Luang Prabang, Lao PDR
Baby chicks and goats. Bamboo scaffolding. Happy kids eating shit on bikes. Women gathering river weed from the Khan and Mekong to sell at the market. Leaves bigger than I am. Families cooking their dinner in quiet back alleys. A dissolving of status and borders impossible to find in Thailand.
Leaving this place tomorrow morning. Our guts today said, "Move", and so we must obey.
I'm sad to leave. This place is more magical than I could ever bother trying to convey in words or photographs. The best, most ridiculous, most enriching experiences are--as usual, when life's at its best--the ones I can't even begin to write about, that'll have to be on reserve only for my closest friends, and only in person in the right setting: over a beer or a long drive or food on a subdued night in.
However...there are two things I will allow myself to talk about.
The food. Holy shit. Here, you can experience some of the best and most interesting fine dining for the same price you'd spend on a meal at In'N'Out at home.
For instance, Tamarind, our favorite restaurant [definitely here, and possibly everywhere].
We got dinner there, seated outside, right over the Khan River. Friendly waitstaff excitedly explained all the food to us. Water was served in glass bottles to reduce waste [there is a lot of plastic waste from packaging all over the place here--especially since everyone buys bottled water] and drinks came with bamboo straws that could be washed and reused.
Anyway, we'd gotten a fixed-price meal, which had included:
-Chilean wine and a ginger/lemongrass drink
-A soup with bamboo shoots, pumpkin, mushroom, basil, green onion, aubergines...
-A platter of dishes including local river weed [my new favorite thing], tomato dip, eggplant dip, chili and buffalo skin dip, the best pork sausage I've ever had, buffalo jerky and, of course, a thing of khao niaw [sticky rice]
-Chicken wrapped in lemongrass, local Mekong fish grilled in a banana leaf, served with a tart/herby peanut sauce
-Stir-fried pumpkin with onions, spices, and mint
-Purple sticky rice with coconut meat, amazing Lao cookies that sort of taste like a cross between rice crackers and french toast [colloquially known by Laotians as "cat poo" because that's what they look like], and sweet/sour tamarind sauce
-local coffee with condensed milk and ground tamarind seed, and smoked green tea
ALL of that...for two people...for a TOTAL of about $30. [Also, it was some of the best food we've had, ever--we tried a couple of other fancy restaurants in the area and they didn't even come close.]
We went back for the "Adventurous Lao" set menu, which you have to book a day in advance and put down a deposit for [because they shop for ingredients at the local market, just for you, that same morning, based on your preferences, allergies, and "how adventurous" you are, and then create a custom menu for your dinner]. They warned us that sometimes the menu might contain bat, or pig blood, or whatever--it all depended on the morning markets. We told them to go nuts.
This was our dinner:
-Bael fruit cinnamon drink and tamarind cooler
-Platter of eleven dishes: sour unripened red plum mash, barbequed plum with chili, rice powder with ginger and sugar, pig skin pork crackers, steamed local bitter greens and mushrooms in herbs and fermented fish sauce, oyster mushrooms in coconut milk, barbecued water bugs with chile [the bug dishes actually wound up being among my favorites, and this one was really fucking spicy], pumpkin leaves, baby jackfruit with long beans, grilled and seasoned river leaves at the banks [this was one of the only things I had trouble with--it tasted more like mud than food], river weed paste with chilis [one of the strangest textures of any food I've had--almost like pudding, but a lot slimier...basically, it's fresh green sludge from the bottom of the river].
-Platter of ten more dishes: fermented fish sauce with chili/lemongrass/eggplant/bamboo [this was the only thing we couldn't stomach], fresh river weed powder with garlic, raw baby ant eggs with herbs [sort of like spicy ceviche?], bamboo worms fried in garlic and kaffir lime, snails with oyster sauce, buffalo and pork meatball, pickled raw fish, a sweet dried pork thing I recognized as one of my favorite Chinese foods when I was a kid [called ro sung in Chinese], barbecued pig brains, pickled raw pork in a banana leaf.
-Grilled pork stuffed in zucchini flowers, and two soups: sour local fish tomato soup [where you ate the whole fish--bones, head, and all], spicy frog soup with chunks of pepper wood [you'd chew the wood without eating it to get the pepper flavor, and the thing basically contained a whole frog, skin and all, in frog broth].
-Six desserts: more purple sticky rice with coconut, more cat poo cookies, these incredible sesame/palm sugar/peanut wedges, pumpkin custard, grilled rice powder and coconut sugar things, and sticky rice banana balls.
-Also, they gave us shots of their own honey lime lao lao, on the house.
We couldn't even come close to finishing, though we tried [minus the fermented fish sauce, everything was actually good as well as interesting]. For BOTH of us, the meal ran $32 total. A custom fucking meal.
Anyway. We'd be there tonight, but they're closed on Sundays.
As is Saffron Cafe on the Mekong side of town, also worth a mention, and also a place we'd be today if it were open: easily some of the best coffee I've ever had. I'm not really into mochas but their Luang Prabang Malt Mocha
The founder, David, an American ex-pat, worked out a deal with some of the local hilltribes who'd been reduced to slash-and-burn agriculture [which is both highly inefficient for those practicing it, and detrimental and unsustainable for the land upon which it's practiced] after their former livelihoods of opium production became outlawed. Since then, the hilltribes have become extremely impoverished [not to mention that they're made a spectacle of by "treks" to their villages so that tourists can photograph them and basically act like they're at a human zoo]. These hilltribes live in areas ideal for coffee production, so basically, David gives them coffee trees, which they cultivate and hand-harvest, and then he buys the beans back from them. The resulting coffee is fantastic.
The street food here is noteworthy, too. Surprising, delicious...and healthy [the only possible criticism I could make against Thai street food is that it left me feeling sick after chronic indulgence]. For instance, today I got a tomato and lemon shake. Gross as it sounds, it was fucking incredible. Lao style sandwiches on baguettes have also become a favorite thing--they're big enough to split between two people, fucking delicious, healthy, and round out at about 10,000 kip [$1.25].
Some of the street vendors are hilarious. The other night, a lady who sold us some noodles kept offering us sips of Beerlao [even before we'd agreed to buy anything] then cleared a space for us to sit down on a foam mat behind her booth. A lot of others make sassy jokes at our expense rather than brownnosing. It feels much less classist here, much more laid back.
Also, the best donuts we've ever had. And they're not at the famous French bakeries in town [we've tried them there, too]--they're on the street, for a fraction of the price.
Versus Larger Cities in Thailand
I loved Thailand...but there's little comparison. This place is cleaner and prettier. Despite being a much poorer country, on average the locals seem to enjoy a much better standard of living, both in town and in the countryside, whereas we saw much more of a wage gap between the rich and poor Thais.
There, the ex-pats are largely fat old white men in Hawaiian-print
shirts with teenage-looking Thai wives; many of them show up to live
like kings on their pensions with the locals in segregated servitude,
never bothering to learn the language or customs. We'd come across people who lived in Thailand for decades and were married to Thai wives...and they'd know less of the language than we did after a week of casual studying.
Here, the ex-pats tend to be philanthropists, conservationists, or entrepreneurs of businesses that mostly employ Laotians [thanks to a law that for every foreign employee at a business there must be ten employees from Lao--a law I think makes a hell of a lot of sense for this country]. [Plus, there's a law against foreigners hooking up with Laotians unless they're married...which is actually rather refreshing, as it keeps out the pervy old men out to score a really young Asian wife].
There, the tourists often seemed grumpy and detached, as if they were at a theme park and were owed good service, getting indignant at really pathetically stupid things [like portion sizes at street vendor carts, or at the fact that not everyone spoke English].
Here, the tourists seem more adventurous, appreciative, respectful, and present, aware that they're in a developing and wild country.
There, the tuk-tuk drivers seem desperate to pull you in for a rip-off ride to a gift shop that pays them a commission, or to a happy massage. They're often aggressive, invasive, and indignant, simultaneously seeming to resent the presence of tourists and to depend on it.
Here, the tuk-tuk drivers good-naturedly joke and cat-call, they seem to enjoy their jobs and don't appear desperate for your cash...possibly because the vast majority of them moonlight as dealers of all manner of illicit substances.
There, the street food was plentiful and good. I never ran out of interesting things to try, and it was damn cheap. So what if it was mostly sugary and fried and made my stomach complain? The restaurants were either all the same, or expensive.
Here, the street food is just as good, nearly as varied [and the restaurant food definitely makes up for it--fine dining at dirtbaggy prices], is even cheaper, and feels healthy. For the first time since coming to Asia, I don't feel slogged down in fry grease. And, all the fancy French bakeries in town notwithstanding, the best donuts I've had [ever, in my life] are available for 2000 kip in the street [about twenty-five cents].
There, the locals were polite and helpful for the most part. Friendly, but somewhat reserved. Most of them had reasonably good English [or refused adamantly to speak English, which I think is understandable]. Main pastimes seemed to include shopping and eating. There was a segregation perpetuated both by locals and visitors that made it hard to break into local culture in any sincere way--it was impossible to feel like anything but a customer.
Here, the locals are rambunctious, childlike, excitable, self-sufficient, and eager to make jokes whether at their own expense or yours. Most of them speak three or four languages [Thai, French, and English--better English than all the upper-class Thais we met]. Main pastimes seem to include drinking, playing music, and getting up to weird games and shenanigans.
There, there were thousands of mangy stray dogs, cats, and a lot of beggars [many of whom were blind or amputees and several of whom appeared to be affected by different diseases].
Here, there are thousands of domestic [or at least clean and tame] dogs and cats [as well as goats, chickens, and so on], and I haven't seen a single beggar in Luang Prabang, and the poorer villages seem to thrive on self-empowered participation so everyone can fend for themselves effectively.
There, temples often looked more like kitschy tourist attractions than places of worship. Full of plaster restorations, garbage, concrete, plaques, and souvenir booths.
Here, the temples are breathtaking and force you to stop and look--they're works of art, with intricate mosaics or other minute details, and give you a real sense of their history. Many of the monks are young boys who came from rural areas and joined monkshood in order to receive a good education.
OH. And in Thai cities, restaurants can be stingy as fuck with water. Even if you go to a nice place and buy a meal, they usually won't provide water unless you're willing to buy it [and will mark up the prices accordingly]. Here, you're given water with any sit-down snack or meal, or even with coffee if you stop by a cafe.