Sunday, March 30, 2008

On to Tha Heua

Seventy five more pleasant kilometers were punctuated with an equally pleasant town on a reservoir. Tha Heua's main drag is lined with countless vendors selling dried fish and delicious fermented fish paste to be eaten with sticky rice. After a longish ride, a snack was in order. The small market yielded some pretty snacks. I procured a nice variety of snacks not unlike ones seen in Thailand.

There was black rice, tapioca flower puddings, and creations with coconut.

We made for a hilltop temple and were met by a group of friendly novices, some of whom were enjoying an afternoon smoke. As we didn't have enough snacks to go around, we finished our pleasant conversation, and went searching for coffee to have with our still uneaten bounty.

Cans were spotted, and coffee was purchased. It was warm and sunny, so we had our coffee iced.

Dinner was an enjoyable fish soup, and laap paa, or Lao fish salad. It was all tied together with copious amounts of sticky rice and the aforementioned fermented spicy fish paste. It was salty, spicy, and actually the real highlight. My camera was resting, sorry.

The next morning started with coffee, and then on to a noodle stand just barely off the pavement. We pulled up a wooden bench and went about figuring out just what it was that was in front of us. The women running the stand seemed seemed briefly baffled, then amused to hear us speaking Thai to them, which luckily they understood. Many Lao people we spoke with either spoke Thai back to us, or just spoke Lao, which often was more or less decipherable. The owner of the stand told us that the noodle dish in front of us was kanom jeen, which is a spicy curry noodle dish in Thailand. It was similar here, but strong on the fish. The woman told us that eating this would make us strong.

It wasn't my ideal breakfast, but it really had a nice, rich, and spicy flavor. The sanitary conditions were quite appalling really, but that didn't effect the taste.

These noodles made us strong enough to comfortably cycle the 25 kilometers to Vangvienne.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Day of Riding

A large motivation for the recent trip to Laos was to go on another bicycle trip, in the same vein as the trip taken up to the North of Thailand last October, and the trip down south last April. I'd like to show you a few photos from our first day on the road north, from Vientiane to the small town of Thalat on the old highway. It was a pleasant 95 kilometers.

Our day started nicely with a great coffee about 10 kilometers up the road. This is how most of my days begin whether at home or on the road. After getting into the country side we started seeing fewer cars, more bicycles, and melons of course. We must have passed a couple dozen stands selling watermelons fresh from the fields. We had to stop.

A nice lady helped us pick out a nice ripe watermelon, cut it up, and gave us a space to sit under her cover. She engaged us in conversation and giggled at me as I tore into piece after piece of juicy watermelon.

Here's a big kid enjoying her watermelon. A very satisfied customer.

We rode on a little longer until it was lunch time. We eventually found a food shop and parked our bikes out front. I asked what there was, and the answer was Pho. This would become the stock answer. I had many bowls of pho in Vietnam and was not always convinced of its brilliance, so was a bit wary of this lunch.

This bowl was like a cross between Vietnamese Pho and Thai kutiaow. There was a hefty plate of lettuce, mint, and other unidentified greens. Actually, i loved this bowl of noodles. The broth took on the flavors of the greens very nicely, and the relative lightness of this bowl left me satisfied and energized for a further 50 kilometers.

Another few kilometers down the road we spied a naam oy, or sugar cane juice stand.

It was the perfect stop.

We sat on the wooden deck and watched the bicycles ride by.

That evening we rode into Thalat tired and dirty, but well fed and well hydrated.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Vientiane, Laos

Upon entering the very touristed center of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, one is struck by an eerie absence of Lao people. Look around and you'll see tourists whiling away their days in French style cafes sipping very nice coffee and enjoying very good croissants. Many a traveller will tell you that there is nothing much to see and do in the capital, and they're partly right. There are not many must sees and or must dos for the casual tourist, so there's a lot of relaxing being done by the world's fortunate in this poor republic.

Changing gears, I want to show you what I ate and drank; this is a food blog after all. The first thing I wanted upon arriving in Laos was the fabled Lao coffee. From pictures I had ascertained that Lao coffee was prepared like Thai coffee, but how different it was I did not know. My first cup did not disappoint. As a matter of personal preference, it fell somewhere in between Thai and Vietnamese coffee. The coffee was stronger than the Thai version, possibly owing to the fact that Thai coffee is filled out with other ingredients, leaving the coffee less strong tasting. It was certainly strong and sweet, but not as mind blowing as the ineffable Vietnamese version.

The next thing I was excited to try was the Lao version of the sandwich. I really enjoyed bánh mỳ in Vietnam and had a couple good sandwiches in Cambodia as well.

A sandwich with pâté, some of the usual suspects, green papaya, and topped off with herbs did not disappoint.

A sandwich with an omelet makes a rather excellent breakfast.

I found the Lao sandwich excellent for a meal or a quick snack. The selection of herbs and veggies make this western snack, very Lao. Unfortunately, only in the capital did I find the sandwiches up to snuff. The very spicy sauce we enjoyed in Vientiane was nowhere to be found elsewhere.


One thing I really enjoyed was eating and drinking on the (very dry) Mekong river. Here many Westerners, Thais, and even a few Lao people eat and drink away the evening hours.

One thing that many a visitor to Laos invariably celebrates is the very good Beer Lao. Although I already miss this brew, I am inclined to think that after a couple years of drinking the very malt-liquor-like Thai beers, the very drinkable Beer Lao tastes better than it might otherwise. Westerners like this beer so much that a full 70 percent of them will buy a Beer Laos t-shirt during their stay in Laos.

We occasionally eat jim-jum on the streets of Bangkok and they served the same thing along the river in Vientiane. The evenings were cool and the coals were hot making this familiar dish all the more comforting.

The flavors were familiar, if not maybe a little subdued compared to what I eat on the streets of Bangkok. This is not a complaint though. Very delicious.

The meat selection seemed, for the lack of a better word, very safe. No guts, no chewy bits, just lean cuts.

Bring the pot to a boil, add meat, veggies, and noodles. The real challenge is to not scald yourself while serving up a small bowl.

We also ordered spring rolls. More of a drinking snack really, but as we were doing just that, it made perfect sense.

The highlight for me was the banana flower salad. It was spicy, sour, and perfect with the obligatory sticky rice.

Grab a small pinch in your hand, grab some salad, and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Home again, home again

Just back from Laos this morning and it's great to be back in Bangkok. Nothing could have been better than this breakfast of jok, mango, and Thai coffee. The coffee in Laos was superior, but this was the familiar brew from my lovely coffee lady just down the street. This meal made me sad that Bangkok will not be my home for much longer...

Keep your eyes peeled for some Laos related posts in the coming days.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Off to Laos

After this morning's coffee at La Boulange on Soi Convent, we made a quick stop at our bike shop, then took a leisurely stroll. Heading up Rachadamri road, a completely naked middle aged woman approached. In case you didn't read that, she was completely naked. Nakedness can mean several things when it appears in public: 1) a practical joker, 2) a free spirit, or 3) a crazy person. As she got closer, I realized she belonged to the third group. Best of all, she was heading straight towards me. I had made the unfortunate mistake of eye contact. The eyes showed that this woman was clinically insane. As she got closer, she took a swing at me. I ducked and she moved on towards E. She grabbed at E's wrist, but E just shook her off. Naked crazy woman wasn't looking for a fight, she was heading straight for Silom road. That could have been very interesting.

One might call this particular event a bad omen. I will take it to mean that it is time to leave the city for a while. Lucky for us, we are boarding a train for Laos this very evening. It's time for a very long bicycle ride. See you in a few weeks.