Dinner in Vientiane

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It was around 9pm and, at that time in London, the restaurants are bustling, and in Madrid they are just starting to open. But in Vientiane they were already closing.

The lights were off in the first two I passed and, in the third, the waiters were stacking chairs on tables. There were still a few customers in the fourth, and I went in but was told that the kitchen was closed. After a couple of blocks, I started to wonder if I might have to go hungry that night.

But all over Southeast Asia – even, it turned out, in Vientiane – there are pop-up restaurants on patches of waste ground with grubby old picnic tables and grills made from half an oil drum. They have the look of a roadside cafe aimed at truckers and people with hangovers, but the worse they look, the better the food tends to be. It was very good at this one.

I had laap – the national dish – made with finely-chopped Mekong River fish ‘cooked’ with lime juice, as in ceviche, and tossed with sliced chilli, lemongrass, cucumber and an abundance of herbs: coriander, mint and Thai basil. It came with a bowl of sticky rice, as almost everything does in Laos.

I sat out until late in the warm night air with a couple of Beerlaos until a storm passed through and sent everyone scurrying under canopies.

The next night’s restaurant came recommended. Some reckoned it was the best in Vientiane, one of the best in Laos. It was French, but neither a relic of empire, nor made to look like it might be with a menu of cumbersome heritage dishes in a room a little too French to be real.

Tinay Inthavong learned his cheffing in France, at the Lycée Hotelier in Nice and the two-Michelin-starred Michel Sarran in Toulouse. His restaurant, L’Adresse de Tinay, would have worked well enough in either city, but instead he opened in Vientiane, reportedly after visiting on his honeymoon and deciding to settle there.

It is a bistro moderne, stylish without being snobbish, minimalist without looking corporate: white walls, big mirrors, designer chairs and a glass-fronted wine store. Front of house staff are friendly and efficient; there is no embarrassing fawning and they don’t give a damn what you wear.  The menu is a reassuringly short list of Modern French dishes cooked and presented as well as you would expect from a chef with Tinay’s CV.

An amuse bouche came with the aperitif: a tiny bowl of gazpacho with baguette croutons. Starter was a tuna tartare, main was « cassoulet ». As the quote marks implied, it was not the Languedoc classic but something much lighter and cheffier, complete with a fashionable foam, made with the same key ingredients: confit duck, a Toulouse sausage and white beans.

Much as I enjoyed discovering the local food of the region, the noodle soups, the chilli-spiked salads, the fish cooked in banana leaves, it was good to have a change, for one night, from street food carts and ramshackle restaurants, and while dinner at L’Adresse cost a lot more, it was still a bargain by European benchmarks.

© Richard Senior 2016

Laap image: By Basil Strahm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Alms and the Monks: Luang Prabang

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The gong sounds at 5am and the monks rise and gather in the prayer hall and chant. As the sun comes up, they leave the temple and walk, barefoot, with alms bowls hanging from shoulder straps towards Sisavangvong Road.

Each of the city’s thirty-three temples disgorges its monks and novices and they converge on the main street and join the long line –a few hundred strong – of bright orange robes, shaved heads and alms bowls.

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The locals, and often Western travellers, kneel along the side of the road to await the procession, shoes slipped off respectfully. As each monk passes, he slides the lid from his alms bowl, wordlessly and without expression. A woman, making sure to keep her head below the monk’s as tradition demands, tosses in a ball of sticky rice and he slides the lid back on. The city is silent except for the padding of bare feet on the pavement and the scraping of the lids on the bowls.

Luang Prabang, with its fairytale name, is embraced by the mountains of northern Laos, and scored across by the broad Mekong River and the sinuous Nam Khan. It is the fourth largest city in Laos but that translates to the scale of a small town in Europe with half a dozen major streets and a population below 50,000.

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It is compact enough to see in a day, but absorbing enough to be worth staying for several. It is calmer even than Vientiane, but not so soporific. The main roads are lined with colonial buildings with porticos, balconies and shutters; the side streets with traditional wooden houses. Bougainvillea bushes explode over walls, palm trees stoop towards roofs.

The monks glide in and out of view. The smell of incense wafts from the temples. The gongs sound, the monks chant. There is a gentle thudding of drums, a clash of cymbals, a howling of lutes and plinky-plunk of xylophones.

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The swooping roofs of the temples are stacked three-deep and topped by horn-like finials formed into the shape of nagas*; the facades are gilded and intricately carved, and there are glass mosaics telling epic stories of birth and death, work and play, town and jungle, hunters and fishermen, elephants and tigers.

Luang Prabang is an established stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, and increasingly on the mainstream tourist trail, as well. But the Western interlopers have not taken over in the way that they have in Vang Vieng.

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There are agents all along on the main street, offering mahout training, bike tours and transport across the border to Thailand. But just a few steps away, there are buffalo sausages drying on racks, chickens scratching in the trash and street markets which make no concessions to tourists with raw fish laid out, right next to vegetables, on sheets on the road, smaller fish twitching in bowls of water and blood running down the street from the meat stall where every bit of the pig but the squeak is piled up for sale.

It is noticeable, though, that quite a few businesses are run by falang** as if they arrived, years ago, with a backpack and the idea of staying two or three nights but could never quite bring themselves to leave. It is that sort of place.

© Richard Senior 2016

*River serpent

**Loosely “Westerner(s)”. Cf. Thai farang and Khmer barang.

Vientiane: the Small-Town Capital City

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Vientiane’s not exactly your giant metropolis, old boy,” said a repellent character in John Le Carré’s classic novel, The Honourable Schoolboy. The city is always there, in the background, referenced throughout, and a central character even spent time there, but somehow it never acquires three-dimensional shape.

It is much the same in real life.

Vientiane passed largely unnoticed by the outside world through the tragic, tumultuous history of Post-War Southeast Asia. It has none of the resonance of Hanoi, Saigon or Phnom Penh and little of their heritage, beyond the occasional colonial building, often derelict, overgrown, forgotten.

Even the familiar soundtrack of the region, the howling scooters, the cacophony of horns, the too-loud music, the shouting vendors, is strangely muted. The tuk-tuk drivers let you pass without hustling for business. No one follows you down the street, revising their prices for the trinkets you have already declined. You are not constantly offered sex, drugs and spring rolls.

There is a handful of splendid temples, but I am not sure they would have merited more than a polite glance if I had gone the other way round and seen Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang first. There is, as well, the notorious ‘vertical runway’. The United States, desperate to keep Laos from going communist, sent funds and materials to build an airport, but instead the royalist government built a massive triumphal arch: a Buddhist Arc de Triomphe. Laos went communist anyway.

I was out at eight to explore the city. I had run out of things to see by lunchtime. Once I had reserved a seat in a minibus out of town next morning, there was nothing to do but to go to the National Museum. It is in one of the best of the surviving colonial buildings, once the French Colonial Governor’s residence, and – with depressing predictability – it is due to be torn down any day soon to make room for a hotel.

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It had the forlorn air of small-town museums run by old ladies, with a few real treasures bulked out with maps and models and the sort of stuff which clutters up garden sheds.

The first floor is devoted to modern history, which here – in one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist states – is weaved into a coherent narrative of revolutionary struggle. The bitterness is undisguised, but understandable too.

Laos has spent much of its history having indignities done to it by more powerful states. It has been sacked, invaded, colonised, administered, bullied, propped up, used as a proxy and had 270 million cluster bombs dropped on it by a faraway superpower for fear that another superpower might acquire it as an ally. Forty years on, Lao children still routinely lose arms and legs when they happen upon one of the 80 million which failed to explode.

French colonial rule is represented by paintings in the style of First World War propaganda, showing snarling soldiers clubbing women to death with rifles and dropping babies down wells. Rusting guns and faded flags commemorate “The fighting to liberate the connty [sic] against the American Imperialists and the puppet soldiers from 1954-63”.

The tabloid language might have been copied straight from the museums in Hanoi and loses the story some of the force it would have if it were just told straight. It is probably for the good that a lot of the captions are along the lines of:

“The weapons with which the carbon farming was Imperialist US.”

And

“The weapons caron farming as you guard leader in the time from.”

With this as a benchmark, you have to applaud the tuk-tuk drivers on the street outside for advertising trips to the “Fendship Bedge,” the “Fiendship Brege” and the “Freshdip Brig”.

None is quite Friendship Bridge, but you can at least understood what they mean.

© Richard Senior 2015

Vang Vieng: The Town Travellers Conquered

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I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.

When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.

Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.

There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.

Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.

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There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.

Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.

I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.

Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.

It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.

This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Morning after the Lao Lao Rice Whisky

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I peered at my phone and saw that it was time to get up, and then found that I was already dressed. I jammed my hat on my head instead of brushing my hair, grabbed my backpack and checked out of the guesthouse.

I slipped my sunglasses on as I went outside – although the morning was overcast – and took a motorbike taxi to the stop. I was the only falang (Westerner) on the bus, so I knew exactly who the driver and his friend were talking about when they kept using that word in a sniggering conversation. I hid behind my glasses and looked out the window.

It is only a couple of decades since the mountains surrounding the road to Luang Prabang were riddled with bandits; but only the cows which ran into the road at intervals held us up, and the only other people we saw were the women from the villages of subsistence farms who threshed the corn by hand at the side of the road, and the tiny children who ran out and held up dead animals for sale. One girl had a hare barely smaller than her and a boy had what looked like a rat. I turned away, though. Nausea had been hovering in the background all morning, as it was.

It is a glorious, breathtaking route through the mountains. The road struggles up and spirals round with a surprise after every corner, be it soaring peaks, a snaking river, a deep, deep valley, or a big, honking 16-wheeled truck.

The bus pulled into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and I shouldered my backpack and struggled off to look for a guesthouse.

© Richard Senior 2015

Some Corner of a Foreign Field That Shall Be Forever…France

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There are bistros much like it on the back streets of every town in France. The tables and chairs will be simple and cheap, and may very well not match. On the wall will be photographs of long-dead people in old-style hats and long-closed shops on no-longer-fashionable streets, or motor racing posters from decades ago, or tarnished mirrors enamelled with Pernod adverts.

Portions are hearty, garlic abundant, and prices low. There are no foams and emulsions, no confits of this, nor saboyans of that: just simple, honest to goodness food. In Provence, there will be daube de boeuf, a meltingly tender ox cheek simmered for hours in red wine; in Languedoc cassoulet, a great sizzling bowl of duck leg, sausage and haricots blancs. Everywhere, there will be gratins and remoulades, steaks and charcuterie. Wine will be sold by the carafe. Customers will shout and guffaw. The patron will linger by tables, sharing jokes with regulars.

A couple run Le Café de Paris on their own. She does the cheffing, he is front of house. The menu du jour is chalked up on a blackboard outside. It was the same every jour, as far as I could tell. Terrine maison to start and steak de boeuf with sauce bordelaise, green salad and pommes frites. Everything was nicely done. The steak was cooked rare and rested, the bordelaise sauce well-flavoured, the frites fat and crispy, the salad sparingly dressed in a proper vinaigrette.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that it is not in France at all but on a side street in a little town in Laos.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Classic travel scams #2: You Didn’t Pay for Last Night

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You didn’t pay for last night,” said the guy on the desk at the guest house in Vang Vieng.

Yes I did.”

“No.”

But I found the receipt screwed up in the bottom of my bag and that was the end of that.

I might have assumed that it was all a mistake if he had not then said exactly the same to the Israeli backpackers who went to the desk after me. They didn’t have a receipt and had a minibus waiting outside, so they had to pay again.

You didn’t pay for last night,” said the lady in the guest house in Luang Prabang a few days after that, and we both knew that I didn’t have a receipt because she had been on the desk all the time. I argued the toss but ended up paying again, and spent the rest of the day in a filthy mood because I ought to have known better by then.

(c) Richard Senior 2014