Lao food and a waterfall that wasn’t there

“When you’re in a hurry, take a detour” – it’s a useful motto. Sometimes I fall into the “more, further” trap and find myself planning visits to new cities, regions, countries. A journey like that loses it’s meaning and becomes a festival of greediness. In Central Laos we were in a hurry to go to Vientiane. First in Tha Khaek: “We’ve already seen caves in Vietnam, Kong Lo is a bit out of our way, maybe skip it?”. Then in Kong Lo the direct bus to Vientiane tempted us with a promise of a hassle-free connection. But Marcin found out about Nam Kading national protected area (NPA) that we’d pass by and my plans got snubbed. “One of the cleanest rivers in Laos” sounded like a promise of another paradise and was enough to reshuffle my priorities. All the more so, since for me splashing around in basically any body of water is a top attraction in droughty Laos.

We thus take the direct bus from Kong Lo to Vientiane but stop along the way in the little town of Pak Kading. The only motel here is pretty bad and over-priced but a Lao restaurant on the other side of the street makes up for the inconvenience. A real restaurant with traditional Lao food is a bit of a rarity, as Laotians tend to eat at home, while stalls and eateries usually specialize in either grilled items, appetizers or soups. National dishes, like the meat salad laap, are typically prepared for important events. There are tourist restaurants that mainly serve standard Asian fare such as fried rice, curries and stir-fries plus approximations of western dishes. In many such places it’s difficult to find unadulterated Lao food. The restaurant in question though, is not only clean and pleasant, but also serves only local dishes, serves them right, the menu is calligraphed in two languages and the food’s delicious! Win, win, win! For two days we eat only there: great soups, including foe (Did I mention it’s AWESOME?), hellishly spicy green papaya salad, koy paa, which is an especially good laap made of fish, fresh herbs and crunchy veggies. All these are served with Lao sauces (jaew) – made to dip sticky rice and raw veggies. The Laotian cuisine is about harmony – there’s a little bit of dry, a bit of wet, some cooked and some fresh. The raw balances the spiciness of sauces and salads. Laotians appreciate the bitter taste (found in tiny raw eggplants, bamboo shoots or leaves) that activates digestive juices. After a closer look, the cuisine turns out not as primitive as we first thought, instead, it’s ingenious in its intuitive approach to composition of tastes and textures.

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Food aside, we’ve stopped here to make a trip along the river, to a waterfall, to be exact. We catch a bus going to the next village and there, right away, meet a grandpa who’s offering to take us in his boat. I would like to know if in the dry season the river’s not too shallow and if the waterfall, well, even works. We don’t have a common language and such questions are impossible. Soon, we’re out in a little boat skimming over the wide river. It is very shallow and buffalo roam here and there, in no hurry whatsoever. Slowly, the riverbanks start to rise and form rocky mountains covered with pristine jungle. Supposedly, some elephants, tigers, gibbons, bears, slow lorises and other rare animals live here but encountering any is next to impossible.

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The river narrows down and a small cascade appears in front of us. A few hundred meters upriver a larger one is visible as well. The grandpa tells us to get out and points to the next cascade. In Kong Lo we’d go out and the two “rowers” would pull the boat over, but here grandpa is not up to such tasks. Instead, he takes a nap in the shade of a crevice. See you later! In the distance we see a gleeful, Beerlao-equipped group of local youths, who did not mind pulling their boat over. No choice. We put on our flip-flops and get ready to go along the rocky riverbank. I wonder if the upriver cascade even qualifies as a waterfall… It’s very hot. My face is the color of beets as we slowly traverse over the rocks. No glorious waterfall in sight. Be it as it may, Lao heat has a way of putting great ambitions to rest. It is beautiful and we’re not going any further. We’ll settle for a swim in the clear water and a mini-picnic with butterflies.

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On the way back, we’re silent. I keep thinking that I want to stay here forever. A long journey offers time and opportunity to understand oneself. I needed five months and the help of a life-partner: “Marcin, why am I a zodiacal bull, if I love water so much?”. Marcin takes a look along the river and answers: “Because you’re a water buffalo.”

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