Tag Archives: laos

Tuk Tuks, Minivans, Longboats and Lessons

In our travels so far, we've been taking the easy routes. Instead of a 9 to 12-hour bus ride, we took the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Instead of an 11-hour minivan ride, we flew Nok Air from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. And instead of the 6-hour “butt-pounding” fast boat, or the 2-day slow boat, we took a rather luxurious flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. We even had cake!

But when it comes time to leave Luang Prabang, then there are no more easy routes to take. If you want to explore the interior of Laos, there are no overnight trains and there are no airplanes and a very low probability of cake. There are tuk tuks, there are busses, there are minivans, there are jumbos and there are boats. And in our travels to and from Meung Noi, a tiny town whose name translates as “little city,” we rode them all.

These are Lao tuk tuk. The travel agent that we dealt with, one Mr. Dickey, arranged to have one come to our guesthouse between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. Now why, you may be asking, are our intrepid travelers going to travel agents? Why aren't they working it out all on their own? Why aren't they going to the bus station by themselves, checking the schedules with their own two eyes, thus bypassing the tourist track that they've been complaining about.

Well, to be honest, when you find yourself in places like Laos — where the spoken language is ineffable and the written language even more so — you have to ask for help. Whether you like it or not. Because it's not just the language that's unknowable, it is the whole underlying system. What is the bus schedule? Which of the many bus terminals do you go to? How much will you be expected to pay? Can tickets be reserved ahead of time or simply bought on the day of travel. Do you have to switch busses or, in our case, modes of transportation? Where? How? And if you ask three different people — say, the person working the desk at your guest house, a random tuk-tuk driver, and the gentleman at the tourist information center — you're likely to get three different answers. It can be overwhelming.

So here is another (rather obvious) life lesson that reveals itself when you are traveling: if you are feeling overwhelmed and at a loss, it is okay to ask for help. I know this is hard to believe, especially for those of you who fancy yourselves rugged individualists, but you do not — in fact you cannot — know all of the answers. To expect yourself to be able to do everything without help or assistance from anyone at all is a recipe for disaster.

This is how we ended up talking to Mr. Dickey. We needed some help figuring out travel logistics and seeing how he was a travel agent, it seemed likely he would be able to provide some definitive answers. Mr. Dickey was an energetic young man with a big smile and a rapid-fire conversational style. We told him we were interested in going to Meung Noi and within minutes, he was proposing an entire itinerary — minivan to Nang Kiaow, boat to Meung Noi, and then a short hike to Ban Na, where he knew someone that could set us up with a home stay with the village chief. Afterwards, a boat trip back to Nang Kiaow for a couple of nights, and then a 5-hour boat ride to Luang Prabang.

Tim and I looked at each other. Here's another life lesson that comes with traveling: asking for help doesn't mean that you will get the help you desire or expect. You might still end up getting cheated, or misled, or simply overcharged. In the end, you must go with your instincts and throw yourself into the unknown. Because no matter how many travel agents you visit, no matter how many people you ask, the unknown will remain unknown…until you get close enough to see it for yourself.

We decided to go with Mr. Dickey. He showed us pictures of the rice paddies spread out before Ban Na like a great jigsaw puzzle. He described his last visit there. He talked about the stars in the night sky and the quiet bungalows waiting for us. He said that we would be hiking along a river on our way to Ban Na, and that we could stop whenever we wanted and swim in its crystalline waters. It sounded absolutely magical. And so this is how we ended up in a tuk-tuk at 9:00am, crammed in with 7 other tourists, all headed towards Nang Kiaow.

When we got to the southern bus terminal, where we would catch our minivan to Nang Kiaow, all thoughts of crystalline waters and quiet bungalows were dispelled. Here, we were alternately directed and then ignored, and generally treated like cattle. A half-full minivan leaving for NK was waiting in one of the bays, and several people from our tuk-tuk ran for it, wanting to make sure they weren't left behind. The rest of us stood about confusedly, looking around for some sort of authority to tell us what would happen next. Eventually, it became clear that another minivan would be leaving soon, and so we waited and made small talk with one Kenny Dobbs, from Scotland, who had just arrived in Laos from Myanmar.

This is the minivan that took us from LP to NK. See that sticker that says “12P” on the back end? That indicates the maximum number of passengers that it can carry. It also indicates the minimum number of passengers required before it will leave the terminal. For a hot second, I fooled myself into thinking that my front row seat would give me more space and leg-room than anyone else on the minivan, but then Sob, a backpacking Cambodian-American arrived and it became clear that we were to be seatmates. We crammed ourselves into the front row, trying our best to leave room for the driver to shift gears, and then off we went. Four passengers in the back row, three passengers in each of the two middle rows, and me and Sob seated next to the driver; making 12 unhappy, overheated tourists.

As we were leaving LP, a tuk tuk pulled in front of us. Two tourists with their compulsory backpacks were seated in the back. Given the way of Lao drivers, Sob and I were close enough to read their lips. The first, a white woman, sat on one of the bench seats facing forward, her back turned on her male companion. He sat on the opposite bench with his head in his hands. As we drove on, it became apparent that the two of them were having a terrible time of it. The man, in fact, was sobbing and pleading, descending into hot mess territory. At one point the woman turned abruptly and let loose a torrent of anger and vitriol, full of finger pointing and everything. The man, visibly desperate, lifted his head and wailed “Oh God!” He reached out to the woman with open hands, seeming to beg for forgiveness or at least understanding, but the woman spat a reply and again turned her back to him. The man deflated and continued sobbing into his palms.

“Whoa,” I said to Sob. “Looks like someone's having a hard time in Laos.”

We watched, occasionally commenting on the action, until the tuk-tuk turned right, leaving us with nothing to watch but a thin sliver of road and an unfolding landscape. “I hope they're okay,” I mumbled.

Sob and I chatted for a while. He had been away from American soil for almost two years now, working in Australia and New Zealand for half that time, traveling around SE Asia for the other half. “I used to be all about my career,” he said, “but now that I've started traveling, I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to that life.”

“I worked in insurance for years,” he explained, “and at one point I realized that I had been talking about going to Australia for forever but I wasn't getting any closer to actually doing it.” He worked and saved money for two more years, quit his job and then headed to Australia. “I love this lifestyle,” he continued. “I have to go back to the states to earn more money, but I don't care what I do for work; I just want to keep traveling.” He has plans to visit Europe in 2014 and then South America after that.

As we chatted, Laos opened before us; rice paddies and burnt mountainsides, blue-green rivers and limestone ridges, structures of cinderblock and woven bamboo. We passed children on bicycles, trucks stopped by the side of the road, minivans full of tourists, and countless motorcycles and scooters. My window was rolled all the way down and a hot breeze blew through the van, slowly forcing my fellow passengers into lethargy and then sleep.

As if pulled from their dreams, a creature loomed large in the windshield and then disappeared in our wake; an elephant, my mind informed me. But it still made no sense in this place, this land of a thousand elephants, wrapped in chains and driven to work in the suffocating glare and heat. When I sent this picture to my sisters and my niece, my niece replied, “they make them work!?” My sister wrote back, “I hate this picture…I loathe it.”

Sob and I lapsed into silence. He, reading a worn paperback; me, listening to an audiobook about science fiction vampires. We passed through a thickening snarl of buildings and traffic, turned right at a restaurant boasting a sign with chinese calligraphy, and then left into a dirt parking lot. We had arrived at the bus terminal in Nang Kiaow. We emerged from the minivan, stretching and blinking our way into this new reality. We looked around for some sort of signage, some indication of what to do next. Nothing. A foursome of men played a variant of bocce ball in the shade of a sparse stand of trees. A group of locals sat under the overhang of a nearby building eating noodle soup. Some members of our transient pack, including Sob, hefted their packs onto their backs and started walking. Kenny Dobbs approached us and asked if we knew what we were going from here. All I knew is that we were trying to reach the boat landing, where we would hopefully catch a boat heading for Meung Noi. Everything else was a mystery.

Once again, time to ask for help. I approached the men playing bocce ball and in broken Lao, tried to ascertain in which direction and how far the river lay. The men exchanged some words, laughing and smiling, and then one of them said, in English, “5 kilos to river…I drive you for 50,000K.” “Per person?” I asked. He nodded. I returned to Tim and Kenny and shared my newfound knowledge. After some quick math, we realized that the damage to our wallets would be minimal. I nodded to the man, now our driver, and loaded our things into another minivan. We drove down a dirt road lined with biodegradable structures and then emerged into a cluster of stores, street side food carts, and restaurants catering to tourists. Nang Kiaow, aka Transit-Town, Anywhere. The van turned down a curving drive that descended into a dead end of shops selling water, motorcycle tires, plastic rope, mechanical parts, and other daily necessities of life in the interior of Laos. “Buy tickets,” our driver said, pointing to a tiny booth. We got out, paid the man, and, following his succinct advice, went to buy our tickets.

With repeated success, one's confidence builds rapidly. We had survived the tuk tuk and the minivan and we had managed to make it to Nang Kiaow. Now, all that stood between us and our final destination was a single boat trip! I approached the booth boldly and with assurance, confident that my limited Lao vocabulary would be sufficient to the task: “phuk koi bpai Meung Noi…song.” We go to Meung Noi…two. Sadly, the ticket booth was closed, but the carefully handwritten schedule confirmed the legitimacy of our plans. A boat would be leaving from Nang Kiaow to Meung Noi at 1:30pm. The ticket booth would reopen at 1:00.

Which left us just enough time to grab some lunch.

When you order food in Laos, especially away from the big cities of Ventiane and Luang Prabang, it is an entirely homespun affair. The person who wiped the ants off of your table as you sat down is the same person who will take your order and will probably be the same person who will make both your food and, if requested, your fruit shakes too. In all likelihood, they will probably bus your table and then wash your dishes.

What this means is that you should not expect your food to arrive in a timely manner. Laos PDR, according to the merry Mr. Dickey, also stands for “Laos. Please Don't Rush!” Also, don't expect much in the way of explanation when it comes to menu options. The noodle section may contain a dish called fried noodles with egg and vegetables, followed by a dish called fried noodles with vegetables and egg and if you attempt to question your waitress about what makes these dishes distinct and separate, it is likely that you will end up ordering both of them. In my experience, it is best to simply point at something and hope for the best. Which is what I did.

If you are at a roadside restaurant in the interior of Laos and you order, say, fried noodles with vegetables and egg and and a watermelon shake — and your companion orders stir fried vegetables with chicken and a pineapple shake — this is probably what will happen. The person (generally a woman) who took your order will disappear into the back of the restaurant for what seems like an inordinately long time. It is possible that she has gone to a nearby store to purchase the watermelon and pineapple that will become your shakes. At some point, you will hear their single blender whirring to life, once for each fruit shake. She will reappear momentarily, in order to deliver your shakes and then she will disappear again, this time to cook your food. After she finishes one dish, she will bring it to your table and then return to the kitchen. When the next dish is completed, she will deliver that one. No sous chef, no waitstaff, no busboy, no hostess. Just the one person doing everything for everyone in the restaurant.

Another life lesson, then. What you understand as “normal” is forever changed by travel. You realize that the life you had back home, with its endless selection of cheeses, its cheap gasoline, and its thoughtless acceptance of gays and lesbians (practical, if not yet legal), is absolutely NOT the norm. It is an aberration, a bubble of freedom and excess. Even the notion of this kind of travel — to put your life on hold for two weeks, or three months, or five years, and simply go out into the world to see it — has been unheard of for most of human history. In Luang Prabang, I told our friend Syfohn that if he ever came to the US, he would have a place to stay with Tim and Me. He laughed uproariously at the thought. “It would be very very difficult for me to arrive in the US,” he said. A boundary that separated us and that we had been ignoring suddenly reasserted itself. Even in the simple and familiar act of ordering food at a restaurant reveals a world larger than you had previously imagined.

By the time we completed our meal, the ticket booth had reopened. I appeared at the window, eager to apply the sentence I had been rehearsing while waiting for my fried noodles and watermelon shake. Imagine my disappointment when I was met by a young man wearing stylish glasses and a pink polo shirt who, in perfect English, greeted me with a “yes, sir, how may I help you?”

“Two tickets for Meung Noi, please,” I mumbled.

“300,000K please,” he said, and then handed me a form to fill out.

This is the kind of boat that took us up the Nam Ou to Meung Noi. Our boat carried:

  1. An assortment of locals carrying food, equipment, and other necessities to their far-flung villages.
  2. A beautiful, brassy young Lao woman who was returning from Udomxai to visit her family in Meung Noi.
  3. A 50-something Australian couple who were regular visitors to Meung Noi and who were clearly involved in some sort of commercial enterprise there.
  4. A handful of foreign tourists, including an overly affectionate Spanish couple, a pair of very pale Germans, and this episode's special guest star, Mr. Kenny Dobbs!
  5. Me and Tim.

The trip upriver was spectacular. The Nam Ou had been exhausted by the dry season, and our captain was navigated this reduced, but still powerful river without any charts or aids whatsoever. He threaded the thin wooden boat between limestone islands, younger siblings of the giant karst formations that loomed above us on either side of the river. The locals chattered with each other and with the Australian couple. The tourists stared in wonder as the world we recognized — as foreign it might have been — slowly disappeared downriver. From time to time something that existed at human scale would pass before us. A boat carrying two fisherman. Smiling Europeans perched on innertubes. Water buffalo. But mostly, we were irrelevant. Ahead, an endless forest, an infinite river, grandfather mountains, and a towering sky.

As Americans, we have this thing about privacy and personal space. We have yards to keep our neighbors visible and at bay. Our cars are as hermetic and protective as turtle shells. In theaters and on busses and at restaurants, we sit as far away from each other as possible. Unless absolutely required to — or unless someone is being paid — we would rather not touch or be touched by strangers for any length of time. Most of the time we do not question or even recognize this tremendous luxury of space and preference.

In SE Asia, generally — and in the minivan to Nang Kiaow and the boat to Meung Noi, specifically — such a thing as a desire for personal space seemed hopelessly irrelevant and fanciful, like wishing you were born with a mermaid's tail or enormous butterfly's wings. Sob and I sat as close together as newlyweds as we discussed his transition from insurance salesman to itinerant traveler. On the boat, nothing so chaste marked the intersections of our bodies. It was a veritable orgy; arm crossing leg, foot caressing hip, knee pressing inner thigh. Tim, who has had surgery on both of his knees, found temporarily relief by extending his leg across tha aisle and wedging his foot between me and my neighbor. I shook my head crossly, afraid that he had violated some Lao taboo about where you point your feet.

We continued on in the thickening light of afternoon. The haze from a dozen slash and burn sites diluted the sky into a pale, porcelain blue. We shifted our positions, as fickle as swingers, as we bowed a single perfect note upon the Nam Ou's shimmering cord. We stopped once to release a handful of passengers. They retrieved their cargo from the rear of the boat and we moved on. The next stop, at the base of a long staircase built a high bluff, was Meung Noi. We unfolded ourselves from our cramped positions and disembarked on a long plank jutting pragmatically from the river's edge. We climbed, joints happy to be moving, even in the labor of hefting our backpacks up a hundred uneven stairs.

At the top, we were greeted by a tree thick with magenta flowers and a scattering of souls attempting to draw tourists to their various guesthouses. Incongruously, a handsome twenty-something year old white boy with a tank top and a French accent stood with them. “Bungalow,” he called out, “would you like to rent a beautiful bungalow.”

Tim and I passed him and moved through the rest of the welcoming committee. I found myself being paced by a slight woman with downcast eyes. “Do you have a reservation for your stay?” She asked. And rather than the practiced brush-off that I had been applying to tuk tuk drivers, restaurant hostesses, food cart hawkers, and night market crafts-folk, I found myself responding honestly. “No, we don't,” I said.

“We have bungalows overlooking the river,” she said, flashing her eyes upward momentarily and catching mine. “Would you like to see?” I looked at Tim and shrugged. “If you don't like them, you don't have to stay. No problem.”

“Sure, okay” I said and she smiled. We followed her up Meung Noi's narrow main street, past locals who regarded us simply as the next batch of foreigners, past the Australian couple being welcomed at a ramshackle store/restaurant, past scratching chickens and clumsy puppies. “Where are you from?” She asked. “New Mexico,” we replied. “Oh, Mexico,” she said, “it's very beautiful there?” Not wanting to get into it, we simply nodded.

Near the far end of the street, she gestured towards an alley. She led us through a small bamboo gate and onto the grounds of beautifully situated guesthouse. Four small buildings made of burnished wood and set on stilts to compensate for the sloping ground sat along three sides of a wide central platform. Below, the now pale green waters of the Nam Ou continued flowing, visible between stands of bamboo. She called out to a man who had been curled in a hammock, smoking a cigarette in the shade. He roused himself and unlocked two vacant rooms, one of which had a padlock instead of the usual doorknob. “For this room, you have to use this lock,” he said in a gruff, monotone voice. “Tourist forget to return key.”

 

“Tourists,” I replied sympathetically.

One last life lesson from traveling and then I'll shut up about it and let you get back to learning your own life lessons from whatever it is you're doing. Sometimes, its okay to stop worrying about whether you're getting swindled, cheated, or misled and to simply accept what is being offered to you. This is how we found our way to Dr. Joy's lovely, Suan Phao (Coconut Garden) Guesthouse and how I began to fall in love with Laos in earnest.

 

Once in a Lifetime

I glossed over it in my last post, but our time in Sayfohn's English class was a truly amazing experience. Like sitting with Shimi in Iporanga, watching the face of the Great Magician manifest in the night sky; like camping outside Natural Bridges with Pati, Andrew and Tim, it will be a memory that I will cherish forever.

Monks are everywhere in Thailand and Laos. At first, you tend to gawk, drawn to by the bright orange robes, the shaved heads, and the implication of a greater peace and serenity. Time passes. You see older monks, praying at the shrine of the Emerald buddha or riding the Chao Praya express. You see young novices roaming the streets of Chiang Mai, arms around each others' shoulders. You see monks riding jeepneys, drinking coconut water, sitting in front of a laptop. After a while, they no longer seem quite as strange or (dare I say it) exotic. Nonetheless, they still seem to exist in a slightly different plane of existence; one step removed from the the mundane life of the every day. In Thailand, even with all of the opportunities that presented themselves, I never once approached or started a conversation with a monk. Several times I smiled and nodded my head at a passing monk, but these acknowledgements were met with silent, expressionless faces. I resisted the urge to make a fetish of buddhism; I was content to let them be.

When we first entered Syfohn's English class, I will admit to a little nervousness. A room, lit by flourescent bulbs, filled with handmade wooden benches and desks. At the head of the room, a well-used whiteboard covered in ghostly handwriting from lessons past. At the back, a small map of the globe. On the walls, a few scrawled bits of graffiti. Seated, with thin notebooks and loose papers scattered on the desks in front of them, about 25 novices, aged 11-18, each dressed in an orange robe. With their heads and eyebrows shaved, they seemed remarkably young. They stared as we entered, some of them giggling into cupped hands.

Syfohn asked us to sit, and then returned to the whiteboard, where a series of novices were writing sentences in English. When they finished, he encouraged us to stand and introduced us to his students: “This is Mr. Fil and Mr. Tim, and they have come to help with tonight's English classes. Won't you all welcome them?”

A chorus of voices. “Good evening Mr. Fil! Good evening Mr. Tim!” Their English was tentative and carefully enunciated. The word evening contained three syllables.

Syfohn then continued with the lesson. The students has been given a paragraph of English to read and translate. It told the story of a young novice, much like themselves, whose name was Bun Pheng. Most of the novices, we learned from Syfohn, had come from very poor families. They had travelled great distances to take their vows. While Buddhism may have been an important part of their previous lives, Syfohn told us that most of them entered the monastery because it provided them with a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, and a chance at an education; opportunities that were rare in their home provinces. These kids were here, in the historic heart of Luang Prabang, surrounded by tourists and far from home, in search of a better life. Here, with their fellow novices, they studied a variety of subjects including Mathematics, History, Buddhist Thought, and English.

Syfohn walked the students through a series of spoken exercises centered on the story of Novice Bun Pheng. It must have been quite familiar to the novices, perhaps even an exact description of their own lives. It described life in the monastery, from 4 am wake up calls to pray to the Buddha, to afternoons spent cleaning the temple ground, to evenings spent fasting.

Afterwards, Syfohn asked us to join the students in small groups of about 6-7, and to practice English with them. I sat on a small bench and the young novices backed away from me. “Good evening,” I said, “how are you?” They stared at me, some giggling, and then they conferred with each other in quiet whispers. One of them then spoke tentatively. “Good evening. I am fine.”

“What is your name” I asked, pronouncing the words clearly and loudly. Again, they whispered with each other. A different novice responded, “My name is Novice Keo. What is your name?” We continued on, at first simply repeating the questions that they had been asked about their fictional brother, Novice Bun Pheng. How old are you? Where are you from? But soon enough, we had all gained enough comfort and confidence to move into an actual conversation. I asked them about what they learned in school; they asked me what I liked to in my free time. I asked if they had any siblings; they asked how long I had been in Luang Prabang. Eventually, we were all smiling and laughing, winding our way through the minor obstacles of confusion, incomprehension, and mispronunciation. “Kho jai hien pasaa Lao,” I informed them (I would like to learn the Lao language). They laughed and repeated the sentence correctly so that I could imitate them.

It was a lovely time. As the class ended, we all thanked each other profusely. We had shared a couple of hours in a classroom in Luang Prabang and now we were all dispersing into our own individual lives, caught up in the conflicting, chaotic flow of existence. Where will life take these young men? Some will continue within the monastic tradition, spending their entire lives as monks. Others will leave their orange robes behind and return to the secular life, perhaps marry and one day send their own sons to take vows at some faraway monastery. What will happen to our wonderful friend, Syfohn? Will we ever see his smile again?

It is impossible to know, of course. We never know what waits for us, even around the nearest corner. The important thing is to be present right here, right now, to seek awareness of what makes every experience unique and instructive. I cannot remember the names of all the novices I met that night, but I can still see their smiles, their bright eyes, their openness and curiosity. I wish them all the happiness in the world, and i hope that wherever they might find themselves, they remain just as open and just as curious.

I gave Syfohn the t-shirt I was wearing on the night that we met. Emblazoned across the chest are three words SELF. DISCO. VERY. Self Discovery. May you never stop seeking and discovering, Syfohn. And may the self you discover be full of joy, peace and love. Khop jai lai lai.

 

 

Food Party, Luang Prabang Style

At some time or another, pretty much everyone who travels in SE Asia takes a cooking class. Our hotel in Chiang Mai, for example, had brochures for no less than 10 culinary outlets, each offering the same basic itinerary: choose 2-3 dishes you would like to make, visit a local market to learn about various ingredients, and then return to the kitchen — sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes at an organic farm, sometimes in a pavilion overlooking a river — to learn how to make your chosen dishes. And then you EAT them!

We ended up taking our cooking class at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant in Luang Prabang that specializes in traditional Lao cuisine. For a while, it looked like it wouldn't happen because I was the only person signed up and they won't hold a class unless there are at least two students. Luckily for me, however, Tim was game enough to sign up too, even though he was ambivalent about the whole cooking class idea.

Our morning began with an a cup of coffee and a list of dishes to select from. If there had been more students, we could have chosen three dishes to make, but since it was just the two of us, we were allowed to choose just two. I chose two very traditional Lao dishes, Ho Mok Kai (steamed chicken wrapped in banan leaf) and Aw Lam (Luang Prabang beef stew.) Tim chose Nem Juen (fried spring rolls) and Kai Kua Sai Si Kai (lemongrass chicken). Chef Linda, the instructor for what amounted to a private class, complimented our choices and then sent us off to the Phosi Market, accompanied by a team of expert shoppers and our own personal tour guide (whose name I have since forgotten).

The Phosi market was a quintessential locals' market, selling everything from shoes to blankets, hardware to cookware, fresh vegetables to pickled crabs. Our guide walked us through the maze of stalls, occasionally stopping to identify various ingredients or to offer us a chance to sample some of the wares.

These are banana flowers.

Dried chilies, chili powder, and a variety of dried fish parts.

Small eggplants, about the size of a tomato. Not to be confused with what the Lao call baby eggplant which are bright green, a little bigger than a sweet pea, and both hard and bitter.

Stainless steel steamer pots. Along with a woven bamboo basket which fits on top, these are the most basic and vital cooking implements in the Lao kitchen. Without them, it would be impossible to cook sticky rice, the foundation of any Lao meal. It is impossible to underplay the importance of sticky rice to Lao culture. Lao for “breakfast,” for example, is “khao sao” which means, literally, “morning rice.” When the monks gather in the morning to beg alms from Luang Prabang's residents, they are given morsels of sticky rice. If you pay close attention while walking around LP, you will notice balls of this rice placed on the roots of especially old or beautiful trees or in front of statues of the Buddha or in the mouths of the sculpted nagas that guard the temples.

Rice noodles.

This is curdled blood, a very traditional Lao ingredient, but one that was thankfully absent from our cooking class.

These are not French Fries. These are cut up pieces of water buffalo fat. To prepare them for eating, they are either soaked in water until soft and then cooked, or simply deep fried. The smell is an unimaginably gamy combination of leather, meat, and feet.

Catfish, probably caught in either the Mekong or the Nam Khan.

This is Sakhan, aka chili wood, another traditional Lao ingredient. A vine that grows in the jungle, this wood provides a peppery, smoky and slightly sweet note to a variety of dishes (including the Aw Lam that I chose to make.)

A variety of fresh greens, some familiar — cilantro, basil, spinach — and some untranslatable. The recipe for Aw Lam, for example, calls for 1 handful of local edible leaves. These are usually wild-foraged in the jungle.

 

Not only are these markets places to buy your daily necessities, they are social centers for the local community. The sounds of laughter, gossip, yelling, and conversation fill the air. As Tim and I passed, enormous and clumsy falang that we are, the vendors would often stare, comment to each other, and smile conspiratorially.

Wen we got back to Tum Tum Cheng, Chef Linda gave us a quick rundown of the staple ingredients that form the foundation of Lao cuisine: galangal, lemongrass, ginger, spring onions, and of course, sticky rice. She also taught us how to make a rose-like garnish using a tomato peel and a carefully sliced cucumber.

We then ventured into the kitchen area where we learned how to make our dishes. In all fairness, it should be said that we did not prepare these dishes from start to finish. Rather, the restaurant's team of sous chefs did all the preparatory work — washing, slicing, chopping, and organizing the ingredients — and we simply assembled, mixed, and stirred.

This is the Ho Mok Kai. It was extremely aromatic, providing a complex layering of flavors and textures within a custard-like suspension.

The Kai Kua Sai Si Kai and Aw Lam. The chicken, according to Tim, was “infused with lemongrass flavor…delicious, moist and succulent.” The beef stew — thickened with mashed eggplant and roasted sticky rice and flavored with chili wood and local greens — tasted both unfamiliar and yummy.

Fried spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. OMG!

And of course, the sticky rice. The cooking method for Khao Neow is unlike any rice preparation that I've seen. The rice is washed, soaked overnight, and then washed until the water runs clear. The drained rice is them placed in a bamboo basket and steamed. After 20 minutes, the rice is flipped over and then returned to steam for another 10 minutes. After it has been cooked, the rice is placed on a damp wooden tray and gently folded to let the heat dissapate. Afterwards, the rice is placed in a traditional basket and served alongside the other dishes.

The Lao meal is communal and all the dishes are served simultaneously. Older people serve themselves first, but once they touch the sticky rice, everyone else can begin eating too!

Chef Timmy!

Iron Monkey Chef Fil!

I will admit that when I was first informed that we could choose only two dishes to make, I was a bit salty. I wanted to learn how to cook three dishes! Three! But after eating the meal we prepared, including a dessert of bananas and pineapples carmelized with powdered sesame seed, I realized the wisdom behind Chef Linda's decision. This was an ungodly amount of food. When we got back to our guesthouse, I literally passed out from overeating. Tim remained ambulatory and took himself for a walk while I slept.

When I awoke and Tim returned, we headed to Wat Sop to help with Sayfohn's English class. And then we took Sayfohn out to dinner at a hotpot restaurant on the banks of the Nam Khan. We ate chicken and beef and pork and shrimp and squid and egg and all manner of greens and sprouts and veggies, barbecued and/or boiled at our table. By the time we were done, Tim was woozy with food. We thanked, hugged, and then parted ways with Sayfohn and then we headed back to our guesthouse.

But I wasn't done yet. While Tim stumbled back to the room, I walked to the nearest crepe stand and ordered a banana and Nutella crepe. And then I ate it. And it was GOOD!

 

One Day in Luang Prabang

According to legend, Buddha, on his travels, stopped to rest on a shady patch of ground held between two rivers. Charmed by its beauty, he smiled and prophesied that one day, a great Capitol would be founded there. From this seed of prophecy, the flower of Luang Prabang.

Breakfast bagel at Cafe Joma. Thanks to French influence, Laos has all kinds of delicious bread. Also: CHEESE! This may not seem like a big deal where you are, but after the bizarro bread in Thailand, this bagel was like manna from heaven.

Boats plying the Mekong. This was taken where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong, at the very end of the spit of land holding Luang Prabang.

All along the river, folks have planted beautiful raised-bed gardens. Some of these vegetables find their way into restaurants, others to the markets, others straight into the family cook pot.

Fresh chicken spring rolls. Yes, they were delicious.

In the dry season, families build bamboo bridges across the Nam Khan. Falang are asked to pay K5000 (about $.75) to cover construction and maintenance costs. During the wet season, the current is too strong and the water too turbulent.

Like looking through a lens into the past. This same scene might have happened 40 or 400 years ago.

Fisherman. Not only do people eat the fish they pull from the Mekong, they also harvest river weed. Dried and seasoned, it is essentially freshwater nori.

The walking surface of the bamboo bridge is springy and slightly terrifying. To a big falang such as myself, it seems hardly strong enough to trust.

On a hot afternoon, a cool swim. I wish I could have jumped right in too.

Leave the historic World Heritage Neighborhood and you see a much different side of LP.

Part sunshade, part site-specific installation.

Hidden paths link nearby roads to the banks of the Nam Khan.

View from another bamboo bridge. The dude manning this one was definitely drunk. If all you did all day was ask stingy falang to fork over K5000, you'd be an alcoholic too.

Yes.

Narrow, stepped walkways connect Luang Prabang's main streets. They are used as living rooms, kitchens, clothes drying areas, parking lots, and storage. And sidewalks.

It is illegal for falang to own property in Laos. However, many businesses, including this French bakery, are started and run with foreign cash. Usually, they are operated by a Lao/falang couple and cater primarily to tourists. Although these were delicious croissants, after this particular snack, Tim and I tried to support establishments that were Lao owned and operated. The more down-home, the better.

Another beautiful garden.

Another quick swim.

Another bamboo bridge.

French colonial architecture. There's tons of it here, but for some reason, I didn't take a lot of pictures documenting it. Perhaps because these buildings were home to businesses catering to the rich and foofy.

Wherever you go, tuk tuk drivers are waiting to spring into action. Most times it's just “tuk tuk, sir?” But occasionally, you get “tuk tuk? Lady? You want Lao lady?” And perhaps even “smoke smoke, good weed!” The all purpose word to refuse the tuk tuk, the lady lady, and the smoke smoke is “Bo.”

Kids will stick their heads into ANYTHING.

View from the top of Pho Si hill at dusk.

On Pho Si hill, there are tons of statues of the Buddha and, purportedly, one of his footprints! He had enormous feet, like way bigger than Shaq.

Nagas. Look it up, would you? Sayfohn related some of the story to us, and even though I've been meaning to do some research on it, I haven't yet gotten around to it.

Behind a grotto containing a big fat golden Buddha is the entrance to a cave. Go down into this cave and you will find these dudes waiting for you.

Every day has its own Buddha. Thursday's Buddha is the reclining one, which leads me to believe I was born on a Thursday.

Like a superhero team!

Sunset over the Mekong as seen from the abandoned temple on Pho Si hill. So peaceful and serene…

…except for the dozens of tourists screeching like howler monkeys and vying for the best place to take a picture.

After a visit to our room to rinse off and change costumes, dinner along the Nam Khan. On this particular evening we met an obnoxious woman from Chicago who started off our acquaintanceship by asking, “Are you students? Because you sure are studying that menu!” My inner brat replied, “for future reference, this is what it looks like when people are purposefully ignoring you.” My public face smiled blandly and said nothing at all. Sometimes that's as much peace and love as I can muster.

 

Welcome to Laos, PDR!

 

After a couple of practical and not particularly noteworthy days in Chiang Mai, we left the relative comfort and familiarity of Thailand. On February 25, 2013, we entered the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the first communist country either of us have ever been to. The visa-upon-arrival process was relatively easy, but no less confusing because of it. We each had two passport photos, $US35.00 and two forms that we had filled out while waiting at the Chiang Mai airport — one a visa application, the other a customs form. Beyond this, all that was required was an additional $US1.00, patience, and the willingness to smile and shrug when being confronted with scowls and military uniforms. Everyone on our flight — including a foursome of middle-aged Aussie girlfriends, a beer-happy Spanish couple traveling with one of their mothers, several pairs of Germans wearing beige traveling get-ups, one of the ubiquitous couplings of old-white-dude and much-younger-Asian-woman, and an American who insisted upon complaining about the fact that the visa fee charged to Americans was a whole $5.00 more than that charged to Europeans — was admitted.

The currency in Laos is the Kip. One US dollar is equivalent to about 7,888.77 Kip. The old white dude traveling with the much younger Asian woman apparently did not realize that crossing a border into another country might entail the use of an entirely different currency. I guess that's what happens when you become part of the Euro Zone. When the woman manning the taxi stand portion of the airport's welcome desk informed him that it would cost K50,000 to have an air-conditioned van drive he and his companion to their hotel in the center of Luang Prabang, he went on for several minutes, throwing his hands around and sputtering something about “zee Internet.” When his tirade was met with blank stares and a half-smirk, he repeated with greater volume, “ZEE INTERNET!”

The Lao welcoming committee stared pointedly at his companion, who attempted to explain the whole Lao Kip v. Thai Baht thing. English, the first language of neither half of this couple, was an unwieldy tool with which to pry open this dude's brain. Eventually he got it and then spent the next minute trying to apologize and explain away his ignorance. The Lao welcoming committee returned an expression that seemed to say, “you have made us all lose face and we are not amused.”

I understand that Laos is becoming a much more open society, and that tourism is growing in leaps and bounds. Still, it seems to me unwise to antagonize the people who greet you upon arrival.

Me, I was raised right by my Filipino parents, and so I was respectful and raised no stink at all, even when our guesthouse's promised “airport transfer” turned out to be the same K50,000 taxi trip that everyone else had been using. My inner brat wanted to wave my hands about while exclaiming “zee Internet! Zee INTERNET!” but I was wise enough to realize that such antics were likely to be unwelcome. I guess that's what turning 42 gets you! We simply paid the woman, received a slip of paper which we then handed to a waiting driver, and got into the next silver mini-van waiting by the curb.

One of the first questions that one gets asked in Laos is, “Where are you from?” That is the first thing the taxi driver asked us and when we answered “America,” he gave us a big smile and said, “Dollar! Very good!” Many Americans might attempt to argue this point, but when $1.33 can buy you a heaping plate of home cooked Lao cuisine, such behavior borders on downright offensive. Not that being offensive seems to trouble most of the falang visiting Laos, but as I said, I was raised right by Filipino parents. And so I nodded and agreed and gamely took the taxi driver's “card” — a scrap of paper with his name and number written on it — in case we decided to go to the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang.

We arrived in central LP just as the heat and glare of the afternoon were softening into evening. Smoke from nearby slash and burn agriculture spread a diffuse golden light and as we wound our way through Luang Prabang's outer neighborhoods towards its historic center (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), a happy exhaustion spread over me. Traveling to unfamiliar places, immersed in languages that are beyond your capacity to hear or speak, navigating arcane procedures; it's an exhausting affair. Everything we had done that day — from negotiating with a tuk tuk driver to get a reasonable fare to Chiang Mai's airport to checking into our flight on Lao Air to entering a communist country to getting local currency from a bright red ATM to figuring out where our guesthouse was — had required all of our attention and all of our vigilance. We had done it all without a hitch, but my brain was pretty much fried.

By the time we arrived at the Sieng Khaen Lao Guesthouse and were shown to our boxy first floor room, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Tim turned on the air conditioner, I lay down on the utilitarian mattress and fell instantly asleep.

I woke up just as the sun was setting. Luang Prabang has a 12:00am curfew, so it was either get up and get out or surrender to sleep and start over in the morning. Not wanting to spend my first night in this famously beautiful town in the company of a disgruntled New Englander and a television, I pulled myself together, completed my first costume change, and stumbled out into the shady warmth of dusk.

Much has been made of Luang Prabang's charm. I will not offer any contradictions. It is a beautiful little city, still carrying the stains of French Colonialism with a strange sort of pride. Its historic district extends into a peninsula flanked on one side by the storied Nam Mekong, and on the other by the smaller Nam Khan. Despite the droves of (mostly French) tourists and the bustle of the nightly handicrafts market, the city has a languid, relaxed air that is best experienced leisurely and on foot. That first night we wandered all the way from our guesthouse, along the banks of the Mekong, almost to the very end of land. There, we happened across a Wat, one of the most important and most famous monastaries in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong.

As we wandered the grounds of this lovely temple, a young man approached us and said, in a sweetly accented English, “There will be a candlelight procession later on. If you like, you can stay and participate.” Whatever friendliness Tim and I had experienced in Thailand, we had never been approached by a complete stranger unless some sort of monetary exchange was expected, so we hung back a bit, waiting for the sales pitch. There was none. Instead, under the full moon and in the sultry night air, the young man told us about the history of the temple, helped us grasp some of the basics of the Lao language, and explained how he had come to speak English (and French and German and Korean) so well.

This was how we met our friend Syfohn. “Sounds like cellphone!” he said cheerily as we introduced ourselves. We chatted with him for an hour and a half, while the temple grounds slowly began to fill with both locals and tourists. At one point a trio of novices approached him, their orange robes muted in the darkness, and asked him an undecipherable question. “Candlelight procession,” he replied carefully. “Candlelight procession,” the monks repeated.

“They are my students,” he explained. “I teach an English class at a monastery school.” He paused and then added, “perhaps, if you have time, you would like to come to a class and help. You are native speakers, and it is very helpful to hear native speakers.” His English was careful and deliberate and very charming. Even if we had wanted to, there was no possible way we could refuse.

And so this was our welcome to Laos. Bureaucracy, exhaustion, beauty and kindness. We hung out with Sayfohn for the rest of the evening, until he had to go to what I believe is his third job, that of a security guard at a hotel. The monks held a service in the ornate temple, the sound of chanting spilling out into the night air while tourists gawped and peeked through doorways. The three of us sat on the pavement outside, nibbled by ants and mosquitos, chatting quietly. Local children ran and laughed, giving a happy, festival edge to the night. After a while, the energy within the temple loosened and released. Perhaps twenty monks, each of them lit by glowing candle flame, emerged into the courtyard. The people who had been waiting there gathered up their offerings — various flowers as well as complex forms made of folded banana leaves and marigolds — and lit incense and candles. Sayfohn dismantled his fistful of devotions and gave us each a stick of incense and a flower. Then, barefoot, we were caught up in the gentle flow. Led by an orange blaze of monks, we circled the temple three times.

After the third circuit, people made their way to a trio of chedi, where they knelt, offered prayers and sent their wishes out into the universe. For a while, the three of us were silent, stilled by immediacy. Then, we put on our shoes and began walking through Luang Prabang's historic streets, as closely and as casually bound as three childhood friends. Sayfohn was separated from us by age, culture, history, geography, economy, and language. And yet somehow, as easy and courageous as a smile, he had reached across those distances and transformed us from falang into friends. Sayfohn, if you are reading this, thank you once again. You are a hero to me.

On our walk, Sayfohn pointed out Wat Sop Sickharam, the temple where he held his nightly English classes. We made our promises to meet him there in a couple of days and said our goodbyes.

I started off this post by making fun of the older-French-dude-with-younger-Asian-girlfriend for not realizing that the unit of currency would change once he entered Laos. Bu it turned out I had made a similar mistake. Perhaps because of the short plane ride, or because of the similarities in language and food, I had believed that Laos would be just another kind of Thailand. Different in some abstract, historical and/or political way, perhaps, but not in any way that would be obvious or discernible to the senses. Cross the boundary from southern Indiana into Kentucky, for example, and you might never know the difference. A few short hours in Luang Prabang had proven me wrong. Laos feels as different from Thailand as silk does from cotton. Due in large part to Sayfohn's open heart, I felt welcomed and at home in Laos in a way that I had not experienced in all of my time in Thailand. It was surprising and lovely and I was eager for more.

I could not have known it at the time, but Laos had even greater surprises — both weird and wonderful — waiting just around the corner.