Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Laos Food: No Louse to Eat--Only Termites

It probably won't come as a surprise that the food of Laos is a mixture of that found in the surrounding countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Many of the dishes come out as completely original, though. Let's see what we ate.

Grilled chicken and sausage is very popular in Laos. The chicken is really good and the sausages range from excellent to not-so-sure-what's-inside. Everything in Laos comes with sticky rice, which is a different kind of rice that they soak in water and then steam to make it all stick together. This makes it very easy to pick up huge chunks in your hand and gnaw on it.
Our first day in Laos, I bought these glutinous mixtures at a local market. It might best be described as coconut jello that has separated into different layers so that the top is more coconuty and the bottom is more sweet.
While we were spending a few hours in the back of a pickup truck, some people ran up to the truck selling food at a stop (common in Laos). One of the women was selling flattened bananas grilled with red seasoning, so I had to try them. The seasoning turned out to be sweet, and I was happy to devour them. Tara thought they were a bit too sweet.
The closest thing Laos has to a national dish is called laap. It consists of meat (or fish) steamed in a banana leaf with herbs and leaves and then served as a salad of sorts. Because it is both hard to make and popular with tourists, it is overpriced. Tastes decent, though.
I was at the early morning market one day and was hungry. I bought a leaf that I believed was filled with steamed, ready-to-eat laap. Sadly, when I unrolled it, I discovered that it was ready-to-steam and had not been cooked. A week later, I saw another tourist do exactly the same thing. He had already bought it before I could warn him.
Also at the morning market, I found an assortment of bugs. The highly amused locals were happy to let me try a few while they laughed. The lower left ones are termite larvae, which don't have much taste, but have a rubbery covering. The ones on the lower right are nice-sized beetles, which are very nice with some seasoning, though they have a bit of an acidic aftertaste.
We rarely put things on the blog that we haven't eaten, but we couldn't bring ourselves to eat these popular grilled frogs. I have eaten frog legs a couple of times and don't love them, so it seemed a waste of a perfectly good hopper to order one. That and I wasn't sure what to do with the intestines.
Beerlao supposedly has a 99% marketshare in Laos. It was created with the help of German brewers and is widely considered the best beer in Asia. Tara agrees based on her tastings, but it comes in big 22 ounce bottles, which is just about enough to prevent Tara from walking.
Iced Ovaltine is really popular in Laos. It is on almost every menu. I associate Ovaltine with really old people, but there are no really old people in Laos, so I guess it is for people like Tara after all.
The banh mi in Laos was strangely much better than the banh mi in Vietnam. It had at least 15 types of pork on it, some vegetables, and some hot sauce. And they are much cheaper than Vietnam. And did I mention that it has 15 types of pork? Or at least it seemed that way.
Laos imports lots of fake Pocky from Thailand. Pocky is a great concept, but normally disappointing. This blackcurrant flavor was pretty good.
Another Laos specialty is sticky rice patties that are fried and then grilled. Sort of a fried rice nugget. Tara hated it, saying that it tasted like egg. I didn't love it, but decent for ten cents.
Tara really loved this local pineapple yogurt. She tried a few other flavors that she didn't think were as good. As always, I thought it looked bad despite my love of pineapple.
Sticky rice comes in these wicker baskets. At one restaurant, the sticky rice was really expensive, so when the people from the table behind us left, I grabbed their huge chunk of rice like this. Because I didn't want the waiter to see that I had a huge chunk of rice from the other table, I held it in my hand under the table for the duration of the meal, eating chunks of it when I could.
This pho-inspired beef soup was better than most of the pho in Vietnam. It had a crazy combination of herbs, leaves, and flavors. The sausage was also good, but didn't have the crazy, unidentifiable flavor combinations of the soup.
Tara and another yogurt. Borrrring. She loved this one, too. I tried to suck the apple strudel flavor from the bottom without getting the yogurt, but it didn't work.
Another Thai import to Laos, these peanuts had been coated and fried in coconut oil. Not as sweet as expected, but pretty good. A slight improvement on the original design of the peanut, though the original is pretty darn good.
What is this? We weren't sure, either. They didn't seem to object when we wrapped a bit of everything in some of the bigger leaves (which we later saw women picking from the local trees), then dipped the pork-noodle-vegetable-herb-leaf combination in the fish sauce that is everywhere in Asia (and that doesn't actually taste fishy despite coming from an old, rotting fish, I think).
This rice porridge, sort of like congee, was so hot that it fogged my camera as I took the picture. The fresh scallions and dried garlic seem strange for breakfast, but sweet breakfast is a foreign concept in most of Asia. I took this in stride by eating both a local breakfast and a sweet breakfast most days.
The size of this soup made Tara's head look like a joke. We saw small children hiding their whole bodies behind these soups they were so big. I saw an elephant walk behind one and disappear. It was just big enough to hid my fat stomach until I ate all the soup and my stomach expanded to be seen once more.
Sticky rice desserts are hit-or-miss in Asia. They can be amazing, but many Asians don't love sweets, so they sometimes turn out to be salty, fermenty, or otherwise disgusty. Fortunely, we found an amazing sweets cart in Vientiane (the capital) that sold us some nice treats. Unfortunately, the woman pushed her cart away as soon as she sold these to us and was never seen or heard from again. At least not by us.
If you order pork meatballs in Laos, you should expect to get something that looks like this, which looks more like something that Hanibal Lecter might eat than meatballs. They tasted much better than they looked, though the texture was about as bad as it looks.
From a distance, we thought we saw people selling huge quantities of fried bacon. It turned out to be fried bananas, but the bananas seemed to have been treated to make them a bit pliable and far more delicious than normal banana chips, though still somewhat less delicious than fried bacon.
Bread fruit trees, a relative of the durian but with a much better taste, grow the giant fruits right out the side of the trunk. They can grow to be much, much bigger than my head, and my head is pretty big...
Sweet sticky rice is sometimes eaten for breakfast, though mostly it is found in touristy areas. We had a couple of versions in Luang Prabang, and it makes for a tasty breakfast. It takes about three bites to fill Tara for hours, making it similar to Elven bread.Laos really, really likes its fruit shakes. You can find them almost everywhere, and they are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Fruit is mixed with sugar, ice, condensed milk, and sometimes other sweet liquids before being blended. We averaged about four per day. Each.At the night market in Luang Prabang, one woman made these eggroll like things by putting a layer of rice milk on a steamer to create a wrapper and then filling it with mushrooms and vegetables. She was really popular and we sat there one night while she made 100 of these things, which took maybe 40 minutes. She sold those for something like $5. Not exactly a high profit business.Also popular in Luang Prabang were buffets were you pay $1.25 and can put as much food on your plate as you can fit. They didn't know what hit them--we have experience in similar schemes and I can now pile a plate three feet high without spilling a thing. Other tourists were oogling my handiwork.Most of the food in Laos was not ground-breaking, but most of it was also quite good. Especially outside the touristy areas. Apart from the very good fruit shakes, we probably won't remember any of the individual dishes for long, but the country left a positive impression on our taste buds.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Putting Laos on the Map

Hey, you know that message about how we can't post from China? Just kidding! Through the dual miracles of getting a hotel room with its own computer (a first, and probably last, for this trip) and Andy rooting out a free VPN service, we are slowly, temporarily back on Blogger. Hooray!

So, straight from my shower, here I am to tell you about our recent travels through Laos.
OK, maybe that isn't me. Maybe it's a lady we met in a southbound truck on our first day in Laos. But she and I are both clearly fans of the bath-towel headdress.

Right, so, Laos. If you had asked me to find it on a map a couple of years ago, I probably would have started looking for an island somewhere in the South Pacific (you know, right between those other tropical-sounding countries, Mali and Malawi). As it turns out, Laos is a landlocked nation (just like, um, Mali and Malawi!) in Southeast Asia, sandwiched between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar. Economically, it is rather poor, and physically it is very beautiful...kind of like your two favorite travel bloggers.

After many days of gray skies and cold weather in Vietnam, Andy and I were eager to find some sun, so, after crossing the border, we headed straight for Si Phan Don in southern Laos. This area of the Mekong River delta, also known as the "4,000 Islands," does a pretty good impression of tropical paradadise for a non-beach.
We stayed on Don Khong, one of the bigger, but less touristed islands, and commenced relaxing. No TV, no Internet, lots of fruit shakes. This frog tried to share Andy's shake one night, but skedaddled when Andy threatened to turn him into jugo de rana.

On day 2, I actually suggested we rent bicycles (!) and then rode minewithout mishap (!!) around the island's one paved road to see the lovely green rice-paddies and their resident muddy cows. On day 3, we signed up for a kayaking trip that brought us first to a set of waterfalls that are supposed to "catch" the spirits of dead people and animals as they float downstream on the Mekong. Hardy little kayakers are we! While eating lunch on a rock in the middle of the river, we were lucky enough to spot some rare Irrawaddy river dolphins breaching a little way off. Knowing from experience how hard it is to get a picture of dolphins, we didn't even bother trying, so you'll have to take our word for it.

We visited another impressive set of spirit-catching waterfalls on the way back to town. Waterfalls are easier to photograph than dolphins, so, here you are.
At the falls, Andy snapped a photo of Asian tourists snapping a photo with me. So far, people in Southeast Asia seem to want pictures with us far less than people in India did, but it still happens occasionally.
Any more relaxing would have put Andy out of his mind, so we packed ourselves off to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Our mode of travel was overnight bus--the kind with horizontal quasi-beds just about long enough to fit a midget that is popular in SE Asia--but in Laos, these sleeper buses are configured with "double" beds rather than singles. This was OK for me and Andy, since we are a couple, but the solo Kiwi traveler behind us was not so lucky and ended up spending most of his night trying not to tangle limbs with the random Laotian man he was assigned to share with! So, if you ever find yourself travel on your own through Laos, you may want to pay double for your own bed on a sleeper bus...or, better yet, stick to traveling during the day.

Vientiane ain't bad. It's got some sights, like the Patuxai monument that was built out of American concrete that was supposed to be used to construct a new runway at the airport. (C'mon, who needs to fly when you can take a snuggly double-bedded sleeper bus?)
Who wouldn't like to have a national monument that is "like a monster of concrete"?
There is also the COPE Visitor Center, where you can learn all about the horrors of unexploded ordinance (another American "gift" that keeps on giving in the form of deaths and lost limbs as bombs are stumbled upon in Laotian fields decades after the Vietnam war). The center provides free prosthetics, medical treatments, and occupational therapy for victims of UXOs and traffic accidents, people born with deformities, and basically anyone who needs their help. The museum is actually quite interesting to visit, and the organization is totally worth supporting if you'd like to send a donation their way.
The golden Pha That Luang is Laos's most famous monument. It's not quite as big or grand as Burma's Shwedagon Pagoda, but still manages to give off pretty good glare in the sun.
This older stupa, That Dam, apparently used to be covered in gold, too, until marauding Thais stole its outer layer in the 1800s.
This stone Buddha lives on a pillow at the Wat Si Muang temple. Apparently, if you lift him off his pillow three times, your wish will come true. Andy wished that he would be allowed to stop lifting the Buddha because it was so heavy, and what do you know, his prayer was answered!
That temple also had a copy of the Emerald Buddha, which lived in Laos for a while between stints in Thailand. They let you get a lot closer to this one than they do to the real one in Bangkok, so here's a nice close-up for you. He appears to be wearing his summer outfit.
Buddhist shrines can get a little busy. We especially like the zebras.
What temple visit would be complete without a few whacks on the gong?
A remote part of Laos is famous for having fields full of giant stone jars of unknown origin. One has been moved to Vientiane, so we visited it instead of spending several days getting out to see the others. (Google "Plain of Jars" if you'd like to see more.)
Sometimes, when you feel like you just can't possibly get excited about yet another Buddha statue, you notice that this one has giant nipples.
Our next destination was Vang Vieng, equally known for its beautiful limestone karst scenery and its drinking/drugs scene. I'll let you guess which aspect Andy and I came for...
Here's the sign marking the trail we ascend'ed to get that last shot. It was a steep climb, and only the promise of relaxing in a "gungle shadow kept me going.
We did some more kayaking in Vang Vieng, and stopped off at a cave temple to pay our respects to yet more Buddhas. The bell at this temple was made of an old war rocket. Scrap metal from old bombs is actually quite valuable to Laos's poor, and hunting for it is a big reason why so many people continue to get hurt by UXOs.
While we kayaked down the river, most people choose to float in inner tubes, stopping off at riverside bars along the way. Many of these bars, to lure in tubers, have attractions like huge water slides, Tarzan rope swings, and mini-zip lines. Yup--drunk (and often high) people + dangerous stunts + deep water = ...a great time? A liability nightmare? I don't know, but I'm frankly shocked that more people don't die there each year.

Anyway, Andy thanked all the drunk people for subisidizing this free activity for him and went off a giant water slide. Whee!
Obviously, there was no way in hell I was going off it. That must just be a girl who has the same bathing suit as me or something.
(Though if I WERE to have gone off that water slide, I might advise future patrons not to hit the water ass-first. That seems like it would hurt. For, like, several days after.)

From Vang Vieng, we headed back to Vientiane to pick up our passports, newly visa'd up by the People's Republic of China. A momentous occasion, as this was the last visa we'd need for this trip, since all of the countries we plan to hit after China are visa-free for Americans. No more embassy visits, halleluyah! I think we've visited 20 in the past two years, and bought visas at just as many borders and airports... Our final destintation in Laos was the northern town of Luang Prabang, which is sort of Laos's version of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both towns have lots of monastaries. Both have day trips available to waterfalls and elephant camps. Both have big, tourist-oriented night markets. Both even have their own eponymous styles of sausage! So, maybe we would have found LP more exciting if we hadn't already been to CM, but still, it was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days before heading into China.

Luang Prabang has a former royal enclosure that you can visit. No photos are allowed inside, but the grounds are nice.

This amazing azalea bush had climbed a huge tree at LP's most famous monastery, Wat Xieng Thong.
The monastery's main building dates from the 1500s and is famous for its low-sweeping roofs...
...andmosaics of local life on the sides of the buildings.

This dragon-headed chariot, for carrying urns filled with the ashes of the royal family, is not too shabby, either.

What kind of flower is this? I like.
What kind of caterpillar is this? I like, too!
Amazingly, we did not kayak in Luang Prabang, though the Mekong constantly beckoned us for a third paddling adventure...
As you may have gathered by now, I enjoy purple flowers.

Not far from Luang Prabang is a park filled with waterfalls and natural pools. A pretty (though popular with tourists) excursion.
One of the bigger drops.
Laos may be short on "big" sights, but if you're looking for somewhere to take it slow, get out into some beautiful nature, and drink a lot of tasty fruit shakes, I can hardly think of a better place. The people are lovely, the costs are low, and it's hard to find anything to get too stressed about. As a break between frenetic Vietnam and the coming challenges of China, it was definitely the right country at the right time for me. It might even be my favorite country in Southeast Asia. In any case, our first visit definitely put Laos on my mental map.