Jungle Trekking in Northern Laos

Backpackers in Southeast Asia are fascinated by minority ethnic groups. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we rarely learn about them at home, but I also think it has something to do with the brightly colored clothing and handmade souvenirs for sale. I admit it, I could not resist; I bought two of those “croaking” frogs.

Chiang Mai in particular is a hill-tribe trekking center. The premise is that a group of foreigners, led by a local guide, walk to minority villages (called hill tribes because they live in the mountainous areas) that are typically inaccessible by road. When we were there, the general sentiment among backpackers at our guesthouse was not ifwe were going to go hill-tribe trekking, but when. We felt, though, that the industry there has become too commercialized. The trekking groups are large, and some of the local villages have become dependent on the tourist income. Having an extra source of income is good; being dependent on it is dangerous.

So we decided to go trekking in Laos. The industry there is less well-developed, and for the moment, it’s more well-managed. Our main interest was seeing some beautiful scenery; we didn’t care much about the hill tribes. I didn’t want to go gawk at people as if they were in a human zoo.

We chose a trek that allowed us to kayak one day and trek the next. It’s the low season now in Laos, so we were the only people on our tour, plus our guide, a Laotian man who spoke fairly good English. The kayaking was fun, if a little scary; neither of us had been kayaking on a river before and we were unprepared for the (very small) rapids. Our kayak flipped over twice before we got the hang of it. Fortunately, my camera stayed in the dry bag all day long; unfortunately, that means I have no pictures to show for that day. When we finally arrived at the little village we were to stay at, we were dripping wet and smelled like river water. We retired to our hut to change clothes and take a rest.

Our home for the night

The villagers all live in huts like these; this is a special one for tourists who come through to spend the night. Our guide told us that the villagers like having tourists visit because it means extra income. Soon it was time for dinner, which our guide prepared using ingredients he had carried from town. The village “chief” (an elected office, more like that of mayor,) his brother, and two friendly village teenagers joined us. Throughout the meal, our guide translated for us. We asked him to tell the chief that he could ask us any questions he wanted. The chief’s first question was “How old are you?” Common query in Asia. The next one caught us off guard: “Bin Laden.”

“Huh?”

“Do you know who Bin Laden is?”

“Yes, of course.”

Our guide talked to the chief for a second, and then translated for us. “He says he saw it on the news. America killed Bin Laden.”

“Yes, that’s right.” This had only happened a few days prior, and though we had seen it on the news, we hadn’t spoken with anyone else about it. Many travelers seem to exist in a bubble while they are on the road- I met people in Thailand, in March, who had no idea anything was going on in the Middle East. This guy, a village chief in rural Laos, was better informed.

“America is very strong.”

“Yeah, I guess it is. What does he think of Bin Laden?”

The guide translated again. “He says he is a bad man.” So ended our awkward conversation. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels- when the US was involved in the Vietnam War, Cambodia and Laos took the brunt of the bombing as America tried to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The damage done in Pakistan isn’t yet close to what the Laotians endured (and still endure due to UXO,) but the principle is the same, and the drone attacks continue.

The next day we went trekking in the Nam Ha National Protected Area. This was the part that I had been most looking forward to. It was slippery, and rained during our hike, but lunch at the top of the hill was beautiful. Our guide, assisted by one of the village girls, prepared a “jungle lunch” for us.He collected some wood to build a fire, then he gathered his ingredients. “Shopping at the jungle supermarket,” he said. Apparently the jungle supermarket sells Knorr soup mix…. Most of what he gathered was rattan shoots and bamboo shoots. The village girl’s job was to peel them. I did not envy her. Using a piece of bamboo, he made a pot and put it in the fire. He also cooked the bamboo shoots directly in the fire, and handed them to us, steaming hot, to eat. The very center was pretty tasty, but most of it was so bitter that I couldn’t eat it. Then it was time to eat. He had also brought along some rice (steamed earlier that day,) scrambled egg, and chili paste, which we happily tucked into. As we were about to take our first bite of soup, he mentioned that the beef had a “funny smell” today.

“Oh, really?” we asked politely.

Yes, because there is no refrigeration in the village, and this is yesterday’s beef, which had been sitting out since he bought it, early yesterday morning.

Hmm. Using our secret language, Japanese, I told Bob that if that were the case, I would eat the soup broth and vegetables, but not the meat. He agreed. Neither our guide or the village girl seemed to notice- they were too busy chowing down on beef. The guide had told us yesterday that the villagers raise pigs and chickens, and get fish from the river, but don’t often get beef, so it is a special treat for them. I was happy to let her have mine. It was a win-win situation.

On our way back, I managed to fall in the mud twice, thus ensuring that I looked even worse than yesterday when we arrived back at the village. It was an interesting experience, and not for the reasons I expected. I had said that I wasn’t interested in the “human zoo” experience, yet (I don’t know how to say this without sounding corny) the best part of the trip was the people that we met. I’m not saying that we became best friends and will keep in touch, but I felt like a welcomed guest in their village and appreciated the opportunity to visit.

Eating Laos

Laos is another country whose national cuisine I knew very little about. Everywhere in Southeast Asia has fantastic food, which I can’t stop writing about, but Laos was a real treat for us. With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, how could you not come up with some good eats? And as a bonus, their drinks are as good as the food. Lao coffee, with a bit of sweetened condensed milk, tastes so chocolatey that I wondered if they had added some cocoa powder. And Beerlao is the best beer in Southeast Asia.

We were happy to discover that for breakfast, baguette sandwiches (similar to banh mi) are popular items.

One of these plus Lao coffee equals perfect breakfast

Bob looks sad here, possibly because he knows he can't get this at home?

Luang Prabang and Vientiane have the most variety and best quality of food, and of the two we preferred Luang Prabang. It was a little cheaper, and the atmosphere was so pleasant and relaxed.

Our favorite restaurant was Coconut Garden. The nem tadieu, a mint and pickled pork salad, was amazing (but comes with a lot of peanuts on the side, FYI) and so were the deep-fried stuffed bamboo shoots. One specialty of the area is Mekong river weed, which I know sounds a little weird but it is DELICIOUS. It’s dried and seasoned, then fried and served in sheets. It was a more awesome version of Korean nori… which I didn’t think could exist.

I’ve taken cooking classes on my own in Indonesia and Thailand, but this time I convinced Bob to join me. We went to Tamnak Lao restaurant, which also runs a cooking school. The day started with a stir-fried dish that I have forgotten the name of, and a Luang Prabang salad.

Luang Prabang salad

Then we had a choice for our final three dishes. We selected stir-fried pork and eggplant, stir-fried rice vermicelli noodles, and chicken larb.

Chicken larb/ larp/ laab/ laap

Larb is also spelled laab, laap or larp- I wish these kinds of things would be standardized. Also found in Thai cuisine, it’s a cold salad made of minced meat or tofu, shallots, garlic, and lots and lots of mint. A Laotian twist is to add banana flower, for texture. True to their name, banana flowers come from banana trees and as far as I can tell, they are nigh impossible to obtain in temperate climates. It didn’t have much flavor but it added a nice crunchy texture. Our instructor suggested when making this dish at home, we could try adding bulgur. I thought that the minced white parts of Napa cabbage might also work well.

Food is always served with chili paste, known as jeowbong, and either steamed or sticky rice (the latter is more common.) One Lao guy told us that that was because sticky rice makes you feel fuller than steamed rice does. I had a fork and spoon on this particular day, but traditionally the Laotians eat with their hands. The sticky rice can be made into small balls and dipped into the chili paste, or you can hold the ball between your fingers while you grab some pieces of meat or vegetables. Many Lao dishes don’t have chilies, so diners use the jeowbong to add as much or as little heat as they like.

Our Lao dinner: stir-fried pork and eggplant, jeowbong, and sticky rice

On the whole, my impression of Lao food was that, even more than its neighbors, it is heavy on herbs (especially basil, mint, and cilantro.) The stir-fries and salads reminded me a lot of Thai food, and the noodle soups and baguette sandwiches of Vietnamese food, but the snacks and other soups were pretty different. Jeowbong, too, is unique to Laos, and comes in many different varieties (probably as many as there are cooks!) Also, I’ve never eaten so much sticky rice in my life. I ate it in other Southeast Asian countries too, but its use is much more limited.

Next time: we delve even further into Lao food, by having a picnic in the forest….