Dec 18, 2007

Roger Arnold's Still a Secret War

I like Roger Arnold’s photos. A lot. I like this video even better.

The context in which a photo is taken is as important to me the image itself. I like to know the story behind the photo. In this case the story and the image are tied so closely together that I can’t imagine one without the other.

For myself the last chapter in the story of the Hmong and the secret war in Laos will probably be those pictures of the group of Blia Shaua Her in Roger Arnold’s photos from June in 06. The more often I look at the pictures the more I recognise the people again. Tong Fang mourning his wife. Bla Yang Fang with his old M 16 tied together with rags, then with his new UN High Commission for Refugees certificate. Most memorable of all Tong Hua Her first with his face half shot off, then after surgery in Thailand.

Read the story in Roger’s own words at
Still A Secret War by Roger Arnold

What’s not covered in his story and what we do get a taste of in the video, is who the heck is this guy Mr. Arnold anyway. Two weeks in a Hmong village hidden in the jungle? Ten trips to Laos?

The presentation in the video is extremely factual, the delivery of a journalist. Roger’s refuses to speak in hyperbole. He doesn’t sensationalize. He admonishes those who would use his photos or story for anti Lao propaganda purposes not to do so. The completely rational, sober telling of the story in the first person adds untold power to the message.

It’s as if he’s saying, This is what has happened, and this is what is happening now, it’s up to the reader, or the viewer, to try to understand.

Undoubtedly the most amazing story coming out of Laos at the moment, weaving together the threads of a narrative that begins before the war in Vietnam itself and ties in the current war on terror and the political expediency of abandoning our comrades from thirty five years ago.

Dec 7, 2007

Motorcycle Accidents

I love these outlines in the road. Somehow they seem to trace the edges of a life, well maybe a wrecked motorcycle anyway. I took this up at Xiengkok. How a motorcycle could get in an accident on this road I don't know. I mean he'd have to like run into himself, there is no traffic. I've waited on this road for hours to see anything moving at all. There was the outline of the other bike too.

On Thursday evening my nephew got sideswiped by another motorcycle, T-boned to be more exact. Ran right into him from ninety degrees. Of course maybe my nephew jumped out in front of him too but in Laos the one who does the running into is at fault. Broke his leg into pieces above the ankle. The guy driving the other motorcycle was drunk, and also had his own kid on the bike in front of him. That kid fared worse, probably crushed between the driver and the bike. You know how it is, if the kid is little you like to keep him in front of you so he doesn't fall off. I don't know how many miles I've ridden holding my oldest on with my knees while he nods off to sleep.

If you get in an accident don't go here.

They call this an international clinic but it's always been empty when I've gone. I had an infection in my jaw from an abscessed tooth and it took them 3 hours to round up a dentist. Good dentist mind you but he probably had to leave his paying practice just to treat me. Between buying the xray film and trying to find some antibiotics it took quite a while. If I'd of known I would have just gone to one of those dentists across from Dalat Sii Kahm or whatever it's called.

Ooops! another fender bender during rush hour. Everyone in Laos just leaves the bikes where they lay until the police get there and do their investigation thing. Pretty impressive I think. In Thailand when I was there the way seemed to be first you pick yourself up, then apologise, then make sure the other person is able to drive away, then you both skedaddle before the police come and start demanding money.

This is around the other side of Mahasot. Mahosot is down by the river just down from the tourist part of town and it's the only hospital I know of.

My nephew went to the place called Loi hasip Dieng. Something about the fact that it has 150 beds. His room costs 7$ a night, they think the surgery to put the plates in his leg will cost $300. The ambulance to Udon Thani would have cost $200, they can come get you right through customs. The cost there would have started at around $1000. My brother in law has never been across the border and they are more comfortable in Laos anyway. A woman I rented a house from who is a GP said the orthopedic guys are pretty practiced at putting legs together, lots of practice.

The Asian Development Bank estimated that in 05 the cost of traffic accidents cost Laos 4% of GDP. That's just about four times the rate in most of Asia. All of a sudden everyone can afford to buy a bike and get liqueured up too. Deadly combo.

Just remember if you get in an accident of any kind, as a foreigner it's your fault. Best get some of that insurance everyone carries.

Sok Dee

Jeao Kai

Big Saht, little coke, cute cooker

I always hear jeaos described as a dipping sauce, I’d say more accurately they’re a mopping up sauce, as in when you use the sticky rice to mop some up. Jeao Kai is exactly that kind of jeao. It’s dry, drier than say potato salad, but it none the less sticks to the rice well especially when smushed. (smush: to smash and mush at the same time)

Some of the ingredients, that white stuff ain't salt

I never seem to hear of people eating or making jeoa kai despite it being so easy and being made from such common ingredients. It’s another one of those dishes passed down from great grandpa Kahman, probably an improvisation from times in the Soviet Union spent without access to padek, or maybe just a Lao adaptation of an egg salad.

the greens

It’s as simple as boiling an egg.

Boil a half dozen eggs or so, cool, pulverize some hot peppers in the bottom of the coke add just a couple green onions, dent them, throw in salt, bang nua, fish sauce, then the cut up eggs, stir, then lots of mint and a little cilantro, voila.

I like it with mint on the side also and thick coffee in those cheap plastic mugs from Thailand

The Napalm Post

I was surfing YouTube looking for jet airplane videos for my 4 year old to watch. You know how it is, like a lot of four year old boys he likes pretending to sword fight and fly toy jet airplanes.

So I clicked on this one and was surprised at his reaction. Violence on movies never seems to bother him. He didn't think this video was fun at all. He was put out. "That's Laos!" he said. When I said it was probably Vietnam he said, "what's Vietnam?"

A close look at the video reveals houses and paths and fields not very different at all from Uncle Butts place out past Tat Luang.

I've seen this video before, or one very similar, probably a long time ago. I too view it differently than I might have before. No longer do I see an aircraft dropping bombs. Now I see many people burnt to death inside their houses. People and houses not very different from me and mine.

Dec 2, 2007

Two Ways To Steal Land and Timber In Laos

Strangler Fig.... First it uses the original tree for support in it's climb up to the sun, eventually it surrounds the host tree and chokes it to death.

Get healthy forests to be designated as infertile degraded land and therefore available for sale. Buy the land, cut all the timber while making a token effort to employ locals cutting and replanting, and then as soon as the timber is cut declare bankruptcy and disappear back to the country you’ve come from.

Or, again using the effort to eliminate swidden agriculture entirely by 2010, get fallow land reclassified as degraded, buy a 50 year lease and plant rubber. Bear in mind that 9 out of 10 given acres are at all times allowed to lie fallow in traditional swidden agriculture.

Oh, I forgot one more. Start a company to build a hydroelectric plant on a river, cut all the trees which grow thick and tall in bottom lands, then disappear after the trees are sold. Also known as how to turn a timber company into a hydroelectric company then into thin air.

Ban Sok Ngam on the Nam Ngam, a tributary of the Nam Ou. Is this village slated to be drowned for one of the five dams being built on the Naom Ou?

Old Growth burnt, then cut, then planted in rubber. Luang Namtha Province

The following is by Rebeca Leonard, of The Foundation for Ecological Recovery I've added the link to my sidebar.

Over the last two years, Laos has seen a dramatic increase in foreign direct investment for commercial tree plantations. The Lao Committee for Planning and Investment shows 21 projects worth US$17.3 million value were approved in 2005, which rose to 39 projects approved with a value of US$458.5 million in 2006 and by February 2007, 9 projects had been approved and 16 were pending, with a total value of US$342 million. To give a somewhat simplified overview: Chinese investors are investing in rubber plantations in the north of Laos, Vietnamese rubber companies have set up in the south of Laos and four companies are establishing pulpwood plantations in the central area (Japan's Oji Paper, Thailand's Advance Agro, India's Grasim and Sweden- Finland's Stora Enso). The reasons behind this year on year increase are complex, but a key set of government policies have been instrumental in promoting industrial tree plantations. There have been a series of national forest plans and strategies implemented since the 1989 ban on exports of processed wood and the 1991 decree to ban commercial logging.

The latest is the Lao National Forestry Strategy to the Year 2020, published in July 2005 after a 5 year process. The 2020 Strategy plans to increase “forest” cover from 40% to 70% by 2020, involving the planting of over 1 million hectares of bare land with industrial tree crops. Tree plantation businesses are exempt from land taxes and fees, and gain rights of land use for 30-50 years or longer in special economic areas.

However the roots of the plantation boom cannot be explained without a discussion of the land and forest allocation programme which has been (and remains) instrumental in making land available for commercial plantations.

Land allocation activities began in the early 1990s, and were eventually consolidated into a national programme for forest land allocation in 1996. The Land and Forest Allocation (LFA) programme was established as the primary mechanism for delineating customary village boundaries, giving villagers temporary rights to utilise forest resources, as well as land resources with a (mostly unfulfilled) promise of granting permanent rights in the later stages of its implementation.

The Land and Forest Allocation process soon became one of the major tools to achieve the target area of tree plantations. The land within the traditional village’s boundary was consolidated and reclassified to fit a new map. This new village map was designed to accommodate the current population of the village with some reserve land kept for future generations. Agricultural land was allocated according to statutory entitlements per labour unit, and the forest land was categorised according to the five forest types identified in the forest law.

While there were many progressive elements to this programme, this reorganisation and reallocation had serious impacts for the traditional communities who form 80% of the Lao population. This is because it was implemented hand in glove with the policy to stabilize and then eliminate traditional shifting cultivation by 2010.

With pressure from this ‘national goal’, unfarmed swidden fields were no longer recognised as a valid land use and they were systematically designated under the LFA process as ‘degraded forest’. In fact, this represented a stark deviation from the terms of the forestry law which states that degraded forest land is land where the forest will not regenerate naturally. Fallow land is normally just the opposite – land which has been set aside under the traditional rotational swidden farming system specifically for the purpose of regenerating the land and returning it to its natural state, which in most cases is forest.

The area classified as unstocked and degraded forestland under the LFA reached one third of the total land area, that is, vast tracts of fallow land were erased from the maps and reallocated for tree plantation development across the country.

This of course served the tree plantation companies who were keen to gain access to the fallow lands, rather than being constrained (by law) to the worst and most infertile degraded lands where no forest would regrow. In some cases companies actively influenced the classification of fertile land as degraded. The Decree formalising land and forest allocation programme allowed both Lao groups and foreigners to gain rights to forest land for tree plantation.

One such company was BGA, a New Zealand based company, whose plantation concession was later taken over by the Oji Paper company from Japan. Although there are examples of villages refusing to allow Oji to establish tree plantations on their land, in many cases plantation company staff were able to get the choicest lands by joining the land and forest allocation team at the local area and then pointing out which land should be considered “degraded” according to satellite images. Then the government officials helped the company to obtain the land from the village people.

The Lao government’s enthusiasm for tree plantations has been shown time and again to be misplaced. In far too many cases companies who applied for land for plantation simply exploited the rules, obtained healthy forested land, logged it for the plentiful and valuable timber species on the land, replanted with a sorry looking tree crop, folded up quietly and fled. Earlier this year, the government acknowledged the problems and the government declared a moratorium on new land concessions larger than 100 hectares.

By 2003, a total area of 113,000 ha of plantations had been established in the country. The area rose to 146,000 ha of plantations in 2005, with a 66% survival rate. As the Strategy 2020 itslef acknowledges, the productivity is lower than anticipated. Unfortunately the plans for improving the situation include improved tree growing technology, and larger plantations. This is likely to lead to another wave of problems for local people who have little opportunity to voice their opposition to these changes.

On a more positive note however, the latest news is that government has now taken stock of the decline in forest areas and the massive increase in land concessions handed to both foreign and domestic companies across the country. In 1982 forests covered 47 percent of land in Laos; this has now been assessed to decline to 35% of the country. The new National Land Management Authority has called a moratorium on land concessions for agriculture and tree plantation projects in order to reassess the policy and review the past projects to ensure they are in line with the law. The Laotian people will be anxious to know the results of this review.

Nam Phou San Gao (I think the "nam" reffers to the fact that there is water on the mountain "phou" rather than the name of any river.)

The Foundation for Ecological Recovery

Oct 28, 2007

Som Pak (gaht) or pickled mustard greens

I’ve no idea why we call these greens mustard greens. In Laotian they are called pak gaht. They grow pretty well in the cooler part of the year, and are a common winter vegetable. Here in Colorado they are one of the first plants up in the spring, and one of the last to die in the fall.

Mustard greens are the ingredient for the som pak you see sold in bags wherever kao neeow is sold. Typicaly a small bag costs twenty cents or so, combined with sticky rice and something barbequed they round out a meal.

The following is mama’s method.

The leaves are washed then sprinkled with salt which is worked in with lots of turning over of the leaves and gentle squeezing to push the salt into the vegetable. A benign bruising if you will. To test for saltiness taste some of the water that collects at the bottom of the bowl. If too salty drain and add fresh water. Remember the rice water has salt too.

Rice is boiled with water and salt so that the rice breaks down, cooled, and then pushed through the fine strainer when added to the mustard greens. The whole concoction is put in a large jar and set on the counter to sour for a day or two. The reason for the screen is to keep out the rice grains themselves, they don’t look good.

I like the som pak plain with ginger and sticky rice, with scrambled eggs, and especially in the stock for the thin sour soup called gaeng som pak.

Oct 20, 2007

Environmental Destruction a Go Go

I read a couple of online sources of information about Laos and lately it seems like I should leave my computer off. Every time I log on a new source of eco destruction awaits me.

Within the last month I have learned of;

A proposed lignite (soft sulphurous coal) power plant to be built in Xayabouli province at the site of the former annual elephant ho down in Hongsa. New Mandela

Ferry Boat at the Thadua crossing Xaiyabouli

A hydro power dam on the Nam Tha, would flood out 15 villages some of which are resettled Lao seung. You know those people brought down to the river valleys to “modernize” them and wean them from growing opium. It’s all in Nalae district, which I’m unfamiliar with. More Mandella

I found out about an intended 1410 mega watt plant in Luang Prabang while trying to find a link for this post. Reuters

The one that hits home the hardest is the dam on the Nam Ou of about 600 mega watt capacity with three more in the plans. It’s the most beautiful big river I’ve seen in Laos. Pnomsin Blog

Kids making ripples on the Nam Ou above Hatsa

In Vientiane the Tat Luang marsh is slated to be developed by a Chinese investor into an instant city. When driving out of town this tributary of the Mekong called Houay Mak Hiao was always my indicator that the city had been left behind. It’s beyond the two big markets of Ban Tat Luang. When driving over the bridge you can see all the rice growing up and down stream. The Lao government proposed a site further from downtown, but the Chinese insisted. Whose city is it anyway? I guess the person with the money’s.

One ray of hope is the simple math of this message posting to an online group, sorry can’t link.

"Given that the Lao Government budget revenues amount to around $500 million a year, a simple calculation indicates that a 20% investment in the hydro scheme would amount to around a third of government budget revenues for any given year. Given also that the government is concurrently signing several such agreements I wonder where the government contribution is coming from. Is it simply a gift from the developers in return for government complicity? "
The writer is referring to the one hydro plant on the Nam Ou, estimated cost $700 to $800 million.

My worry is that modernization will mean that corrupt officials are now better able to quickly strip Laos of it’s existing timber, poison it’s watersheds with effluent from various mines, and flood all the lowlands for exported electricity? Is China the example of what Laos will look like in twenty years?

Oct 14, 2007

Laos Opium Free?.....Not quite yet

Recently I read on a blog called Imaging Our Mekong that Laos is no longer “opium free”. Of course it never was anyway. The piece goes on to state that overall hectares under cultivation in Laos have increased 40% in 2006, from 1,800 hectares to 2,500. In tonnage that translates into 14 to 20 tonnes, vastly down from the 2001 estimates of 134 tonnes, but a long way from zero.

Update Oct 17,07
Stop the presses! Today the Lao government announced figures for 2007 as being down to 1500 hectares, they also compare to 1998 to further make the figures rosy. Further fudging the numbers they claim a more than 50% drop in tonnage from a 40% drop in hectares. Maybe the most productive fields have stopped growing. Or maybe the numbers are total bunkum anyway.
Vientiane Times

Above is Lung (uncle) who let us stay in the extra house he had for trekkers above Chang Dao in Thailand back in 96. When Thailand started to clean up it’s trekking program the guides stopped staying at his place for the obligatory smoke fest. During a months long wait for a visa I stayed at his extra house to get away from the city for a few days. The setting was idyllic, and I’m not bothered by opium smokers, they are quiet and harmless.

Lung married a Lahu girl back in the 60s and has made Thailand his home. Originally a KMT soldier, he told me he had fought all over China before he and many in the KMT army made the retreat into Thailand and Burma. He had a very modest business selling opium. Like many long time smokers he was thin. He spoke Thai with a decidedly Mandarin accent. Once in a while he would lapse back into Chinese and make his point by jabbing the end of his pipe in my chest. He was a splendid host, and pretty hilarious having a lifetime of stories to relate. Two of his daughters were working in Chang Mai as were seemingly all the girls in the village. When I think of him I think of how life takes it’s twists and turns. How does one end up living in a hill tribe village up on the side of a mountain in Thailand. I hope he is well.

Back to Laos.

I assume they must have ways of counting hectares using satellite imagery and they extrapolate tonnage based on those images. Of course this all is a drop in the bucket of the estimated 6,610 illicit tonnes produced worldwide, a fraction of a percent. Taipei Times All figures are for 2006. This also isn’t counting the legal opium produced by Australia, France, Turkey and India, for pain relief.

The respected Senilis Council goes on to estimate that only 25% of the worlds pain relief needs are being met. The short story is that people, especially in poor countries, are dying in pain and at the same time we are encouraging countries like Laos to impose the death penalty for crimes like opium sales.

Even more ironic is that in Laos a common cause of death is liver cancer. The worm found in fish of the Mekong watershed, imbibed raw in the fermented fish of padek, over time, while residing in the liver of it’s victims, causes enough liver damage and irritation to cause liver cancer, a very common form of death for people in their forties and fifties. I’ve heard liver cancer is very painful.

So here is a county that until the mid 1990s had no laws banning anything to do with drugs, who then under pressure from the USA and the UN, has now criminalized opium to the extent of making it a capital crime, and there are many people dying in pain from a lack of those self same drugs.

The issue of abuse and addiction must also be considered and opium addiction does occur. From the viewpoint of this observer, and bear in mind I seem to do no drugs these days of any sort, that when compared to the violence and poisoning caused by alcohol or the very real life shortening affects of cigarette addiction, it doesn’t seem very threatening.

Above is a photo taken by a young Canadian adventurer called Rudecam who traveled through Laos in 2006 looking for excitement. First he tried to hike up Phou Bia the highest point in Laos. Unfortunately Phou Bia is also at the centre of the Xaysombone Special Zone, and was still heavily contested between the Lao Army and Hmong insurgents. Complicating things further it is probably mined pretty heavily by the government forces and the approach begins at the old not so secret CIA airport at Long Chen. He didn’t get far.

His other objective was to hike up to Lima Site 85 on Phou Pati. He didn’t have much luck with the government tour guides on that one either. He did take the photo though. Oh to be 20 yrs old and on the loose in Laos.

Bringing the whole thing back to a personal level the Vientiane times, which is the official English language mouth piece for the Lao government, blames the ruination of Laos’ opium free status on Luang Namtha province which produced 40 of the 25,000 nationwide hectares. They claim plantations in inaccessible valleys are difficult to control. Plantations sounds much different than a subsistence farmer trying to grow a cash crop.

Well, my immediate thought is good for them. I of course think of the villages of Nambo, Mongla, Jakune, and any other villages left in the Nam Fa watershed. The ones that haven’t been relocated down to the lowlands. I can’t think of any area that would be less accessible in Luang Namtha Province. Access is relative. I think what is meant is that areas under cultivation can’t be reached by way of Toyota Landcruiser. I can’t imagine any place in Luang Namtha province being more than a days walk from the road, no more than 25 km, hardly remote from my perspective. Probably that is why Luang Namtha became the early target of eradication efforts.

I hope the people of those villages have made some money.

Oct 6, 2007

A Lao Food Blog I've been reading

But first a photo, have to have something to catch the eye right?

I thought this pepper was a habanero turns out the shape is slightly wrong and the way the fruit stem attaches to the pepper itself is different. I think this is a rocoto but I can't tell for sure. Never can tell what's going to come up in our garden box or where the seeds come from. Sometimes the seeds are from the actual fruit at the grocery store, sometimes from the mothers of my wifes Lao buddies, and sometimes from Laos. (Turns out these were hot peppers sold in a Super Walmart)

Anyway about the blog.

In my explorations of Lao cooking blogs I keep returning to one the same few to read more. Lately I’m intrigued by this one called Lao Cook.

The name itself is indicative of what’s underneath, not that is about a Lao Cook, which it is, but that it’s understated and doesn’t toot it’s own horn. I mean they could just have well called the blog Lao Fusion Haute Cuisine, or “The Most Modern, Avant Guard Interpretation of Lao Food On The Planet”, even Lao Chef, but no, they stuck with the humble “Lao Cook”. Vienne the head of the Lao cook team in keeping with his character calls his food Lao “new style“.

The more I read, the more excited I get in that here for the first time is Lao food not only prepared but also presented in such a way as to take it’s place amongst the finest foods of the world. I used to worry that the flavours of Laos would be lost before they were even known. I’m not so worried anymore.

I knew that the background for the website was a restaurant in Europe, I’d always assumed France, a more thorough reading reveals a restaurant at a very posh Spanish resort.
Bear in mind that normally I am a reverse restaurant snob in that I don’t eat at any place that has a menu, and seldom spend over a dollar on any meal. In Laos I steer clear of all tourist type restaurants. Actually I usually eat either at the market, very small mom and pop foe places or at home and at friends houses who are Lao. Reading the web site and watching the videos makes me wish that I somehow had a table between the kitchen and the dining room so that I could watch the food being cooked and grab some dishes as they go by on their way to the customers out front.

I also saw a link on Lao Cuisine to a video called “Lao Cook TV“, or LCTV. The video was about soured Lao Pork Sausage by LCTV. Som Moo with Alexandra saying "hi" and "by" In the video, I assume it must be Vienne speaking with a pronounced English accent. It has to be Vienne in that the speaker obviously knows Lao food. The video isn’t rehearsed and the speaker understands what’s going on with the break down of the texture of the pork as it’s being kneaded. The video begins and ends with a hello from Alexandra the Lao Pop star. Maybe my blog needs a hello from Paris Hilton or something. Notice though that the background music is classical.

Check out this recipe called Duck, Liver, and Mango

Foie Gras is covered with wafer thin slices of raw Duck Breast, and dressed with Yuzu Sauce that has been heated in Olive and Sesame Oil with some Peppercorns. Shreds of ripe Mango adds sweetness.

Duck, Liver, Mango typifies Mr. Viennes cooking style, background, and attitude. The influence is Lao, with a Euro twist, and a very unassuming presentation. I mean isn’t foie gras not so different than the pig liver pate that is in the baguettes sandwiches? Raw duck in laap is famous in Laos, and the mango is everywhere, especially in April. Mr Veinne could have called this dish many things, instead he chose the simple name to describe it.

If you followed the link you would have noticed that below the duck is some Nahm Dtok, you know that yam called waterfall after the way you are supposed to cook the meat only until the water starts to come out. They use tenderloin. I’ll bet the meat is a lot tastier than the hormone antibiotic feedlot raised beef I’m used to, and much much more tender than those cows in Laos that more resemble goats. The photos make me want to grab a piece with my fingers and and make it disappear.

Below that still is tom yum. Check out the lemon grass. It’s the leafy part. Great for soups, do they sell it that way in Spain? I doubt it. I suspect chef Vienne has a large patch growing out back. Bai kii hoot and kah too.

Sep 26, 2007

Kai Yo Ma, (eggs of horse)

What’s a Wat doing on a blog entry about rotten eggs? I just liked the way it looked, and I haven’t used this photo before. Photos of rotten eggs aren’t so inviting.

The wat has a tin roof but still has the tiered parts at the top. If I knew anything about wats I could probably say this is Thai Lu style or something. I like the wat in that it has nought to do with being an attraction yet. It was a quiet day, no one about. I walked behind it to do the first of two river crossings to get to the crags at the far side of the valley. Lot of kids playing in the river, a few people washing clothes.

I sure didn’t see any kai yo ma in Muang Long. There were Chinese people there and if you want kai you ma you have to have Chinese people, it’s Chinese food.

I looked all over the market for one of those tin cups with a lid that you see all over China. I was about to head out for a walk and wanted something to make my morning coffee in. A lot of the traders were recent immigrants from China. I finally found a porcelain cup with a broken handle and asked one of the vendors how much, he just gave it to me.

I like Chinese people, not just because they give me things for free, but because of the way they are. They push. they shout, they spit, they bargain hard. Sometimes the sound of Mandarin is music to my ears. People say Chinese food is swimming in oil, well so it is, tastes great. The Chinese are gregarious, and you could never have a better friend.

I learned to eat kai you ma in China. I used to live in a town that was in it’s infancy as far as being on the tourist trail. That part of China had just recently opened up to foreign travel. I too was in my infancy of learning foreign languages and of living in Asia. I was still eating at restaurants that had English menus. Regardless of the menu, the restaurants were frequented by the Chinese. I saw someone eating the eggs and asked for the same. They were pretty good. Later I asked some friends and they got some for me. I was astonished when I saw the outside.

Notice the grey looking stuff on the outside? I was told that’s caked on ashes. The story goes that the reason they are called horse eggs is that they are made by caking them in straw ashes that has been wetted with horse piss. Certainly an evocative origin for something that smells like death warmed over.

I took this picture in Luang Namtha at the well stocked market there. They look just like the eggs I used to eat in Yunnan and they tasted like them too. Fairly mild and a yellow tending to green in colour on the inside. Delicious.

Remember my qualifier. I won’t eat any food that doesn’t taste good to me at the time I eat it. I know often Lao people don’t eat these eggs, I assume it’s because they weren’t brought up eating them. New things are difficult even for a people who eat padek.

These eggs are like the kind I found in Taiwan and are the only kind I’ve been able to find in America. They are pretty strong. I wash the outsides off with water and that seems to kill some of the sulphurous odour. I also eat them with a sauce made of nam sii you, macpet, and cilantro. The chillies are actually that sauce you make by toasting dried chillies in oil. And of course I use kao neeow to scoop them up with.

Sun Saap

Sep 22, 2007

Yam Salat

Crushing the freshly toasted peanuts in the koke

Yam salat has to be one of the few true vegetarian dishes in Laos, that is if you don’t throw in any pork, and you can overlook those undeveloped chicken embryos.

It’s now the end of the summer and all of the garden seems to be reaching it’s prime at the same time. Almost all of the vegetables for this salad were home grown. The tomatoes are ripening so fast we are having to freeze many of them for the cold winter months and the seeds from the celery that Creagy poured into the garden while no one was looking has given us a mini celery forest. The lettuce is the second crop that my wife started back in mid August to take advantage of the cool fall days. The cilantro just keeps coming up, as long as we remember to let some go to seed and to turn it over into the soil. Cucumbers have been appearing regularly since the beginning of August. The green onions we dig up and replant when they get too bitter, somehow the first shoots from onions are sweetest.

Above is some of the celery. This variety is from Laos, it never forms the stalks we are familiar with in the United States. It’s only grown for the leaves which are eaten as a leafy vegetable, great in soups.

Behind the celery is the leaf lettuce in clumps. This batch started off slow in the heat of the summer. The lettuce from the spring was a lot larger.

In this sauce I think there were four eggs used. They are hardboiled, the yolks are set aside for the dressing and the whites are sliced into the salad. Besides this big spoonful of squeezed lime juice there’s also a quarter cup of water, some bang nua, and a little salt.

On top of everything else is some toasted crushed peanuts. The peanuts come uncooked and unsalted, I guess from the Vietnamese grocery where we buy everything else. I don’t know why but peanuts quickly lose their fresh toasted taste. Best to cook them just before making the salad.

Not mentioned is mon pao, a crunchy white tuber that is often sliced thin and added for it’s texture as well as it’s sweet apple like taste. (sorry don't know English name) We didn’t have any. People also use any sort of salad green they have, water cress is popular. I’ve never seen nam pa, hot peppers, or garlic of any kind. Sometimes bits of pork. Moo sam san lightly fried is great. Of course just after I posted this a friend told me he has had yam salat with nam pa, I asked my Lao consultant and she said yes some people mix it into the sauce.

(notice the celery greens?)

The peanuts are sprinkled over the salad, the sauce is poured on, everything is tossed to get good coverage, and voila, yam salat.

Also…. A lot of times I eat the salad hours after it’s made, or even the next day. The greens wilt and give up their juices quickly so that the whole salad is swimming in the much thinner sauce. I love it. I even drink down the sauce from the bowl as long as no one is looking. This drunken salad affect is how I’ve most often bought yam salat in Laos served up out of trays at the buffet at the airport, or in bags at the Luang Prabang night food market.

A lot of these photos I’ve taken at the high ISO setting. I get sick of trying to hand hold at 1/5th of a second. Sometimes 800 sometimes a thousand or 1600. For you purists,, sorry.

Sun Saap

Sep 9, 2007

Tiger Meat for Sale

A couple weeks ago my news filter picked up this story about tigers because it was thought the tigers came from Laos. Subsequent stories identify the countries of origin as Burma and India. Who knows.

From Thanhien News dot com. “ On September 4 the police raided two houses in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan district, both rented by Nguyen Thi Thanh, and seized two disemboweled, adult tigers from freezers.

They also found two tiger skins and bones and parts besides five bear arms, eight pairs of ox horns, two pairs of stag horns, and two pairs of elephant tusks.

Thanh and her henchmen were arrested at the scene.

Thanh confessed that the gutted tigers were from Myanmar and India and their bone marrow was sold for VND6.5 million (US$400) per gram to traditional doctors for curing rheumatism and other joint ailments.

Thanh and her gang extracted the marrow in the two houses.”

A couple of days later I was listening to the radio and heard a story about a Chinese company that has been raising tigers and freezing the carcases in hopes that some day it will be legal to sell the farm raised ones.

Why not? If people are willing to pay $400 a gram to eat cat marrow I’d say let them. Myself I’ve never had too much desire to eat cat. I’ve heard grizzly bear is pretty good, and I’d give it a try, but cat? Grizzlies also aren’t an endangered species also.

Along that same vein I’ve heard that because of global warming polar bears might not be native to Alaska any more. The bears live on the Ice cap, using the land only to den up and have cubs. They are the only bear that doesn’t hibernate, loves the cold. Because of the shrinking ice cap the open lead of water in the summer might become to great for them to get close to the Alaska coast line.

Footprints out on to the shore ice.

I spent the winter of 89/90 working in the bear’s habitat where the shore ice meats the coast. Much of the time we were walking on the snow and very fearful of seeing a bear. From a totally unscientific source I’ve heard that the polar bear upon seeing a human begins to stalk it, we are food.

Don’t know how I’ve strayed so far from Laos. To bring it on back to the semi tropics, I don’t really care if I see a tiger in the wild or not. I have no desire to be dinner. Don’t even care that much about the species. I mean isn’t a leopard big enough to fill that ecological niche? Doesn’t much matter, as it looks as if Laos is going to be turned into a giant rubber plantation for it’s neighbours.

Sep 1, 2007

Thatdam (Black Stupa)

I like the Black Stupa in that it is a historical Tat that is simply in the middle of a roundabout in the middle of a busy town. No one selling postcards or pictures. You don’t have to make a special trip, you pass by it on your daily travels. It hasn’t been plated with gold or in any other way refurbished to buff up it’s appearance. It just is.

There is now a kind of upmarket boutique guesthouse on one side of the circle, a sign of things to come?, but much of the neighbourhood remains the unchanged. On the East down a soi is the entrance to the US embassy, no parking anywhere close by. The guards will direct you elsewhere, and at the entrance to the soi a dilapidated old colonial house.

I like the grass and bushes growing out of the cracks, lends that “lost in the jungle” type feel. It’s on Chanta Khooumane just north of the mini mart on Thanon Samsethai. I took this photo from well back by the school so to include as many wires as possible.

Top Centre

Aug 31, 2007

"or maybe not"

Adjust your monitor for photographs, click on the photo so that it enlarges, and take a look. This is an LZ above Indian Creek in Utah. Notice how the wet Navajo Sandstone really shows it’s colour? Great Photo by Scott Lambert.

Remember the description of the blog says, “or maybe not”, as in “ Travel, Food and Other Things Connected to Laos and Laotians,,,,,, or maybe not” well this is that “or maybe not“ part. Actually there is a tenuous link in that one of the first pilots I knew flew for Air America in Laos, I have no idea what kind of aircraft he flew, from what I gather he was in a few different kinds of fixed wings.

I like Lamas. A Lama besides being a filthy animal that looks like a goat and spits, is also the helicopter with the world's altitude record, for thirty five years running. We used to say that at lower elevations below 12,000 feet, the engine was governed down so as to not tear the blades off with the excess power. Who know if it’s true. The three blades are wide for grabbing lots of air, and the fuselage has no skin so the cross winds can blow through the aircraft and to save weight.

A lot of helicopters will first get some forward speed up before gaining altitude or else they are very sluggish going up from a hover. When the pilot pulls up the collective on a Lama the aircraft feels like it’s a yo yo at the end of some giant’s string. It goes up in a hurry.

If you are waiting to get picked up, on the lee side of an avalanche break to get out of the snow that‘s blowing sideways, sixty miles from a road, with night time temperatures dropping out of site, and winds gusting to seventy from a stationary lenticular cloud, there’s nothing to compare. Just the sound of a Lama is enough to remind you of warm hotel rooms, chicken fried steaks, and all the other thoughts that come at the end of the day.

Aug 26, 2007

Up and Down Saw

Click on the arrow lower left (twice) to play the video.

This is the only time I used the video function of my Pana FZ7, the high resolution didn’t work. I wasn’t much into video anyway, still trying to figure out how to take a picture.

These Kammu sawyers were fulfilling a contract to provide wood to the relocated villagers of Ban Nammat Mai. I don’t know what you would call the new village of Nammat Mai, Nammat Mai Mai? I also don’t know why the Akha contracted out the cutting of wood rather than doing it themselves. Certainly an up and down saw doesn’t take that long to learn to use? Notice the rice in the background sown between the burnt trunks of the trees. New slash and burnn due to relocation?

I don’t know what species of wood they were cutting, or how much the contract to cut them was worth especially on a piecework basis. The Kammu guys said they usually cut three or so pieces a day. I also don’t know why they didn’t just chop the wood flat with a knife they way they do in the hills. Notice the peg in the saw cut at the end of the log, probably to keep the saw from binding. How about the language they are speaking, that aint Lao!

One year when my grandfather was a boy he cut his hand badly in the saw mill and so hea nd his brother contracted to cut railroad ties off a wood lot for ten cents a tie. They used a regular axe and a broad axe. The broad axe is used with one hand to cut the logs to flat. I don’t think they got rich on that deal. Seventy five years ago, before workers compensation or Social Security in America. I wonder in 75 years what kind of a world the grandsons of these Kammu guys will live in.

Sticky Rice Stuck to the Tree

I can only guess as to the meaning of sticking a small pinch of sticky rice to a tree above the place you sell barbeque from every day.

I would assume this is a carry over from the worship of animals, house spirits, and the like. Probably thought to bring good business to the woman. I watched her carefully affix a new pinch onto the tree just before I took the photo.

For the record she had a little of everything, Sam San Moo that three skins of pork, pieces of chicken, and five stuffed fish. Quite the variety.

Anyone definitively know the reason for the rice, or perhaps the name of the habit?

Up close

Aug 24, 2007

About Lao food and Blogs

Two Lao Girls slurping Tam Mii

Lately Lao Bumpkin has been getting hits originating from food blogs mostly by Lao Americans. I’m psyched to know that there are people interested in the food of the culture their parents come from. The bloggers are young, articulate, and sometimes very funny. (one is called I eat padek) If you are looking for the nuts and bolts of how to cook Lao food it’s there. What, how much, and often with videos and ingredients lists. To say I’m impressed is an understatement.

I had been worried that the food of Laos would be lost with the transition to western society. I often hear from travelers to Laos that Lao food is bland and tasteless. Well I guess that stuff served up at restaurants with English menus is. I mean how exactly do you cook laap without pa dek, organ meat, or bang nua? Oh and no hot peppers, king, kah, and so on. You end up with hamburger seasoned with a little mint. More often it’s fried rice, a sure fire meal guaranteed not to offend the delicate palate of the tourist. Or mixed vegetables. I digress.

The web sites of these new Lao cooks are written mostly in English. For any of the Lao cooks who read this sorry about the lack of specificity. I assume anyone reading knows their way around a Loa kitchen already. My intent isn’t to provide a step by step, but just a rough guide.

Nice padek brown color to the sauce eh?

I know what your asking, what the heck are they eating. It’s like tom makune but with those noodles that you use for foe, sen foe or mii. It also contained whatever they wanted to throw in. Toasted fresh peanuts, padek, kapi, bang nuah, cabbage, that green called pak bong, meat balls, squid, and a couple pieces of nuat on top, that’s the brown tofu.

Sun Saap

Look for a separate section of links to Lao Food blogs.

Aug 18, 2007


Obe on the stove ready for a long simmer

It’s hard for me to start talking about obe without first trying to explain how to say it. I always thought it was pronounced ope like in the word dope but without the d. I don’t think we have a short b sound in English as in obe. The b really is a b, as in baw beh the sound for goat in the lao alphabet, it’s just that the sound is so short we have nothing to compare. I get away with it when I say ope.

Anyway obe is made from meat and is mostly meat. I’ve had it made from all different kinds of meat but it lends itself to wild meat, the spices are strong. I’d imagine porcupine, rabbit, raccoon, and all those other critters would do just fine, especially with the bones cut up along with the meat, lets the flavour out.

Mule deer looking young and tender in velvet

Above is a mule deer, affectionately known as a muley. I don’t like deer as much as elk, the deer is a little gamey tasting making it a prime candidate for ope .In Laos I’ve also had ope made from civet. I’ve heard it’s made from all the usual wild foods especially tough meats, and animals with a lot of bones. By chopping the bones across the ribs and cutting the backbone into pieces a lot of the good juices are released into the sauces.


This piece of venison (deer meat) was given to me by an old friend of mine last week. I’ve known him for probably twenty five years, since we were both pretty young guys. Being a farm boy he was familiar with butchering animals and we used to take advantage of the many road kills on the sides of the highway. Nowadays he uses a big old 300 magnum that seems to drop just about anything he points it at.

Shallots Garlic Lemon grass

The fresh spices for this batch were lemon grass sliced very thin so that you can eat it, shallots, garlic and bai kii hoot, (kafir leaf). Our lemon grass has matured enough to have the thick stalks that you need to actually eat the stuff, most other years we plant it too late and all we can use is the grassy parts in soup. The bai kii hoot is from our house plant that we’ve had for a few years, in the winter we bring it in and it becomes a house plant.

Lemon grass in a pot

Bai kii hoot

Tumeric powder, dried kha, bai kii hoot

Normally kah (galangal) is fresh also. While in Laos my wife bought a few kilos and dried it, the customs police decided that it was ok so we now have a couple years supply of the stuff. The dried stuff from Thailand in a jar labelled “curry powder” is that yellow spice that Kohn Kak and Malaysians use, I think it’s turmeric.

Stove cranked up to high

The cooking method is obvious and simple. The dried stuff is pulverized in the coke, the wetter lemon grass, garlic, and shallots are added then lastly some naman hoi, (oyster sauce) bang nuwa, some nam see yu and the bai kii hoot. The cubed meat is kneaded into the sauce then quick fried at a high heat in the bottom of a pot stirring constantly.

Ope ready for the long simmer

After a couple of minutes the heat is turned down as low as it will go and a little water is added as needed to keep things from burning. With an occasional stir the pot is left cooking for an hour or two or three until the meat is tender.