Food was also big feature of our visit, not only eating it but also preparing it. We spent a most enjoyable morning at the Bamboo Tree Restaurant under Linda’s instruction. We chose six typical Laos dishes to make and then took a tuk-tuk to the very large Phousi market with Noh, Linda’s sister, to buy ingredients. The market had a vast array of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, including live frogs, bats, buffalo nose and assorted unidentifiable objects. There were also household goods and clothing stalls.
Back at the restaurant we donned aprons and hats and, armed with large knives, were equipped to start! There followed a morning of chopping and slicing. We learned how to make tomato and cucumber decorations, cut stalks of bamboo into little basket containers, ground sticky rice and made various pastes in giant pestle and mortars.
Once the preparation was complete, we tossed and turned the prepared ingredients in a wok. After each stage of chopping, the staff whipped everything away to the kitchen and conjured their magic so that when we sat down to eat each dish was beautifully presented and tasted superb.
The menu comprised fresh spring rolls, spicy chicken salad, steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves, stuffed lemongrass and bamboo stems, fried rice noodles with vegetables, and pumpkin in coconut cream for dessert. As my memory is short lived, it was fortunate they gave us each a recipe book so we could all try making Laos food at home!
Sally had arranged lunch or dinner for us every day and each meal was unique. One evening we had a Laos style barbecue at Dyen Sabai, a restaurant next to the Bamboo Bridge overlooking the Nam Khan river. Each table had a fire pit in the middle into which the waiter placed a charcoal burner. A dish with an upright grill was placed over it. We poured broth into the dish and draped meat over the grill to cook. It was a D.I.Y. dinner. Vegetables were boiled in the broth. It was very tricky for an unaccomplished chopstick user and the rate of consumption was slow. We had a salad to start and sticky rice with mango and egg custard for dessert. The latter seems to be a Laos favourite.
Lunches included a vegetarian degustation menu at the Green Elephant. The courses were small and artistically presented. Before we ate each one the waiter asked us to taste a mouthful, savour it on our tongues and try to determine the ingredients. He encouraged us to eat slowly and mindfully. It was a very relaxed meal and forced me to concentrate on the food rather than just eating.
One evening, we took a boat upriver to Monica’s, an Austrian friend of Sally’s who has a house on the cliff with a superb view of the river. There was no boat pier and no sign of her house. She had said she would wave and wear pink. We didn’t see her. It is an interesting experience to be on a long boat ‘taxi’ on the Mekong not knowing where to get off! After much phone discussion, Sally and the boatman found the right place, and we alighted.
On that occasion, we enjoyed gin, wine and snacks prepared by Monica and her staff, whilst admiring the sunset from a different perspective. Monica had ordered her regular tuk-tuk to take us back to town for her house is difficult to find even by road. It didn’t arrive and, when she phoned, the driver said he was sick and at the hospital. She persuaded him to leave his sickbed and drive us home! (This was not as bad as it seemed. He had a cold but, according to Sally, Laos people go to the hospital for any little thing.)
On our last evening we had a special dinner at Calao, a beautiful historic house that had been transformed into a restaurant serving Laos gourmet food. We sat on the terrace overlooking the gardens and the Mekong and enjoyed a delicious meal. Delicious until I bit into a green chilli masquerading as a capsicum! There followed an eye watering and mouth burning half hour. The staff were attentive in bringing me gallons of iced water to drink though. Before that I had enjoyed salad, mushrooms, green beans and the chicken dish that was hiding the chilli, all of which was much tastier than my description! Sticky rice and mango was once again on the dessert menu and luckily by this time my taste buds had almost returned to normal.
In between organised meals, we sampled the local cafes. Some were geared for tourists whilst others catered more for locals. They all had menus in English. Our guest house on the Mekong was towards the end of the peninsula and away from the main tourist area. The Bakery was one of the ‘usual’ places for dinner or lunch as was Benneton and Saffron for coffee and cake. I also enjoyed an excellent pizza at one restaurant and frequented ‘No Name’ when I wanted a good cheap dinner in unadorned surroundings.
The only time I ate in the busy tourist area was after the group had left and I wanted to sit and people watch for a while (a favourite occupation I hadn’t had time for before that). I chose a place with a Happy Hour, had two gins and a snack and amused myself for some time before an Indian lady from Mumbai asked me if I’d like to join her and her friend. The latter had been born in Vietnam but adopted by Belgian parents at a young age. She had been travelling for six months and intended to travel for six more. The Indian lady was a cultural journalist and travelled all over the place but wouldn’t live anywhere else in India but Mumbai. From her comments, I deduced she originated from the more affluent part of Mumbai society. We all had very strong views on attitudes to women, their lives and roles. The conversation was interesting and I’m sure entertained the older English couple sitting behind us and eavesdropping!