I’m Chillin’ ~ Street Scenes in Laos

It’s been said by me and anyone who visits this quiet area of Laos, that life moves slowly. These are some of the examples:

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Men love to pull up their shirt to expose round, squishy, non-segmented bellies, especially during bocce ball time.

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Some girls respond favorably to my smile, and others look away. I wish I knew what they talk about.

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It’s never hard to find cats chillin’, and that pug had just pulled his blunted nose out of the other dog’s butt.

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She was singing a song to the evening and swaying gently. Cute.

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Central Laos ~ Food

Since there were few options for quality Western food in these listless river cities, I ate local. My favorite way to eat local is by asking what is the waitresses’ favorite dish, but English isn’t widely spoken, so I took my chances. Menus usually have three options: rice with various meats, noodles with various meats or fish…with rice or noodles. I’m not complaining, sometimes it’s strange and delicious, but other times you are hungry for specificity, which can lead to frustration. That frustration goes simmering into the sunset when you get a dish like this:

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Xoyxuay Restaurant in the courtyard of the Catholic Church in Savannakhet. Outstanding fried noodles and Laos style Pad Thai plus ICE cold BeerLao = pleased customer. (40,000kip 5US$) *Recommended*

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Pretty good street food at a crowded restaurant. (15,000kip 2US$)

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Good taste, but all fatty pork, with hairy pork skin attached. (40,000kip 5US$)

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Delightfully minty and basilly, this is the famous Laap dish of Laos. (28,000kip <4US$)

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Perfectly blended, sugar free carrot juice with chocolate ice cream dessert. (20,000kip <3US$)

Houses of Laos

Although there are many examples of French architecture abounding along the riverside cities of Pakse, Savannakhet, and Thakhek, I tried to find the ones with character, the ones with a personality, lived-in, lived-around, but some were brand new, as Laos inches toward the 21st century with better education and more tourist money. These cities along the Mekong were one to two big streets long and had little to do besides watch sunsets and drink BeerLao.

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Pakse, Laos ~ A Mopey Mekong City

 

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This massive 40m waterfall was the highlight, I sat on the top, dangled my feet over the edge and giggled with that childish fear of height coupled with excitement.

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Chicken head served with the meal! This was no plump factory raised bird, this was a yard-bird, meat was as hard to find among the bones as it must have been to chase and catch that chicken.

Later, I happened upon a Trattoria Italiana in Pakse, and of course tried it out when I spoke some cursory Italian with Corrado, the owner/chef. He was a smile wrapped around poor posture. There is a small menu of pastas, panini and some meat dishes as well as home made desserts and cheap wine. A nice surprise in a dreary town.

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On the 7th floor of the Pakse Hotel, there are vistas of the Golden Buddha on the distant mountain, the swirling river and a town asleep before 9pm. I was full from all the pasta so just ordered something light–gazpacho.

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There was a large, torso-sized fish frying beside me, covered in salt. It smelled great, but way too big for one person.

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Walking farther along the river, past the grilling fish, there is a local place where we ate some spicy, delicious Lao food.

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Nothing amazing here, just a good stop in Southern Laos to help move on from the horizontal pace of 4,000 Islands.

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Dine in the Dark

I had heard about a place like this once. Blacked out, curtained, dark dining. Simple enough idea, let blind people serve sighted people dinner. Two girls and I left our hostel with anticipation running high for this surprise tasting menu to be consumed in pitch black settings. The interior has mild purple lighting with trendy white leather seats. We all ordered the “international” four course meal. Our waiter, a blind man of slight build affectionately and inexplicably called, “Manbaby,” led us up stairs, through doors and curtains to our table where he helped us acclimatize to the darkness. There was no change when you blinked, so I just let my eyes rest. We were giggly and giddy. The wine poured, we gingerly toasted our goblets of red. The first course came and food is blindly shoveled onto a fork, perhaps avocado and shrimp? Second course, a lamb in light sauce with broccoli? Third course was three shot glasses of soups, we guessed cucumber, pumpkin and mystery. Dessert was unmistakably pineapple and some chocolate. Dinner was delicious, our waiter was extremely helpful in our sightless situation, and the taste was heightened by lack of visuals. We made jokes about “putting it in our mouth, can’t find it because it was too little, hold it harder, who touched my leg” and other “that’s what she said,” comments. Afterwards,each plate was explained in pictures via Ipad. It was a great experience, and this “dark dining” idea is found in many cities over the world. Check to see if you can support one in your area.

Cambodia ~ Where to Stay

Phnom Penh:

Me Mates’ Villa– This clean white and black house is set off from a small street in the middle of sprawling P.P. They have great beds in 8 person rooms with two en-suite bathrooms with water hot enough to peel paint (not that you need that in a city with such outrageously hot days). A small, but convenient common room with internet, drinks and food helps for meeting people and planning trips ahead. Recommended

Diamond Palace 2– A value hotel with good wifi and clean, tiny rooms. It’s got a nice location next to the river and palace.

Sihanoukville:

Wish You Were Here– These bungalows are actually on Otres Beach. They are decent sized A-frame, dorm rooms looked hot and cramped though. It is not on the beach side which is more of a disappointment than an inconvenience. Shared bathroom and dim, cool bar with slow-moving bartenders. The Indigo bungalows looked nicer and were beachside with their own bar.

Siem Reap:

Mad Monkey- A prototype of a party hostel, this is THE stop for backpackers. The bar on the 4th floor has sand underfoot and stars above. Beer Pong and specials daily until midnight keep things moving. The common courtyard pool A la Melrose Place has bean bags for chilling and shade for reading. Tours available for Angkor, but too expensive, find your own transport. Showers were not strong, but towels and toilet paper provided.

Kratie:

Mahoungkong Guesthouse– I think all the guesthouses in this area are very similar to this one towards the end of the main drag of riverside accommodations. The 6US$ price tag was right for an en-suite bathroom double bed room with fan. There was a small television provided that felt like a nice luxury.

4,000 Islands ~ Water Fights, Water Falls and Whatta Beach

The shared New Year’s Celebration of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos in mid-April is water fueled mayhem and renewed spirituality. It signifies the washing away of the past, and being clean for the next year. It’s a time to clean your Buddha and ignore the trash outside. A time to burn incense and drink BeerLao. A time to sing and dance…at 6:00am. My guesthouse Mama, took us to the first day of the water festival to partake of Buddha washing. I found some of their faces (esp. kids) stern and kind in a simulacrum of a young, suspicious Buddha.

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The Mekong, “mother of rivers,” emerald in dry, murkish brown in wet season, slow and surely winding from the high steppes of Tibet down through the green mountains of Indochina before spreading in the fertile alluvial plains of Vietnam felt mystical. It holds a place of honor among rivers as being the scene of a famous movie, Apocalypse Now, much better than the Amazon’s with Anaconda. At the border of Laos and Vietnam, the Mekong, stretches into a 14 km wide mass. Along the fault lines of this throbbing aquatic expansion lie some amazing waterfalls. I visited one on the nearby island of Don Khon, where we could safely swim in the circular current of a random bay.

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At the tip of Don Det, the loading area for passengers and motorbikes being transported to other islands, sits the small sandy area, well-polluted with bottlecaps, cig butts, and plastic bottles, generously called a beach. On this particular Tuesday, there was a funny, curious puppy who liked to steal one poor Canadian girl’s sandals and run. We all watched our free canine entertainment, soaked in sun, treaded water against the current and enjoyed the sunset among new acquaintances.

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4,000 Islands ~ Street View Cafe, Mama’s and Pumpkin Burgers

Don Det’s tiny enclave of roosting chicken houses, dirt piles for lazy dogs and fish bones for surly cats also produces some chill opportunities to its human inhabitants too. I got lucky and stumbled upon a man for whom the word t-shirt has lost all meaning. It’s as if his body has become resistant to cottons and polyesters. His shaved head born from indifference of trends, his cutoff jean shorts not worn ironically, his feet having long ago merged with the dirt were unprotected, Darren had become of the island. He was “busy” repairing a fence for The Street View Cafe when I found him. I had just had another mediocre burger recently and after responding to his  “How ya goin mate?” with an “Aight” of my own, I hinted at his aptitude for making good hamburgers, and being received with an enthusiastic affirmation, I ordered one. It was great. His Laotian wife cooks all his recipes and the good music, decent wi-fi and green atmosphere provided a small haven for me. If you notice, all the food has been shuffled and mostly eaten, each being somehow more comfort laden than the last. Fair Dinkum.

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Meatballs and mash in onion gravy. Delightful.

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Nice Brekkie! Hash browns were so dense, I had to use a knife, bacon al dente.

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Pepper added by me. Chicken schnitzel was not dry, but aided immensely by the chili sauce.

There was another bar down towards the beach, Adam’s, that offered a rare service. They can upload movies, music, books etc to whatever electronics or USB’s you have. They also had a famous “pumpkin burger.” It’s thick and full of flavor, and vegetarian friendly, until I added bacon and cheese. With home-made onion rings.

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My small cabin where I stayed for 5 days, rented to me for only 20,000 kip (<3US$/day). Mama Piang’s had good beds, with mosquito nets, squat toilets and loud neighbors who impatiently start the day seemingly before the sun. She cooks good curries and Laos’ famous dish, Laap. Sticky as glue rice, dipped into the saucy meat and bean sprout mix.

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