Monday, July 30, 2007

Dolphins in the Mekong.

One of the highlights of visiting the area around Laos-Cambodian border is the chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the Mekong. According to the guidebooks, the dolphins have a special place in local mythology- they're very close to humans, with reports that they have performed heroic deeds, like saving people from crocodiles. For the community living in the area today, they mainly represent a local source of eco-tourism. During the dry season, they can occasionally be spotted in Laos, among the shallow waters around the 4000 islands. During the wet season, it's much easier to see them in Cambodia, where they live in colonies around sunken islands.
Having spent a beautiful but rough week in Southern Laos- no good coffee or muesli!- the Cambodian town of Kratie welcomed us with an array of simple but comforting Western pleasures. The dining highlight of Kratie was the cafe at the Star Guesthouse. It was situated in a corner spot, across from the food market. Over breakfast or lunch, we watched the goings-on at the fruit stands, and admired the bundles of green bananas that hawkers lugged by. The cafe had a wide range of coffees, good sandwiches using imported ingredients, and my staple breakfast, muesli and yogurt. Kratie itself was a pleasant town, with aged and faded French architecture, and a packed market selling fresh fish and colorful fruit. Just a few blocks away from the town center, and the neighborhoods become starkly more rural; bamboo and wooden stilt houses replaced concrete apartment blocks, and horse drawn carts plodded between moto traffic. The town also had a beautiful location along a wide stretch of the Mekong, which was best viewed from the promenade at sunset, as the golden light filtered through the colonnade of trees.
The dolphins are best seen from Kampie, a small town roughly 15 minutes moto ride from Kratie. The road out was easily one of the most interesting part of the trip. The were beautiful wood homes, with ornately carved accents on the roof and along the eaves; tiny bamboo houses, perched on stilts over muddy water; and all of this piled along the road against a backdrop of intensely green rice paddies. As the moto slowed down, I easily spotted the entrance to the dolphin site; there was a tacky dolphin statue, fading in the tropical sun. We paid the entrance fee, which had risen to about $7 US (well worth it, especially if it actually goes toward protecting the dolphins' habitat)- that included a boat trip with local guides, who were required not to use motors or to chase the dolphins.
From the dock, it was a ten minute boat trip out to the deeper pools that the dolphins favor. I had been worried that we wouldn't see any dolphins- perhaps still thinking of my elephant-less visit to the elephant tower at Ban Na- so I was very surprised how quickly we saw the first dolphin. It's silver fin sliced out of the water, and it disappeared again. I was confused by the fact that the boat driver didn't stop, and didn't seem to pay it any attention- but when we got to our destination, I saw why. We anchored the boat, and watched the water. The dolphins were everywhere. They would appear in pairs, the two fins usually rising in unison. They aren't as playful or as outgoing as their bottlenose relatives, but they still came fairly close to the boat. Occasionally they would show themselves long enough for me to see their distinctive blunt noses and bulbous heads. We watched them for an hour, during which time I tried unsuccessfully to get a good photo. Thankfully, the experience of seeing these strange and rare river creatures more than made up for that.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Dining on the Mekong.

Unlike Thai food, which, thanks to Los Angeles' many fine Thai restaurants, I was familiar with, Lao food was completely unknown to me before my visit. Though some dishes in Laos were similar to food I'd had in Thailand, there were some notable differences. Lao food in general tends to be less spicy, and most subtly nuanced, with flavors balancing each other out.
One of the most noted legacies of the French occupation of Laos is the presence of the crusty baguettes sold just about everywhere. While the baguettes often come with meals at chic cafes and elegant restaurants, one of the best places to try them is at street-side stands. Foot long baguette sandwiches can be bought cheaply, and are surprisingly delicious. The bread is usually fresh, with a crisp crust and soft interior, and the sandwich is created with a seemingly strange mix of ingredients. Standard ingredients include cucumber, cold cuts, chili sauce, pate, and fish sauce (and for those who like it, dried pork flakes). The result is a sandwich that, like most Lao food, has a mix of nicely nuanced flavors and textures, with salty, spicy, and savory all delicately balanced.
There were an amazing variety of snacks for sale at the morning markets, from fried crickets to while grilled chickens. One cheap street-food treat that I loved were the tiny rice-porridge tarts that were sold at markets all around Laos. I haven't been able to find out what they're called, and I can only guess what they're made of. They're poured as a batter into a sectional griddle, toasted brown, and served straight off the griddle. They're eaten piping hot, the creamy center able to burn the roof of your mouth. They usually have the flavor of a pancake, with hints of spring onion in the center. In southern Laos, I bought a batch that was made with sweet corn, and served with a coating of white sugar.
Considering that Laos is basically a long parcel of land stretch across the Mekong, it makes sense that a lot of food should come from the river. One of my favorite river treats was a Luang Prabang speciality called khai paen, fried river-weed chips. Bordeaux and I tried them at a cheap riverside restaurant in Luang Prabang, looking out over the Mekong. The riverweed was served in large, thin squares, and were so dark green as to be almost black. They had a soft seaweed taste, which was complimented by a coating of toasted sesame seeds. Perhaps best of all, the chips were served with jeowbong, a Luang Prabang chili paste. Though not particularly hot (the paste is made with 1/3 chili and 2/3 sugar), the paste added a sharp spicy-sweet flavor.
We happened to be in Laos during the season for river prawns, and we would often see the huge, blue prawns cooling in ice at foodstalls around Vientiane. Despite not really caring for prawns, I was curious to try one. I bought one in Vientienne, from what is likely Laos' least convincing transsexual (as Bordeaux said, Lao trannies just don't try very hard). The prawn was grilled over coals until it turned deep red, the shell just toasting black. It was tasty and surprisingly meaty, though as said, I don't really care for prawns. So what's the point of my review?
But by far, my favorite riverine meals was mok pa, a fish curry steamed in banana leaf. We ordered it at guesthouse in the 4000 Islands, in the tropical south of Laos. The fish is cooked in the banana leaf, turning it into a paste like consistency that is soft, delicate and full of flavor. It had a melting texture, and a strong, fresh lemon grass flavor, with sharp hints of kaffir-lime leaves.
One of the things I was most curious to try (but found most disappointing) was Lao coffee. Unlike the hilltribe flavor of Thailand, which was naturally sweet and highly flavorful, most of the Lao coffee I had was too dark and bitter for my taste. While this is certainly due in part to the quality of the coffee beans themselves, it was likely in part a result of the way the coffee is prepared. Lao coffee is generally prepared in in a metal sieve, and then served in a small glass over an inch of condensed milk. Though occasionally it came out well, the bitterness and sweetness nicely mixing, it often was simply too bitter, and too mudlike. Certain Western style coffeeshops, most notably JoMa in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, used Lao coffee to make delicious, if not uniquely flavorful, lattes and americanos. Morning Glory, in Luang Prabang, served a nice Lao coffee in a french press, fitting of its euro-tropical cafe.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ruins of Southern Laos.

Departing from Vientiane, Bordeaux and I left behind the comforts of Northern Laos. The bus from Vientiane to Savannakhet should have been a good indication of what was to come: our bus turned out of the station, stopped directly across the street to load on more passengers, waited while they got settled on plastic stools in the aisle, started up, slowly crawled a block, then stopped again to let on vendors, who climbed in over everyone to sell grilled chicken, fried crickets, and bottles of coke. An hour after we were scheduled to leave, we were barely leaving the city.
We reached Savannakhet in the late afternoon. Savannakhet is mostly notable for what it could be, or almost is. It's almost a charming city; it could be, as the guidebooks optimistically describe it, 'the Luang Phabang of the south.' And to be fair, it certainly has a lot going for it: a pleasant location on a bend on the Mekong, a white walled church set at the head of a large open square, and beautifully faded French architecture from the 1930s to the 1960s. But somehow it seems as if none of this is living up to its potential. The city lacks the cafes and restaurants of Louang Phabang or Vientiane, has little to offer for accommidation, and has few sites worth visiting. It would be nice place to relax if only there were a comfortable place to do so. At the time of our visit there was a new cafe opening up on the square, but even that looked like a generic import. Still, despite its lack of amenities, the charms of this rusted and aging city make it more than likable; I only wish there was more to reward that affection.
The major sign of modern life in Savannakhet was present in bright, lurid, plastic colors. Near the riverside noodle stalls and fruitshake stands we encountered a funfair in the process of being set up. They had already set up a small train, a merry go round, and a see-saw, and a massive bouncy playground was slowly plumping and growing. Though the entire fairground was populated by cartoon characters, none were recognizable, aside from a few minor look alikes; there was a rather jaundiced Mickey Mouse, and a nightmarish Donald Duck. Most of the other cartoon characters were simply creepy- most particularly the menacing Rabbit in a mini-skirt, who powered the seesaw with her brawny plastic arms while making a series of ambulance alarm noises. Some characters were simply incomprehensible, like the martian-rodent that wore a military uniform, rode a log covered in hearts, and pointed a gun; when a young girl rode the train sitting in front of him, it looked as though she were being held against her will.
Our bus ride to Pakxe was even worse than our ride to Savannakhet. Of six hours traveling, we spent at least 3 hours stopped, either loading on passengers and cargo, taking bathroom and smoking breaks, or sometimes stopping for no clear reason. One night in Pakxe was enough to take in the atmosphere, and we left early the next morning. From Pakxe we took a boat further south, to the quiet riverside town of Champasak. There wasn't much in Champasack- a row of houses and shops, a few dingy guesthouses, and a beautifully faded yellow villa. The quiet Mekong location was perfect for relaxing though, so Bordeaux and I spent time resting above the brown river, drinking banana and lao coffee shakes.
Southern Laos' major site is Wat Phou, an incredible hillside Khmer ruin. At the base of the hill were two large complexes known as the palaces. The artwork on the temples remaining was incredible, with fierce nagas and demons still guarding the corners of the ruins. Up a crumbling staircase, under a canopy of strangler figs, was the real wonder of Wat Phou. In a shady glade was a humble temple, a gold-sashed Buddha flashing from within its center. Carved guards and aspara dancers stood on the walls, curving bodies specked with moss. The wooden braces that held the temple up inside revealed the degree to which it was on the verge of crumbling, or being pulled down by vines and roots. The site was strange, dark, and perfectly mysterious. The quiet wonder of Wat Phou on its own makes the slow and uneasy trip through Southern Laos well worth it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Elephant Tower.

Compared to the relative ease with which Bordeaux and I got to Khao Yai in Thailand, getting to the national parks in Laos seemed like far more of a mission. Our guidebook- the rather dismal Rough Guide to Laos- gave essentially no information on getting into Phou Khao Kaouy, aside from advising that we take a tour. We almost dismissed the idea of going entirely, and began planning on heading directly to Southern Laos. Thankfully, while walking up Vientiane's Lane Xang, Bordeaux and I came across the Laos tourism office. There, they gave us information on the park, and recommended to us Ban Na village, where they offer treks, homestays, and a night in an elephant tower. The staff at the tourism office were even able to give us detailed information on getting there by public transport.
The trip to Ban Na by public transport was rather easy- we caught a bus to Ban Phabat, and then walked 2 km to the village, where we were greeted immediately by a guide. While we filled out registration forms and waited for the trek to start, we had time to take in the village. There were several women making baskets, men working in the fields, and children playing hopscotch. One small girl competed with me in making odd faces, and two boys tried to impress us by doing strange tricks on their bikes.
From the village it was a 4 km walk to the Elephant Tower. We first crossed through rice paddies and bamboo groves, crossing bridges built of thin planks and bamboo poles. Past the cultivated land we entered 'elephant territory', a scrubby green woodland. Though the guides didn't speak much English (and we didn't speak any Lao), they were friendly and extremely personable, and pointed out the strange insects, tiny frogs, and snakes that crossed our path.
The tower was fairly basic, but well set up. There was a stream below the tower, where we were meant to bathe. The water was cool, fresh and clear, with a shallow rocky bed- perfect for cooling off, until Bordeaux spotted one of the seven-inch leeches wriggling toward us. For dinner our guides fixed a large tasty meal of noodles and sticky rice. After eating, they went through a book of animals with us, asking the English names for some of the birds and mammals in the area, teaching us the Lao names in return. At bedtime they set up mats, sleeping bags, and mosquito netting, and switched off the lanterns. A storm was growing in the distance, and lightning silently flashed over the forest. We fell asleep to the sound of rain on the metal roof.
So, we saw neither elephants, or any large animals. It was certainly disappointing not to see any of the elephants, but even so, the experience of the tower was well worth it. The forest around the tower was beautiful- huge trees and bamboo thickets. Additionally, the Elephant Tower has been set up as a source of income for the village, and many people in town are involved. By visiting, it can promote the development of conscientious tourism in Laos, allow villagers to develop income from the wildlife that destroys their crops, and hopefully encourage more tourism opportunities in Laos' wild places. But above all else, the experience of being in the forest canopy was incredible, particularly at night, when we were surrounded by the humming of insects, the chirping of bats, and the soft steady rhythm of the rainstorm. It gave a unique chance to see Lao village life, and to experience the nighttime rhythm of the jungle.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vientiane Style.

It's not hard to enjoy the pleasures of Louang Phabang: the peaceful riverside atmosphere, the tastefully restored French architecture, and the Royalist history combine to make a refined yet relaxed town. Most travelers coming from the north thus find it easy to dismiss Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It's too concrete, not charming enough. However, Vientiane has its own pace and its own style.

Like most good capitals, Vientiane has a taste for the monumental. Lane Xang avenue, designed to evoke the boulevards of Paris, runs through a neighborhood of office-parks and embassies, ending at the Patouxi arch. Built to resemble a Hindu arc de triomphe, the monument suffered from concrete shortages and socialist redecoration, and is now, by declaration of its own informational plaque, "a concrete monster." Further east from Patouxi is the That Louang, symbol of Laos. It's emblematic gold stupa, which is stunning enough on its own, is set in an oddly layed out park, accented by carved topiaries and ornate lampposts. Far more pleasant are the simple offices and shops of the city, many of which were designed in the 1960s in a French modernist style, and have been left to age gracefully. Where Louang Phabang feels like a colonial outpost, restored to recapture the 1930s, Vientiane feels like a sleepy but cosmopolitan capital, stuck languidly in the 1960s.
For travelers and expats, Vientiane's subtle cosmopolitanism also provides access to a number of Western luxuries unavailable elsewhere in Laos. A number of minimarts- thrilling, for the travel worn- sell bottles of wines, European cosmetics, and luxury chocolates. Vientiane also offers a wide range of options for eating out- from the cheap Lao noodleshops that crowd the promenade overlooking the Mekong, to the hip cafes and stuffy french restaurants centered around the city center. The best coffeeshop in town is JoMa, which also has a branch in Louang Phabang. Aside from serving the best lattes in Laos, JoMa has a good sandwich menu, an extensive array of baked goods, and an air-conditioned interior with an urban atmosphere. It provides the perfect atmosphere to relax with an out-of-date Vientiane Times, and soak up the charm of this backwater capital.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Kayaking to Vientiane.

One day in Vang Vieng was enough for me. The fog shrouded limestone karsts that surrounded the town, looking like mountains from a Chinese watercolor, were certainly incredible. And the shallow brown river that curved below them, perfect for a day of inner-tubing, created a relaxing atmosphere. But Vang Vieng itself was a bit dire. Walking down the dusty main street at night, we were often assaulted by the canned laughter of three or more different restaurants playing Friends dvds, trying to lure in customers.

Rather than taking the bus out of Vang Vieng, Bordeaux and I decided to take a kayaking trip. We wouldn't be able to kayak the whole way down to Vientiane, but a number of companies offered a day trip, featuring several hours kayaking, followed by a bus transfer to the capital. After comparing a few of the tour companies in town (which all have exactly the same information and, within two or three dollars, the same prices) we signed up with Riverside Tours.
After a winding, speeding journey down the curvy mountain roads out of Vang Vieng, we were dropped off in a small town on the Nam Lik river. Altogether there were only nine of us on the tour, led by three guides. After a short introduction, we got into our helmets and life-vests and pushed off into the water. Fairly early into the trip we encountered some small rapids- the splash of waves helped to cool off the already baking sun. Further on we encountered grade 3 rapids, with larger waves and whirpools that first pulled us in and then quickly shot us out. Past the jagged rocks and white water the river calmed, and we were able to more fully enjoy the forest around us. It was amazing how pristine the area looked- aside from the occasional bamboo fishing pole left at the riverside, we felt completely isolated in the forest.

After about an hour of kayaking, we stopped to rest and have lunch. Two of the guides cooked while the rest of us swam in the river. The temperature of the river was perfect, a nice relief from the warm air and beating sun. Lunch was served on slices of banana leaves. For having carried all of the food with them in their kayak, the guides produced an impressive lunch- grilled chicken and beef skewers with vegetables, fried rice, and a baguette, which is practically obligatory in Laos. A small rainstorm settled on us as we finished lunch, soaking us just after we'd been able to dry off. When the blue finally appeared over us again, we quickly got back into our kayaks and started off on our last leg of the trip.
The final hour of kayaking was on the open, calm waters of the river as it widened out. Without any rapids or rocks, we could study the jungle that surrounded us. There were truly massive trees, with thick curtains of leafy green vines hanging from their limbs, and muscular roots gripping onto the rocky shore. Dragonflies hovered over the surface of the water, before settling onto the abandoned bamboo fishing rods that littered the shore. We ended our trip at a rocky beach, where a group of kids were busy sharing an orange.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Few fruits can be justifiably described as notorious, but the durian is highly deserving of that adjective. It's known widely for its noxious scent, which is best described through an incongruous hyphenate- for me, the durian has a vanilla frosting-burning rubber smell. I'd seen and smelled them often in markets throughout Thailand, being first drowned in their scent before seeing their green spiky shells- but had never had the chance to try one.

But, the more I encountered the pungent smell, the more curious I became. Finally, perhaps inspired by a report on another stinky Asian delicacy at Iamaviking, I resolved to try the durian. I ordered it a riverside cafe in Louang Phabang, as a dessert accompanied by sticky rice. It arrived on my table as a highly fragrant ivory colored pulp, unevenly spread over the mound of sticky rice, resembling the body of a whale decaying on a beach. I tried my first bite, scooping some of the durian away from the rice to taste it on its own. I found that unlike what I had been told, the flavor is not in fact much more subtle than the scent. As the flavor developed in my mouth, I was reminded of the scene in Alice in Wonderland in which Alice describes the successive flavors tasted in the "drink me potion", only to a more extreme form: "nail polish remover.... butterscotch pudding... rotting mango... melk tart... car exhaust fumes!" Bordeaux took two bites and refused to eat anymore, stating with disgust that he actually preferred the smell to the taste. I tried desperately to be open, searching out the more pleasant intricacies of the flavor. After eating several spoonfuls of it, however, I was forced to admit to myself that the overwhelming flavor was rather foul, and the noxious fumes were starting to make my stomach hurt. The custard like texture, which in most guide books is described as one of the fruit's redeeming qualities, actually added to the sense of putrification and rot that the scent and flavor gave off. So, I sadly have to add myself to the list of Westerners for whom durian is an unacquired taste. I can, however, appreciate the taste complexities of the fruit, and will look at durian eaters with an even greater amount of respect.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Three Elephants cooking school.

While Bordeaux and I had waited until nearly the end of our time in Thailand to take a Thai cooking course, we decided to take our Lao cooking course during our first week in Laos. A number of restaurants around Luang Phabang offer cooking courses, which seem to vary widely in number of dishes prepared. Bordeaux and I quickly chose the Three Elephants cooking school, taught from a large kitchen down an alley between the Three Elephants Cafe and the Nam Khan river. The course included demonstrations on 7 dishes, with the opportunity to choose five to prepare. This would give us some control over our what we wanted to try, and also introduced us to a wider range of foods.
In the morning we met at the kitchen, we were introduced to our teachers, Neng and Leng. Our cooking class began with the ubiquitous tour of the market. We first cut through the dry stalls, which sold bright plastic toys, cheap cookware, and a strange selection of men's underwear. Once in the wet market, Leng went to shop for produce, while Neng gave a dramatic presentation on various Lao vegetables. We followed Neng around between stalls, looking at sticky rice, buffalo skin, and chili powder. The meat stalls seemed to show a much greater reliance on river life than any markets that we visited in Thailand; tables were covered in glazy eyed scaly fish and wide mouthed catfish, while coal barbecues heated whole fish-on-a-stick.
Back in the kitchen, the class was markedly different than our course in Thailand. Rather than each having a station of our own, we were assigned two to a wok. This worked well for me, as I do much better following Bordeaux's orders than cooking on my own. Additionally, the teaching style was much different. Cooking centered around demonstrations, in which either Neng or Leng would prepare several dishes in succession. The idea was that once we had finished we would gather our own vegetables, measure and chop everything ourselves, and cook the meals using our cookbooks as a guide. This wasn't always easy, as the cookbooks occasionally left out steps from the demonstration, and Neng often spoke so quietly that it was difficult to hear him. This style required us to be much more self sufficient than Thai Farm, where many of our ingredients were measured out for us, and where cooking was done in steps announced to entire class as we cooked. The benefit is that, hopefully, we'll be more able to cook on our own outside of the class.

In the morning we prepared two dishes: Luang Prabang Salad, greens, hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes covered with a mayonnaise we prepared ourselves, perhaps a leftover from the influence of the french; and feu khua, a chicken and rice noodle dish in which the noodles are fried almost into a patty, then scrambled with an egg. After a long lunch we watched a long demonstration, in which we were taught to make chicken larp, green papaya salad, and oh paedek. Bordeaux and I had already made papaya salad in Thailand, so we chose the other two. Chicken larp is a cold salad of chicken and banana-flower, and oh paedek is a soupy dish of ground pork and egg flavored with galangal, a mild ginger root. They then demonstrated two more dishes, fried eggplant with pork, and geng phet, which is a little like a mild Lao curry. We chose the eggplant, since we'd made curry, and Bordeaux and I both love eggplant. Before we moved outside for dinner, Neng showed us how to make Tamnak Lao Jeowbong, a Luang Phabang chili paste that's eaten as a garnish. Lao dishes don't favor the spiciness that the Thai enjoy, however, so for the two tablespoons of chili there were also three tablespoons of sugar. We ate our last three dishes as an early dinner out on the patio. The chicken larp and the pork with eggplant were my favorite dishes; the larp reminded me of a chicken salad I had in Bangkok that could be wrapped in kale leaves and eaten with lime, and the eggplant and pork took on a nice flavor of oyster sauce.
Though we'd been eating Lao food as often as possible since arriving, this class offered a good chance to really see the unique qualities of Lao food. Lao dishes are generally fairly mild, so most flavors are balanced out with contrasting flavors, creating subtle suggestions of spicy, sweet and sour in each dish. I love spicy food, so to be honest I may still have a preference for Thai cooking, but at least this class gave me more of an appreciation for the milder intricacies of Lao cooking.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Beautiful Luang Phabang.

Few legendary destinations live up to their reputations of romance and exoticism. Louang Phabang certainly comes close. Admittedly, part of its glamour must have been a result of our means of arrival; after two days traveling by slowboat through the jungle of the Mekong, Louang Phabang served as a very welcome port of call.
Apart from it's soothing views of the Mekong, the Nam Khan river, and the distant forested hills, Luang Phabang also boasts beautiful French architecture, numerous markets, and cafes brewing coffee grown in southern Laos. A city of cool white walls and blue-green shutters, Louang Phabang has a reputation for sophistication among the Lao. Unlike most of the country, which hasn't yet been able to fully emerge from years of economic isolation, there are few comforts or luxuries missing in Louang Phabang. Aside from a crumbling Socialist Mural perched above the Hmong market (Soclalist art always being recognizable by groups of united youth and the presence of a man holding a wrench), the only visible sign of communism is in the hammer and sickle t-shirts for sale. One could almost imagine that the city had gone smoothly from royal capital to French outpost to chic tourist destination.
For being a relatively small city, Luang Phabang offers a few rather impressive sites. There are a number of wats, shimmering gold inbetween the gardens of neighboring villas. The most impressive is Wat Xiang Thong; the exterior walls of its pavillions and chapels are decorated in glass mosaic tile, depicting elephants, peacocks, and characters from Lao folktales. The premier site in town, however, is the Royal Palace, home of Laos' last king and queen. The entrance halls of the palace, which were redone in the late 1950s, feature colossal mosaics in metallic tile. Shards of colored glass create an entire universe of Lao folklore... In another chamber are a series of murals depicting the passage of one day in Louang Phabang. Painted in 1930 by Alex de Fautereau, the mural seems to have been an effort to mythologize Laos in the same way that Gauguin did for Tahiti. However, where Gauguin favored Polynesian women, it seems possible that Alex had a strong fondness for young Lao men; while the women in his mural are fully-clothed, often tucked away in shadows caring for childen, the men of Louang Phabang appear bare-chested in tight (and sometimes short) sarongs, standing in intimate conversation with one another. Beyond the entry halls are the royal residences, which are striking for their simplicity. Though they favored rather ostentatious ceremonial rooms, their own bedrooms have plain white walls and simple wooden furnishings. Behind the Royal Palace there are a number of galleries, which show surprisingly sophisticated work. In one old room there was even a show of work by Janine Antoni, featuring pieces she created in dialogue with several Hmong women.On our last morning in Luang Phabang, Bordeaux and I woke especially early. Starting at sunrise, the local monks walk through town, receiving alms from the local women. Since monks cannot cultivate their own food, they must be given it through this daily ritual. The woman sat patiently, often chatting and laughing with their friends, waiting for the procession of monks to arrive. At last they appeared, a long train of men, young and old, in orange robes. The woman would gather a handful of sticky rice from their basket, and give it to the monks. Once the last monks had passed by, the women would say a small prayer, and return to their homes. Leaving the morning ritual, Bordeaux and I headed to the morning market. Blankets were set out and small stands set up on a thin alley, where it seemed almost possible to find any kind of Laotian creature on offer. Plastic bags quivered with live crickets and crabs, water rodents tried to chew out of bamboo cages, and large birds lay dead on the ground, their splayed wings still covered in dark feathers. Bordeaux and I opted for a somewhat safer breakfast; rice porridge tarts, their edges browned to the flavor of a warm pancake, their insides still dripping hot.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Tropical waterways have always held a mysterious fascination for me. So though I was excited to be visiting Laos for the first time, I was even more excited by being able to travel by down the Mekong, the largest river in Southeast Asia.
My first sighting of the river was in darkness, as Bordeaux and I sat down for dinner on our last night in Thailand. It appeared as solid darkness, a non-form breaking up the edge of Thailand and the distant twinkling lights of Laos. We drank our last Chang over it, sipping away our beer as the river silently slipped past.

I saw the Mekong properly as we came down for breakfast the next morning- a thick, muddy river being scratched by the early morning activities of ferries and canoes. After taking a small wooden ferry across the Thai-Laos border, we got our passports stamped and bought our tickets for the two-day slowboat down to Louang Phabang. We waited for the slowboat outside a convenience store, where we were joined by several English students on their gap year, a young French couple, and a loud, obnoxious Australian, who wore green crocs and a loose tank-top that showed off his grey back-hair.
After clearing our passports again, we were allowed to board ship. The slowboat is a strange vessel, appearing almost like the first floor of a wooden shophouse, painted brightly and set to float on the water. In the front of the boat was a short curving deck, on which sat a pile of cargo, a small dog, and a garden of potted plants. Once onboard, we found that most of the space had already been taken, and we were forced to sit uncomfortably on one of the few wooden benches left. The English gap students sat in front of us, joined now by an awkward Scandinavian. As the boat continued to fill up, passengers were forced to squeeze in, sit on the floor, or pile in with the luggage. Despite the fact that we were already packed full, more tourists kept appearing on the dock, and the transport officials kept insisted that there was only going to be one boat. Somehow the seating arrangement around us shifted, and suddenly the obnoxious Australian was sitting two rows ahead of us, doing his best to charm the group of eighteen-year-old British girls. It was too much to have to share the company of the Mekong with such an annoying person, and I numbly accepted that this was going to be a miserable seven hours. Another slowboat drifted up next to us, and it became clear that another boat was going to be making the trip. I shoved my backpack to Bordeaux. "Go get us space on that boat- I'll get our luggage."
He managed to reserve a nice stretch of the floor for us- once lined with cushions it became a comfortable place to stretch out and relax. We spent our first day relaxing, reading or leaning back against the side of the boat to nap. We drank warm beer Lao, a toast to our trip on the mekong. Occasionally I stood to enjoy the view- the farmed green hills around Houayxai gave way to a massive wall of jungle, which rose above us on either side of the smooth brown river. Occasionally a white sand beach or an island of craggy rocks would interrupt the green and brown monotony.

We spent that night in Pakbeng, a small river town whose main function is sheltering travels in between legs of the journey. The first hotel we checked into, recommended by the increasingly failing Rough Guide to Laos, was a pile of concrete and bamboo boxes that seemed likely to slip into the river. The room was tatty, with ragged bedsheets over a twisted mattress. The hotel was noisy and crowded, mainly filled up with gap-year students who likely had the same Rough Guide as us. Taking the guidebook's word that this was one of the best places in town we consigned ourselves to the room, and went to take a shower. Once the florescent light flicked on, we realized that our bathroom was connected to the next hotel room, the two being divided by a low cinderblock wall. When we realized that the shower didn't work, we asked to switch rooms. The manager showed me another room- I checked the shower, and found that it worked, but to the effect that the shower-head flew off any time we turned on the water. I asked to see another room, but they insisted they were full- though as Bordeaux and I got our bags and left, they suddenly seemed to have another room to show us. We found a much nicer hotel across the street for the same price. The room was cleaner, with new tile floors, white walls, and clean crisp sheets and towels- and incredibly, the shower worked perfectly.
The next day we woke early to secure two of the slowboat's very limited comfortable seats, which seemed to have been lifted out of minivans and screwed into the wooden floor. The journey on the second day was even more incredible, as we were now able to enjoy the view. In the early part of the day the river was thin- a slim channel of coffee-colored water passing between the forest, which rose 200 feet on either side of us. The jungle was lush and green, with huge leafy vines swallowing up entire trees. Where there was a break in the greenery it appeared as a wound in the forest, with bleached white tree trunk skeleton showing through. From within the thicket came the whining siren-buzz of insects, the labored breathing of the forest itself. The immensity of the jungle was overwhelming, and any canoes or boats that passed near the shore looked ridiculously out of proportion, appearing tiny before the immensely overgrown jungle. Occasionally the forest would relent, breaking open to show a small village of bamboo houses and sheet-metal roofs. Sometimes we would stop at these villages to pick up cargo or passengers. Most other times we drifted by without acknowledging the town at all, and the fishermen and water buffalo that we passed appeared to us simply as silent vignettes of rural Lao life.

Rivers of Danger.

My fascination with rivers comes from an odd mix of influences, like childhood rides on the Jungle Cruise, and an early obsession with the explorations of David Livingstone. Though I loved the movie the African Queen, I didn't have much interest in Katherine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart; the real stars for me were the chugging old steamboat, and the perilous river that it crawled down. Whatever the composite sources, waterways like the Limpopo and the Zambezi have always seemed like sites of pilgrimage to me. In honor of finally seeing the Mekong, I wanted to post a few photos of the other major rivers I've loved.

The Zambezi, Southern Africa (photographed in Zambia and Zimbabwe)

The Nile, North-East Africa (photographed in Egypt)

The Madre de Dios, South America (photographed in Peru)

The Chobe, Southern Africa (photographed in Botswana)

The Los Angeles River, Southern California (photographed off Glendale Blvd)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thai Street Food.

One of the best things about traveling in Thailand has been the street food. Stepping out of our guesthouse in Bangkok, we were immediately surrounded by four or five stalls selling fresh fruit, iced coffees, or small one-dish meals. For a traveler, its a good way to eat cheap- a two dish meal, beer and dessert can cost less than $1. Wherever we've gone there's been a wide range of streetfood available, from satays sold at streecorners, curries from sidewalk restaurants, and local specialties sold at market stalls.
A staple of any Thai restaurant in America, pad thai is readily available at street stands and sidewalk markets. Phad/phat Thai, which translates as 'Thai Fry-up', is always a great option from street vendors because it's delicious, usually cheap, and great fun watching them cook it. At one stand I saw in Bankok the chef kept piles of noodles and beansprouts perched at the edge of her wok. When she received an order she'd throw on some oil, cook some chicken or tofu, fast fry an egg, and pull a little from each of the piles. She whipped it all together, spread it on a platter and handed it to me, so that I could then garnish it how I wanted, with dried chili flakes, ground peanuts, and fish sauce.
The range of foodstalls at the Chatuchack weekend market in Bangkok was staggering. Wanting to try something new, but wary of the grilled squid-on-a-stick, Bordeaux and I ordered a skewer of fishballs. I let Bordeaux try one first, and I should have been warned by his expression as he chewed it. The texture was nice, sort of bready, with a taut skin and a doughy interior. The first taste was delicious, the result of the sweet chili sauce that covered the fish ball. As I chewed, however, the flavor of chili receded, and the taste of dried fish emerged, the flavor of which I can only describe as being similar to drinking the water of an unclean goldfish bowl.
Thankfully, most surprises work out better than that. Traveling the Mae Hong Son loop, Bordeaux and I found quiet towns with few options for dining. On an afternoon stroll through Khun Yuam, we saw a man busy grilling satay. He also sold food packaged in neatly folded grilled banana leaves. We asked him what was inside, and he simply stated that it was chicken. We bought one, and sat down nearby to try it. Inside was a strange pale paste that had taken the form of the banana leaf package, topped with a single red chili. We both scooped out a small piece to try, and found that it was extremely delicious, with the strong flavor of green curry. The paste seemed to be made out of ground corn, molded around pieces of grilled chicken and vegetables- kind of like a green curry tamale. We tried a similar banana leaf package in Mae Hong Son. It was equally delicious, but very different- a pork dish with the strong flavor of lemongrass.
Much less appetizing are the Thai desserts often available at stands and streetside tables. They usually come in pop plastic colors, and often involve some kind of gelatin floating in some kind of milk. Walking past a dessert stand in Mae Hong Son thogugh, Bordeaux and I felt tempted to try one. We opted for the most appealing looking- a yellow doughy gelatin coated in shredded coconut, displayed on a banana leaf. It was, surprisingly, pretty good. Most of the flavor came from the coconut, which added a nice texture and sweetness. On its own, the yellow doughy bits tasted a little like very soft, somewhat bland, shortbread.
A much taster after dinner treat is the streetside mataba, sometimes called roti or pancakes. Upon selecting a filling, the cook throws out some batter on her wok. She cooks up a thin roti, fills it (my choice was bananas), folds it, cuts it, and sprinkles it with sugar and condensed milk. The result is warm, gooey, and perfect for the walk back to the guesthouse.