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Vientiane: Food, Glorious Food

We caught an early morning bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, arriving in that city around lunch time, and found ourselves a guesthouse. It was a little out of the centre of Vientiane, but Bec and I sometimes refer to stay away from the backpacker hangouts, where guesthouses inevitably cluster together like campers around a fire. Staying away from the centre of town enables us to walk in to the main sites, seeing parts of the city you otherwise may not.

The guesthouse itself was set down a small dirt road, off a major paved road. Our tuk-tuk dirver led us down this path for 30 or 40 metres, past open-fronted wooden houses sitting up on stilts with small kids waving in the dirt as we smiled and waved back, before dropping us at an oasis amongst the dust. A two-storey building, with a huge 1st floor verandah overlooking a lush garden out the back with a small bar, palm trees and a couple of picnic tables. Bec ran in to check out the rooms while I waited with the tuk-tuk driver.

She soon came trotting back, “Well, I haven’t seen the room, but Da, the owner has already made us some complementary drinks, they’re waiting for us on the bar, so I reckon we’d better stay.”

Worked for me.

Of course, that was before we’d bumped into the mosquitos. Our room was fairly well protected from the little bastards, but the bathroom, man, that was different story. It was mosquito headquarters, where mozzies went late at night to party till the wee hours and fall asleep on the bathroom floor, then be woken up in the morning when Bec or me went to take a shower.

The bathroom was not big, a couple of metres across in both directions, space just enough for a toilet, a basin, and a shower with no doors. In this small space, at least 30 to 40 mozzies would begin buzzing around as soon as I switched on the light. Clap your hands indiscrimantely, and you’ve killed a whole family.

Compounding this was that Bec nor I are taking any malaria tablets during our travels around SEAsia. We did our research, it didn’t make sense to us to take them and we still believe that. But that doesn’t help your nerves any when you’re standing there naked trying to shower, swatting at mozzies all around you, fearing the worst.

We cleaned ourselves as best we could, before walking into the centre of town; a walk which took us along the dusty sides of roads (yeah, not too many footpaths on Laos) making our feet filthy again within minutes.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos. Ha ha, capital. I use that term very lightly, for this is no London or Paris. Vientiane is like a small riverside town. Traffic is fairly subdued (well, at least compared to Bangkok, the other Asian capital I’d seen), and people are laid back and friendly. Along the river front, endless street vendors wait with a plastic table or two, some chairs, a small barbeque and a drinks cooler filled with ice and beer and coke. Here locals sit, drinking and eating while the sun sinks into the Mekong river running calmly down below.

There are a few sites around worth visiting, but the slow-down nature of the city meant we missed most of them, spending our days simply wandering in the sun, stopping randomly for some noodle soup and a fruit shake. We did go and see Patouxai, a huge concrete Victory Arch that strongly resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and offers great views back over the town. It was built in 1958, with materials that the Americans donated to help Laos build a new airport runway. Instead they built Patouxai, leading to the nickname, ‘The Vertical Runway’. Gotta love the Lao people for that.

We indulged ourselves late one afternoon with a sauna and massage at a Wat twenty minutes out of town. The venue was set in bushland, hard to believe it was just a short walk to the centre of the country’s capital city. We were in a wooden hut, open on three sides, elevated up to the first floor by stilts. Along the fourth side of the hut stood two small herbal sauna rooms. After arriving, we were given a sarong each and told to strip, before entering the hot hot sauna. It’s always a little disconcerting when you first enter a sauna filled with steam. Visibilty is restricted to about the end of your nose, and you know there’s a few other bodies out there, almost naked, literally dripping sweat, some of whom may or mat not be fat old men; so the urge to put your arms out in front of you like an Egyptian Mummy to feel your way around has to be overcome.

Avoiding an inappropriate grope, we managed to find seats, and sweated it out for 10 mintes or so. This was followed by a cup of herbal tea back out in the open hut, chatting with other travellers and the friendly local woman who ran the place. A few more trips in and out of the sauna, a quick rinse down in the shower (well, a trough full of cold water and a bucket), and we were ready for our traditional Lao massages. In a sunken section of the hut, almost like a sunken lounge, were six beds where young locals were working away on mostly Westerners.

An hour later, I’d had every part of my body prodded and stretched. Different to a typical running-oily-hands-over-the-body massage; this consisted mostly of simply applying pressure, a lot of pressure, to all points of the body. Up and down the spine, back of the neck, back and front of legs and arms, shit, even your face. A couple of stretches and cracks that would’ve scared the bejesus out of a chiropractor were also thrown in, one of which involved me kneeling on the bed with my hands cupped behind my head, elbows out over my shoulders, while the massuese crouched behind me putting his kness into my spine, gripped my oustretched arms, and pulled; inverting my back over his knees. Ouch, but good.

The food in Laos had made a great impression on Bec and me in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, and so, on our final day in town, we took part in a cooking class run by Da, the owner of our guesthouse. On the menu were Laos spring rolls, followed by two traditional Laos dishes; chicken laap and green papaya salad. Bec and I were the only participants this day, which first took us to a local market, a crazy, sprawling market, where fresh fruits and vegetables led to even fresher seafood (or riverfood, I guess); bowls with fish, large fish, swimming around sat next to smaller bowls where slimy eels slid over one another, and other bowls where frogs hopped about. Further on, we saw whole ducks, plucked of their feathers, sitting atop one another on tables in front of old women, the ducks’ heads expertly wrapped back around their necks to stop them from drooping down over the table ledge.

Beyond the fish and eels and ducks we found the meat area. Huge slabs of red meat sat on wooden benches, flies swarming over some of it, money thrown down onto the meat with not a second glance. A whole pig’s head sat at the end of one table, its loose skin looking almost human, as its lifeless eyes stared up at the ceiling. Next to the meat section was the clothing section, where handwoven material of brilliant colours hung in booths, just metres from the red meat.

Bec and I simply followed Da about, heads constantly turning, pointing things out to one another.

After half an hour or so, we had our ingredients, and headed back to the guesthouse. Here, Da set up a table out in the garden amongst the palms, next to an open fire stocked with hot coals. We chopped up our ingredients and cooked it in a wok over the coals, and afterwards, sat at one of the tables in the garden to eat our handiwork.

We’ve had Da email us the recipes for all three dishes, so to our families back home – look forward to a Laos feast when we get back.

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One Response to “Vientiane: Food, Glorious Food”

  1. Mark Hogan Says:

    Does that mean Uncy Blue is going to be cooking for us when you come to stay!

  2. Posted from Australia Australia
  3. admin Says:

    You provide the beer mate, and its a deal.

  4. Posted from Cambodia Cambodia

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