Saturday, January 19, 2008

Vang Vien II - Cruising Down the River

Liz and I arrive in Vang Vien at about ten after a four hour bus ride with a couple of stops along the way for people to hop on and alight. Our early morning bus contains only Laotians so we are surprised when we arrive at the bus depot in Vang Vien to find large numbers of Australians, Brits, Canadians, Germans and Americans.

Guide book in hand we head off across the open area beside the bus depot for the only three story building in sight. The karst forms car
ved out of the limestone hills form a lovely border for the river and we want a nice view.A nice view we get. In our room at the top, we lie down on our firm beds and don’t wake until 2 pm. We think we could sleep all day but struggle out to find lunch. The town is packed with eating places, bike rentals, massage parlours, laundries, and tour offices and awash with young whites travelers. It looks nothing like a Lao town and I suppose it is now more of a tourist town.

I try the local green papaya salad, Liz has some soup. Both are excellent. We think we would like to hire a taxi to take us sightseeing but there are few of them and the prices are rather high. It seems foreigners here ride bikes. I pop into a local travel agent and ask about boat trips. When I say we would like to go today, the fellow runs out into the street to find us a taxi and within five minutes we are on our way to the dock.

It seems most of the dugouts have left but there are a group of men playing cards under a tarp and one of them takes us in hand. The Nam Song River is incredibly scenic. I almost fall out of our narrow vessel trying to take photos. We meet a number of other dugouts all of which also have outboards in the stern, returning from upriver.

As we get further out there is a bamboo bridge spanning the river. Business on the river is going on as usual as Lao couples pole motorless piroques across the river. A group of water buffalo browse at the water edge and women seem to be harvesting something from the bottom. Fisher folk swirl and lift nets as we flow past them while the sharp edges of karst forms are silhouetted against the sky. At shallower parts of the river trucks even motor across slowly.

As we get further on there are massive camps playing raucous rock music, most fitted with platforms high up in the air from which are launched bungee jumpers and swimmers being catapulted out into the river. Beer Lao flags festoon the buildings. Rafts of people water tubing down the river surge towards us. We wave at kayakers and boaters as they navigate the shallows.

From one group of water tubes, just as we pull ahead of them, a voice rings joyfully out across the water to us.

“Lady doctors from Canada!”

How, we wonder out loud, can anyone here know us? As I looked back to check, I note a hand waving to us. It belongs to the American doctor from the Navajo reservation, who while dining alone at the French restaurant and overhearing our conversation, had leaned over to ask if we were physicians. We were ready to dissemble. It turned out, as so often happens, that friends of his had worked with the small NGO we were visiting in Lao that helps to provide internal medicine and pediatric post graduate training for the National University of Lao. We had a nice chat at the time but never thought we would ever see him again.

High on the cliff sides beside us we can make out cave entrances. We manage to spend an hour and a half on the river, returning just after all the tour boats have returned. It has been a spectacular afternoon. Liz is chortling when we find we can order a gin and tonic at the riverside hotel. After an hour and a half in the dugout we are glad for the lovely walk back to the hotel.

Couldn’t have had a better day trip.

Photos: View of karst hills on Nam Song; woman crossing on bamboo bridge; truck fords river; platform lauch for jumpers.

Vang Vien I - Seat Stealing

We want a short one or two day trip before official festivities start, so Liz and I organize a trip close to Vientiane to visit Vang Vien. We aren’t sure what we will do there, but it will be a change, new scenery, an adventure. Here is a picture of our lovely guest house so you will understand why it has taken us so long to get going. So guide book in hand, we set off for the bus depot at 5:30 am. There is a crisp coolness to the air. We stand just outside our guest house gate and soon our laundress, San, her husband and two of their kids pull up in their pickup and off we go. This is our extended network working in the ways it does.

At the bus depot, San stays to make sure we go to the right window and get tickets before we wave them off. The depot is filling up with both people and buses. I think we didn’t have to get here so early, but since we are here, Liz sends me off to see if I can find some coffee. I locate some of the best coffee either of us have ever tasted. One of the benefits of using instant coffee packages some of the time is that you really appreciate a cup of great coffee when you get it.

The young gal in the small bus depot coffee shop is also making deep fried donuts, a cross between the beignets one finds in New Orleans and the mandazi that are found in places in East Africa, so I collect a couple of them. When I get back to the bus, my seat beside Liz has been taken up by a young smiling boy called Sou. Liz explains that while I was finding coffee she has acquired this grinning fellow with strict instructions from his father, along with many gestures. The exchange has been all in Lao but she is a pediatrician and understands clearly that she has been entrusted to look after his son.

I greet the boy and get him to move to the seat behind us. He speaks no English and we speak no Lao but he makes it clear he wants to sit in the seat beside Liz. We attempt to reassure him but he is so persistent, I switch places with him. I tell Liz she has a devotee.

He points out several sites enroute north to us. Liz checks with the conductor, who has a bit on English, when he comes round to collect tickets, to find out where the boy is going. He is heading to Luang Prabang, about 3 times further than us.

“Well," Liz says to me, "we can keep an eye on him until we get to Vang Vien.”

Later when we get back from our trip, we are telling others about our delightful little friend Sou and his persistence in having the seat beside Liz.

Lois, a physician who has worked several years in Laos, listens carefully and then says, “Long distance Lao buses often allocate passengers specific seats. Could you have been in his seat? What did your ticket indicate?”

There is a short silence at the table and then Liz and I burst out laughing. That explains it all, the father’s loquacious insistence and his son’s continued persistence. We had taken his seat! The entire story about the father wanting Liz to look after his son was totally fabricated. All he wanted was for his son to sit in his designated seat.

What a great cross-cultural lesson it makes.

Photos: Manoly Guest House, Laundress' shop


Monday, January 14, 2008

Green Papaya Salad

Liz and I are sitting in a street café in Vientiane which looks out over the Mekong River to Thailand. I am enjoying a green papaya salad while my friend, who is not fond of spicy food, enjoys her soup. The waiter brings a woman to our table to verify this. Not to verify that I am eating payaya salad as much as that this is what green papaya salad looks like.

I frequently check out what other people are eating, especially in a new country or new restaurant. My observations however are generally surreptitious so this direct approach of the Lao waiter, who is probably the owner and cook, I enjoy.

But the woman’s insistence that she doesn’t want noodles, finally gets to the waiter/owner and he goes off to deal with more amenable customers. Abandoned by the waiter, she stands forlornly staring at my plate, then glances quizzically at us, not sure how she got here.

“You can get them with noodles if you want” I tell her, “but this is just plain green papaya salad. Sorry, I correct myself, green papaya salad is never plain. ”

“If you have only seen chunks of orange papaya as a fruit before, it is true, these do not look like papaya,” adds my friend Liz, inviting the woman to try some of my papaya salad and hands her a clean fork.

I can’t believe she is offering my salad to a stranger! Then I laugh, warning the woman to be careful because Laotian green papaya salad is very hot to the uninitiated. This is one of those crazy situations that one constantly bumps into in other cultures that is a big part of the joy of travel. We lose our conditioned responses and find ourselves in entirely new situations.

Green papaya salad is a specialty of Laos and Thailand. I first discovered it in the Seychelles, where it does not have chili peppers. Fully formed but unripened papaya are used as a vegetable in Southeast Asia as well as in Africa because of its crunchy texture and mild flavour. Since papaya are often green on the outside, only beginning to turn yellow when ripe, you need to know how to identify green ones. Or you have the option of getting to know the market women or of watching your own tree. The evidence that a papaya is not yet ripe lies in the seeds that are white like the flesh whereas they are black in mature papaya. But verifying this means you would need to cut open the papaya so the skill is useful to develop.

The papaya is peeled and then notched lengthwise, creating long thin flat strands with parallel knife strokes which create ridges in the length of the papaya. The ridges are then shaved to create more stands of papaya. You stop shaving when you get to the seeds.

To fully appreciate the process of shredding or grating a papaya Lao style, you need to watch someone doing it. There is a YouTube video here. In Laos vendors prepare the green salad while you watch in the many sidewalk stalls. Graters are not used because they do not produce the long strands needed. It is an art and fun to watch and will increase your appreciation of Lao culinary skills.

In the top photograph you can see the woman with the ridged papaya in her hand with a tray of green papaya strands in front.

In Laos the garlic, chillies and chopped tomato arecrushed in a mortar and then the fish sauce and lime juice added. When it is all crushed together the green papaya is added. Chopped peanuts and dried shrimps can also be added for variation.

Lao Green Papaya Salad
1-5 small red chilies
2 garlic cloves
1 chopped tomato
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons lime juice

3-4 cups shredded green papaya

My recipe for a milder version comes from Helen Payet in Mahe, Seychelles and was my personal introduction to green papayas.

Seychelles/ Creole Green Papaya Salad

Peel and grate very green papaya in long thin strands. The 4-5” pieces are then soaked in salty water for half an hour. Squeeze out water. Slice and chop onions (could use green onions) lemon, salt and pepper. Fry in 1 T of oil until tender. Toss with strands of green papaya.

Helen also prepared a cooked green papaya salad by adding chopped papaya and tomatoes to the onions, covering tightly and simmering for 10-15 minutes until tender. The cover is then removed and the salad cooked over high heat until the juices thicken.

Green papaya are plentiful in Africa, similar to rhubarb in Canada, so it is good to have lots of recipes.

Helen Payet's Green Papaya Jam

Peel and grate 2 large green papaya. Add 1 ½ lbs. of sugar, vanilla pod and cook until it sets. Do not add water. Add nutmeg when set and squeeze one lemon over it.

A more precise recipe from the Congo that can be found in Bill Odarty’s A Safari of African Cooking uses water.

Green Papaya Jam

3 c sugar

3 c water

3 c grated green papaya

½ tsp vanilla

4 T lemon

Heat sugar and water for 5 minutes to make syrup. Add grated papaya and cook slowly over low heat. When mixture thickens, remove from heat and add vanilla and lemon juice. Mix well. Pour into jars and seal. Fills two large jars.

There are also green papaya soup and pickles in Odarty’s cookbook.

After sampling my papaya salad, the woman didn't much like it, too hot she said. It was her first time and it was real hot. She was travelling alone so we talked a bit looking out at the winking lights over on the Thailand side of the Mekong River. We agreed it was hard to be a solo traveler so it is nice to opportunities offered by seredipity to meet other travellers.


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