Monday, August 23, 2010

Let the Lao-trageous puns begin!

After our misadventures at the KL airport, our arrival in Vientiane was very smooth and we were off to our hotel near the center of the old town. Despite being the capital of Laos, Vientiane is still establishing itself, though an article in the NY Times quoted a Vientiane resident as saying he thought they had really made great strides since taking over the position as capital from Luang Prabang – which of course occurred a mere 450 years ago.

And now, dear readers, we get to the part of the trip you have all been waiting for. The part where we start talking about food and basically never stop to the point that both you and we are so full we might explode. (We learned how to say that in Chinese on our last trip, perhaps we should add “I am so stuffed I will die” in Lao to the repertoire as well.) Once we were checked in to our nice room – beautiful view of the temple across the street from our 5th floor balcony (though it was a walk-up to get there – oops) we then set off for the evening’s wandering. We encountered a whole series of night stalls set up not that far from our hotel and made a mental note of their location. But we were people with a mission. At the other end of the old town we had heard of a fancy Lao restaurant that also featured Lao music and dancing. It was a bit of a tourist spot – there were a couple of tables full of Thai groups – but it was a great introduction to the local food. For a whopping $15 per person we enjoyed 11 courses of Lao cuisines from sour fish soup to spring rolls to chicken wrapped in banana leaves to sautéed veggies in Oyster sauce. It was great. Certainly a splurge, as we also included a $1 big BeerLao (which is all the rage – see NYTimes link), but it was a yummy introduction to the city. A stroll back through town and we were off to bed.

Sunday morning began as many mornings do here in Southeast Asia in August, with an absolute torrential downpour. Fortunately our hotel provided a delicious breakfast (EB had waffles, Josh a croissant), fresh juice and a banana shake, and Lao coffee (aka coffee ice cream served warm and for breakfast, aka if we lived here we would have immediate diabetes because I (EB) could drink this non-stop). Umbrellas and anoraks in tow, we then headed out into the rain. In spite of the weather, which fortunately quickly cleared, the temples of Vientiane were wonderfully enchanting, with elaborate and ornate carvings of Buddhas and dragons and young monks in saffron robes running all over the place. It was like Christo’s Central Park Gates had come to life. Two temples in, we encountered a street with a couple noteworthy French bakeries – and so, thinking only of our dear amis Matt and Amy (and Jon in DC) we naturally had to have a croissant au chocolat. Yum.

Further wandering took us to the morning market, a giant mall filled mostly with cheap electronics knock-offs and t-shirts, but apparently it is where the people of Vientiane go to hang out, so who were we to buck the trend. Josh swiftly sniffed out the food court and another $2 later we were sitting in front of a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup and glass dumplings filled with pork (and small shrimps – fake allergy seems cured). Yes, readers, it was 10am and we were already on to third breakfast.

Embarrassingly full, we headed off to see some of the more well known sites of Vientiane, including their (self-described) version of the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, a concrete arch built with money from the US government that was supposed to build a runway at the airport. They call the arch the vertical runway instead. Next we walked about another mile to the That Louang, the most famous temple in Laos and national symbol. True to all reports, it was about as gold as anything you could imagine (save perhaps for a Trump building’s lobby) and gleamed in the mid-day sun. The reflection of the sun made for a beautiful site and for a VERY hot visit, which naturally called for the OGAA (our great Asian adventure) Asian cooldown favorite – a POPSICLE! It was coconut this time, but we’ll keep an eye out for the “garbage flavor” we so loved while in China.

Next up was a tuk tuk ride, not the most comfortable ride but certainly authentic, to another set of temples and museums. Our favorite was the Wat Sisaket, the oldest temple in Vientiane and the only one not destroyed by the Siamese when they sacked the city in 1828. It was filled with thousands of Buddhas all wrapped in their trademark yellow sashes. More spiritual than beauty pageant, but definitely in the same family.

A walk along the Mekong revealed a construction site – apparently the city of Vientiane is, like NYC, also doing a waterfront improvement project. I left my resume to see if they need a planning project manager, no word yet. We then settled in for a much needed rest at a little spot (tarp roof, plastic tables, grill on the sidewalk) by the river. And, of course, more food. More spring rolls, veggie this time, and a green chicken curry with basil along with a couple of Beer Laos provided us with the sustenance to do a bit more afternoon wandering.

A few hours later we were back at the hotel for a shower – one gets pretty disgustingly sweaty here – and then out to revisit one of the night stalls we had seen the evening before. For a whopping $5 we had a bowl of noodles and pork sausage, pork spring rolls, Beer Lao (natch) and a Pepsi. We love this country. As is often our habit, we then went to check out the local supermarket where Josh instructed me on how great the Mars products’ brand blocking was on the shelves (a sea of yellow Pedigree bags). Even in Laos, there is much for me to learn. We wandered to the very quaint town square where we sat outside at a fancy French restaurant for a coffee and a chocolate mousse, which cost the equivalent of our entire Lao dinner. Still, very full after $10 is hard to complain about.

Today, Monday, we had only a few hours in Vientiane before hopping on a plane to Luang Prabang, our next stop in Laos. After another good breakfast in the hotel, we set out for a few last minute eating spots we wanted to cross off our list. For me, it was a sugar doughnut at a bakery in the main town square. For Josh, it was grilled fish from a stand on the side of the road, followed by an avocado milkshake from a place close to the morning market. FYI: avocado, coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk and sugar – not the worst combination in the world. Our bellies thus full, we explored the side of the morning market we had missed on Sunday, namely the meat and produce. Luckily we were no longer hungry, because the site of some of the meats on offer (brain, intestine, kidneys, head, penis – no joke) was enough to turn anyone into a vegan, particularly with the lovely lady butchers seated barefoot on the carving tables. But not us, brave readers! We will persevere. The beautiful mounds of leafy greens and garlic and peppers reminded us why we like to eat and all was right in the world again. A tuk tuk to the hotel and cab to the airport and our stay in Vientiane had come to an end. Off to Luang Prabang!


Ron H. said...

Have you yet encountered Clint Eastwood searching for Hmongs to star in his next movie?

bella w. said...

I like the comparison (in NY Times article) of Beer Lao to a festival-winning film sans distribution. Oh, thank you New York Times, for putting things in terms I understand.

Josh, does Mars want to open a beer distrib arm and be the US manufacturer of Beer Lao? Seems lucrative? No?

tribe on chadha said...

I am having incredible culinary envy. On the other hand, yesterday I made an exciting foodie field trip to the office vending machines for a snickers bar. My coworker proclaimed, with no prompting, that after an exhaustive global search he had determined that snickers simply is the best candy around. So Josh, you can vacation safely knowing your work is done.

tribe on chadha said...

Addendum: this is Colleen and not -- shock of shocks -- Larry Tribe (writing about Chadha). Google seems to have selected that as my pseudonym, though, which I find deeply worrying.