Thursday, January 10, 2008


I said I'd eventually get to writing about Laos and Cambodia and Indonesia, and here it goes, just two months late. First I'll start with Laos--or at least start with starting with Laos:
Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is one of the smallest and least-visited countries in Southeast Asia. However, despite being about the same size as Utah, Laos boasts incredible ethnic and scenic diversity. From the lush jungles deep in southern Laos to the vast mountain ranges of the north; to the lazy Mekong river that snakes along the western Thai border to the sleepiest capital in the world, Vientiane; Laos is truly the Jewel of the Mekong. Rich in vegetation and largely Buddhist, Laos guarantees a plethora of wild and interesting vegetarian foodstuffs that will peak any adventurous omnivore’s curiosity.
Due to its rough history, Laos has, until recently, remained relatively untouched by tourism. This is a good thing, because where much of Thailand (especially the islands) is becoming increasingly built up and the beaches littered with buckets, beer-cans and baseball hats, Laos has maintained its wild and untouched feel due to a blossoming eco-tourism industry. Eco-lodges are popping up all over Laos as well as eco-tourism agencies that can help you decide on which excursion is right for you and your budget. I started my jaunt in Laos by flying into the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang directly from Chiang Mai, Thailand. This ancient town is set along the Mekong River and is surrounded by a breathtaking backdrop of lush green mountains and over 30 Buddhist temples. The night market of Luang Prabang is an eco-conscious-shop-a-holic’s dream. A cacophony of brightly colored, high-quality handmade products, the market allows for a symbiotic relationship where the local hilltribespeople can make a fine living by selling their gorgeous embroidery, organically hand-dyed fabrics and clothing, and bamboo paper to the wide-eyed and drooling tourists. Seriously, the gorgeous goods and mouthwatering (and dirt-cheap) vegetarian street food that can be found in the marketplaces all over Laos can be literally stupefying.
Night Market 
Being an ex-French colony, Luang Prabang is probably one of the only towns in Southeast Asia where you can nosh on a freshly baked baguette alongside a traditional Lao meal of tofu larp and sautéed morning glory with a side of moss straight out of the Mekong. I pretty much ate at the cheap vegetarian street buffet ($0.50) every night, which consisted of sitting on plastic stools eating heaping plates of steamed vegetables, sticky rice, and slurping hot noodle soup while the sun set over the Mekong and a faint drizzle cooled our tired skin. Larp is a Lao specialty, which is usually made with some sort of chopped meat, green onion, sesame seeds, lime and red chillies. However, it is becoming more common to see vegetarian renditions that are not to be missed, including tofu, wild eggplant, pumpkin, etc…Lao cuisine is quite similar to Thai, although it’s not as spicy and everything is served with very sticky rice. Its flavors are also a bit more tangy, as it calls for such pungent additions as chilies, lime juice, lemongrass and fresh coriander leaf. One thing to look out for is the common Lao practice of using a clear fish sauce made from anchovies called ‘naam bpaa’, as well as fermented shrimp paste, or ‘ka-pi’, which account for the cuisine’s salty element. One necessary Lao phrase for any vegan or vegetarian, therefore, is “Please don’t use” or ‘ka-lu-naa baw sai’ then add ‘naam npaa’ or ‘ka-pi’. Other common flavors in Lao cuisine include sour tamarind juice, coconut milk, ginger, sweet basil and ground peanuts. And like many of Laos’ Southeast Asian neighbors, it’s a great place to try a wide variety of tropical fruit both in smoothie-form or from a street vendor who will peel and chop the fruit for you. I became basically addicted to sour green mangoes, jackfruit, durian, guava, longan, and my personal favorite, the glamorous dragonfruit.