“Special Post” Laos Part Three

The Wattay domestic terminal is located in a small building next to the international building. It took 10 minutes to get there from our hotel in Vientiane downtown. There was no stress or fuss at the airport. We walked in and casually strolled to the check-in counter. The check-in was a manual process. There was a metal weighing scale for the check-in luggage. It was very simple. We arrived early so there was no crowd, and all was done in 10 minutes.

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We waited for our flight to Luang Prabang. It departed on time. The plane was a French made turboprop aircraft produced by ATR (Avions de Transport Regional). There were two seats on either side of the aisle. I have flown in a smaller plane from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Fayetteville, Arkansas. That was back in 1982! It was quite an experience with lots of turbulence and bumpy rides along the way. I was glad that our flight to Luang Prabang was smooth and the landing was spectacular with surrounding mountain scapes on either side of the mighty Mekong River. If you are flying to Luang Prabang, make sure you have a window seat. The view is just stunning!

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Mekong River is the seventh longest river in Asia. It flows through seven different countries; starting from the top of Tibetan Plateau down to China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Luang Prabang Airport is small, so small that the plane disembarked the passengers less than 100 metres from the door of the arrival terminal building. Quite impressive if I may say. The entire flight trip was so simple and easy.

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We had a picked up service from the hotel, Mekong Riverview Hotel. The staff waited for us on arrival. There was a welcoming smile from the young man. It does not take much effort for visitor to be charmed by Lao people. It reminds me of Thai culture and people, which is one of my favourite SEA (South East Asia) destinations.

In Laos, there are printed T-shirts that reads “Same Same”. I can understand why. If you love Thailand, you will love Laos. Think about the place, especially Luang Prabang, as Chiang Mai twenty or thirty years ago. It has a “same same” feel to the place – temples, monks, Buddhist rituals, big warm smile and regular greetings of “Sabai Dee” in Laos, or “Sawaddee” in Thai.

Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos Kingdom, which was officially inscribed by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1995. It has outstanding architecture blending traditional Lao architecture with European colonial structures built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The townscape is remarkably impressive and best explored by foot or bicycle.

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On arrival at Mekong Riverview Hotel, we were warmly greeted by Daniel, the residence manager and his staff. It is a small boutique hotel – a ground floor with front courtyard and a top floor with a balcony. Daniel and his staff were incredibly hospitable and friendly throughout our stay. The hotel provides free bicycle hire to house guest, the best way to see the place. Another option is to be chauffeured by one of the staff in a cute white golf buggy.

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The view from our room and balcony is quite impressive. The gentle flow of Nam Khan River joining up to the Mekong River.  A wooden thatched roofing hut on the verge of two rivers bank. A tree lined street with swaying coconut trees. A few small fisherman boats in early morning – removing their fishnets supported by floating plastic bottles – to discover their prized catch of the day.

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The hotel is located within walking distance to several café and restaurants. There are two ends to the streets in the heritage enclave of Luang Prabang peninsula.

The eastern side of the peninsula – quieter, less people and traffic. This side of the peninsula has the expansive boutique hotels and restaurants, interesting architectures and temples.

The western side of the peninsula – more known as the “farang” side with low to medium cost guest houses cater for backpackers. “Farang” is a term used locally in Laos and Thai to refer to foreigners. The tour agencies, Money Exchange, shops, cafes, markets are located in this side of the peninsula.

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Went to Lala Cafe for lunch. There was a relaxed feel to the place. We walked in. There were 3 other tables with people using WiFi.

The place is stylish and modern with a contemporary touch. Lovely jazz music playing in the background. There are 3 different sitting areas; all open air. Inside and outside tables, and a few tables across the road in public space next to Nam Khan River.

We wanted a light lunch. Browsed through the menu. It has a mix of Lao and western food. We opted for Lao food, and ordered a vermicelli noodle with Lao spring roll and beef slices, and Lao snack of stuffed lemongrass.

While we were about to eat, two other tourists pulled up with their bicycles. I recognised them immediately. They were on the same flight with us from Penang to Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane. We began to chat. Michael and Traci, that is their names, live in Penang as expatriates. They were also in the same hotel as us, at Mekong Riverview. We laughed. It was like old friends meeting up in Luang Prabang.

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DSC01952This vermicelli noodle dish was very similar to the Vietnamese vermicelli dish. As I understand, most dishes in Laos are similar to Vietnamese and Thai. The dish was topped with lots of roasted nuts and dried shallots. It was refreshing with lots of mint and coriander herbs. The dressing which came in a separate bowl was sweet, sour, slightly spicy and very nutty. Spring roll was nice and slightly crunchy on the outside. Beef was again probably a water buffalo meat.

DSC01948This was truly a Lao dish – stuffed lemongrass. It looked beautiful and interesting. The flavour was a bit subtle and blend for me, even with the sweet vinegary dressing. The stuffing was a blended minced meat (probably pork or chicken) with some herbs, wrapped in lemongrass and then deep fried. I was not sure how to eat it at first. I attempted to eat the lemongrass, which was a wrong thing. It was stringy and chewy. Eventually I figured out that I had to remove the lemongrass casing and eat the inside meat by dipping into the sauce. The dish came with sticky rice, which is a staple of Lao food.

The way to eat the sticky rice and accompanied dish is to use the right hand by pinching some of the rice and the left hand to pinch a dish from the plate. The rice is then put into the mouth first, followed by a left hand with the meat or vegetables. Most Lao dishes are dry, which explained how they can be eaten with a hand. Otherwise, the hand and fingers will get too wet and sloppy with sauce and gravy all over. I tried this with another Lao meal at a different restaurant. My left hand was left smelling like fermented shrimp paste for a couple of days. 🙂

Next post features the markets.

9 responses to ““Special Post” Laos Part Three

  1. When I read posts like this splendid one of yours Victor, I often wonder why we are all subsisting where we are (cold and wet Tasmania!) instead of experiencing the wonderful things (ie scenery and food and friendly people) you and Reb are. But then another thought occurs to me after that. What exactly is it that brings Asian people to our fair shores to live, instead of staying in this seemingly lovely and perfect environment? I’m asking a serious question here, not taking the piss.

    There are positives and negatives with all things in life, I know. For an Asian person to relocate countries and come to, for instance, Australia, and have to take in the world of difference they would have to in order to assimilate, seems to me like the hugest exercise in so many things.

    I admire migrants SO much and often wonder, if they looked back with the benefit of hindsight, was it worth it or would they have rather stayed in their familiar environment? I reckon Australians would be hard to ‘read’ if English was your second language, and customs totally different and alien to your former way of life.

    You are an intelligent and articulate man. I am genuinely interested as to what your thoughts are on this. I know you’re on holiday, so maybe we can take up this chat when next we meet – which I’m really looking forward to now that it’s so close…

    • Rita – good question. I will gladly answer the question from my own perspective. I will do it here, as I like other readers to see my view and offer their comments, if any, especially from other Asian readers living overseas.

      Education is the real reason for most of us moving overseas for better future and prospect. Parents send their kids overseas to study, seek better future and career as better living standard from their own home country. Education is key to success and out of poverty or hard living. Though SEA culture is rich and diverse, the living standard is not as good as developed nations and there are extreme poverty in those countries and under privileged children, with the exception of Singapore and Malaysia.

      After I have graduated from Uni in America, I went back to Malaysia to live and work. I started exploring and developed a greater interest in my food and culture. Moving to Australia was an opportunity by chance, which I have no regret. There are positive and negative in any place we live, and more so between a developed and a developing nation. For me, I find it interesting to live in a foreign country, unknown to me, as a challenge and opportunity to learn new things, enrich my live and knowledge on the different cultures.

      But, Laos has certainly open my eyes to some of the poverty and under privileged children, reaching out to them the best I could in the short visit, by giving books and coloured pencils.

  2. Hello Victor,

    Awesome blog you got going here. I just recently found your blog and glad to hear you are having great time in Laos. I love Luangprabang, I love everything about this town and I can’t get enough of it. Oh, the foods… I’m all about simple thing like.. sticky rice, lao sausage, jel bong(local sauce) and papaya salad. I was born in Vientiane, our family left Laos when I was 10. Now residing in California, it is probably the most diverse state out of all U.S.

    Rita, if I may.. I like to answer your question from laotian point of perspective. In the late 60’s, Laos was recruited by the American to fight the Viet Cong and Laos was suppose to be neutral at that time. The CIA recruited Laos to fight the “Secret War”, where most of american people wasn’t even aware of. Part of the Ho-Chi-Minh trails runs through Laos and was heavily bombed by the U.S. Still til this day-30 something years later, Lao people still suffers from unexploded bombs. After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the communist took over Laos and the country was in turmoil. Majority of laotians escaped out of Laos between 1976 to mid 80’s. My parents main decision to leave Laos was to give us a better life and better education. I am so thankful, my parents sacrifice their life for us. I just can’t imagine doing what they did 30 something years ago. Move to unknown land, doesn’t know the language and starting new life with nothing!!

    Sorry, I was trying to keep it short..

    • Hi Seeharhed, I am glad you discover my blog. Thank you for providing a personal, insight view on your birth country. I was reading the Lonely Planet on Laos before I went, but nothing compare to talking and listening to real Lao people. Have you been back to Laos since you and your family immigrated to US? I can see things are starting to change and probably very rapidly in the next 5-10 years. I was told some of the roads in Vientiane was recently built in last 2 years because of the upcoming SEA Games in next month – new hotels being built, the Mekong riverfront project.

      • Victor, I’m glad I found your blog also and if you don’t mind, I like to add you to my blog roll. I love cooking and wants to learn more about foods from other part of country.

        Yes, I’ve been back total of 4 times since we immigrated to the US. The very first time was back in 1996, just about a year after Laos open their doors to the foreigners. I left Laos at a young age and I try to go back visit as often as I can. My grandparents are still alive, they live just outside of Vientiane. At first, I thought about going back this coming December for SEA Games but changed of plans. Plus, the city will be jam pack with people.

        You’re right! In the past 2 years, they been building new roads, hotels, facilities for the up coming SEA Games. In my personal opinion, I don’t think Laos is ready to host any event this size just yet. But, that’s another story and perhaps I shall blog about it.

        Instead, they should focus on upgrade the roads, sewage treatment plants, water treatment plant and public transportation. So many cars and motorcycles in Vientiane that are competing for the small roads.

  3. Thanks Victor, and hi and thanks too to Seeharhed for answering my question with such seriousness. I would truly love to be in a room, or sharing a meal, with you guys and talking in person about this but am grateful for you to have accorded me the courtesy of such honest and direct answers.

    • Rita, you’re welcome and maybe someday… someday, we all can meet at a shore of MeKong River sharing a meal and chit chat about life.. I love talking about Laos, even though I left there at a young age but still holds dear in my heart.

  4. Oh very well. Victor you have already visited Luang Prabang. How do you like the city? It is a small town and quiet. I hope you will visit Laos again in the near future.

    • Hi Insight – I love LP, mostly in the peninsula area. People, culture, Buddhist morning alm, wet market, farming on the bank of Mekong River, food, temples, and many more. I will definitely visit LP again before the place gets busier and overflow with big tour buses and tourists.

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