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.
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.
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.
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.