Of course we couldn’t close the taste of Lao chapter without talking about the drinks, and specially about the famous Beerlao. Beerlao is the country’s insignia, almost more representative than its flag! This lager is light, crisp, refreshing and definitively addictive. The best way to enjoy it is watching the sun set at any bar overlooking the Mekong river. While the locals drink it with ice, we still prefer it just chilled. Oh Beerlao, how much we miss you!
Rice is the staple food for the Laotians, specially steamed sticky rice. Sticky rice is traditionally served on cute bamboo baskets and it is eaten with anything: with meat, with fish and even with soups. In Lao, sticky rice is eaten with the hands, take a small amount of rice, press it to make a compact ball and then dip it into the main dish or eat it with the barbecued chicken or pork.
The cooking of the rice is simple, as we learnt in the cooking course in Luang Prabang. First the grains are washed thoroughly and soaked in water for several hours. Then the water is drained off and the rice is put in a steamer. After steaming it for around 20 to 30 minutes, the rice is moved to another container and moved around so it releases the steam until it has cooled down. The rice is ready to be served.
When peckish many are the options to calm your hunger around the streets of any Laotian town, village or city. Rice crackers, spring roles, seasonal fruits… just walk around, visit the many food stalls and markets and choose whatever you are in the mood for!
If you are looking for a healthy option, fresh spring rolls is the answer, much nicer than the fried ones. While this type of spring rolls are originally from Vietnam, they can be found through all South East Asia. Herbs, vermicelli noodles, lettuce, spring onions and some kind of meet are wrapped in moistened rice paper. The spring rolls are served with a sweet fish sauce or hoisin dipping sauce. We just couldn’t stop eating them since we first tried them!
In Lao we were introduced to a new concept of salad named Larp (also known as laap or larb). Larp is a wonderful meat salad, a classic within Laotian cuisine, consistent and delicate at the same time, easy to make but complex in textures, definitely not just a simple greens salad. Being the salad lover that I am, you can imagine how happy I was when we found out that a salad was one of the most traditional Lao dishes.
Larp can be made of chicken, fish, beef, tofu or pork. The minced meat is cooked in a wok with just a little bit of water. Once cooked, it’s set aside and mixed with finely sliced banana flower, kaffir lime leaves, spring onions, shallots, garlic, coriander, lemon grass and rocket leaves. One of the key ingredients is the rice powder, which gives the salad a very interesting and different texture. Rice powder is just roughly ground toasted rice that is used together with fish sauce and lime juice to make the dressing for the salad. If you are looking for a new type of salad I would recommend you give this one a go, so simple to make and so tasty that you won’t be disappointed!
We stayed in Lao for about 4 weeks and we traveled the country from north to south. We toured the Mekong by boat, we trekked in the jungle in the far north, we enjoyed the tranquil rhythms of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, we tried the best coffee in the Bolaven plateau, and we relaxed with a beerlao watching the sun set in the 4000 islands, all to discover the wonderful character of the Laotians. Funny that we didn’t get to see any elephants when Lao’s nick name is “the land of a million elephants” and elephants are present in 90% of the souvenirs that can be bought in any of the many markets.
Although Lao being within the poorest countries in the world, we didn’t get hit by the extreme poverty that we found in India and Nepal – people living on the streets, beggars everywhere… Moreover, and surprisingly, we didn’t get to see extreme contrasts between rich and poor. It feels like, unlike India, the poorness is equally distributed across most of the country.
Para poner punto y final a nuestro viaje por Lao pasamos unos días en una de las 4000 islas, en concreto en Don Khon. Las 4000 islas, o Si Phan Don, son un conjunto de islas en el Mekong, muy cerca de la frontera con Camboya, donde decenas de cascadas hacen imposible navegar el Mekong río arriba o abajo. Para superar este obstáculo, los franceses construyeron en la era colonial un ferrocarril entre la parte sur de la isla de Don Khon y la parte norte de la isla de Don Det, uniendo ambas islas con un puente. De esta manera pasándo la carga del barco al tren y viceversa podían transportar mercancías a lo largo de todo el Mekong. A día de hoy el único recuerdo que queda del tren es el camino por el que pasaban las vías del tren y el puente que une Don Khon y Don Det, en el que por cierto hay que pagar 20,000 kips por día para poder pasar entre las dos islas… un robo ya que el puente es un legado de los franceses y simplemente quieren sacar dinero a los turistas que van en masa a Don Det.
Don Khon es todavía muy tranquilo y con mucho encanto local, aunque poco a poco van apareciendo más bungalows y restaurantes en los dos extremos de la isla, pero nada en comparación con la turística Don Det que empieza a ser conocida como la Vang Vieng del sur de Lao.
Did you know that coffee is grown in Lao? If the answer is no, don’t worry, neither did we before arriving here. Yes, coffee is grown in Southern Lao, on the Bolaven plateau. It seems that, together with French baguettes and petanque, coffee plantations are another legacy of Indochina’s French colonial past.
We wanted to spend a couple of days exploring the plateau (which is not only known for its coffee but also for its beautiful scenery and waterfalls). We chose Pakse as our hub to visit the plateau. But before getting there, we stopped at Savannakhet for one night to break in two the long journey between Vientiane and Pakse. Savannakhet, or the Luang Prabang of the south as they call it for its calmed vibe, is very local, with barely no accommodation and with still a few signs of its colonial past. It is just another Lao town, but it is where we spent Valentines day so we will for sure remember it.
The temperatures were rising as we were heading south, and in Pakse we could really feel it! Five minutes after leaving our chilled hotel room we were sweeting like pigs… We don’t know if it was because of the heat or not, but Isma developed a nasty mouth ulcer that took a few days to heal. It wasn’t until he started taking some Chinese pills for cooling down his body (that is what the pharmacist said) that he felt any improvement. Natural Chinese medicines are not a myth, they do work!
Después de pasar por segunda vez por Luang Prabang, nuestro siguiente destino iba a ser Vientiane, la capital. Decidimos saltarnos Vang Vieng ya que solo era una ciudad de fiesta creada para turistas, famosa por el tubing y situada en un enclave natural espectacular a las orillas del Mekong, pero no era lo que buscábamos. Así que nos tocó madrugón para montarnos en un autobús local de supuestamente 10 horas a Vientiane. Pero como esto es Lao, al final resultó que el bus tardó 13 horas en recorrer los 370km entre Luang Prabang y Vientiane!!! Ese día se nos hizo eterno, y hasta Marta tuvo un ataque de locura en el bus, estuvo a punto de saltar por la ventana! Pero el día todavía no había acabado. Ya de noche y muy cansados en la estación de autobuses de Vientiane, a las afueras de la ciudad, nos montaron a todos los turistas en un mini bus sin importar que entráramos o no para ir al centro. Podían haber puesto dos mini buses en lugar de uno solo, pero no lo hicieron y nos trataron como borregos… parecíamos animales en un camión de camino al matadero! Es triste como algunos locales solo ven a los turistas como dólares con patas. Exhaustos y después de dar unas cuantas vueltas por el centro de Vientiane sin saber muy bien donde buscar alojamiento, por fín logramos encontrar un guest house donde pasar la noche y relajarnos del duro día de viaje.
Vientiane dicen que es la capital más dormida del mundo, y en base a nuestra experiencia no les falta razón! En realidad más que una ciudad parece un pueblo grande donde la gente vive muy relajada, y el único indicio de capital son algunos bancos, oficinas del gobierno y los pocos restaurantes japoneses, italianos, koreanos, indios… que se pueden encontrar por el centro. A pesar de estas opciones gastronómicas internacionales, nosotros no perdimos la oportunidad ni un sólo día de cenar en los puestos de la calle donde se puede comer auténtica comida Lao muy rica y a muy buen precio, mucho mejor que en los restaurantes y encima disfrutando de unas Beerlao al aire libre!
We had planned a second stop in Luang Prabang after our trek, mainly to break in two the long distance between Luang Namtha and Vientiane. The almost 9h bus ride between Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang was anything but short and comfortable. The road, or I should better say path (specially between Oudomxai and Luang Prabang), was as bumpy as hell and the suspensions of the so called VIP bus weren’t really doing their job. We even had to stop a couple of times to throw buckets of water to the wheels to cool down the breaks.
I think we saw the poorest side of Lao during the road trip. The skinny and clunky houses made of wood and bamboo that won’t probably survive a heavy monsoon, the broken clothes of the villagers, the dusty faces of the children…. it all made us realize again that we were in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Strange as it may sound, getting to Luang Prabang felt a little bit like arriving home… I think the reason we felt that way was because we knew the place already. We were staying at the same guest house as last time, so after freshing up we rewarded ourselves with a yummy foe at the night market. Our plan for the one day we were staying in Luang Prabang was clear: visiting Kuang Si waterfalls and trying Lao’s traditional massage and steam bath.
Over the past few weeks we have been indulging our stomachs with tasty fresh rice noodle dishes. We have eaten them thin or thick in many restaurants and we have seen them in almost every market but we still didn’t know how they were made. Until in Muang Sing we had the opportunity to see how a woman was making them at her home. We found it very interesting so we we wanted to share it!
First the rice is grounded. Here it is a manual process but I guess at home a blender can be used.
Next, the rice powder is mixed with water to make a batter.