the quest for a true laotian meal

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In silence, the sun started kissing the town’s aging asphalt and concrete surfaces. The light revealed the layers of pastel painted walls that are falling-off like withered flakes of skin. It is charming, it is enigmatic, and to some degree ineffably sublime.

I could hear myself breathing heavily with my 60 liter backpack that I have been carrying since we arrived in the wee hours of the morning. With my semi suicidal lack of conviction in lieu to the tiring border crossing from the preceding night, we booked the first hostel that we stumbled-upon without the dillydally ocular as we usually do. I can’t remember the name of the hostel, I can’t remember how much we paid, I can’t even remember how I got in to the sweet refuge of the mothball-smelling pillow that instantly propelled me to an inexorable slumber.

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Half awake, I got up for lunch and walked along the riverbank in search of an authentic Laotian meal. What is Laotian cuisine? Is it spicy with a balancing hint of sweet and sour flavors? No that’s Thai. Or is it fresh dabbed with herbs and tang? No that’s Vietnamese.

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Yes, Laos is greatly influenced by her northern neighbor China, and this cookie is a clear categorical evidence. #MadeInChina

I saw a table of what looked like an oriental spread of lunch. But no, it was an offering.

A glass jar of what I initially thought to be a quenching local beverage, until I looked closer and saw a sorry creature entombed sousing in red liquid–Snake wine anyone?

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So what is the character of a Laotian food?

The existential mulling over an ambiguous cuisine while scouting for a restaurant, somehow led us to an al fresco line of dining tables along the Nam Khan river. Long story short–I ended up with a plateful of Italian bruschetta and I hated myself for it.

At past noon, with substandard lunch with culinary misadventure of epic proportions, we crossed the river over an unaesthetic bamboo bridge that looked like they got there by accident. We found a small mom and pop shop situated on an elevated ground where Nam Khan and Mekong converge, and they sell Beer Lao. <fade in Handel’s Messiah>

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With the three of us popping bottle after bottle of what was turning out to be my favorite Asian brew, we heard a gleeful shouting and juvenile cheers of what looked from afar like a bunch of swimming kids–But no, they are fully grown men.

“Hey wazzuuuup?” The three rowdy Americans emerged from the river like a trio of characters from Tom Sawyer, or Peter Pan, or maybe some high school chick flick with Seann William Scott written all over it.

I palpitated.

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You see, being Asian travelers with a third world passport can be daunting, we can predict the short list of possibilities of on-the-road encounters with American travelers:

1. They will give us a look trying to figure out our nationality, most likely they would say “Sawasdee ka!”

2. Young (post-teens) American travelers would just stare at us with a non verbal condescendence that says “I am not adding you on Facebook”

3. Or, they would really be extra nice that it scares us that they might pull a Brangelina and offer to sign the adoption papers. I couldn’t blame them, being non-caucasian travelers, it is easy to look charitable.

Of course this is just based on our personal experience… Of course there are still some that are genuine people and these three guys happened to be that bunch. But at first their stances are of textbook bullies, the type of kids that pick their ears, nose, and anuses to scare the classmates with whatever is on the tip of their fingers. Like freshmen’s gym class all over again.

They approached us half naked, dripping wet, a juvenile bravado and their six packs flaunted on our faces, at eye level. Yes, we were all standing.

So I responded and gave them my six packs… of Beer Lao.

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The small store might have reached their quota for the month after they almost sold all bottles that day.

We waited for the sunset, lushed with cold beer we watched the Mekong passed by as the place slowly got filled with travelers. Hums of stories in dozens of different languages were flying in all directions. And then the sky swiftly changed colors and the crowd fell silent. From amber to tangerine to vermilion to salmon to crimson to palatinate to prussian to the best sunset ever.

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My quest for my first Laotian meal may not be successful at day one, turns-out, the effort itself is tantamount to say that Laos has a unique character that is neither Vietnamese nor Thai, and I couldn’t point my finger on it. I may have looked too deep or too far, when the answer was just right in front of me.

As far and close as I know, it is charming, it is enigmatic, and to some degree ineffably sublime.

RON

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Related stories:

saffron sunrise: mornings of luang prabang

novelty that is laos

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