Luang Prabang—I love this town. It’s quiet, laid back and full of backpackers who are pretty subdued, too. (I think the party types are elsewhere). Many are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s—I’ve never seen that before!
The town has sort of down-at-the-heel French architecture; hundreds of exposed electric and telephone wires run along the street overhead; young girls riding down the street on motorbikes while holding a colorful sun umbrella; perfect weather; a great food market with lots of good food stalls; and the wide Mekong River running alongside the town with gardens on the other bank.
Each morning I go for an hour’s walk, which pretty much covers the whole town, and then I eat my breakfast at a sidewalk ‘piak’ stand. These are portable restaurants which are gone by noon, whose proprietress cooks chicken broth over a small wood heater. For the piak, she cooks rice noodles in the broth, then puts in bean sprouts, Asian greens, bits of pork, and other things for flavor. It is served in a large bowl with an Asian spoon and chopsticks—delicious and healthy! Later I stop at the Morning Glory cafe for a very excellent cappuccino.
Friday I cooked up a storm from 10:00 until 5:30 at a Lao cooking class. We were seven students—four Aussies and three Americans– and two teachers, Neng Lee and Leng Lee. We started by piling into a ‘jumbo’ (like a big tuk tuk) and heading for the market.
Neng Lee took us all around and showed us the more exotic foods (spicy wood, pink garlic, kaffir lime leaves, clotted buffalo blood, etc.) while Leng Lee bought the provisions. Back to the school for tea and some palm sugar candy and then—to work!
Neng Lee started by demonstrating Luang Prabang salad and then Feu Khua (Fried Rice Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables). We had received cookbooks in which we followed along and made notes.
Then to our stations to cook! There were four stations with a couple at each and me as a single. This was probably appropriate since the other six were young couples and the men clearly knew their way around a kitchen—their collaboration seemed to work perfectly. For my age, cooking solo was probably more fitting!
When we each finished cooking the two dishes, we all sat around a table on the porch and ate the food for our lunch. This gave us a chance to visit and hear each others’ travel stories, too.
After lunch the teacher demonstrated Chicken Larp (chicken salad), Green Papaya Salad, and Oh Paedak (Lao Pork Casserole). We then chose two of the three and cooked those. These we put aside under mosquito nets. On to the next—a demonstration of Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo (Fried Eggplant with Pork)(ironically ‘moo’ is pork), Geng Phet (Chili Casserole), and Tamnak Lao Jeowbang (Luang Prabang Chili Paste). We each chose one of the first two and cooked that. This took us to 5:00 when we again sat around the table on the porch and piled into all this food, augmenting it with huge Lao beers which we could buy for a dollar. We enjoyed the chili paste as an accompaniment to the other dishes.
The basil they have is much stronger–almost like mint; the watercress for the salad is superlative; the food is not very hot-adding ‘hotness’ through chili paste is left to the eater’s discretion; it was all just delicious and I was exhausted at the end of the day. That’s the most work I’ve done in a long time!
For lunch one day I tried the Lao Lao whiskey, made from rice. It tasted like sake only stronger and coarser—I won’t have to do that again!
Another day I visited the National Palace. Luang Prabang used to be the capital but Vientiane is now. The king died in ’59; later there was a revolution of sorts and the crown prince and his wife were sent off to live in a cave in northern Laos where they starved to death. In the palace there were gifts to the king displayed from many countries including one from JFK.
Then I had an interesting conversation with an Australian woman who lives here, whose parents were killed by the Americans in the ’70s in Laos’ silent war. She said that buried land mines and cluster bombs were still exploding and killing Laotians—that so much was planted that it was deemed impossible to clean up.
We stopped along the way at a ‘whiskey village’ where they were distilling Lao Lao whiskey from rice. No, I didn’t need to sample that. The village had crowing roosters, a wat, nursing mothers, water buffalo, and, of course, the requisite bottles of Lao Lao whiskey containing a preserved snake.
On to the Pak Ou caves which were very dramatic, containing 4000 small and large Buddhas, some from ancient times. There were two caves—one above the other, with the top one requiring some exertion to reach. Back down to the boat and, after an hour’s journey, back to LP.
I treated myself to lunch at a French restaurant since Laos used to belong to France, and then walked around town before settling in with a movie that I have on my Ipod. On the way back into my guest house, the ‘gramma’ had just cooked maroon-colored potato-like things, and she gave me some to eat. They taste like potatoes only slightly sweet. Funny thing was that in China several years ago a rural woman insisted that I accept about five of these same things.
My last day in Luang Prabang for now, anyway, included another trip to the food market where I ate excellent Khao Piak for my breakfast. Actually, I’ll have to admit that very early I also had a scrumptious croissant and cafe au lait in a bakery across the street.
Walking across a pedestrian and motorbike bridge high over the Nam Khan (a tributary of the Mekong) kind of gave me the heebie-jeebies. The boards seemed kind of unsteady and it was a loooong way down.
I visited some more wats—there seem to be about 30 in this small town. Around 6:00 AM the monks go around town with their food bowls banging a gong and collecting the food for the day. I think they mostly get sticky rice—rather limited nutrition.
Tomorrow I shall head off to Vang Vieng, a small town between LP and Vientiane, the capital. I want to head south before the weather gets too hot.
I hope you’re all fine.