Nov 25, 2006

Vang Vien

The main intersection

I took this snap shot while sitting at the Vieng Champa restaurant, the place that shows endless reruns of the Simpson’s. I asked for the best Lao restaurant in town and this is where people pointed. You will also notice that it often has a mostly Lao clientele, rich but Lao.

Like all of Laos the most authentic food was to be had at the market in the morning or from the street stalls in the evening. I had the best moke gai I’ve ever had down the street. It seemed to have so much dill that it was just a green glop and it had a chicken taste so I’m sure it had chicken though I found no meat.

Vang Vien gets a bad rap. Supposedly a trashy drug haven full of young stoners staring at a TV showing reruns of the sitcom Friends while reclining on these raised table cum bed type contraptions. While it’s true that there are drugs discreetly available the place has a lot less of a drugy feel to it than say, Kao Sahn Road. Certainly a lot less of a scene than the beaches of southern Thailand.

I personaly find very little difference between people staring at a TV or sipping overpriced coffee at the western cafes of Luang Prabang. There seems to be a standard way to “do” Laos that involves crossing from Thailand at Houay Xia, boating to Luang Prabang bus to Vang Vien, then out through Vientiane or else on to 1000 islands for another round of hanging out. I certainly wouldn’t want to opine about which town offers the more authentic experience.

Above is a relative, my grandfather in law’s, sister’s, husband, who is very happy that anyone has decided to come to Vang Vien. That is his sawngthaew he is leaning on. He often takes loads of people up the river to go tubing. The photo was taken in Ban Namon, about 12 clicks south of Vang Vien at his house.

Nov 23, 2006

Jeao Maeng Dah

Well at least it's smaller than a cell phone. Now residing in our freezer waitning to be made into jeao.

An interesting language note. Maeng Dah is also a slang expression for the guy who lives off his woman. Lazy husband or boyfriend.

Carefully toast the Maeng Dah over the coals. It cooks quickly so don’t over cook, set aside.

Toast garlic, hot peppers, green onions etc. Like any other jeao, first crush the hot peppers in the sat, with bang nua, garlic, add nam pa, remove the wings, head, legs from maeng dah, then gently mash into the jeao. Serve with greens and sticky rice.

Unfortunately they ate our friend while I was up north for a couple of weeks.

Nov 21, 2006


Fresh Organic Beef
Unlike buying meat at a supermarket, buying at “the market” is a different experience. Up close the smell is the same as when you have an elk half butchered and lots of pieces about. The best description is simply fresh meat. Lots of flies yes, and left over stinks from days gone by, but up close the only smell is freshness.

There is no meat processing industry that I know of in Laos. I see a lot of cows wandering around, and often I hear the sound of pigs that people are raising. Chickens everyone knows about. An oft heard complaint of tourists is the crowing at all hours of the day, and night. There are chickens that are supposed to be “from the factory” but in reality I don’t worry too much about them being the processed variety as I’m used to in the US. Legs are strong, and fat is minimal, oh, and price is high.

2$ for a small chicken, beef for around 3$ a kilo and pork a little over $2 a kilo. Eggs are eight or nine cents a piece depending on size. Protein is pricey, not that much less than at home. No wonder that for many meat is a luxury, and quite a few people spend a lot of time fishing.

In this first photo you can see Sengthian gingerly picking through the meat. This is what is left of a cow. We are searching for back straps although in truth the beef isn’t that tender. Tasty yes but not tender. You can see tails in front of the saleslady’s knife, and if you look carefully a couple of tongues behind Sengthian’s hand.

If at first the photo above has brought forth the yuck factor great. A more careful look though and you can see some prime ingredients for typical dishes. In the first photo you can see this platter in the background. Starting at the six and seven o’clock positions are two kinds of stomach, then a round piece of I don’t know what then the large intestines filled with pia, the juice often used in lap or gaeng kuhung nai, that strong beef soup, then small intestines and finally another I don’t know.

Nov 19, 2006

Before we build

Jit tearing up the roof

We are tearing up this restaurant to reuse the materials and make a big house for our brother and two sisters. Well actually 4 little houses connected together, with a shared bath. We’ll see how it goes.

The materials from the restaurant were donated by Lotha a kindly German gentleman. This restaurant used to be bigger but a thunderstorm with hurricane force winds struck last summer and flattened it, the structure they put back up was of necessity somewhat smaller. The wood we are taking down now has had nails taken out and put in a few times. The wood is all hardwood and much stronger, and heavier, than I am used to. I don’t know the names for all the different wood yet but will in time learn them. If I had to generalize I’d say the wood is about as dense as white oak but takes nails easier. Short grains such as the wood generically known as “mahogany”. The Lao name for the wood species is mai nyung. There is a mai nyung tree out back that is currently shedding it’s leaves in honour of the dry season’s arrival.

When new, the wood costs a lot less than oak, about thirty cents a board foot as apposed to three dollars for oak in the United States. We aren’t at all sure how much this whole undertaking will cost. I’m paying labour as a contracted cost so that there won’t be any surprises.

Work is slower here than in the US. The sun is hot and the tools are simple. I found all this out yesterday after a few hours carrying lumber and roof sheeting. The hardwood 6x6x10s were heavy. Just a little exertion and one is sweating bullets. After puncturing my feet twice with nails I went home and got my dress shoes.

Besides paying for the labour we also need to bring in an electric pole, buy pre formed concrete posts, woven bamboo for walls, electric wire, light switches, water pump and storage tank, nails, hardware, etc

Plah Dek

The plah dek has entered it’s final stages prior to being put to ferment for a year. It is already oozing juices which we tested by using it to make sour fish, kind of a fresh tasting and sour dish. Now it is being mixed with fresh brine, rice husks, pineapple peels, a couple extra large glasses of moonshine, and other secret ingredients, such as hot peppers etc.

Naman Moo?

Hydrogenated oil or not? The alternative is rendered pig fat or “naman moo” in local parlance. Canola and olive oil don’t seem to have hit the local market yet.

Nov 15, 2006

The Airport

This is the airport, literally rising up out of the rice paddies. Well not really, it’s been the same airport for fifty years, the rice paddies are getting filled in for houses. Everywhere you look in this capital town houses are going up, nice houses too, ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars a house. Not shacks at all, with maybe a Toyota pickup in the yard and a wall and gate.

Someone recently offered to sell me a rice paddy for $5,000. If one lai can produce $900 worth of rice per year at the current price of $.60 per kilo, the lai would pay for itself in five and a half years. It’s a shame people are turning paddy into houses. Of course five and a half years would about double your land value also without doing anything, real estate is appreciating at about 20% per year. Not that I'm about to hang it all up and buy a water buffalo or anything mind you.

Until I saw the airport from the viewpoint of this new shortcut it seemed as if I’d never really seen it. When you land the one loading ramp is right under the roof and when you go out the front the view is of a parking lot. Lots prettier from this side.

The waiting line for processing visas was slow and I did notice a tiny bit of corruption in that you can pay a line jumper to take your visa application around to the back side of the desk for instant processing . I forgot to hand over my customs declaration, we were just waived on through anyway.

When you exit the front doors of the airport there is even one of those crowd barrier fences where people wait behind with signs, about ten people total. I’d say the tout scene is a little undeveloped here.

Later... Nov.21, 06 Got another opinion on yield per lai of rice, more like 480 kilos. Not buying any rice fields anyway.

Nov 14, 2006


This morning I thought about a food and veggie post but realized veggie was just too broad a category, when attempting to narrow it to fruit I counted the fruit on hand and came up with nine, we finished the longons yesterday as well as the oranges or it would be eleven, didn’t count the two varieties of lime used as a seasoning either, well, I guess bai kee hoot isn’t really a lime but the fruit looks like one and is called one in English.

From the left then clockwise, obviously bananas off our tree, papaya also from yard, dragon fruit, watermelon, then the lamout both with skin and then peeled and cut in half to show the dark black seed, cut up watermelon and pineapple, and at the bottom white cut chunks of and a partially peeled man pao.

Man pao is currently 15 cents a pound.
Watermelon 30 cents a piece
Lamout 30 cents a kilo
I’m guessing at the dragon fruit for 80 cents a kilo
Pineapple 45 cents a piece

Red ants for eating

While looking out the backdoor I noticed what seemed to be an ants nest. Sure enough these are the right kind but we need to wait until the nest turns a yellow colour. Then it will have the eggs inside and we can make the famous soup. I’ve also learned that the sourness of the soup comes not from the eggs but from the stray adult ants that get in, in particular the tail section is sour.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see the whitish nest in the background and also the largish teeth on the front of this guy. Seems like they are incorporating the leaves of this bush into the nest.

Update... I'm told the eggs won't be ready to eat until April, the height of the hot season, we'll just have to hope for a little global warming to hasten them on to ripeness. One way or another it's gaeng kai mot daeng, (red ant egg soup) in March.

Nov 11, 2006

Rice Harvest

Rice economics as explained to me yesterday.

You can see from the photo that rice harvest is still going on from the first crop.

The way I understood it the family of six adults who owns this land eats about 100 kilos of sticky rice per month. One lai, the standard measure of land here, can produce about 1500 kilos per crop, and a lai is about the amount of land one man can work per year.

Folks often remark about how “sabai” the Lao people are. If one man can easily feed six, a husband and wife working together can easily grow the amount needed for one year in their spare time leaving lots of extra time for fishing, weaving, visiting friends or doing whatever. Before TV the whatever part led to big families.

Bear in mind the land in this photo is very good land in the Mekong valley. Many people here don’t own land. They’ve migrated in from the outlying provinces to make their fortunes in the “big city” and don’t even own the small room they rent.

Wages are steadily being pushed upwards as is the cost of everything except the US dollar which seems to have slipped slightly below the 10K mark. Construction labour now seems to be around $3 per day, double that of four years ago. The greens that used to cost 500 kip per bunch are now 3 for 2000. It seems as if the government has loosened the controls on the price of motorcycles and they are back around $500 even for the better Korean ones.

More later when I know more of what I’m talking about.

Caching out Back Crew

Yes I know this isn’t Laos. My blog, I can put in whatever I want. In this case it looks like back crew getting cached out. Notice the fire pit in the lower right? Big break there huh? If you look closely you can see snow shoes on all and even the snow shoe tracks on the snow.

Nov 8, 2006


I did try these more common garden variety grasshoppers and they tasted just like,,,, overcooked vegetable oil, gee I wonder why. At a dollar fifty a kilo they are a steal, but then it is the season.

This guy is looking right back at you! To tell you the truth, I’ve never been much of a fan of bamboo soup. No big deal, just don’t like the taste. When this batch came with all the pa dek stinking to high heaven I knew I was going to take pass anyway, then when I saw these choice little critters laced throughout I wished I’d had some. The next day I saw them for ten cents a piece down at the market. Jiminy Cricket, can you think of anything better? My wife said they were actually delicious. I enthused to my son and he popped a couple in his mouth and spit them out. Not to his liking.

Nov 7, 2006

Pah Dek

It’s only appropriate that a blog about anything Lao begin with Pah Dek. Is there anything more Lao than Pa Dek?

I read about Lao food in Wikipedia and they say lap is The national Lao dish. Ha! Who can afford meat? Lap is more a food for special occasions. Pah dek on the other hand is made from fish, and in Laos there are fish in every piece of water bigger than a puddle, and even in some big puddles. Any fish will do but probably the most common variety is the little pa ka duht which I’ve seen in pet shops back home. What’s more pa dek goes a long way. In my case it could stretch forever.

Grandma Viengkham claims that her pah dek is not just good but the best to be had. Smells like rotten fish to me, but the following is roughly her process.

She buys 5 kilos of fish, and cleans them by gutting and scaling, then she packs them into the pa dek jar with heavily salted water until the fish begins to ferment and give up some juice, usually a couple of weeks. Then she replaces the water with a fresh brine solution, adds the husks from the outside of rice, some peelings from pineapple, a hefty shot of white whiskey, a large handful of hot peppers, and back in the pot it all goes, for at least a year. Longer is better.

The pa dek jar itself is a specialty item, not just any clay pot will do. A pa dek jar has a channel for water all the way around the rim. When an upside down bowl is placed such that it fits down into the channel and water is added to the rim a seal of sorts is formed. Grandma claims it is to keep flies from laying eggs in the pa dek and points to the deceased tiny white maggots in the water. I believe.

While we are on the subject of creepy crawlies, no discussion of pa dek would be complete without a mention of liver flukes. The entire Mekong drainage is said to be contaminated with a tiny parasite that lives part of it’s life in the river snail and part of it’s life in the human liver. We are an alternate host as they say. Fish eat the snails or eat the worm after it leaves the snail and we eat the fish and get the worm. Combine the extra strain on the liver with copious quantities of Beer Lao and you have the makings of a hurtin liver.

The whole problem could be negated if people would just cook the pa dek. Mention something like that and you get a genuine dose of Lao fatalism. “if you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick anyway”

The pa dek worm can be killed by cooking but the problem is that not enough people cook all pa dek before eating. Just last Sunday my wife started shouting at sister Bien. “Stop, stop, stop, what are you doing?”. Sister Bien was about to dump a couple of cups of raw pa dek into the cooked lap for flavour.

Pa dek goes in everything. Kind of like a Lao fish sauce, but stronger. I like it in tiny quantities, so that the taste is in the background. The problem comes when it is used so liberally that the smell can drop you in your tracks from 20 paces. You often see it in round rubber tubs being sold at the market, kind of a brownish fish pure. Thankfully at the market there are so many other competing stinks that you have to get pretty close to get a whiff strong enough to set you back on your feet.