In part three of my last post, I mentioned that I will talk about the markets next. After some thought, it is more important for me to talk about my experience on Lao culture and people. That is why I came to visit Laos – in the order of cultural experience, captivating scenery, delightful cuisines and exotic wet market, and then shopping (if any).
Laos Part Four is all about Lao people and culture. Buddhism plays a big part in Lao culture and their lives. I had the opportunity during my 8 days visit to Laos to visit a couple of remote villages (thanks to Daniel at Mekong Riverview Hotel for arranging the trip), spoke and listened to the people and witnessed the Buddhist early morning alms. The experience, though short, has touched my heart. There are few ethnic groups in Lao – Hmong (Highland Lao), Khmu (Midland Lao) and Lao Loum (Lowland Lao). Lao Loum is the largest ethnic group among the three, with the highest literacy. Both Hmong and Lao Loum still lives in poverty, farm their own food, sell their produce in markets. Most of their children have never seen or read a book. Literacy among the children is poor.
I had the opportunity to visit two villages; Khmu and Lao Loum. The contrast between the two villages is clear to my eyes. I hate to generalise my view, but will write based on what I saw, heard and listened. I was told before I went on this trip that these villages are not accustomed to outside tourists. Their daily lives go on as normal. They are not put on as a “show” for outside people or the camera mad tourists.
The Lao Loum village is far more progressive than the Khmu village. They live in semi brick and wooden houses, with some modern comfort for outside communication. The Lao Loum village is no different from a local Malaysian village out in the remote area. Their people are more educated. Most children go to school in Luang Prabang. Farming is a big part of their daily lives. The village is small, surrounded by farming, distant hills and cluster of giant bamboo growths.
There is a wooden bridge with rusted iron railings leading to the only street into the village. Rice fields, vegetable and herb farms fronted either side of the dirt road before the bridge. I leisurely walked along the only street, observing the local scene along the way. There was a lovely, aromatic scent in the air as I strolled along the dirt road. Not the smell of cow dung. But, the beautiful smell of fresh coriander! Yes, there are coriander herbs, dills, lemongrass grown vastly in this village. I was lucky to see the local villages sorting out the coriander from their bamboo weaved basket, tying a small bunch together with a thin string, make from bamboo! The tiny bunch of fresh coriander is then taken to the market in Luang Prabang and sold for 700 Kips (1 USD = 8,450 Kips). I will never forget this experience. It was great just to squat there for a moment, watched and listened to them sorting out the coriander. The smell of the coriander gently waft passed my face left a great sensation in my brain, longing to taste those fine herbs.
Bridge leading to a local Lao Loum village
Only street in the village – note the satellite dish outside the house
Giant bamboo forest
Freshly picked coriander in a basket
Local children sorting out coriander
Sorting out coriander, bind into small bunch for selling at the market
The next village was the Khmu village. It was an eye opening experience. This village is far more remote. The locals are not as accustomed to outside visitor as the previous village, Lao Loum. They live in a wooden bamboo huts. There is a small local school for the children, built from bamboo. It is a small rectangular building. The school was shut on the day we visited, a Sunday.
My partner and I bought several children books in English and Lao language, and several boxes of coloured pencils for the children. We bought from Big Brother Mouse, which was setup to help the local children to improve their literacy in English. I am very happy that we can do something like this – to help the children.
We arrived at the local village – there are so many children. Living condition is still poor in this village. Women and children were sorting out spring onions, bundled them to sell at the market. Different kinds of rice and chilies being air dried in the sun. Some women were stripping bamboo into thin strips, later use to tie a bundle of spring onion together for selling at the market. We slowly walked through the village, handing out books and pencils to the children. We did not know there are so many children. I wished we had enough for them.
Handing out books and coloured pencils to Khmu children
A Khmu woman stripping bamboo
Finely stripped bamboo
Rice being air dried
Chilies being air dried – Ooh..they are very hot!
Local village Khmu Hen with her chicks
On our last night in Laos, we decided to stay at Vientiane. Same hotel – Lao Orchid Hotel. Nice small hotel. Very clean in a great location and friendly staff. We stayed there on our first day in Laos, before flying to Luang Prabang the next morning. We went back to Pho Dung, which was mentioned in my earlier post. Had lunch there. But our last dinner is what I like to share with you.
It was at a place called Mak Phet – a restaurant setup by Friends, training former street kids to give them a better future in hospitality. I had a nice chat with one of the staff. There are a total of 24 former street kids – 12 being trained in the kitchen and the other 12 being trained in the service section. They are trained over 2 years, with a one year rotation between the kitchen and front of the house service.
The restaurant is very tastefully set up, with potted plants in the front and a few tables. The decor is dark, rich timber work. The inside has a warm feel with a small shop selling small gifts. All profits and proceeds in the restaurant go to help the street children.
We ordered a couple of pre dinner drink, a few glasses of wine, 3 dishes and a dessert. Total bill was 261,000 Kips, about $30 USD. It is the best value in town. Mak Phet described their food as modern Laos in the menu. Serving size was huge and food was very tasty, cooked and served by former street children. It was a lovely night. The place was packed with customers. I intentionally gave some tips in cash together with the total bill. But was returned the cash by the staff. I supposed they are trained to return the cash and honesty as the policy. There was a small box marked “tips for staff” inside the main dining room. I dropped the cash into the box. Felt good and very happy with the night.
Lemongrass spiced chicken, young bamboo and mushroom stir fry. This dish has a certain Thai influence, almost like a green jungle curry. Less spicy but tasty. Stir fried with “Prik Thai On” (green peppercorn), which is a common spiced ingredient in Thai cooking.
Deep fried crispy shrimp with Lao green vegetables in lime and chili sauce. The sauce came separately in a small bowl for dipping. The shrimp was a good size river prawn, nicely coated and deep fried. We would normally called it tempura, and there were a few tempura sliced eggplant at the bottom of the salad, which tasted like coleslaw with Asian herbs of coriander and dill. The salad was refreshing and fresh. Prawn was soft and crunchy. A lovely dish.
Mok Head Che – bean curd, mushroom and pumpkin amok. We ordered this dish as a comparison to the one we had on our last night in Luang Prabang, at an exquisite Lao restaurant called 3Nagas. We are familiar with “Hor Mok” in Thai cuisine, which is normally cooked with chicken or fish. But, never tried mushroom until we had it at 3Nagas. This version at Mak Phek was equally good – very tasty and enough kaffir lime leaves to flavour the dish. It was our favourite dish at Mak Phet.
I had to try this dessert – pandan scented sticky rice and banana rolls served with coconut ice cream. I was glad we only ordered one dessert to share. It was huge. Rich, sweet, crunchy, toasty and really nice. But, I was not sure about sticky rice. Not anywhere to be found. I didn’t asked either as I was so taken away by the flavour of this sweet. The banana is sugar banana variety. In Malaysia, it is called Pisang Emas. The banana was coated with shredded coconut and flour and then deep fried.
I had the opportunity to taste the banana freshly plucked at one of the place visited. The skin was almost paper thin. The flesh thicker and has honey liked flavour and tint of orange in the inside flesh.
When you are in SEA, you have to try this variety of banana. It is sugary, soft and extremely tasty. Try it deep fried, which can be found in street stalls.
Hope you enjoy reading this post. 🙂