Monthly Archives: November 2010

Road: Trip


We’re well past our first hour of the road trip to the north, if you don’t count the 90 minutes of trolling guest houses for other riders, van driver negotiations, and passenger swapping at the northern bus terminal. The minivans appear to be relatively new Hyundais and Toyotas – except for ours – an aged, shockless, padless, 12-seater, belching diesel exhaust inside and out. Those of us in the back half have fashioned face masks from whatever we’ve crammed into our day bags, not that any of us would have thought ahead to pack air filters in our packs now strapped precariously to the top of what we think might be some passive-aggressive attempt at payback for the “Secret War.”

I’m feeling my age. I’m feeling we may need to fly to our next destination rather than make the 7-hour journey by bus. I’m feeling my bladder.

In spite of the incessant jostling and noxious fumes or maybe because of them, we doze on and off. I am awakened by a collective shriek from the front of the van. Did we pass some dead animal in the road? I look up to see that the French Jimmy Fallon look-alike with black curly hair has buried his face in both hands. Did we swerve to avoid a chicken, a dog, a child? I didn’t feel any change of direction or speed. I look questioningly at Alan who says, “an accident.” Our driver doesn’t stop or even slow. We turn to look over our shoulder to see a small, 2-bench, open “bus” on its roof in a ditch with at least two people crawling out of the wreckage. The German girl who saw the entire incident unfold, explains that it was the vehicle that had been traveling directly in front of ours that for no apparent reason swerved across the road and flipped over. Jimmy Fallon had thought it was coming right at us. No wonder he is ashen.

I am grateful that we made a donation at the temple yesterday. I am grateful when we finally arrive at our destination hours later, exhausted, knees bruised, lungs bursting, backs aching, and alive.


The further we drive from Luang Prabang, the more we feel like we’re in Laos. Open fronted shops give way to fewer wooden structures and then small clusters of bamboo and wood houses between miles of greenery and tiny villages. We don’t see the abject poverty we’ve seen in India or Madagascar, but it’s obvious Laos is a poor country where most of the population depends on subsistence farming. And that is complicated by the tens of millions of UXO (unexploded ordinances) littered throughout the country. (More on that later.)

The minibus deposits us more than two kilometers from the center of town, so in sweltering heat we begin our first “trek” toward the area with several  guest houses. We look at a highly recommended place on the riverfront but it’s much more than we want to pay. The little place next door doesn’t have the attached restaurant or pretty landscaping (yet) but has comparable rooms and is a quarter of the price. Unfortunately, it also has only a squat toilet in the cabin we like. We trek up the road and stop at a restaurant where I proceed to have a little heat stroke while Alan continues the search. The champion hunter-gatherer has scored us a  place close by, nearly as nice as the first, also on the riverfront, for a mere $16. He’s not a good bargainer so we’re likely paying an extra $6, but I’m happy to pay anything at this point.

It’s not much of a town but the setting is quite beautiful and the food at the tiny joint down the road is some of the best we’ve had. My simple “Lao breakfast omelet with eggplant sauce” turns out to be a large omelet with a lot of dill, a basket of sticky rice, a plate of greens, and an eggplant dish that tastes like babaganoush with extra garlic and chili. (about $1.75) Alan orders a banana pancake thinking it will be a small crepe with a few slices of banana.

Nong Khiew is a starting point for many boat trips up the river and treks to small(er) mountain villages. I don’t know that life has changed much for the villagers since our first trek/stay in the hill tribes 20+ years ago and, admittedly, our heartier, sleeping-on-dirt floor days are behind us, but we encourage the backpackers we meet to experience the homestays that are available these days. We’re told the villagers get a percentage of the “tour” fee. One can hope…

We spend a morning hiking to the dramatic limestone caves where Phathet Lao soldiers lived/hid during the war. Along the way, we meet only an elderly French couple who travel as roughly as any young backpackers we’ve known. They tell us about several nights sleeping on the floor of a boat as they cruised up the Mekong. We don’t complain about our ride out of town in an air-conditioned minivan.

On the Loose in Laos


Forty minutes after leaving Vientiane, we touched down at dinky Xieng Khouang airport and waited around with all the other passengers while two guys – probably flunkies from US Airways – appeared to be sorting the bags one by one on the tarmac. Luang Prabang is small, but this seemed a bit too modest an airport for such a well-touristed destination and the map on the wall looked nothing like the one in our books. Yes, we had hopped off at the wrong stop. Fortunately, the baggage dudes’ pace allowed us enough time to walk back out onto the tarmac and reboard the plane which would eventually land in Luang Prabang. Security is a bit lax to say the least.

Cute. Charming. Sweet as Solvang except with French colonial architecture and better food. The heart of the UNESCO protected city rests on a peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers. We can only imagine what it looked like only five or ten years ago. Now, it’s filled with white table clothed cafes, shops with pinpoint lighting and designer accessories, wine bars, tour operators, guest houses, crepe stands, and the surviving older businesses that only five years ago were the norm. It is not the “real” Laos we’ve come to explore, but we confess to enjoying the Continental vibe at a developing world price nonetheless.

Latest food discoveries: pork-stuffed bamboo; banana stuffed sticky rice balls with coconut; fried bread puffs with sesame. “Stuffed” seems to be the operative word here as that seems to be often how we feel. And just to be sure we keep up the momentum, we’re taking a full-day cooking class tomorrow.

Oh, spectacular sights too.

Click on thumbnail of the temple for more photos from Luang Prabang.


The books all talk about the hundreds of monks in saffron robes, streaming forth from dozens of wats each morning with their “begging” baskets. The alms they collect from people who rise at dawn to make their daily offering of rice is all the monks will eat for the day. It is supposed to be both a moving and humbling experience for participant and observer alike.

Some acquaintances of ours said they had decided to forgo the experience because, not being practicing Buddhists, they felt it would be disingenuous. Secondly, they had heard about monks becoming ill from inferior rice sold to tourists. We were of the same mindset and decided we would be passive, respectful observers, keeping a quiet distance and bridging it only with our telephoto lenses.

We rose before dawn and strolled a few short blocks from our guest house to the main street. We expected to see tourists like ourselves. We were not prepared for the spectacle of minivans unloading scores of tour groups; pre-set offering “stations” (Santa Barbarians, think blankets and chairs on Solstice Parade morning) and guides shouting instructions about how to bow and give rice; people standing quite literally in the path of the monks or just a few feet from them with cameras cocked. It was quite literally a zoo. Appalling.


Nine of us boarded the tuk-tuk to the market with our instructors Leng and Phia. We buzzed through the market more hurriedly than we would have liked, but another Taiwanese-Dutch woman and I peppered (no pun intended) Leng with questions. We returned to the school for a little tea and bowls of fabulous sweet, salty, spicy pretzel-like things while the instructors prepared for class.

Their accents were nearly impossible and these guys do not have the personality to be on the Food Network or even local cable, but they can cook. They demonstrated a few dishes at a time, and then we returned to our respective stations and to recreate each dish. Alan and I worked surprisingly well together. He did all the measuring, of course; I did all the slicing and chopping. He made sure we followed the recipe precisely; I did the plating.

We consumed five dishes (plus sticky rice and the best chili paste we’ve tasted anywhere in the world) for lunch and dinner. Click on the thumbnail of us to see more photos of our creations and classmates.


The night market is clean and bright and goes on for blocks. We buy our dinner along the crowded “buffet” alley. An all-you-can-heap plate costs us $1.20 which we complement with another dollar’s worth of grilled chicken and Alan’s diet soda. We are fully sated and can well afford to shop. The young sellers talk amongst themselves or on cell phones and start their prices too high. The older Hmong women understand the economics of volume selling and their ROI. My favorite just keeps heaping the goods and dropping the price each time I look toward Alan who doesn’t have to work at feigning disinterest as he reads a book on his Droid. We do the requisite schmoozing – “I make this one” “Ooh, very beautiful” “Special discount, Madam” “Just looking tonight” “This one lucky for you” “Sorry, I’m a stingy bitch and my sister doesn’t want another scarf” – but quickly move into serious negotiations. I score well. The old woman has had a good night compared to the other couple hundred merchants selling pretty much the same stuff.  Click on her photo to see more from the market.


Because of the exchange rate (1 kip = .00012 U.S. dollars; 1 million kip = $125) and they don’t drop all those zeroes, it’s at first a bit disconcerting to get the dinner check. Our second dinner in Laos, which included three dishes, sticky rice, an amuse bouche, and a bottle of lao lao, came to 85,000 kip. The following night, we ate at a place that was more upscale, heavy on atmosphere – quite charming actually – but light on quality, for a whopping 100,000 kip. It just wasn’t worth the extra $2.75. Still doing the math? Divide the number of kip by 8 and move the decimal point 3 places. Easy, eh?

Thailand to Laos

(Click on photos to see them at full size. Click on veggie, sausage and temple photos to see albums with additional photos.)

Thailand is a country of many man-made, as well as natural, wonders. Not that they compare with the magnificent Grand Palace, but the sheer number of fake identity cards available is in itself impressive. For a few dollars, you can buy an International Student Identity Card (always helpful for museum discounts in Europe); an official “Press” pass from any major newspaper in the world including one from Lesthoto (that surely, with today’s security practices, will leap-frog you past the Salahis into a State dinner with the Obamas); airline employee cards (handy if you don’t want to remove your shoes); a driver’s license from anywhere in the world, including one from California that was quite good; and best of all, a card that shows you work for Kaiser Permanente – not an insurance/insured card, but employee identification card. Anyone need us to help you start a new life?

Before leaving Bangkok, we found our treasured fried bananas and discovered a new treat they call coconut pudding. It’s really a sort of fried coconut milk with a couple kernels of corn cooked in what looks like a miniature abelskiver pan. I’m certain I could make these but I don’t think Williams-Sonoma carries the right pan and I’m not keen on schlepping back cast iron.  

To Udon Thani we flew Air Asia, the Southwest Airlines of Southeast Asia, which gives priority seating and boarding to people with special needs and – people over 50. Ha! Take that you young whipper snappers! The shuttle from the dinky UT airport, not unlike the Super Shuttle, stopped 7 times before finally depositing us at our delightful, Ikea furnished guesthouse.

UT is a rather unremarkable city at the crossroads of old and new. We took our dinner in one of the traditional outdoor food stall courts and then strolled to the adjacent, spanking new mall complete with jumbotrons and charmless, chi-chi boutiques that could have been anywhere in the world. There was some sort of teeny bopper Halloween/fashion show/competition happening and when the judges were introduced – major teen heartthrobs, we assumed – there were deafening screams from the rabid fans. To keep the younger kids amused, there was a huge courtyard full of hula hoops, free for the spinning, and a gigantic, two tiered “bouncy house” decorated with nagas (snakes) rather than the usual barnyard critters. Those were being grilled back at the food stalls.

We loaded up on fried chicken and things on sticks, the most typical Lao dish being a smoky, grilled patty of sticky rice which, while bad if you’re watching your carbs or gluten, was intensely flavorful. My one real gaff was to buy spicy pork wrapped in banana leaf only to discover the pork was raw. Oops. Passed. Dessert was a bag of rice krispy-like cookies. (Remind Alan to tell you about “justice cakes.”)

The next morning, still struggling with jetlag, after one tuk-tuk, one bus, another tuk-tuk, one more bus across the Friendship Bridge between Thailand & Laos, and a taxi ride, we arrived in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. Our hotel sits in the middle of the old, terribly quaint, French-infused quarter just a few short blocks from the banks of the Mekong. Again we find ourselves amidst a city in transition. Street vendors and open front, hole-in-the wall shops punctuate the streets of tarted-up French colonial buildings, an array of international restaurants, and sleek cafes with lattes, scones and WiFi. Visitors here only a year ago won’t recognize the riverfront. The grass and gentle slope down to the water are gone, replaced by a serpentine boardwalk of concrete pavers. It will be lovely when finished; unfortunately, there are plans to build enormous, high-rise developments a la Honolulu just across the street. Throughout the city are dozens of magnificent wats (temples) and stupas. (Click on the temple shot at right to see our album of wats, stupas, temples and bunches o’ Buddhas) The newer areas of the city sport wide, multi-lane boulevards; a Laotian version of the Arc d’Triomphe; manicured parks; and massive building projects; as well as the country’s largest outdoor market selling everything from gold to entrails. (For vegetarians and those who may be a bit squeamish about the practice of not wasting any parts, click on the pretty veggie shot. For the rest of you, click on the sausage photo as well for, uh, meatier shots.)

Our hope in coming here was to see a country on par with the Vietnam of 15 years ago. I think it is well beyond that, but not yet fully homogenized. Our timing is good.

Fun fact: Vientiane is a “smoke free” city. We haven’t seen a local smoking cigarettes and the tourists who smoke are very few. Between that, a distinct lack of diesel exhaust, the smell of fresh grilled street food, and a lot of incense wafting from the temples, this is one good smelling town.


Mango and banana shakes – excellent; Lao beer (think Budweiser); lao lao boom (a likely candidate for this year’s Thanksgiving cocktail); grilled, smoked duck; banh xeo; laap (a sort of cross between Thai larb and Chinese chicken salad – the best version with tiny, buttery croutons and herbs we’ve yet to identify) – SPECTACULAR; garlic pepper pork; chicken curry (different than Thai); puffy fry bread with sesame; an amuse bouche of fried/puffed glutenous rice topped with a pork & tomato sort of ratatouille; gelato (did we mention this is a very international little capitol city?); spicy yellow noodle with chicken & veggies – all outstanding. The only mistake was ordering green papaya salad and naively saying we could take it spicy. I believe the recipe they used begins “shred 6 Scotch bonnet peppers…”

Next up: Luang Prabang for your Buck