.

Reminiscing…. My second trip, coming out of Penh just before the coup season got going in ‘97, I’d wanted to avoid the hassle of getting a visa in advance. Typical Laos, I just called some people and they had a man waiting for us when we came down the ladder from the plane. $40 each, both our passports, and he was back and walking us through before the first person in the “normal” line had even gotten half way through. A sabaidee to the nice people in immigration, and we were in a Mercedes before you could say “Bob’s your uncle”. This time it was nowhere near so flash. I’d not even arranged for a pick-up from the hotel, assuming that taxis could be found easily enough in Vientiane. I was correct; I was only off in my calculations as to how many would be required. No van was available, so we split ourselves between two ramshackle taxis for the ride into town.

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We arrived at the Settha Palace soon enough, and were ushered into the soothing calm of their lobby. From there we made it to our connecting rooms on the ground floor….and we were in love.

Beautiful wood floors, and ceilings that were way, way up there…somewhere. And windows. After our week in the guest house, I’d become accustomed to frosted panes shadowed by bars, but these old French style shuttered windows were clear, and as tall as the ceilings.

And there was a bath tub. We were all entranced.

Okay, honestly, all the kids cared about was that there were cartoons in English, and an internet connection.

We gathered our bags in one place and did some unpacking, then we pried the children away from the screens and headed out into the mid-day sun.

Vientiane has a reputation as an unlovely town. Dusty, flyblown, and subject to all the sensible civic planning you might expect from, say, Houston…or Dodge City. The sidewalks are intermittently seeded with open sewer covers, and the general style of architecture is graciously described as “concrete pillbox”. There is not enough shade, and not enough green space. What green space there is is often just growth jutting out of the sewer trenches, like hair from a pensioner’s nose.

Okay, maybe it’s not as pretty as Luang Prabang, which benefited first from the protective embrace of the old leader, Kaysone, who would not allow new development in the town proper, and after him from UNESCO, who listed the town as a world heritage site and ensured jobs for bureaucrats for years to come.

But Vientiane has a certain air about it, and not just from the traffic congesting the streets. It’s fun. It’s not as formal as LP, more given over to pubs and shops and restaurants. In a word…affluent.

That affluence comes not only from the Lao elite (many educated abroad – before in Paris, Moscow, and East Berlin. Now from Harvard, Stanford, and the London School of Economics), but also from the plethora of foreign embassies and their hangers-on; the aid workers (can you spell “contractor”?) and the ubiquitous NGO’s, all with other people’s money burning a hole in their pockets. Like I said….affluence.

Also it suffers, as does Phnom Penh, from the Open Skies Syndrome. This policy has proven a boon to tourists, allowing them to fly directly to a country’s real attraction – LP for Laos, and Siem Reab/Angkor for Cambodia. While this is great news for the tourists, it has been a disaster for the capital cities, draining off much of their medium to high end tourist revenue.

What they are left with, however - aside from the mouths and bellies of the foreign aid machine - is as steady stream of visa runners over from Thailand. While not exactly the top end of the travel business, they do have a certain amount of cash to spend, so the level of pubs and small restaurants is at a reasonable support level.

Vientiane does much better at this than Penh, given that it’s accessible by rail and road, whereas only a true masochist would go overland to the Royal Capital of Cambodge (which says something about some of my relatives that do so). For Cambodia, most overnight in the casino belt and then come straight back. Vientiane is cheap and cheerful enough that they can do a weekend of it.

Enough of all that. We were afoot and our communications were back on-line…..sort of. Inside the Settha Palace, for some strange reason, things would cut out. But as we wandered about our phones would come alive. This was of some benefit, but didn’t do us much good for staying in touch with the kids if we abandoned them to go out at night.

In walkabout mode, we stopped at one of the major tourist attractions in town; the international ATM. We’d heard of this legendary device while up-North. “You may not be able to get money in LP”, they would say, “but once you get to Vientiane you’ll be fine. There’s one by the Lao Plaza Hotel.”

It was out of order. Or at least, it wouldn’t work with any of our Canadian accounts. Luckily, I happened to have my Bangkok Bank card. Unluckily, I wasn’t exactly sure how much money I had in there.

Figuring it was probably a few thousand baht, I drained the machine and breathed a small sigh of relief.

From there we stumbled down towards the Mekong, where there were some minor differences to be seen (including a nice looking creperie), but nothing startling until we arrived at the Fountain, the Nam Phu.

The beer garden was gone!

I was in shock. I stood. I gaped. I blinked. L’Opera was still there. The Swiss Bakery was there. Diethelm was still on the corner and the Lan Xan Hotel (last hold-out of the Russians before they were finally kicked out of the country) still filled up space across the street with the Library. And the shallow bowl of the fountain was there.

But the beer garden was gone.

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In a daze I sat down at the patio seating in front of the Swiss Bakery and had Yoonhi go and fetch me a ham and cheese baguette and a beer Lao.

This was not doing my wa any good at all.

The beer garden, when I was here before, was always the place to be, exerting a gravitational pull upon one and all, bringing us into its orbit. You could show up in the day or evening, order a pitcher of draft beer Lao served up in a plastic jug of the sort you’d keep orange juice in at home in your ‘fridge, and find another traveler or local or termite to while away the time with. Come dusk and the locals would all congregate in front of the fountain in order to have their portraits taken with old 60’s vintage cameras. The Hammer and Sickle would glare down from the government office on one corner, and you would learn all sorts of interesting things.

I learned here that Lao (at the time) was one of the best places to buy silver. A Canadian with a silver shop in Katmandu was here on a buying trip. From someone else I learned about the secret Chinese silver mines somewhere up the Mekong that were being hunted for. The Australian Embassy was the place to be on a Friday night. I played go (or padduk) with an older Korean fellow (who beat me soundly), and I heard about the owner of the beer garden, a foreigner with a returned-Lao wife who had restaked their claim to the concession.

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I cracked forlornly through the baguette, hardly noticing my food (although the Bakery is quite famous, having been here in the circle for ages). The baker, Sune Wissmar, had followed his wife Inger on the embassy circuit, and found himself baking in her wake. They came to Laos in 1993, and he opened the bakery in 1994, just after my first trip. I remember it as a pleasant, well-established place in 1997, where you could buy excellent Lao coffee, either in a cup or in the form of beans. I won’t go into too much more detail – you can read more about the Wissmers at
http://www.scandasia...62&coun_code=se

Leaving the family to finish their lunch, I poked about the restaurants. As I did so, I struck up a conversation with one Lao family. I had to ask them what had happened, and they sadly advised me that the beer garden had been moved out by the government a couple of years ago. There was no good reason, and they obviously missed it as much as I did. We commiserated over the event, and then went our separate ways.

But, I have little time to spare for wallowing while on vacation. I took my family down to the riverside to admire the Mekong, wider and more placid this much further south.

The riverside – the corniche – was a mess. It was good to see some things hadn’t changed. I was here last in ’99 it was pretty torn up already (that was the trip down the Panhandle). They’d cleared out the stilted bamboo anarchy of the Russian Club (with some of the finest sunset views of the Mekong), and a petition was circulating to try and halt the planned development of a parking lot that would have cleared all of the restaurants off of the embankment, these then consisting of the traditional “metal chairs and equally ugly metal tables”.

We found the park towards the palace nicely done up with children’s swings and such-like, and Serena took ample advantage of this. While she frolicked under Yoonhi’s watchful eye, Scud and I meandered along the main road.

Did I already mention “dusty and flyblown”?

Still, there were some interesting places. Chinese restaurants. Some Lao spots. More Thai eateries…..and even a Russian spot offering shazlik.

We cut back up from the Mekong into town proper, and, the lunchtime beers calling to us, we stopped in at what turned out to be a Korean restaurant, although named the Dok Champa, after the Lao national flower. I’d actually chosen it based on the add for “pool”, but that turned out not to be an option, as the owner was playing on the table. A minor downside, but the facilities were our primary requirement.



They had beer Lao on tap (albeit served in glass jugs), so having made room, we settled into refilling our bladders. They also had an excellent coconut milkshake – at least by my standards; Serena didn’t care for it; and red fire ants on the menu, but as guests crawling between the pages, and not as the usual salad item.

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We moseyed back to the Settha with the kids, they being at about their limits of no-TV time, and Yoonhi took the opportunity for a long bath. I checked with the concierge on restaurants, knowing better than to push my luck dragging the family on a hike, only to be turned away.

I walked first to Krua Lao, an upmarket, slightly touristy Lao restaurant near the That Dam and the American Embassy. But they were closed. From there I walked over to the Patuxai – the Vertical Runway. Legend has it that this version of the Arc de Triomphe – modified with a Lao flourish slopped onto the top – was created with funds and cement originally intended for a new airport runway. Be that as it may, it is something I had to stop by and see again while I was in the neighborhood.

What I was looking for was Le Na Dao, a longstanding Lao French restaurant that I had passed by some years before, with a fairly loyal following. I found it, conveniently located next to Le Parasol Blanc, that wonderful rambling hotel that is located just a little too far out of the thick of things. I say “convenient” as it appeared that Le Na Dao was closed, and the kind people at the Parasol were able to confirm this for me. It would be worth more than my life for me to have dragged Yoonhi and the vermin over here just to be turned around.

Disconsolate, I headed home. But, I was happy to see, I was not without options. Near to the Morning Market was an interesting looking little place – Le Grillot. This, I decided, would be dinner for Yoonhi and I. It had a certain charm from the outside, and, of great importance, they took MasterCard, which would allow us to husband our dwindling hard cash resources.

Yoonhi agreed readily enough, and we turned the children loose on the room service menu. The two of us dressed, and walked the five minute trek over to Le Grillot, taking in the evening ambience of outdoor pool tables, glowing tv screens playing Thai soap operas, and motos belching out fumes.

At Le Grillot we took a seat outside, but found that we’d chosen the local tuk tuk mafia engine-reving point. Still, we would not let this interfere with our night out. I asked for the wine list, and was pointed at a rack by the bar…….

Somehow, I had expected something more from a French restaurant in Vientiane. Like a wine list? When the dazed waiter came by, I asked him for one, which caused a minor panic on his part. He mumbled something, and disappeared. After a few moments I decided I’d best take the initiative, walked over the rack, and chose a rather non-descript cabernet sauvignon Bosquet Cannet 2002 which I plonked onto our table. I figured he’d work it out.

We returned to the menu. The food itself looked quite pleasant, very farmhouse French, and I planned out the meal with some enthusiasm.

I ordered the prawn bisque for soup, while Yoonhi wanted to try the creamy spinach.

For appetizers we had the asparagus wrapped in salami with tomatos, cucumber, and “bread baked with cheese”, and the Panier de crabes en salade.

Mains would be duck fillet with a creamy sherry sauce over tagliattelle, and a rabbit with mustard sauce for myself.

Aside from the tuk-tuk drivers seeing at what point they could blow the pins out of their engines it was a pleasant setting. The evening was cool, yet not so chill as Luang Prabang had been. The low tones of French came from a table in the back, two bureaucrats discussing an upcoming meeting with the Foreign Ministry. Some cats slinked about.

And the candle at the next table broke off and fell to the ground amongst the unswept kindling.

Yoonhi pointed this out to our waiter in mime. He responded with alacrity bringing a candle to our table and lighting it for our benefit, ignoring the burning mess on the ground.

It was going to be one of those nights.

But the food was quite good. The asparagus was just right, and there were no complaints regarding the portion sizes, the salad that came with it was quite a bit more than expected, but I will never argue with an abundance of fresh greens, although I’m not certain how the corn crept into the dish.
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The bisque was done well, nice and thick. The creamy spinach was beautiful to behold, but turned out not to be spinach. The flavour was much more of morning glory. Perhaps they meant “water-spinach”? Be that as it may, it was a good soup, albeit on the gargantuan serving size.
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This was really getting to the point of “don’t eat anything larger than your head”. In typical Asian fashion the food was coming out as it was ready, so our table was buried under the asparagus and soups when the crab tarts came out.

The crab was a pretty little fancy. It’s a shame the picture didn’t focus properly. It was a mince of crab and tuna meat baked into six little pastry barques, or canoes. The canoes themselves formed from crisply baked pie dough. And again, it came atop a mountain of greens (and corn), with a base of cabbage down below somewhere.

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The rabbit carried the mustard sauce well. There was enough meat on the animal to more than satisfy me, given my gorged condition from the earlier courses. The little bow-tie pasta were lightly herbed, and there were “kebabs” of zucchini, tomato, and yam.

Yoonhi’s duck was likewise a good hearty meal, which isn’t exactly what we needed at this point of gluttony. A drizzle of cream on over the meat lightened the dish, and improved it’s looks. The flavour was excellent, and I forced myself, groaning, to help her finish the dish.
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Mistake number one, underestimating the size of the dishes.

Mistake number two, underestimating the ability for things to go sideways in Vientiane. We called for the cheque, feeling quite content. This arrived vertically on a small standing clip. I removed the paper from the clip, and our waiter reacted in panic.

As Yoonhi said, you could read the reaction on his face. “Oh my God! They’ve taken the bill off of the clip! What’ll I do? What’ll I do?” I put the bill down, and he immediately reattached it to the clip, an audible sigh of relief coming from him once the paper was in place.

Then I gave him my credit card. This led to an almost complete melt down.

After some time spent of him going back and forth and becoming more and more distraught, it became clear that they didn’t take credit cards. Yoonhi was able to clarify matters in that it appeared the sign on the door was just a sticker “for décor”.

Yup, sideways it was. The final straw came for the waiter when we asked for the cork for the wine so we could take the rest of the bottle back with us. I believe I heard a “sprong” as a sprocket ratched out of position in his head.

Luckily, we had enough cash upon us to cover the meal, but we were now in dire straights again. Still, it’s not an expensive town if you’re careful about your money.


Vientiane – Day 2 – Spend Spend Spend (with apologies to Haruki Murakami)

Things started off well enough, with our taking breakfast in the Settha’s dining room. A fairly typical hotel breakfast, hardly worth the comment except for the shear beauty of the room, the crisply starched white linen, and the fresh morning light through the windows.

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I savoured my coffee, the kids filled up on pork products, and we enjoyed the fresh fruits and juices.

After this was done, Yoonhi and I left the kids in the room with instructions on using the pool, and we went to the Talaat Sao – the Morning Market.

Things had changed a little bit. There was a bunch of new construction going on on the south side of the market, a whole new wing going up where the open air market used to be. Across the street from this was an “ethnic market” which drew us in. The street was alitter with little blankets topped with animal bits obviously at odds with the international treaties on endangered species.

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(this one's a video capture; apologies for the poor resolution. It would've been good to get some translations from the signs)

There were probably about a dozen small “shops” set up along the streetside, selling barks, medicinal herbs, horns, paws, and some other moderately disturbing items. This was in front of the Ethnic Market proper, a covered series of stalls that existed as a marketing point for the minorities to sell their goods.

If you have an interest in sowing, this is the place to be. Yoonhi settled down for some serious shopping, picking up material for collars and detailing.

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With a few bags of trimming material in hand, we went into the market proper.

This is shopping central for Vientiane. Stall after stall of “antiques”, silver, silk, cotton, coffee, running shoes, t-shirts, you name it. After a bit of looking about on the ground floor we went upstairs to the silver and gem shops, where we came to rest for awhile, or rather, Yoonhi did. I stayed long enough to enjoy a very nice, rich cup of Lao coffee with condensed milk. It tasted more like hot chocolate than coffee. Thick and rich as it is, it comes with the ubiquitous cup of weak tea to help wash it down. I was tempted to ask for a second, but figured I'd better do some pre-emptive shopping while Yoonhi was distracted with sparklies.
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I found my niche downstairs, a woman with some very nice pieces from Sam Neua up in the far North. She had a couple of her mother’s pieces from the the 60’s, and more modern goods. As we went through the shopping motions, we talked about the market a bit.



It appears the Talaat Sao is being completely redone. Some bright young stars in the government have decided to rebuild the market (as I’d noticed already) with Singapore money and use this as an excuse to skyrocket the rents when they move everyone to the new “mall”. As most of the current tenants see business working out just fine with them as is, this move isn’t being well received.

At the start of this amiable bit of shopping, I’d asked if she took credit cards. She assured me “of course”. Why was I surprised when it was time to pay and it turned out that I needed to go across the street to the bank in order to make a cash withdrawal on my Visa? And from there to find out that I needed my passport with me to do so (locked up back in the hotel).

When I finally turned up back at the market to finish the deal, Yoonhi was well on the way to needing food. We took our bags of silk, coffee, needlepoint (Yoonhi bought a dozen hand-stitched purses while waiting for me), and gems and jewelry and made our way back to the Settha Palace.

I asked at the desk for lunch recommendations, and was told that Kop Chai Deu was quite popular. This turned out to be just around the corner from the Nam Phu. A nice, restored building, with a good sized patio in front; tables and chairs clustered about the bar. Inside was a serviceable pool table, so we settled down in the interior shade and I ordered a jug of beer Lao.

As usual, things never go to plan. Serena really wanted the grilled pork tongue. As this was to be cooked at the table, we needed to go outside, so we gathered up our cameras and equipement, and shifted tables. But the waitress dealt with this with aplomb, there was no melt-down as there’d been the night before at Le Grillot.

Once outside and settled, we found that the pork tongue wasn’t available, so we switched to the tripe. Then it seemed this wasn’t on. In short order the fried spring vegetables were stricken from our order, and was the Hor Mok Gai.

But, it was a nice day, the beer was cold, and we’d been assured that, yes, they really did take credit cards. Third time was the charm.

Scud went for the largest thing he could imagine on the menu, the German pork leg. Our grill had devolved to strips of beef, and we’d added on a pork laab (salad). They also had crickets and larva on the menu, so I had a plate of this brought out for snacks while we waited.

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The crickets were good bar food, albeit a little oily. And the legs can get stuck in your teeth, making you wish for some handy dental floss. The laab was good, well herbed up, and, while laced with chilis, not overwhelmingly hot.

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Our boy the Neanderthal was content enough with his meat, and bypassed much of the rest of the food to concentrate on his daily protein supplement. The small dish of pickled cabbage on the side seemed to be adequate vegetables for him.

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The grill was nice enough, but you really need a level table to do this sort of thing, and it was hard going keeping the liquid up on all sides. It’s nice that you get big strips of pig fat to grease the grill with, not something you see often enough in the West anymore.

Lunch out of the way, we relaxed a bit, making use of the pool at the hotel and the pool table in Kop Chai Deu, which Scud and I returned to later for beers and a few games with some of the older Lao Chinese who were hanging about and shooting.

Dinner was a return to L’Opera, the Italian place at the Nam Phu. I’d enjoyed meals there in the past, and with our Lao lunches and French dinner under our belt, we felt Italian would be a good change for the kids.
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The meal was okay, but unremarkable. The restaurant was quite dead, with our table being the only life to be seen.

We had a half bottle of the Quceto Chianti, gnocchi with fontina cheese sauce, carpacchio, penne gorgonzola with walnuts, and a salad Russa, with meat, salmon, caviar, and a vodka and cream sauce.

Serena, the heathen, had a pizza.


As I said, the meal was serviceable, but not outstanding. The carpacchio made for a nice opening, the thin slices of meat fitting my mood. But, while there was nothing wrong with the pasta dishes, they all felt a bit heavy for us. Perhaps we were becoming jaded? Or maybe it was just Yoonhi and I, as the kids were quite content with their food, Scud hoarding the salad Russa. I’d had the penne gorgonzola, which had plenty of cheese, but perhaps not enough walnuts for my taste.

This malaise could not be tolerated. It was obvious that measures needed to be taken to salvage the evening, and so I called for the cheque, bypassing dessert. We packed up, and moved to the creperie we’d seen back up the street.

The Ty-Na creperie is a work of art in its own right. The restaurant is beautifully decorated in soft tones, with comfortable, uncrowded seating. As opposed to L’Opera, there was a good buzz to the room, with most of the tables occupied. We settled down and looked over the menu of desserts they were offering.

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We ordered a selection of crepes, the kids concentrating on the chocolate versions: one with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, another with vanilla and chocolate ice cream with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
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Yoonhi and I were more interested in the flambéed marmalade and cointreau, which came out and was lit with the appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” from our table.
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I’m ever a sucker for Calvados, so I had the caramelized apple, vanilla, and calvados crepe, a pretty thing on the table top



Sated, the children abuzz from the sugar rush, we made it back to the hotel, luxuriated in the bathtubs, and nestled into our respective beds. It would be a leisurely awakening the next day, breakfast in that beautiful room, and then a couple of cars to take our loot and ourselves to the airport.
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Our time was done. When we left Luang Prabang, I was wishing I’d had more time there. Now that I was leaving Vientiane, I was wishing I’d had more time here.

I guess I just need more time.

#16 insomniac

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Posted 02 March 2007 - 04:46 AM

I can't believe you're going Peter, get right back there this minute :biggrin:

Can't thank you enough for recounting your fabulous journey....I guess I'll just have to enjoy Laos vicariously for now...also delighted that you like Haruki Murakami, crickets and calvados :smile:

oh, the planes LOOK much better than before (I did hear that Thai Airways was training Lao pilots, however I can still hear the chief pilot of Thai Airways a few years ago remarking to me that flying as a profession with people from Thailand/Laos did not in general mix. I'm sure you'll know what he meant)

#17 Peter Green

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Posted 02 March 2007 - 06:38 AM

Lao comes to the Kitchen

It’s been two months now since we left Lao. There were a few days in Bangkok, but I can talk about that elsewhere. What I wanted to do was get back to my kitchen and try some things out.

As usual, I’d topped up our luggage with bits of food. Along with the usual collection of dried mushrooms and fungus and eggplants, I’d bought some Sa Khan – the peppery wood used as a substitute for chili – and some of the river weed I love so much. This stuff goes under a variety of names. Hsimay has the name from a local source as chai penne, which may refer directly to the prepared matter sold in plastic bags all over town.

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Going to Phia Singh as a reference, here’s what Alan and Jennifer Davidson (the editors) have to say:

“In the market at Luang Prabang one used to see white enamel bowls full of a dark green semi-liquid stuff, which was algae collected from ponds and other stagnant waters during the rainy season. The name at Luang Prabang was thao; at Vientiane phak thao. These algae apparently belong to the genus spirogyra. But the matter is uncertain. Vidal, in his Les plantes utiles du Laos, refers also to two kinds of algae in the north of Laos, both known as khai. The first of the two is described as a mixture including Cladophora spp. and also Spirogyra spp. Vidal believes that the second sort, which he identifies as Dichotomisiphon Tuberosum, is much rarer and found mainly in the vicinity of Luang Prabang.”

I thought Spirogyra was the name of a band.

Whatever the name, this has been extremely popular at the last few dinner parties. Cut into small rectangles, and quickly washed in very hot oil, it’s gone done very well as a bar snack with aperitifs before dinner. I reckon I have an adequate supply to get me through the several months. Once that’s done, I’ll have an excuse to go back.


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The Sa Khan I’d specifically bought in order to do an Or Lam. We cleaned the wood, and then broke it up into segments for long term storage.

It’s a “soft” bit of tree, and I can see it easily going moldy, so we opted to freeze it once it’d been worked down into portions. This “working down” gave me an opportunity to break out my beloved Japanese saw and make more of a mess in the kitchen. Mind you, I did this only after failing miserably with a cleaver and a serrated blade.

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My problem with the Or Lam that we had in Luang Prabang was that it came across as too thin for my taste. Luckily, they had ox tail in the commissary, so I grabbed about six packages and then set about making stock in the morning. I figured that this should give me a fluid with the richness and depth that I was looking for.

The other thing I did was to rely more on Phia Singh’s directions. At school, the eggplants had just gone into the soup. Phia Singh calls for them to be first lightly charred, then soaked in the broth, and then removed and pounded down to mush. This mush then goes back into the broth, distributing evenly through the fluid. This worked just the way I wanted it to, and I was quite happy with end result. (Sorry, but with a dinner party and the rush in the kitchen, I failed to get any pictures. I’m better at shooting when I don’t have guests).

As the book says, there is no authoritative recipe for an Or Lam. Everybody does something a bit different, so it’s just a matter of finding what fits your taste. Interestingly, in the notes below the recipe, there’s reference to Or Ho, which is a catch all, allowing you to “throw in” – ho – any fresh vegetables you may have at hand.

I really liked the method for preparing minced meats for laab, and for prepping the fried rice salad. I’ve done this in the kitchen a couple of times now, and it is a big improvement over my earlier approaches. Rolling up baseball sized spheres for frying is giving a nice range to the meats, rather than the usual everything-kinda-dry approach of frying I’d done in the past. Laabs and the fried rice salad have been regular dishes for the last month (especially as the fresh herbs here have been very good).

The stuffed lemon grass was a big success. Any seasoned mince works well, and I’ve played with different seasonings, but at the end its something breaded and fried. I’ve got some Thai knives for carving, and these work well for accordioning the stalks to create the basket.

What hasn’t worked as well is the equivalent stuffed bamboo shoots. The problem here is just in the material. I can either get shredded bamboo, or else chunks of bamboo. What I can’t get is the whole stalk to work with. I tried doing “cups” from the bamboo – sort of like Sergi Arola’s tatatas bravas - and frying these, but it doesn’t work. I’ll just have to think of other things to do with bamboo.

I’d done hor mok before (steamed seafood mousse), but not as kranab (grilled in banana leaves). This was an unfortunate disaster, as I used some banana leaves I’d had in the freezer. This effectively destroyed the competency of the material, and when I tried to remove the food from the grill, everything disintegrated. I salvaged enough of the meat to assure myself I was on the right track, but I haven’t had the opportunity to get into town to buy fresh leaves since then, and we can’t get them at our local store.

The stir fries have all been successful, with more of an eggplant background starting to creep into much of what I’ve been doing.

And I’ve broken the habit of preparing my dressings ahead.

I’ve also gone back and looked through Charmaine Solomon’s book. She has a few pages on Laos and Cambodia, unfortunately combined in one section, with the recipes overlapping. However, it’s easy enough to separate the dishes based on the phonetics, and there are some interesting fish recipes in there that look to be worth the attempt.

I’m having a lot of fun now with Phia Singh’s book. It works well as a complement to Fergus Henderson’s Nose To Tail Eating (the St. John cookbook). Both have a high regard for their ingredients.

Live and learn.