It’s afternoon when we manage to head out for dinner. The choice between skewered roadkill and soups and curries from the morning, standing in great pots along the street is an unappealing one. Determined to have something more civilized, we sit down at a closing restaurant and persuade the staff to serve us. Next day, we set off for Tha Khaek, the base for touristic exploration of Central Laos. We’re traveling in the back of a songthaew, a small, converted flatbed truck, with hard benches and a canvas roof. Along the way, a woman next to me pulls out a bundle with food and our noses are assaulted by the smell of rotting organic matter. I think to myself: there must be a landfill nearby. A dozen or so miles further, she pull out the bundle again and this time I can see it’s some grilled meat and glutinous rice, while the pervasive smell of smoked fish and a dumpster returns. My doubts vanish. At the same time, an extended family sitting opposite us is sharing Thai-made biscuits. The grandma, in an unaffected way, pulls off bits of biscuits, chews them and feeds the paste into her grandson’s mouth. It takes a while for my initial repugnance to be displaced by notions of naturality and harmlessness.
On the way, it’s empty and beautiful. From the airy songhtaew we watch the surroundings – villages, shrubbery, rivers and mountains. Four hours and one transfer take us from cool Lak Sao to sun-baked Tha Khaek. My dreams of heat came true two hundred per cent. After the previous weeks of getting cold and re-warming myself, the heat is a new shock for the body. We adapt slowly, beginning with lazy walks around the town.
Along the way there is a multitude of watermelon stands – funny how these balls filled with sweet water always appear in hot and dry places. Many women still wear traditional sarongs. Nobody calls hello, so we learn to say: sabaidee! Passing by a school-yard, we notice guys playing ka taw, a kind of volleyball with a rattan ball but players are using feet, knees, chest and head instead of hands.
At first I’m doubtful if the local cuisine has much to offer apart from “game” grilled on a stick. But quickly enough I find we don’t have to play it safe at the guesthouse. We walk by stalls with huge mortars used for making a delicious salad. It’s back to Thai tastes and spiciness. After the delicate cuisine of Vietnam, I must get used to chilli again – my first salad with noodles contains three chillies and the tears are coming down my face. At another place we try the classic version with green papaya – this time I ask for only one chilli. The fresh, green flavor fights for primacy with the intensive taste of fermented fish paste. This results in a surprising combination, one that both tempts and repels at the same time.
The town’s center is situated by the Mekong. You can have lunch with the view of Thailand, at one of the eateries on the bank of the river. Initially we avoid them, like the rest of the few foreign guests here, but in fact they’re nothing to be afraid of. Instead of the usual birds, frogs, or some other bats, you can order a fish stuffed with lemongrass. It’s grilled over charcoal and the flies can’t get near it. The owner of the stall can prepare a nice salad of long beans and sun-scented tomatoes. It all goes well with sticky rice and beer. The dinner’s delicious, fresh and varied, and costs but 5 dollars.
This is how we make our acquaintance with the Laotian cuisine. In Thailand we were already happily crunching on fresh vegetables served with salads and those half-raw, stir-fried just for a few seconds on the wok. I have the impression that love for raw veggies is even greater in Laos because here cabbage and other leafy greens are eaten fresh constantly, along with other vegetables, ones that few would dare eat raw in Poland, like green beans or tiny eggplants. Sticky rice, or glutinous rice, is a staple and the base for most meals of the country. I think it’s delicious and I’m happy I’ll be eating it all the time. The rice is served in bamboo baskets, from which you scoop up a serving, make it into a ball and eat it between spoonfuls of a dish or dip it in a sauce. The rice in a covered basket cools slowly and does not dry up. Beerlao is a national pride and maybe the only export of the country. It’s a really good beer.
For breakfast, the choice is easy – every stall offers foe, the local variation on the Vietnamese classic. I hope that we won’t offend any Vietnamese readers, because I must admit that I like the Laotian version better. In the morning, I’m happily slurping it up and I just can’t get enough. Maybe I should have another bowl? The noodles are drier and more narrow, while the broth is more sour and there are bits of tomato floating in it. It tastes very fresh. Laotians, unlike the Vietnamese, eat greens between spoonfuls but I stick to my old ways and have them in the soup.
The atmosphere of the town is sleepy and relaxed. Still driven by the Vietnamese energy, we need time to get used to Laotian slowness. In the beginning it’s hard to get into the mood. The Laotians are followers of Theravada Buddhism, the oldest type of the religion, same as Cambodians and Thais. According to the guidebook, Laos is one of the most relaxed countries on earth. We expected cheerful energy but we keep seeing stagnation and indifference. The snuffing of emotions is in accordance with religious teachings but to us it appears past reasonable borders. While extreme Catholicism glorifies suffering, Buddhist avoidance of extremes seems to lead to apathy. In this regard, the Laotians remind us much of Khmers and we may well have fallen into the same trap that most Westerners do. While watching a documentary on Cambodia, I heard a statement that the Khmers are “docile and passive” people. Such an interpretation brought great hardship to them. Meanwhile, the absence of the cult of personality and being active can be very refreshing. It maybe even have a therapeutic effect, especially on the over-ambitious and expectation-oriented Western minds. Slowly, we seep into the atmosphere and begin to appreciate the more subtle emotions, peacefulness and equilibrium, and we make first, shy attempts at connecting with these gentle people. Sincerely, we can’t wait to explore the country further. The first taste of Laos makes us hungry for more.