April 22, 2004



Yut and I took the overnight train from Bangkok to Khon Kaen (NE Thailand). The plan was to spend a few days there before traveling up to Laos. My bunk partner happened to be a guy from Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. So, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions: "What kinda food ya eat up there?" "Laos Food" he replied. "Yeah, but what's it influenced by, China, Thai, Burma? It came from somewhere right?" A bit bewildered, he answers sternly "Laos people". Who said there are no dumb questions? I ask him if he'd like to watch a movie and have a beer. He smiles and says "sure, but where?" I pull from my bag my I-Book and a library of DVDs. He opts for School’s Out. We laugh so loud we're soon joined by a group of curious Thais -- it was a regular slumber party.

The next day, I decided I'd try something new, educate myself. The two things I know about Laos: it's popular amongst the backpackers and you pronounce it with the "s". After having a delightful sampling of Isan food at the Khon Kaen morning market, I hunker down in an air-conditioned library.


The people of Laos once settled in Yuennan region of southern China. In the 13th century, the Mongolians pushed them south. While the Thais settled around the Menam Valley, the Laotians located along the Mekong Valley and formed the principalities of Luang Prabang, Vietiane, Xieng Khouang, and Champassak. In the 14th century, a fella named Fa Ngoum, the prince of Luang Prabang, united the states calling them the Kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao or “the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol”. He also established Buddhism as the predominant religion. While the15th century appeared to be pretty turbulent (I think Fa Fgoum was a little over-zealous), the 16th and 17th century went fairly well. Under the rule of King Soulingna Vongsa, also a Russian R & B singer, Laos saw its greatest period of growth, prosperity and good music. Historians refer to it as the "golden age". In the 18th and 19th century, Siam, Burma and Vietnam got a little itchy and began fighting with Laos over, I imagine, territory. During this time, only Luang Prabang maintained its independence. Toward the end of the 19th century, while Great Britian was busy trying to teach the Burmese how to pronounce "lager", the French occupied Vietnam, Cambodia and, not to leave anybody out, Laos. Using the argument that Vietnam had historic rights over Laos, they took over Luang Prabang and turned the others into Colonial status.

In the 1940's, the Japanese occupied Laos for a short time and when they left, the French attempted to return. But this time, there were other formidable forces around and an internal battle between the Pathet Lao movement, led by Prince Souphanouvong, with the support of Communist Vietnam and the Crown Prince Savang with the backing of Thailand. These conflicts culminated in 1965 with an international war and the US supporting the Monarchy of Prince Savang. The war was devastating to Laos, with most bombs being dropped in the history of warfare.

As the end of the Vietnam war came and the establishment of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the monarchy was dissolved .With the collapse of the social bloc, Laos has been economically liberated. In 1900's, it opened its doors to outsiders and has become a hotspot for adventurous tourists, especially backpackers. It's still a struggling country, heavily influenced by Vietnam and economically dependent on Thailand.

The crossing of the border and into the capital of Vietiane was quick and easy. We found a hotel and began to walk into town. It's always difficult to travel with someone else, you want to go, they want to stop, you like it spicy, they like want bland; sure, there's some advantages: cheaper cab fares – okay, just one. Yut and I walk and bicker. I'm just upset that I'm stuck in a hotel outside of town. We come upon a Laotian lady making a green papaya salad. Now that's not so unusual, but she's putting rice noodles, tomatoes and Ba La (fermented fish) in it. "Yut, you want some salad?" "No, I'm not hungry." "Can we stop while I try some?" "Sure." I'm an upbeat talkative guy, most say I have a big mouth, so I like it when people are as fun and outgoing as me.


This lady rocks! I take some pictures, mess around with her mise en place and she seems excited I know what Ba La is. She finishes up making an order for a camera shy woman and starts on mine. "Spicy?", she asks. "Damn right", I reply,"just like that lady’s". Yut cautions me pointing to the tiny red jewels she begins mashing in her mortar and pestle. "Well, maybe just a little spicy." In goes cloves of raw garlic, shredded green papaya, Ba La and tiny multi-colored tomatoes still on their vines. She squeezes some lime, squirts some fish sauce and continues pounding away, while smiling and asking me if I'd like some sticky rice. Next, she adds the toasted peanuts, rice noodles and a few secrets that went by too fast for me to catch. She sits down with us and a guy, I think is her husband, and demonstrates how to eat it, grabbing the sticky rice with her hand and dipping into the spicy juices, then placing a mound of salad on top. She grins as she shoves it into her mouth and repeats the process. "Hey -- what the hell you doin’?" I say, laughingly, and she makes the next bite for me. It's so good: the sweetness from the tomato, the harshness of the raw garlic, the salty skank of the fermented fish and the chilies – oh, they're spicy. I eat too much, too fast and my mouth becomes so hot, it’s quivering, I get up and hop around and waving my hand in front of my face. "Sticky rice please!" I shout. They all get kick out of my misery. I leave with water dripping from my eyes and promise to come back the next day.


First up was the morning market, Talat Sao. It's more clothes, electronics and jewelry, so we head over a few blocks to the more "local" market, Talat Khua Din. It's as grungy and smelly as I've ever seen. The stench is so bad, the fish have trouble hangin’ around. A long patchwork of old tarps are strung together to shelter the weary workers from the jarring heat. A lady selling onions decides it's not worth the effort has fallen asleep. It's like being in a basement, the tarps are so low. Going to the market just after you've eaten isn't a good idea anyhow, a satiated appetite quells the temptation. So happily, we agree to do a little sightseeing, instead. We rent a few bicycles and head up the main drag, passing Patuxai, the Victory Monument built to commemorate those that died in the pre-revolutionary wars. It looks like the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. We continue on to the emblematic Stupa of Pha That Luang, the most celebrated national monument in Laos. Built in 1566, it is a symbol of Laos’ sovereignty and Buddhism. Worshippers stick balls of rice near its entrance in a show of respect to the spirit of King Setthathirat.


I get bored quite quickly with things that don't move or make noises, so I sneak away to the neighborhood behind the gigantic walls of the cloister. There, I find my classroom -- a mom fluffing some sticky rice with shavings of coconut and wrapping it in banana leaf pouches and a man grilling a variety of flattened meat and innards wedged between skewers of bamboo and serving it to a family, who's already nibbling on Larb Dip, a freshly minced salad of raw fish, lemongrass, lime and chilies. There's also boiled bamboo shoots, tossed with toasted ground rice and chili powder. A few fellas push carts of iced tea and soy milk, while some kids sneak up behind me trying to place a small stick in my spokes. I'm tempted by the Khao Jii Pa-the, the Laos version of a Vietnamese sandwich, but with lots more meat, paté and terrine. Some boys find a grassy patch in a abandoned parking lot and play soccer, but the more interesting game is found across the street behind an old temple; it's like volleyball played with an airy bamboo ball, using anything but your hands. I felt bad for the monks as they quietly swept the steps of the temple -- surrounded by people eating and playing and not permitted to do either.



Somehow, Yut tracks me down and we head back downtown for the Boardwalk along Thanon Fa Ngum. It's the perfect place to watch the sun fall over the Mekong River, where a few women are casting their nets in the hue-waning sun. I chase the tiny frogs as they scamper through the silky mud. "Run and hide" I tell them, there are intruders in this peaceful land.




Posted by runawaychef at April 22, 2004 08:19 PM

Are you thinking of opening your own restaurant with your new found knowledge and adventures? And if so, where would that be, I want to come and taste your versions and visions of food alchemy. Our better yet we can team up again!

In Health and Aloha,

Posted by: Jan at April 27, 2004 01:49 PM

wow. it's great to see laos in pictures. hope you enjoy your journey. if you want to find another chef to talk to in luang prabang, cafe tum tum cheng (Sisavangvong) has a husband and wife team, chandra and elisabeth, who give cooking classes. say hello to elisabeth for me if you do go there!

Posted by: j-a at April 29, 2004 03:11 PM