Nov 29, 2009

The 22 hour bus ride to Luang Namtha Revisited

Pakmong a major road junction north of Luang Prabang. Go left to Udomxai and China, go right to Nong Kheaw, Sam Nua and Vietnam. Rain.

I caught the Bus to Luang Namtha again, this time jumping on in Vang Vien and getting off in Luang Namtha only to catch the morning sawnthaew over to Muang Long. The ride ended up being about 27 hours overall, 31 hours door to door.

Vang Vien has a new bus station out by the market that's pretty nice, I waited there for the bus to drive by. After a while I went out to stand by the sign at the road, the bus doesn't pull into the station, only stops for a minute. I was the only one getting on. Despite making decent time the bus didn't roll into Luang Prabang until after dark. The guard who had been sitting across the aisle from me and chit chatting most of the way got off. What a bore it must be riding back and forth to Luang Prabang day in and day out.

Vang Vien bus station

I'd been looking forward to dinner at the southern bus station in Luang Prabang for quite a while, instead it wasn't even a toilet break. The driver said we'd be stopping in Pak Mong for dinner.

In the dark of the bus, and after Luang Prabang people began to talk amongst themselves and folks wanted to know who in the heck I was, you know what's my story. Why am I speaking Lao, who do I know in Luang Namtha, that kind of thing. I could hear my answers being relayed to those too far away to hear and also being commented on and interpreted as they were passed on.

I too had questions. Like why could I understand them when they talked to me but not when they talked to each other. I'd been eavesdropping a lot since Luang Prabang and I would only recognise a few words. I understood in bits and pieces. I was only guessing as to what was being said when I heard a familiar word once in a while. It was like listening to Lao being spoken under a blanket or with a mouthful of marbles. Then when someone talked to me it was once again en clair.

Inside the bus

Lots of laughs and discussion when they finally figured out what my problem was. The older guy closest to me said, "we're speaking Lu!" more laughs. I'd been listening to them speak the language of the Tai Lu, an ethnicity common to the lowlanders of Luang Namtha. It's kind of like Lao and shares some words I guess.

At Pak Mong I bought some oranges and a bag of those Thai shrimp flavored potato chip things. I think it was raining slowly.

At Luang Namtha I recognised nothing, it was still night. A couple other people were headed for the local bus station too and I tagged along. After shivering for a little while it began to get light and I walked out to the road, the local bus station was almost in Luang Namtha itself. The internet place was closed so I wandered up to Zuelas and my friend Vong was eating breakfast, Sai brought me a cup of hot tea bless her heart and I sipped hot tea and made small talk before heading back down to the station to catch the sawngthaew over the hill.

Check point in mountains above Muang Sing

I convinced a couple of women waiting to go to Muang Sing that the sawngtheaw to Long would pass through Sing on the way by and the driver left with only 3 passengers. Being the first vehicle in the morning he was sure to pick up lots of fares, and he did.

Not too far below the highest point of the road from Muang Sing there is a checkpoint that doesn't necessarily seem like one. It's Lao style, flowers and a restroom of sorts. I didn't get the impression the two young women I was with understood that this wasn't just a stop for the toilets suplied by the government. All the vehicles traveling out of Muang Sing get checked for drugs. Beyond is one of the main opium producing areas of Laos and the major transport route for methamphetamine labs in Buma. This is the only road check within Laos that I can think of.

Goats belonging to checkpoint staff.

A couple hours later I was checking in to the Homephan Guest house in Muang Long. A brief and pleasant 31 hours since leaving my hotel in Vang Vien.

Homephan Guest House. Market and bus stop right of the third and fourth utility pole down the street.

Nov 22, 2009

Ban Ha Sip Song

Tree in front of Wat Song Buay on the way there

To kill time waiting to leave Laos I took my rental bike and drove up to the Hmong town at kilometer 52 on the road to Luang Prabang, named Lak Ha Sip Song, appropriately enough.

I stopped at Lak Ha Sip Song once before when riding up to Vang Vien with my in laws. I'd always wanted to spend a little time again looking the town over. For many Hmong in America the town is their best known destination in Laos. It's a Hmong town, but being so close to Vientiane it's accessible.

Market from the south west corner.

The bike was some old clunker I rented for four dollars a day from the guy who has a sign on a tree across from Kap Jai Duh. Both brakes weren't so great, rear ones sounded like metal on metal and they're the ones I like to use first. My usual technique for a quick stop is to lock up the rear tire then pump the front brakes letting off on them only long enough to keep the thing off the ground. It's worked so far. On this bike I had to use the front breaks a lot more than I like, oh well, just go slow and drive defensively right?

It was Saturday morning and traffic was light. The road is fairly straight and flat. The road passes through mostly rural areas but of course being the main road stores and businesses are frequent.

Alley on north side of market

Shophouses in Ban Ha Sip Song

For quite a while I followed a truck hauling an old D-7 cat on a lowboy. He was moving right along and used his air horn gently but often to clear the road of motorbikes and pedestrians. There's something about the idea of fifty thousand pounds of steel hurtling down the narrow two lane road that clears the way. He was moving faster than all the local traffic and the rich folks in SUVs and pickups were reluctant to get in front of him.

My biggest worries on the motorcycle are people entering traffic from the side blindly and others driving down the shoulder on the wrong side. Following the lowboy all I had to do to be safe was to tuck up right behind his rear tires until the road cleared out again.

Maykue Guest House next to market

Actually being there wasn't so thrilling, I was glad I hadn't wasted time actually getting off a bus and getting a room there. Just another Lao town. Ok, the people have longer faces, they are Hmong. But they wear Lao clothes and listen to Thai pop music. The market is alright but then so are the markets in a lot of towns. It's supposed to have a lot of food from the forests, I didn't see any endangered dolphins strung up to make jerky or anything. Maybe there's more to the place and I was just in a cynical, "been there done that" kind of mood.

There is a guest house, and the owner claimed they had rooms with hot water. Hot water is my new standard for hotel rooms. Place has hot water it's ok with me. If there were internet in town it would probably be a nicer place to hang out than Vientiane. Damning with faint praise.

Oct 18, 2009

Boon Vong Journal

I don't often post about Lao Americans. Mostly this is a blog about Laos and Laotians, but I personally am very interested in the subject.

Most of my Lao friends here are people who came to the US as adults, either recently or back in the day. They are more comfortable speaking Lao than English. I'm also friends with people who are Lao by ethnicity but who grew up in America. I feel proud when I see them succeed within the greater framework of American society. They are very American, but are also Lao. The things they write allow me a perspective into Lao culture that I'm seldom able to get from my fellow falangs, yet they can express it not only in the language of America but within the cultural context of modern American life.

Some of the blogs I read are written extremely well with a poignancy about life and it's connection to their Lao-ness that cuts to the quick. I don't link to these blogs. Some of them are very personal, dealing with matters of self identity and family. I think they might well be written for a limited audience. My web crawler sorts them and alerts me to posts.

The photographer and artist below is someone who obviously knows his blog might well be looked at by many people so I link here. Take a look especially at his drawings, you can find many via the link on his side bar. They seem to be from photos but with a soul inserted into the image. They are very realistic, but even more true than a photo if you follow me.

Time and again I think I recognise the people in the pictures only to realize that they aren't some one's kids I saw at the party or down at the Lao store. They are as Lao as the sound of the saat hitting the coke, or the steam of sticky rice in the kitchen or tang jeao padek. And they are 100% American.

Oct 4, 2009

When the charger broke

My camera uses rechargeable batteries. Mostly I like it, one charge lasts a long time, no batteries to throw away. I keep everything charged up as much as I can. Never know when there might be no electricity for a while.

So I was sitting in my hotel room minding my own business and my camera battery charger starts doing one of those sparking smoking type things that you just know aren't going to end up well. By the time I unplugged it whatever was happening had finished doing it's thing.

I was concerned but not despondent. Three fully charged batteries might well last quite a while. No reviewing and deleting photos, just turn it on, snap, then off it goes. More than likely the geniuses down at the market could fix it.

So down the the big market in Pakse I trotted, or scooted to be more exact. I walked through the phone section until I found a store that not only worked on phones but had a few cameras and video cams lying around in various states of repair. I told him it was sick, figured that was close enough, and he peeled it apart stuck the ohm meter on it. Ten seconds later he speed dialed someone, hung up and said, "Lao no have" then looking at me and using the probe from the ohm meter to point at one of those tiny cylinders with wires coming out the end said emphatically, "this, this, this, no have in Lao"

Yes he was speaking English, doggone kids. Probably Vietnamese or Chinese or something. No doubt hated English in school but aced it anyway to go to the good college. And that third language without even trying he speaks it a lot better than I speak the language of the market. I thanked him heavily, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, "maybe Thailand". I still had one possibility.

As soon as I got to Vientiane I got myself on down to the morning market. They are tearing it up and it's hard to find your way around now. Huge pieces are construction zones. Shame really it used to be pretty easy, all the stores that sold similar stuff in one place, many ways to enter or leave each section.

The gold repair used to be along the east side back in the day, adjacent to the street across from the bus station but a little further down. Now it's just off the corner on the east side and no parking on the street. The turn in is where they take away all the trash too so it's not always pleasant.

He's the guy behind the counter

I found the gold repair places and sure enough that same guy was there who fixed my telephoto back thirteen years ago. We spoke Lao. I told him I didn't think it could be fixed in Laos. He did the same thing with the call on the cell phone but told me it would be 300,000 kip and the part would come from Udon Thani on the bus. I said great. Then he asked me if I understood and started to write it out so I repeated it slowly and said I understood. Some electronics store in Udon Thani would have to ship it on the bus, it would get left across the street, and he'd go get it and probably pay the money which would then reverse the same route. I thought the charge reasonable.

Lots of love for old TV repair men who have evolved with the times and also young smart Asian techies no matter thier country of orgin.

Sep 19, 2009

Vang Pao charges dropped

Last night I turned my web browser to read that all charges had been dropped against General Vang Pao. The general stood accused of plotting the overthrow of the Lao Government.

I was a guest in a Hmong house last winter, the first time I'd ever done so. There were marked differences from Akha or Lahu. Notice how it's built on the ground, not so drafty, nice clay oven,also a good roof of split wood not straw. It's the one in the background.

The ending to the story is a lot less melodramatic than the beginning. An out of control ATF agent suggested to a retired American officer that he supply guns to the Hmong. The whole plot was an idea hatched in the mind of a rogue American policeman abetted by a retired American Army Officer and later to include a couple of old Hmong guys. They were about as ready to take over Laos as I am to fly to Mars. No arms purchased, no army raised, just a silly attempt to further some policeman's career.

U.S. Drops Case Against Exiled Hmong Leader - NY Times

Gen. Vang Pao's Last War - NY Times

General Vang Pao

What about the damage done to Lao / Hmong relations?

The whole whoopla gave plenty of cover for both the Lao and Thai governments to be a lot more proactive in resettling Hmong refugees from the camps in Thailand. There was also friction between Lao militias and Hmong in already resettled villages in Bokeo province, and around all sides of Xaysombone. Many Laotians assumed they were about to be attacked by Hmong guerrillas, after all it was just recently that the Hmong stopped receiving arms and money via the porous Thai border.

Vang Pao 1961

Another aspect is the disrespect shown to the old General himself, after all America is definitely in his debt. He not only fought a war for us, in which tens of thousands of his people were lost, and and contributed greatly to the war effort in Vietnam but his forces saved innumerable US air force pilot's lives. He is now 79, in the twilight of a life spent mostly fighting for US causes or recovering from that fight.

I think our government owes an apology for over reaching and a certain ATF agent should be looking at facing a jury.

Sep 6, 2009

Tad Fan / Sihom Sabai Guest House

A different view of Tad Fan, from the top of the falls. Click for a clear picture

I first noticed the sign for Siihom (pronounced "see home")Sabai on the way to Paxon, couldn't miss it, big billboard, "guest house Sihom Sabai 200m".

Later after renting a motorcycle in Paxon and poking around the area a little I stopped back in to take a look. I thought it ideal. Shady, house set back off the road, small restaurant out front with a big covered table for lounging. I asked about going for a walk and the owner's daughter volunteered that her husband and her brother could act as guides.

Hom, the owner of Sihom Sabai Guest House and many many rai of coffee plantation. Now tends his garden, bounces grand children on his knee, and drinks Lao coffee.

Siihom Sabai is named after the couple who own the guest house Ms Si and her husband Mr. Hom. Their daughter Boontom was the best English speaker there, but she also had a sister working at the Sabaidee 2 Guesthouse in Pakse which is the most popular backpacker Lonely Planet guest house, so I'm sure she too speaks great English. The rates were very low, maybe four of five dollars for a room in the guest house and two or three to "home stay" in their personal house. Don't hold me to the rates, things change, my memory fades.

I returned my motorcycle and came back with my bags early the next morning. All the towns and points between Pakse and Paxon are named after the mile marker, Siihom is at Ban Siisip (village kilometer 40).

Treking guide and his covey.

When I arrived at the guest house I was surprised to see eight or ten other foreigners there. Green Discovery and another company use Sihom Guest House as a place to sleep and a base to start walks into the surrounding countryside. One group was leaving to return to Pakse and another group was beginning their walk that morning. After many coffees and after the second group started walking I met my guides, Ad and Ham, Boontom's husband and the youngest son of Si and Hom.

Ham with coffee and knife in left hand.


Eventually we crossed a creek where there was a small house, the owners had been fish farming using the dammed up creek as a water source, they also had these home made rat traps. I have to assume for catching the rat to eat. Inside the bamboo was a loop of wire and a small stick spring loaded to trip the bent bamboo and throttle the rat. I thought I knew all the different traps from when I was a kid but this was a new one on me.

Close up

Edge of Boloven Plateau

Above the house the hill became more rocky and we came to the edge of an escarpment. From our overlook we could look down into the Dong Hua Sao National Biodiversity Conservation Area. I walked in a couple of circles along the ledge until I found the scat from some kind of mid sized cat. I knew this was too good a place not to have a scent marker.

Tad Nguing from above

From our viewing point we walked back to the west heading steadily downhill, crossed the river and abruptly came up on Tad Nguing, a much better waterfall for swimming than Tad Fan.

Tad Nguing from below

Tad Fan Lodge

Later yet we crossed the top of Tad Fan as in the photo at the beginning of this blog post. I bought both of my guides a soda or a coffee at the restaurant but we quickly left. Tad Fan attempts to be a little bit more than is called for. Too much suupap and too little sabai.
Tad Fan

Gate to my overgrown hectare behind bike.

We walked back on the access road to Tad Fan Resort and passed the entrance to a hectare I own there. It's at the Y in the road, feel free to pick the wild coffee or tea. We took a shortcut back so that we didn't have to go all the way out to the road.

Si and Hom of Sihom Sabai

Aug 29, 2009

Nong Khiaw / Tiger Trails / Fair Trek

The bridge at Nong Khiaw Riverside Lodge seemingly resting on bridge.

Last winter while wandering through northern Laos I spent the night at Nong Khiaw (Kiao, Keeow, etc) a river crossing town on the Nam Ou above Luang Prabang. I wasn't walking well so my big excursion was a stroll over the bridge and looking at town from the other side of the river. Nong Khiaw seems to be split by more than the river, the west side seems older and where the major portion of the houses are as well as the bus stop. The east side has all the newer river bungalows and I think a different name, Ban Sop Houn.

Pill box on west side of bridge

There was a trekking company in town with it's doors open and no one home, there was even a side entrance from my guest house. I usually stop in at any trekking company while I'm in a town to say hello to the guides. They're a great source of info about the local area and usually speak good English. I made a mental note to myself to stop by later and see what was up.

I'd read a warning online from the owner of the Riverside Guest House that Muang Ngoi Nuah, the tourist destination upriver and the small Hmong villages close by do not have ATMs. I guess some of the people headed to this idylic roadless Shangrila are caught unaware by the lack of machines spitting cash. When I hobbled over to the restaurant lobby the owner seemed pre occupied with the internet connection which had been out for 3 days.He probably makes a lot of his income via prebooked tour groups and desperately needs the internet. In any case I put on my best lost tourist look of despair and asked if any of the Hmong villages had ATM machines. After a couple more minutes of small talk he asked me if I were really serious. I really do sound as dumb as I look.

Veiw of Nong Khiaw from Riverside Lodge

If anyone stops by the Riverside please perpetuate the stereotype by asking if there are ATMs upriver. Check the price before ordering much in the restaurant. Flashpacker territory.

That evening I met the young manager of the local Tiger Trails office, and also a guide who had come down from Luang Prabang to check things out. I talked to both of them for a couple of hours. The young manager appeared to be in his young 30s. Good English, self assured, business like. He was 21, a very mature young fellow, one of those people whom you meet and think to yourself, "this guy is going to go far in this world".

Tiger Trails / Fair Trek / Nong Khiaw

His story as best I remember is that he had been taking people out on walks on his own initiative when a couple of satisfied customers mentioned him to the owner of a Trekking company in Luang Prabang. The owner went up to Nong Khiaw, they went on a couple of excursions together and worked out a few basic itineraries. What most interested me was the walk they took for a few days in the Hmong villages in the hills east of town. When I was there no one other than the owner of Tiger Trails and his now local manager had done this walk. I am still very interested.

I read on their web site that they now have a lodge in one of the villages and are working on a store to sell local handicrafts.

Aug 23, 2009

Lao Ethnic Handicrafts Store

It would be difficult to spend much time in Laos and especially in the houses and villages of the Lao Seung (upland peoples) without developing an appreciation of their handicrafts. Obscuring the line between what is utilitarian and what is beautiful I bring the uneducated view to handicrafts. I usually buy what can be used as originally intended anyway.

Above is the entrance to the handicrafts cooperative in Vientiane. It's right next to the post office and across the street from the morning market on the South side. Map is below. On the map it's called "Hmong Market" for good reason, most of the stalls are owned by Hmong people and most of the patrons are Hmong. Many overseas Hmong go there to buy ethnic clothes to bring home and wear at festivals. There are also a lot of forest products to buy, the horns from small deer, tusks from wild pig, porcupine quills, plants and animals, powders and potions.

There are also a heck of a lot of clothes and crafts from other ethnic minorities but you have to know what you want and find someone to sell it to you. Most tourists wander through without buying so the shopkeepers don't bother trying to sell anything to you. The lack of tourists also makes for nice shopping experience. I think the first price offered was good, I didn't bargain. The quality was much greater and the work more authentic than at the morning market. Many items were the same as you would see in an upland village, except brand new. No pillow cases or duvet covers. Prices were a fraction of across the street. Things are displayed Asian style. Large piles or hung from the ceiling seemingly haphazardly but really grouped in a systematic order so that the required item can be found quickly.

Above a small bag to carry stuff that all Lao people see have called a tong. This one is Akha, woven like a fish net from the inner bark of some tree or some other naturally occurring fiber. We have to go to the post office down the street to get our mail and sometimes I wear it while pedaling the bicycle. My wife makes fun of me, grown man wearing a pocketbook and all. I bought it in Vientiane at the store in the photo up top.

The basket above hangs beside my computer to catch letters and small screwdrivers and markers I don't want the kids touching. It was made by the Lanten people and I bought it in the crafts coop in Muang Long. Now there is a bank where the coop used to be and a woman runs it out of her house. The bamboo is darkened by being hung above the fire, this hardens it or keeps it from rotting or something, all people seem to hang bamboo stuff above the fire for some time, the darker the better.

Notice the different weaving around the bottom, and also just below the top. I figure this would be a great "go to market in the morning" type basket. Baskets keep greens from being crushed. The Lanten make good stuff.

This sticky rice basket is Lanten also, my wife just recently started using it, remarking that the weaving is very good. Again notice how the weaving changes bottom to top and also a star shaped pattern across the top. I bought these also in Muang Long but had forgotten about them for a couple of years.

Lastly this is a tong made for sale, probably after export, it has a zipper which I haven't seen on the ones regular folks carry, also it's very small, so to be sold as a small purse for women. I think it's Yao by the red pom poms, but I'm not sure, never spent any time in Yao villages. The fabric is hand woven cotton, grown on the side of a hill somewhere up north no doubt. The dye no doubt the natural blue black stuff everyone seems to fancy. The embroidered designs are intricate and with tight stitching. This tong belongs to Thipalada who is modeling it, her first pocket book, she puts lots of things in it. I also bought this at the cooperative in Vientiane.

Aug 11, 2009

Craig Luebben dies in Cascades

From the Denver Examiner (click for link)

"We were in the process of setting up a short haul to put Luebben on a backboard and a litter. Just as we rigged the helicopter Willie phoned and said that Craig had died. He had been complaining of back pain and loss of sensation to the legs. We were all shocked because he had initially survived"

The quote above was from his climbing partner Willie Benegas

A guy I crossed paths with briefly twenty some years ago died from falling ice last week. He was local to an area of Colorado roughly an hour away. Sounds as if he had some time to collect his thoughts I hope.

Photo by Craig Luebben

The circumstances where I crossed paths with Craig are kind of unusual and maybe that's why the name rang a bell after all the years. Craig took the photo above, it's of me, we came at best within 50 meters of each other. (I'm in yellow and blue, my partner Randy is in red)

Craig and his partner had a fairly big lead on us that day, we were on Yellow Wall and Craig was on Pervertical Sanctuary, both climbs on the Diamond Face of Longs peak. My partner, a fellow named Randy, and I were climbing very fast and in a few pitches we were almost level with Craig. It was then that he shouted across, took the photo above, and I got his name and the town he was from. From there it was pretty easy to track him down and get a copy of the slide. Remember at that time all photos were taken on this thing called film, there was no such thing as digital.

Craig was very excited to be climbing that day, probably he was happy to climb most days. He shouted of the great weather, the rock, our speed, and so on. A very happy fellow on a nice day in the mountains. After telling me he'd send a copy of the slides if they were any good we didn't see any more of him. I got cramps above in a hand crack pitch of Black Dagger (I think that's the name, memory you know)

It seemed unusual to be making conversation across a hundred and fifty feet of air that way, with thousands of feet of nothing below and above. The Diamond being a fairly flat wall gave the impression of a world turned ninety degrees on it's side. We saw no one else on that side of the mountain.

Craig had just developed a kind of expanding tube chock to protect wide cracks and was known around the inter mountain region. They are the lightest wide crack protection to this day. Craig wasn't simply a wide crack climber. He pretty much did it all. The Diamond tops out above 14,000 feet and is slightly overhanging for it's entire thousand feet. When combined with it's 600 foot of approach, east and slightly northern aspect and the technicality of it's climbing the Diamond gives committing free climbing in an alpine setting.

Craig if you're reading this from on high and you remember, I'll leave you with the same request I gave to Charlie on this blog. Save me a cold one I'll be right there. RIP

Jul 10, 2009

Photo to teach Hmong kids in Wisconsin

The Ferry at Thaduea, Xaiyabouli Province

The other day I got this eamail saying someone wanted permission to use a photo from my blog in making a lesson plan for teachers to use for kids grade 4 to 12 in Wisconsin. Below is the eamail and link to the teaching materials.

Needless to say I'm totaly phyched to think that some Hmong kid is going to be viewing my photo and learning something about the land his grandparents left so many years ago.

I've no idea why that photo. It is of the same rough geographic location where the Hmong flee to Thailand. If one follows the mountains across from Phonsavan, Plain of Jars, headed for Thailand that is the route you take. Us tourists take busses, but the Hmong walk, and they walk in areas to avoid notice. I'd think even to this day it is the route of choice for Hmong leaving Laos.

The Mekong swings far into Laos in Xayabouli, crossing the river doesn't mean the journey is over but it does mean that one would have even less chance to encounter soldiers.

Hello, My name is &&&&& &&&&&&. I am
a University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire masters student currently working on the
“Making Americans, Making America” (MAMA) project, a UWEC administered
educational program designed to enhance Wisconsin’s history courses (grades
4-12). As part of the program, MAMA creates free graduate history courses for WI
educators. In return, MAMA fellows are asked to utilize the knowledge and skills
they acquire from the courses by creating effective lesson plans to be
implemented in the classroom. In hopes of providing Wisconsin educators with a
valuable teaching resource, the University would like to host on its website
some of the better of these plans. However, such a project inevitably has
copyright implications, as many of the plans feature images scanned or copied
from various websites and publications. Hence, we are currently in the process
of contacting all the organizations MAMA fellows acquired materials from and
requesting their permission to use the content. One of the plans containse an
image (Ferry Boat at the Thadua crossing Xaiyabouli) copied from your webstie.
We would like to request your permission to use the content. You can access
further information on MAMA at the following address:
(MAMA is a non-profit program created specifically for the purpose of helping
Wisconsin’s educators enhance their teaching methods and classroom content). The
lesson plan has been included so that you can view how the image is being used
(slide 25).

Feb 16, 2009

Eating well for around $4 a day

First learn to think in kip. A dollar is 8,400 kip, but for simplicity think of $1 as 10,000 kip, twenty cents as 2,000 etcetera. Eventually you will just think in kip. To help you along I’m going to start listing all prices in kip. Learn to count to ten, and twenty, and the words for a hundred and a thousand. Learn the names of the food.

Below is a typical meal from the street, in this case it was out the front of someones store in Xieng Kuan. They also had a small table and when I asked if I could eat at the table the owner dumped the food I’d bought out of the bags and onto nice clean dishes that she had just for that purpose. Half the time a vendor will have a table you can use, the other half of the time be prepared to eat standing around. It was seven in the morning, finished it all just barely.

moo tawt

The food is sticky rice 2,000 kip. Moo Tawt (deep fried marinated pork) 5,000 kip. Jeao mac phet (hot pepper dip) 2,000 kip. Total 9,000 kip, just over one dollar US.

The rice at 2,000 kip is just about all I can eat, a lot of rice, I never order 3,000 kip. They don’t like it when you order 1,000 kip of rice. It’s smaller than they like to sell, if you can't eat it all give it to some chickens or a restaurant, usually they have a bucket for pigs so it won't go to waste. The way to order kao neeow without speaking Lao is to point to the rice basket and hold up two fingers in the peace sign, they'll give you 2,000 kip's worth.

kao neow baskets

Kao Neow (sticky rice) is cooked in a basket in this case with an old pan used to cover it, then stored in the basket up top until eaten. Best if at least warm, if it's cold I preffer to look elsewhere, but if it's all there is, it's fine cold also. Kao Neow is palatable for a long time, next day even.

I got lucky with the moo tawt, I was buying the food from those covered pots and the vendor just happened to have it. More common for meat is ping, (barbeque). Barbeque grills are easy to see and smell, they have smoke rising from them and the smell of barbequed meat. If they sell barbeque, they sell sticky rice. You point to the piece of meat you want and that’s the one you get. Often they’ll go ahead and cut it up for you before bagging it. If you have the language thing worked out go ahead and ask but pieces usually seem to fall in the range of what a Lao person could afford for lunch. The piece shown up top is probably slighly less than 100 grams.

barbeque Dalat Tatluang

Besides not ordering intestines or pig liver I also shy away from the sour pork. Sour pork has been allowed to ferment for a couple of days and tastes slightly rotten. It’s an aquired taste that I haven’t aquired yet. You can usually spot it by what looks like a thin batter that it has been dipped in, actually that’s the remnants of the soured rice and slime that has caused the fermentation. Not as bad as it sounds.

Barbeque grills often have a lot more than pork on them and if you are feeling adventurous you might want to try the other things you see. Fish is very common. Eat it slowly so as not to swallow bones. Often some of the guts are left in and mixed with some herbs and spices, they are left in because they taste good. Often you see chicken or duck too. All of these things are more pricey than pork.

Kiep (tiny frogs)

More exotic are tiny birds on a stick or tiny frogs, you eat them bones and all. Also crickets or other insects. Little birds are nok noi, tiny frogs are kiep, all insects are mang something, (crickets mang kee nai). I often see doves cooked by being curled into a circle with the heart and liver as well as herbs held in the center, (nok gahtah). I spit out the bones of the doves and the legs and heads of big insects but just eat all the little things in the tiny birds and frogs. Back to cheap stuff.

jeao and som pak

Above are jeao macpet and jeao maclen (tomatoes) behind is a great cheap vegetable called som pac. Som pak literaly translates as sour vegatable, pac meaning vegatable or fruit. Som pac always seems to be mustard greens. The same method as is used to pickle the pork is used on the som pac, but I am much more used to soured vegetables like sourkraut of pickles. They are a nice sour addition to a barbeque and sticky rice meal, and at two or three thousand kip they don’t cost much. My wife rinses them in clean water to get the briney water off them. They are fresh and crunchy. Cheap way to get veggies, som pac is sold everywhere.

In the first photo up top of this page is a bowl of green stuff, it is a combination of mushed vegatables called jeao macphet, (sauce of hot peppers). The jeao is used to dip the rice in, it is made by barbequeing hot peppers, green onions, and garlic, they are crushed and dented, then flavored with fish sauce, salt, and coriander. There are many different jeaos, try them, if you don’t like them you are only out a couple thousand kip. This jeao macpet was made from the large, not so hot, green peppers. Being not too hot it could be eaten in big servings.

Dalat Paxon

Above is a typical market. The market is the most predictable source of food. Street stands might well have fresher offerings but they are usually open only during certain times of the day. Bus stations also often have food.The market also has the best price on fruit or if along the mekong it has bagette sandwiches to go called pate.

Pate sold in the market or on the street often has things in it that you might not be used to eating but when eaten together in the sandwich taste pretty good. I’d suggest just eating them and not trying to figure out what everything is. Often they cost 3 or 4 thousand kip for the little ones, I throw a couple in my pack for lunch.

mac kien

Not all fruit is cheap, but some is. Above oranges (mac kien)from China with the leaves still on the stem and the more plain but just as tasty oranges from Laos. The cost of Lao oranges is usually 5 to 8 thousand kip a kilo.

So what’s the total cost? Add it up.

Moo tawt 5,000 kip
Jeao macpet 2,000 kip
Sticky rice 2,000 kip

2 bagettes 8,000 kip

Same as breakfast 9,000 kip
Half a kilo of oranges 4,000 kip

Total 30,000 kip or around $3.55 US
Want to save money? A Lao person might skip the meat and get more calories from rice, say 3 or 4 thousand kip of rice per meal, and some jeao to help it slide down. Maybe 18,000 kip a day, or $2.10 US.

What about water I hear you asking. Reuse the big water bottles by refilling at the guest house. Usually the guesthouse owner understands, Lao people don’t buy the bottles of water either.

Want to splurge? Have some bowls of feu (pho) once in a while. Shake the water off the uncooked greens on the side and eat them like you are a cow, that’s what they’re there for. Lots of vitamins, taste great. I never seem to get sick.

Sun Saap (bon apetit)

Kao Soi (the feu they eat up north)

A warning and some unasked for advice. All my prices are based on what I paid in the winter 08/09 off the tourist track. Costs on the main drag in Luang Prabang or Vientiane might well be two or ten times as much. Whatever the price, that's what it is. There is no double pricing, there is no bargaining.

If you are buying local and the vendor is very busy, try not to ask a lot of questions, they don't understand, they don't speak any English, their profit margin is very low, and you are slowing down business.