Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chow Down in Laos (the 's' is silent)

Here is the second installment of my vay-cay in Laos. (Disclaimer: this was also an article I wrote for VegNews Magazine, so it is pretty veg-heavy. In real life, however, I was inhaling meaty things at an alarming rate, including that awesome whole fish to the left.)

There are quite a few vegetarian cafes and restaurants popping up all over Laos, especially in the serene capital of Vientiane. Phounchup Vegetarian Restaurant, adjoined to the large marketplace in the downtown area of Vientiane, offered tantalizing tastes of Laos unique vegetarian cuisine. Word to the wise: savvy vegetarian travelers seeking an authentic Laos dining experience should avoid the numerous cafes lining the city’s main drag that attempt to lure Western tourists by blaring episodes of Friends or Family Guy.
Luang Nam Tha is a province northwest of Luang Prabang and offers much along the lines of eco-tourism and delicious vegetarian cuisine. The best eco-lodge in Luang Nam Tha is called The Boat Landing Guest House and costs around 200,000 kip per night (or around $21). From here you can book one of many enticing eco-excursions in the Nam Tha Protected Area, which in 2005 was named an ASEAN Heritage Park. This park boasts some of the most diverse and breathtaking wilderness areas in Laos. Many species of conservational concern are currently being protected in the Nam Tha Protected Area, including rare species of pangolin and guar, soft-shelled turtles and the crimson-breasted woodpecker. Plus, one of the best veg restaurants in all of Laos, The Coffee House, can be found here. A combination of Lao and Thai vegetarian cuisines, it is affordable, delicious, and run by the sweetest Thai woman in the world.
During the rare times that I wasn’t eating, I spent my days purposely getting lost in and outside of the cities. In Luang Prabang, I stopped into Green Discovery, an eco-tourism company that offers guided trekking, kayaking, cycling and bird-watching excursions, as well as a cruelty-free elephant safari through the jungle. As it was my first time in Laos, I was unaware of how time consuming travel there can be—there is no rail system and the roads are small and windy—so I had to settle on a two-day trek instead of a five-day. It ended up being a blessing, however, because my travel companion and I ended up getting a very handsome and stoic personal guide who let us choose exactly how to spend our two incredible days. By the way, the myth about Asian men is a myth indeed. For a mere $60 each we experienced the following in no particular order: we rode on elephants formerly used as beasts of burden, swam in bone-chilling waterfalls, hiked through rice paddies, climbed a mountain in order to visit a tiny Khmu hill tribe village, slid down the mountain in the rain, kayaked for hours along the Nam Khan River, negotiated some medium-difficult rapids, and stayed overnight in a Hmong village where we sang traditional Lao songs and drank lao lao (rice wine) with the local teenagers. I’d say it was by far the best $60 I’ve ever spent, not to mention that I was able to request vegetarian food a day in advance, and so was pleasantly surprised with a wild eggplant puree, tomato/chili sambal, sautéed ferns, sticky rice, and other interesting local veggies for both lunch and dinner.
After returning to Luang Prabang, covered in mud and exhausted from our laborious trek, we stumbled upon what I would call the coup de grâce: a vegetarian street buffet that was literally 0.50 cents! Sufficed to say, I ate more than my fare share; seated on a plastic stool, I admired the sunset over the Mekong while a light drizzle cooled my tired skin. Bamboo and moss soup, black rice salad with cashews and tofu, fresh long-bean salad, spicy green mango salad, water lily stir-fry, vegetarian tam lao (with a mushroom sauce substituted for the fish sauce) and ground toasted sticky rice were just a few of the delicate morsels we feasted on in the streets that languid evening. Armed with a couple of lukewarm cans of Beer Lao, we decided to turn in for the night, bellies and hearts full of love for Laos.