Mar 25, 2010

Ough as it Ought to be

The cook cooking

Yesterday was an out of control Lao food cook off around here.
We've been out of sticky rice for 2 weeks. We usually have a pot of kao jao every night so sticky rice is no big deal. But still. This is a Lao house, we eat Lao food. A freind from Vang Vien came by and brought her own sticky rice, I think that's a little too much.

So mum went down to the lao store where we hardly ever go, cause most everything can be had at the new Vietnamese/Chinese supermarket down on 120th. But my wife had a hankering for fresh dill, and small round eggplants. Well when she got back she had bought some other things that she had been having trouble getting, and once she started cooking she started cooking other stuff and more and so on. It was all over in a couple of hours, this is what she cooked.
ough sin guang
First off was ough (like ought without the t) more commonly known by it's Luang Prabang name "or", and the kind where you burn some buffalo skin and throw it in called "or lam". Don't know why it was transliterated as "or", no "R" sound in modern Lao Language, oh well. Note no buffalo around here so folks save the cow skin when they buy a whole cow and they just burn some of that, similar taste. This wasn't that kind of ough any way but just plain old ough sin guang. (deer meat ough)

mak kuah recipe card for the bread in background

 Back to the ough as it's called in Vientiane. The meat was two packages of deer chunks, and some kah, and a ton of bai kii hoot, and the mak kuah stirred a little and in the pot it went.

Later lemon basil, tons of fresh dill, some spinach. Lastly some kao neeow pounded and broken in the saat then mixed with cold water and thrown in the pot and mixed around. Oh and those mouse ear mushrooms too.

I had some tonight on kao jao. Sublime. the sin guang was very tender and infused with the taste of the bai kii hoot. Oh, and green onions. Half the greens were just whatever she wanted but she insisted that in order to be ough you have to have the dill, bai kii hoot, kah, and mak kuah. She says laap has to have bai kii hoot and kah also, but I've bought it all the time without and actually preffer it without. Different folks, different strokes. I asked about the crushed sticky rice with the cold water, why cold, why not just throw it in the pot? I guess it would turn to glop then, by adding it via cold water it all gets mixed in thickening it to the consitancy ough ought to be. Oh, some hot peppers too.

Look carefull and you can see the het hu ngu (wood mushroom literaly mouse ear mushroom)
making the jea kapii

Also on the menu, Nam pik gapii, the Thai name for it cause it's a Thai food. Crushed hot peppers, bang nua, gatee-um, lime juice, hot water. Just so I could see I smelled it, a little closer each sniff until I was right over the container. Yup, smelled like gapii.
deadly nam pik gapii


Gaeng Pah another Thai food, the pah means forest not fish, with pak gapao and those little roots out of a bottle whatever they are called.

gaeng pah


Jao het made out of the oyster mushrooms
jaw het (whatever oyster mushrooms are called)


Gaeng jute with the cucumbers and lemon basil
gaeng jute

Did I mention 4 loaves of bread earlier in the day? No one hungry here.

Mar 22, 2010

You've never been to Pakse

if you haven't had foe at the Lankham Hotel, but I'll start at the beginning.

Up on the Bolaven Plateau I met a guy driving one of those Honda 200cc Enduros. He told me that he rented it from the Lankham so that's directly where I headed on return to Pakse.

Usually I speak Lao to people working in hotels, my 200 word vocabulary is easier than the usual 20 words of English spoken at the reception desk. At the Lankham I switched to English after the first sentence. The owner's son and his wife manage the hotel and both are very fluent English speakers.

Owner and grandson

The owners of the Lankham are an ethnic Vietnamese family. I say ethnic because they are 100% Lao by nationality. They all speak Lao when talking amongst themselves, even grandma. The family is educated, one son received advanced degrees in China, the other in America, both by scholarship.

The hotel is a smoothly functioning business as it needs to be with so many working there. The lobby is always attended and has many people checking in and out, getting left luggage, renting motorcycles, using the net, or booking tickets, all the time. The room I rented was cheaper than the competition, and though small, was clean, with AC, TV, fridge, and it all worked. A heck of a lot of Thai and Chinese stay there, good value. I think the rooms on the second floor are better and higher priced. I don't remember what I paid, not too much. There are two halls with rooms both sides and 3 upper floors, maybe 60 rooms or more. Out front is an espresso cart with a blender for smoothies too.

Ashtray Lankham

I was forthcoming about what I intended to use the bike for, and daughter in law suggested I didn't need a large bike but one of the made in Thailand Suzuki 125s might be plenty of power for the slow roads. Not as expensive as the dirt bike, but a lot more solid than the Kaolaos. Good call. Unstated, but in my mind, parts and repairs are a lot easier too. Try getting a large unusual bike worked on in a small village, might not have the right sized tires. The bike I was shown was shiny new looking, I checked the lights and brakes then hopped on to take it around the block, odometer read 450km, the thing was brand spanking new. I left it at the attached mechanics shop around back for the night and they changed the oil and adjusted up the brakes a smidgen.

Street in front of Lankham

But good rooms, great service, informed conversation, and reputable rental is not what really impressed me, it was the foe. In Vietnamese spelled "pho" and in all languages pronounced like the fur of the dog that bit you but without the R. Maybe more resembling the Fur of Fur Elise the famous bagatelle by Beethoven. Like Fur Elise good foe is understated excellence when done right.

Not the usual piano and not understated excellence but I liked it, in the style of Jimi Hendrix.

I'm not sure how foe is made in Vietnam where it comes from but in Laos the broth is light but extremely flavorful. Very little color to the soup but packed full of tastes that combine and compliment each other and are hard to pin down. At the Lankham in the early morning I saw them bringing the ribs of two whole cows fresh from the butcher to make the broth. Over twenty people are employed in the preparation, cooking, and serving of the foe. Everyone has their special job from preparing the ribs by trimming off the bits they don't want to cutting vegetables, setting and clearing tables and so on.

What's in the soup besides cow bones? I don't know. Often foe tastes of cinnamon or anise, and probably they were in the water at the Lankham, I don't know, but in no way did I taste them. Maybe they don't use them, I don't know, same with salt and bang nua. All of the flavors are subtle enough that they can't be pinned down. When the broth pours it shines, clear it is, thin it's not.

Second best thing in the world, foe at the Lankham

I only saw one person cooking the noodles, I have to assume it was the woman in charge of the business. The foe restaurant is operated by the sister of the owner. Of course the thin sen foe (foe noodles) are just barely cooked enough. Thin sliced beef and green onions minced are added so that they are barely cooked and they cool the soup down enough so that when it arrives it is hot, but not scalding, you can eat it right away.

On the side and complimentary is a large glass of unsweetened weak iced tea in a bottomless glass. Also you get a bowl of just barely cooked, still slightly stiff, boiled cabbage chunks and green beans without any added flavoring. More of the same uncooked in a bowl in front of you, and a tin with a lid and chunks of lime to squeeze. Lettuce leaves, cilantro, basil, sprouts, hot peppers, everything you could use with foe.

I squeeze a couple slices of lime and dig in, after half a bowl I devour all the boiled cabbage and half the beans. The boiled veggies are great, clean the pallet, tasty, a break from the constant chomping on lettuce, mint, and cilantro that usually accompanies me eating of foe.

The meal isn't cheap. Maybe twenty thousand kip or so. Between eight and nine there's a big office crowd from all the government offices and banks. Tables are big, they can seat eight or ten people, and seating is communal, just pull up a chair. Mid morning us tourists and a few business people wanting to talk away from the office. What better way to clinch the deal than over a great bowl of foe. Lunch crowd is over and done with by 1:30 and by mid-afternoon all the huge pots are scrubbed and dishes washed and stored awaiting the next dawn.

Haven't eaten foe at the Lankham Hotel? Well you haven't really been to Pakse yet.

Mar 19, 2010

One day treks in the vicinity of Muang Long (short longs)

Suspension Bridge over the Nam Long

I went to Muang Long to deliver some photos from my last visit and to take a get in shape walk for the walks I wished to do over the next couple of months.

Back home I'd been doing some jogging on the inclined treadmill at the gym and a lot of walking above 10,000 feet, but that was in the fall. The few week hiatus while traveling up from Bangkok through Southern Laos and Vientiane hadn't done me any good. I was still fat, old, and out of shape.

I knew that the trail up Phou Mon Lem is a calf pumping grind for a thousand feet, after that it tips back a little but still heads up continuously for another two thousand feet or so. I'd used this trail before, it's the most direct route to Ban Jakune Mai. I wanted to see if my legs were still up for the walk, and I wanted my guide Tui, to decide for himself what kind of shape I was in. Tui was less than enthusiastic about the hike, and kept recommending his new one day hike in the hills on the other side of the valley.
Tui maintaing a social life while on a walk

I was also trying to get used to the software on my new GPS. I bought the cheapest option from an old reliable company. The elevation function seemed pretty accurate but the part that tells one how far you have walked didn't work under the trees. Later I was to learn that the gadget could create a track of my route that I could zoom in on but it also used up the batteries.

The walk wasn't so bad, we went up a thousand feet, Tui had phone coverage to talk to his friends, and we met a fellow who. with his sons. was up getting structural bamboo for building. I don't know how many different kinds of bamboo there are, twenty, fifty, a hundred, but not all varieties are used for the same thing. The kind these folks were getting was for the rafters and joists of a building. I suspect the woody part is thicker for this species. Remember from botany class, bamboo is a monocot, like grass. They brought only one tool with them, the big knife. They used the knife to cut the thick trunks and then went into the woods for a different bamboo which they flattened and fashioned into a rope, with which they tied the bamboo together and also made a simple harness for the long drag back to town.

Lashing the notched bamboo together using another smaller piece of split bamboo

The next day we did Tui's new one day "trek" over to the Akha village Long Pha Mai and up and behind the mountain Phou Pha Kahm. I'm not crazy over the word trek but that's what every one calls a walk in South East Asia so I will too. Normally the word trek conjures up images of multi month forced marches across sub zero arctic tundra combined with burning deserts and so on.
The heavy duty steel bridge that crosses the Nam Ma
 To start we walked down through old town with all the Tai Lue houses built using the traditional style, then across the suspension bridge and through the fields to the new bridge. The suspension bridge crosses the Nam Long, the heavy duty steel bridge crosses the Nam Ma, and shortly thereafter we walked through the Akha village. Tui pointed out how the Akha had adapted many of the construction techniques of the Tai Lue. It was true, but then these were dwellings built along the road with access to electricity and concrete. The portion of the walk before the Akha village is a pleasant stroll on flat ground through rice paddies and vegetable patches.
Naiban Ban Long Pha Mai

We stopped and talked to the headman for a while and he remarked on his recent surgery. He had some kind of stomach problem and had been losing lots of weight, the doctors in the hospital at Udomxai had cut into him and done something. It's well near impossible to figure out medical problems when talking to someone in Laos. Many medical conditions that are common vocabulary in our language have no words in Lao, and Lao people have no way to describe and no familiarity with the condition. Most ailments are simply described as what part of the body. In any case the headman showed us an impressive scar above his stomach and reported he'd gained back 7 kilos already, still looked thin to me, but seemed healthy and happy.
Naiban's kids, not the laughing or fooling around as usual but rather being carefully positioned and told to stand still and stop grinning like an idiot by mom and looked at by a buncha adults. Sister especially had a difficult time keeping a straight face.

The headman was happy to have me take a photo of him and his family and then he showed me the family photo that they recently bought. Some Vietnamese merchants were going to every village and selling large prints. What they would do is take photos of individuals faces, then photoshop them onto a picture they had of models in old style Vietnamese clothing. The end product is a large (11x14) high definition photo of an Akha family dressed like a royal Vietnamese family of 150 years ago. When I return to deliver my photos I'd hope they make up in authenticity what they lack in impressiveness, but I think it's a long shot.

The trail took off from behind the Akha village and quickly gained elevation. As soon as we slipped inside the forest sound seemed to quiet and the air was noticeably cooler and wetter. The fact that the trees were on the far side of the river and that there was rough terrain to get to them has protected them ever being cut. Big trees lay where they fell, turning into the dirt from which new trees grew as they had been doing since time began. Some of the big trees must have been at least a couple hundred or more years old, hard to imagine what life was like when they were saplings. Before this part of Asia was even colonized.
Tui and Somsai
It turns out this hike and the trail were Tui's latest creation for tourism in Muang Long. Many people come to a town and want to see some forests, a river, some ethnic villages, etc. and to sleep at their own hotels at night. The entire mountain of Pha Kham and gently sloping forest behind it have been made a municipal park.
Prohibited! Logging, Burning, Hunting, Littering

 Many local officials took the maiden hike and helped establish the trail and post the "no hunting" sign, which I think is mostly for our benefit. The hike does pass through uncut forest as soon as one leaves the village. I'd imagine it would be impossible to take such a hike from Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, Muang Ngoi, Nong Khiaw, or even Phongsali . There are simply no old forests so close to any of those towns.
Tui on log

The walk to the top of the hill was over quickly and we walked with ease through the very tall old growth forest around the back side of the hill and out to an overlook that seemed just above the town.
Muang Long with Phou Mon Lem behind

On the way down I ask Tui about the new vegetables I saw, and he explained the benefits of squash over melons, the price of rubber and how the valley was now making money exporting to the very close border of China. China will buy anything Muang Long can grow, except damaged melons. In no time we are fording the Nam Ma below town where the water isn't so deep and making the long trudge through the fields up to the road and then back to town.
The Nam Ma in the area of the ford below Muang Long

At my room I listen to the BBC on the short wave and took a leisurely cold shower carefully washing clothes and taping up my foot which had developed a blister. Thinking back on the day I realized Tui was right. It was indeed a nice hike. The trees were large and the forest was the tall kind you don't see often close to town.  Tui having a personal connection with the headman at Ban Long Pha Mai, made me feel less a gawker, more a visitor. Maybe 8 or so kilometers, five hours.

Homphan Guest House Phou Pha Kahm on skyline


Mar 16, 2010

Learning Pasa Lao on You Tube

I saw these videos via a link from WSC, and just couldn't get enough of them. A kaen plays in the background, the setting is Laos, they're speaking Vientiane Lao, even the clothes are very Lao.

My kids and I had fun trying to say the Lao word before they said it. Some of the foods had us guessing. Fish noodle soup? Kao poon. True that, don't know what else to call it. Laap, is, well, laap.

To see more go to you tube itself and look for more stuff from FindinLaos

Mar 13, 2010

The Banana Murders

This is one of those, Not About Laos, posts.

An old climbing buddy stopped by last weekend. I haven't seen him in probably 15 years, but of course he's much the same person he always was, except he is doing something even more necky than running it out far above his gear.

I'd heard he was down in Columbia where all the death squads are, and Baghdad too. Had he taken up war tourism or what?

I talked to Paul for most of the afternoon and into the evening. I'd talked to him at length before, but I'd forgotten what a conversationalist he is. His wide experiences inform his thoughts of course, but he always had a gift for seeing past the BS and laughing about it. It's exactly that ability to see a situation clearly and laugh at life's absurdity that made him a joy to climb with. Eventually the conversation drifted to just what in the heck it is he's doing.

Human rights lawyer, third world ambulance chaser, I'd for sure say making a buck isn't the goal, I could think about ten million easier safer and more lucrative to make a living. Paul goes to unsettled areas where there is ongoing conflict and represents people who are intentionally harmed by American companies. Like killed, you know shot and hacked to death. Now you and I already know this goes on. Any reasonably informed person knows terrible things happen every day, it's a big world, but what after all is to be done? And of course no one likes it that American companies are advocating murder and mayhem, but other than phoning your congressman to end up a footnote on some intern's list, or signing a petition to be thrown away what are you going to do? Paul got a law degree, he takes them to court, that's what we do in America.

He doesn't file suit against the people with the machetes or guns in their hands, but rather the people who pay their salaries.

His big case is Chiquita the banana folks. They've plead guilty, as in copped a plea, in US courts to hiring right wing death squads to act as security for them down in Columbia, and they've killed thousands and thousands of people. Maybe tens of thousands? I don't even want to know. They knew they were breaking the law, it was discussed many times at board meetings, yet they kept on funding the death squads, good for business I'd guess.

Even though Chiquita pled guilty they've never been sued in a civil suit, and that's what Paul does. He signs them up. He becomes their lawyer. Kind of like a third world conflict area litigator. If a case is ever decided I hope he is able to stop living out of a suitcase. Paul still has his sense of humor, he is mentally strong, cause when you think about it, what he does, has to extract some sort of psychological toll. Documenting and quantifying brutal murder torture and disemberment isn't something one does to relax. And then there's the place he lives in Colombia. It's in the middle of the area controlled by the right wing death squads, with lots of activity from the Communist FARC. Who to worry about more?

And bear in mind those folks who have lost family members, most usually the breadwinner, deserve some compensation. Chiquita's hired death squaddies drove down the cost of labor, unions were tossed out, no more collective bargaining. Mass murder, torture, disappearances and torching of whole towns are very effective methods of union busting.

Others have done what they call piggy backing. That's filing similar suits for other people via Colombian Lawyers acting as their proxies in Columbia. But Paul was the guy to just go into the middle of the conflict area and set up an office. And years later he's still alive.

He also works in Baghdad and Kabul now. Paul looks for instances where private US companies kill foreign nationals on purpose for no reason. The world is what you might call a target rich environment these days, as our companies have been allowed, and even encouraged to act in ways usually reserved for armies.

Here he is being interviewed in a story by Al Jazeera, mostly at around minute 4:30 and 12:00, but watch the whole thing. Despite the slight dramatization for effect there's a lot of info packed into a short segment. I guess Al Jazeera is making two follow up pieces in the future.