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.

Feb 13, 2009

Pantip Plaza

I wandered over to Pantip Plaza to buy an extra battery for my camera. The local Circuit City back home didn’t carry them. I figured if it’s hardware for a piece of electronics they must have it there, and they did. The first floor seemed to be inhabited by hawkers selling pirated computer gaming software. There must be a lot of falangs buying because on site of me they seemed to get whipped up into a selling frenzy. Sharks reacting to blood in the water.

I looked for a Panasonic sign and sure enough up on the third floor I spotted one. Pantip is renowned for pirated software. The store didn’t have a battery but they found one for me in about 90 seconds. Cost slightly less than at home.

13 45 0 N 100 32 15 E


Sex Tourists Not Welcome

Entrance to the Atlanta Hotel

I first stayed at the Atlanta about thirteen years ago in the middle of the wet season 1996.

My mom in law, my soon to be wife, and I were coming from Vientiane. We were sick of guest houses and wanted to stay someplace a little nice without breaking the bank. A taxi driver recommended the Atlanta. It was a perfect choice.

The Atlanta in it's time was probably one of, if not the, finest hotel in Bangkok. The place had retained it's charm even if a modern metropolis had grown up around it. The lobby isn't air conditioned as indeed probably no buildings at the time had central air. Instead it sits lower than the street and is shaded from the sun. Ceiling fans turn slowly and you don't get that sealed from the real world, feeling that comes from central air. I remember no windows on the street side of the lobby and towards the rear open doorways leading to the shady garden and the swimming pool. The feeling was of being hushed and at ease, a place to relax from the rat race of modern Bangkok.

The lobby itself had deep leather chairs and nice wooden writing desks with hotel stationary supplied free. Potted plants, and old photographs. There was a restaurant with high booths. We ate those club sandwiches cut diagonally twice, toasted, and with the crust cut off, even had those tooth picks through them. The restaurant only played jazz music pre selected by the German owner.

A great rumor had it that the owner was somehow connected with the CIA, love rumors even if based on nothing. I think while we were there the embassy was using the Atlanta to warehouse a citizen waiting to be repatriated. I'm not sure what his story was but they were picking up the tab for his room and board. Maybe he ran into bad circumstances in Bangkok.

We stayed there a week or ten days while I figured out how in the heck we were going to get my wife to America. I can think of worse places to spend a week. Mostly we swam in the pool during the day and hung out watching TV or talking at night. There were street stalls on the soi for the construction gangs building across the street. No lack of sticky rice to be had. Often my Maetou (mom in law) would gamble for small amounts with the guys staying at the hotel, and kid them without mercy for losing.

I think they were playing for coins only, and this was before the ten baht coin. I did have to buy a lunch once so maetou didn't win every time, but almost. She loves to gamble. The guys were mostly middle aged Europeans in Bangkok to chase the girls. They'd usually appear at the pool around noon exchanging gossip from the night before, who ended up with who or what old girlfriend had gotten angry or whatever. My mom in law would kid them accusing them of being taken advantage of, or being too old anyway. She's a great kidder.

There was also a young American guy who had lost an arm to the shoulder, some kind of accident I think. He loved to swim even though one armed. He ended up meeting and then going out with an attractive Canadian girl who was staying at the Atlanta. She had just finished writing for the Vientiane Times for a couple of years. She spoke great Lao. Two months later we met them at the airport when we were headed out with our visa. I think they were also headed back to North America... together.

I went back to the Atlanta late last year. I needed to go to the hospital on the other side of Sukumvit and I figured it would be close. I read the web site and I'd seen warnings online. They have all kinds of anti sex tourist notices. I wasn't headed to Bangkok for women anyway so I figured it wouldn't matter, it did.

Big Bad Bangkok

View from my window, skyscraping hotels and apartment buildings seem to have sprung up everywhere

The elderly Thai woman who used to run the place is no longer to be seen. I think her son is running it in her stead. Perhaps he has an issue with sex tourists. Maybe I would too if I lived in Thailand and was the product of a mixed marriage. In any case the effort to exclude sex tourists has exceeded what is called for. It crosses the boundary of being rude and even racist. The hotel has also gone to seed somewhat. Dingy and tattered. The night guys are no longer awake. The many services that come with a full service hotel are no longer there.

A couple weeks ago I met my mom in law at a Vientiane fern bar and we had a glass of wine together. I told her I'd stayed at the Atlanta, hoping she'd remembered the good times we'd had there so long ago.

Turns out she'd tried to go to the Atlanta herself. My Maetou went to Bangkok with a couple of her girlfriends to go shopping and so she could brag to her other friends back in Vientiane about it. Maetou no longer gambles for baht coins but for Vientiane real estate which has skyrocketed.

The Atlanta wouldn't let her in. Said "we don't let Thai women stay here", she said, "I'm Lao not Thai", they said "you still can't stay here". She wasn't happy. She had been all excited to show her buddies the little gem that the Atlanta used to be. She had remembered the Thai owner who so warmly welcomed her and chatted about the weaving on the sinh my mom in law wore.

Maybe the changes have something to do with the changes on Sukumvit itself. There always used to be a little baby Patpong on soi 4 called Nana Plaza. The beer bars have spilled out of the plaza and onto the soi itself. Lots of drunk guys at noon, lots of women of leisure.

If anyone knows of a decent clean hotel in the area or across Sukumvit in the soi 3 area for four of five hundred baht I'd love to hear of it, chances are I'm going to be headed back to Bunrungrad hospital again over the coming years.