May 25, 2004


I was half way into Tom Waits’ Swordfish Trombone when our bus abruptly stopped. Up ahead, huge flames leapt up onto the road as the entire lower half of the mountain was ablaze. Fire, as it happens, is not one of my fears, so I slip my headphones back on and waltz back into my daze. Fifteen minutes later, I resurface and find that we’re still there. Looking around the bus, I realize not everyone is as accepting of our current position and that the flames have moved in behind us, torching the pavement with a golden fury. A black smoke seeps in through the windows, as a few frightened backpackers scurry to shut them. It quickly becomes a sauna and the panes of glass are hot enough to turn your cheeks red. I did a little slash burning when I was a kid -- talk about an exhilarating experience; running through the clear-cut mountains with barrels of kerosene, torching everything in sight. The fire here, while most likely begun intentionally, now seemed to be a bit out of control. As I learn later, the Laotians don't really differentiate between the two; doing that would mean having to put it out. The driver, realizing that his prudence was actually putting us in greater jeopardy, floored it and we sped through the flames and around the bend to encounter, of course, more flames. The perilous road was dangerous without the fire: speeding old Citroens, military jeeps and decrepit buses all racing down the ribbon of blacktop that looped through the mountains.

Hours later, our ash covered bus rolls into the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang. Its thumb-like peninsula protrudes at the confluence of two main rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Kahn. We're dropped where the “finger” meets the “hand” at the base of the Phu Si hill. 320 fractured steps lead up to a lofty summit, perfect for gazing out over the tranquil town. I find the Villa Santi, a 120 year old mansion that used to be home for Princess Khampha and now is converted into a small hotel. It's only $50.00 a night, but still well out of my humble price range. Nearby are cheaper accommodations featuring a bare room with a shared bathroom down the hall. It smells of urine and mold. I change and leave quickly.

A stroll along the Nam Kahn River takes me by trays of flattened rice and fish drying in the sun. Travelers with ample time sit placidly reading books and sipping Beer Lao in cafes, which were converted from old French-style houses. The streets are wide and encroached by brawny old trees and overgrown forest brush. Making the turn at the fingertip, you come upon Wat Xiang Thong. Built in 1560 by King Selthathilat, it's pavillions, stupas and gardens are a sanctuary of Therawada Buddhism. It is impossible to go anywhere in this town without being in or within close proximity to its 32 historic temples, most of which are active with monks wrapped in saffron colored robes. They are the pulse of Laung Prabang and each morning they file through the streets while followers gather to pay alms.

I'm a restless person, tranquility drives me crazy. I used to be the John McEnroe of the kitchen, throwing tantrums to keep myself engaged. I had a girlfriend once who loved to take long walks in picturesque parks; she'd bring binoculars to stare at the birds and I'd pack the radio to listen to the game.

The serenity of LP can no doubt be blamed on Buddhism, the humble holiness that imbues the culture like a mist from a magic wand. I befriended a few young monks outside of an art school under a gangly tree. They were both from a village further north and had come for an education, hoping to relocate someday to a temple in Thailand. I asked them if they'd ever felt like just taking the afternoon off to do a little swimming and they smiled in affirmation. We chatted about a lot of stuff from the karma of eating or killing bugs to reaching Nirvana through meditation. Curious, I ask how you know when you've reached it, they just shrugged. I tell them it may be easier to just drop a pill and head for a concert. I share my favorite punk rock tale of seeing Black Flag in East L.A. Two guys flanked the stage holding shotguns, as the insurgent skinheads flailed violently over the polished concrete floor. I remember standing in front of the stacks of beat up black speakers, my head stuck inside the throat of the woofer and being swallowed by the vortex of a three chord progression. Music is an amazing vehicle which has captured me on several occasions. I've never seen god or had any revelations, but it's as close to a spiritual occurrence as I've ever come.

The next day, determined to be more productive, I get myself up early and head to the Talat That Luang Market at the other end of town. It's quiet along the Mekong and it moves so slow you can't tell which direction it's traveling. I pass a grade school of kids neatly dressed in their uniforms doing calisthenics. Further along is the Royal Palace, where, outside, an elderly lady stretches candle wax over a long wick attached to an iron bar. A dozen or so guys rest up against some three-wheeled vehicles halfheartedly offering me a ride. Getting a fare would mean losing an opportunity to shoot the shit. I'm not a history buff (that must be painfully obvious by now, but sometimes I can just kinda feel a place). Here, you just sense that however peaceful it may seem, this red-tinted soil has seen its share of struggles. As I near the market, the Sawngthaews (pick-ups trucks with benches that serve as taxis) swirl around carrying villagers with burlap bags of root vegetables, kitchen wares and live chickens trussed together at their feet. It's bustling with villagers, as I break into my routine, camera and notepad in hand.

As I head for the perishable foods, I pass some unusual looking dry goods. There's Si Kahn, a branch used to flavor soups and stews; it's soaked in water, then used like a bay leaf and gives off a peppery-ginger flavor. Next to it is Mah, a seed from a fruit; both the outer shell and the seed are chewed as sort of a recreational activity for the older folks. Wrapped in small bundles are Nang Mi and Nang Moor and, according to the monks to whom I showed the pictures, these barks are used for medicinal teas.

I neared the wet market and a slaughter house smell wafted through the air. It was dark under the shack-like roofing; long wooden tables lay end-to-end, filled with pigs on my left and cows on my right. It was carnage, pure and simple. No hooks, no shelves, no trays, no refrigeration, just meat, blood, hooves and snouts laid conveniently on the tables with flies swarming above. For those of you who are now gasping, this is not an unusual sight. Hell, you can see a version of it in most ethnic markets in the US. What made it a little different is there was no omission -- they sold it all. Fergus Henderson (the London chef famous for cooking off-cuts) would be in heaven. On the pig side, you could get the tail fully cleaned or with the skin and hair still on it. Blood came two ways too: fresh in plastic bags or congealed in large blocks. Even in the drab lighting, it was devil red and glowing. You could purchase the head whole or parted out; ears, snout, eyelids and tongue, not to mention the best parts, brain, intestines and stomach. In the Water Buffalo section, they had Sin Sawan, sun-dried buffalo meat in rectangular sheets. If you weren't in the mood for jerky, then maybe some hooves would appeal, which they sold from the calf down. Behind the table, a few vendors were grilling them skin-on, the hair flickering as it burned away. I told them their stock would be much clearer if they skinned it first and washed the dirt off the hoof. The guy answered by telling me that it's not used for just stock, but for eating too.

Oh great, I'll make sure I stay out of that line. On the cow side of things, it got even more interesting. For some reason, their cows produce more stomach than meat, because they were piled up like they were headed for Baboo. The animals are slaughtered nearby the night before and the bulk of the butchering is done by these stall owners; so, all the by products are on hand. We've all eaten the by-products – they’re called hot dogs and hamburgers. As they butcher, they toss it all into bowls: sinew, tendons, innards, etc. In the middle of all this was a twisted heap of bloody meat, bones and eyeballs. It looked like they had turned the cow inside out. My inquiries lead to an explanation that it was a miscarriage calf. We've included the picture and stuck it down at the bottom, just in case you'd rather not look. I recently received a few e-mails from friends informing me that I was turning them into vegetarians. I'm sorry. We're all just used to eating meat in more sanitized forms, away from the death and carnage. But think of a lion as it captures the antelope; it's all part of food chain, which I've become more in tune with. There's a great piece by Thomas Keller in the French Laundry book where he kills some rabbits so he would understand fragility of life. From this reverence, he felt obliged to cook with more care, wasting nothing and appreciating everything. In many ways it rings of the teachings of this religious land: harmony, balance, birth and rebirth. They consume all parts of the kill and eat it sparingly. They live side-by-side with the animals and, in the case of the chickens, it's hard to tell sometimes whose house it is.

That afternoon, I ran into Tess while sipping mulberry tea at the tea-used book hideaway nestled at the foot of the Phu Si hill. She told me about a night market of prepared Laotian food off of the evening textile and craft bazaar. She was reading a National Geographic from 1972 with an article about Hoi An. Having been there myself, I gave her more recent account.

The night was cool with a nice mountain breeze. The food market was a long and narrow lane off of the main road. Rows of tables were set up on both sides with poles between them, each dangling a light bulb attached to an extension cord. The tables were lined with ugly, folksy ceramic bowls filled with a plethora of dishes. It reminded me of a college Asian social, where a bunch of homesick students got together to make bad renditions of traditional foods, with the multicolored plastic tablecloths, the cheesy canned music. I gotta tell you, I may never learn to like Asian music -- all those whiny noises and clanky sounds. There were guys grilling whole river fish, chicken, small-ish wild birds and glistening pork sausages. Each vendor had a small stick with a plastic bag tied to the end, which they shook methodically in the air to frighten the flies away. At the very end of the market were a few tables set up for Farlang (foreigners). They were inhabited by mostly backpackers gorging themselves on the platters and bowls of food placed out like a huge picnic. After scouting it out, I realized that the food being served to the backpackers was very different from the rest. But, up above where the Laotians were, there were no plates or tables for eating. The locals all took the food to-go. I was determined to eat the real deal, so I went back to the backpacker table paid a dollar for the use a plate and headed up the path. By this time, a few of the Laotians were curious -- they'd never had someone come with a plate. I just sorta helped myself, then parked it at the corner of a stall where a lady was smiling and serving three different salads. I asked her if I ate her salads, could I sit at her table? She brought me some strange drink, a napkin (toilet paper) and a spoon for my soup and helped explain all the things I was eating. It was quite a list: Saa, a salad of finely julliened cow’s stomach, peanuts, bean sprouts and a dressing made from macerated cows bladder, lemon and Pak Pam, a minty herb; Som Teen Qui, pickled buffalo tendon, which is boiled, pickled and tossed with shallots, chilies, fresh garlic and, I'm guessing, fermented fish sauce; Gaeng Kute, an unusual soup with funny-shaped boiled eggs, potato, rice noodles and bitter greens; the traditional Oh Lam, a stew of eggplant, wood ear mushrooms, pork and dried squirrel, the main flavoring agent being Si Kahn and some bitter greens. There were dishes of lightly cooked bamboo shoots with chrysanthemum flowers, sautéed morning glory and soured fish heads. One of my favorites was braised buffalo skin with garlic, chilies and Mah Ken, a spice that for me resembles coriander. These are tastes I'd never come across before. Eating uncommon cuts of meats or offal isn't new, but having a cuisine with so many new flavors was fascinating.

I ventured back out onto the main street where the craft market was winding down. Farlangs were hastily bartering with vendors that just smiled and repeated the next-to-nothing price. I just hung back and soaked in the absolute beauty of the women of Laos. Their alluring eyes and calming demeanor filtered through the shimmering moonlight, with skin so perfectly smooth and sensual, it's like they bathed all day in Kiels products. At the mouth of the market, I found dessert. A mother and daughter sat on stools, delicately wrapping petite pouches of sticky rice paste in fresh lettuce leaves. Each was flavored differently, from the colorful display of sliced green figs, minced lemongrass and chilies and a puree of sweetened eggplant. Two gals from Manchester, who I had met two days prior, joined in and we kept them busy for about twenty minutes. It was a study in texture and balance, clinging sour mush, sweet soft puree, bitter tough surprises, a touch of heat and the cool refreshing wrapping. They were called, Miang.

The girls were off to a pub, but I couldn't see putting beer into my already bloated tummy, so I wandered back through the alleys in the direction of home. I felt like I was camping -- darkness lurking around every corner, trees that bring shade by day were now on the prowl. The air was still filled with the scent of fire as I made my way for the Mekong along an ancient stone path. Darkness is a fear of mine, so I move briskly and hunt for the comfort of a crowd.

Posted by runawaychef at May 25, 2004 05:21 AM