Laos round up 🇱🇦

We made four stops on our relatively short route through northwestern Laos. We started in the mellow capital city of Vientiane, before taking a high speed train to the UNESCO-listed town of Luang Prabang. We then fully embraced travelling slowly with a two day cruise up the Mekong river, overnighting at Pak Beng, before making a final stop in the border town of Huay Xai.

When we were planning our route, we considered crossing from Cambodia into southern Laos, and working our way north towards the capital (rather than cutting across Thailand and directly entering northern Laos). However, we’d read that these southern border crossings were rife with corruption, we hadn’t quite applied for our e-visas in time, and we were also acutely aware of the considerable travel times through this part of the country. We’ll return one day to explore the south.

Carbon 🚆

At 689 km, our route across Laos was the shortest of any country we’ve visited to date. As a result, our travel in Laos emitted only 57 kgCO2e – the second lowest so far.

Despite covering most of the distance by train and boat, the largest source of emissions was actually the cars that we travelled in. Most cities we visited lacked much public transport, so when the distances were too large to cycle, we had to rely on taxis to get to and from transport hubs or sights outside of the cities.

Cost 💰

Laos is a pretty affordable country, and our daily expenditure wasn’t far off Georgia, which still holds the crown for our lowest daily expenditure to date. I imagine our spend per day would have been the lowest if wasn’t for our splurge on a very comfortable cruise along the Mekong River.

Much like in Cambodia, the cost of our Lao visa seemed disproportionately high compared to other countries. Again, this was due to the short amount of time we spent in the country.

Cats 🐈

Laos arrives bang in the mid-table on our cats per day metric.

But as always, there we some high-quality cats hidden away if you knew where to look…

🏅Most patient Mum

These two ginger kittens were wreaking utter havoc while their Mum sat calmly in the middle and let it happen. Actually, if you look into her eyes, you can see she’s rethinking a couple of her life choices.

Food 🍽

I’m not sure how Lao Sausage didn’t make it into any of our last four blog posts, but it definitely deserves an honourable mention. This sausage is made from fatty pork, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, coriander, chillies, garlic, salt, sticky rice and fish sauce. It was so full of flavour that it only took one mouthful before I told Sara it was the best sausage I’d ever eaten.

With Laos behind us, we turned south to continue our south-east Asian adventure back through Thailand and towards Malaysia and Singapore.

Messing about on the Mekong

We’ve met up with the mighty Mekong River quite a few times over the last few weeks – first in the huge Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam, then again in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Nong Khai (Thailand), Vientiane (Laos), and finally in Luang Prabang. Now, it was time to get properly acquainted as we were to spend two days sailing upriver on the ‘slow boat’ to Thailand.

I should probably confess that our journey wasn’t to be on the original slow boat, the public ferry that makes its way up and down river daily, stopping at local settlements on the way. We’d read that this can be a great experience but quite cramped, which is fine for a few hours but maybe less so for 10 or more hours a day. We decided that if we were going to spend two days on the water, where the journey was the destination, we should make the most of it. All this to say that we talked ourselves into a private slow boat, complete with lovely lunches, day beds (my favourite!) and a couple of interesting stops en route. We already felt a bit guilty about our uncharacteristically extravagent decision but even more so when we boarded and found that we were two of only five guests on board (the boat had capacity for 30) – not particularly good for our carbon credentials!

We set sail from lovely Luang Prabang just before dawn, and before long the sun peeked over the hills next to the riverbank.

We spent the next few hours gazing out of the window at the landscape and eating our second breakfast (in true Vicar of Dibley style, we didn’t like to tell the lovely family who were looking after us that we’d already eaten), before making a brief stop at the Pak Ou Caves. These caves are full of Buddha images small and large, and are a favourite annual pilgrimage site for Laotians, who bring their Buddha images from home to pray with them.

In exchange for a donation, I picked up a Lao version of the omijuki we’d selected in Sapporo to tell us our fortunes at New Year, and once we were back on the boat, I asked our guide to help us translate it (Google Translate having been even less help than in Japan). He said that a lot of it was quite abstract so I imagine he had to exercise some artistic licence in interpreting it, but that, “If you have a sales business, it is good for your future,” [well I don’t, but noted] and that, “Your love will love you much more in the future” [so maybe the tide will turn and Thomas 🐈 will prefer me to Oli one day!]. It all sounded very promising, although I do wonder what he wasn’t telling me, as there was a bit more written than that…

Because of the meanders in the Mekong’s route through Laos, we passed twice under bridges that carry the Lao-China Railway up towards China. As far as we know, there aren’t any trains running along this route at the moment (we’ll have to come back one day) but it was still incredible to see the sheer amount of concrete supporting this huge infrastructure project.

It looked so out of place on the banks of the Mekong, where we had drifted past little more than small settlements, herds of buffalo and cows, bamboo fishing rods, and local people out panning for gold. In fact, the very largest settlement we saw was the town of Pak Beng, where we arrived around sunset of our first day to spend the night. This was the biggest town for some distance, but that’s not saying much – below is the quiet main street.

Pak Beng

After a night spent in our simple (but perfectly adequate) £10 guesthouse (our attempt to balance the books after splashing out on the private boat!) we headed back down to the jetty for another pre-dawn start. Soon after, we made a stop at a riverside village for a quick wander.

We weren’t quite sure how we felt about this, to be honest. Although I love to see how other people live (one of the great joys of travel), I do think there’s a fine line between this and flat-out voyeurism. And this was no slick, rehearsed, inauthentic tour-group stop, but a tiny, remote and obviously quite deprived village. We understood from our guide that there is a financial agreement with the Village Chief so that the local people benefitted from our visit and that the village is changed regularly so that these benefits are distributed in the region, but I’m still not totally convinced that our presence was really welcome or helpful. So, whilst another member of our small group was photographing the children (which didn’t feel quite right), we focused on making friends with the piglets who were roaming around freely.

After an absolutely spectacular buffet lunch (the family on whose boat we were travelling looked after us SO well), the remainder of our second day was spent much as the first. We gazed out of the window at life on the banks of the Mekong, napped on daybeds, listened to podcasts (my current picks are Table Manners, Desert Island Discs and More or Less, in case you’re wondering – please send more recommendations my way!), caught up on this blog, and made some onward travel plans. It was an incredibly peaceful way to travel.

Around 4pm, we passed under the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge IV, which marks the western border crossing between the two countries, and docked on the Lao side of the river in the small town of Huay Xai. Here, we watched the sun set over the Mekong one last time, before crossing the border to begin our journey south through Thailand the following day.

Ten steps to the perfect Lao sticky rice

Last week, we spent the morning at a farm just outside Luang Prabang to take part in the intriguingly-named ‘Rice Experience’, where we would learn more about what it takes to produce one of the world’s most important staple foods. We’d read beforehand that children loved it, and true to form, I was extremely excited about splashing around in some mud and meeting the water buffalo.

Did you know that more than half of the world’s population relies on rice for 80% of their food intake (according to the UN)?

Step 1: Select the grains

Our guide Neuk showed us how to select the most suitable grain for planting by putting a freshly-laid egg into a bowl of water and showing us that it sank. Next, he added lots of salt (to increase the density of the water) until the egg began to float, then removed the egg and added handfuls of rice. The rice grains that sank in the salty water were suitable for planting, as their weight suggested that they were healthy grains and not damaged or empty husks.

Typically, 35 kg of grain is required to plant a hectare of rice, so it is well worth selecting the grains that have the best possible chance of producing a good crop. Ultimately, this will yield around 1,500 kg of rice (roughly a 40-fold increase!).

Step 2: Germinate the seed

Now it was time for us to get involved. Neuk casually stepped barefoot down from the path into the rice paddy and invited us to follow him. He made it look very easy to walk around but it really wasn’t – somewhere between wading in soup and ice skating! Thankfully at this point he hadn’t mentioned the snakes, spiders and rats who also live in the rice paddies (and who end up on locals’ BBQs for dinner if they are harming the crop). For some reason it hadn’t crossed my mind that we might be sharing the area with any friends, so I happily got stuck in.

Neuk gathered some mud together to make a mini-mountain that protruded above the water level, and we sprinkled the grain on here.

He splashed the grain with water and explained that it would take between three and four days to germinate. We didn’t have this long to wait, so in a perfect Blue Peter moment, he produced some seedlings he had prepared earlier that we could use for the next steps in the process.

Step 3: Plough the rice paddy

I was quite surprised to find that a flooded rice paddy needed ploughing, but apparently it does and this happens in several stages: first, the earth is loosened and turned over so that any weeds are buried, and then a rake-like plough (which probably has a special name…) is used to even out the ground ready for planting. For this job, we met Susan, a gentle giant of a water buffalo who lived on the farm with her partner Bentley and her three-month old baby. We thought Susan was an excellent name for a water buffalo, although the little we know about farming from friends tells me that it is not the done thing to name your cattle, so she had almost certainly been named for our benefit!

We were taught the Lao commands to ask Susan to start and stop, and I had a go at driving the plough. Even though Susan was doing all the hard work, it still took my full attention to keep up with her while sloshing through the knee-deep mud. I did my best with the commands, but Susan made it very clear that she didn’t understand my accent.

Step 4: Plant out

Now that the paddy was ready for planting, we were shown how to stand in a row facing the side of the paddy, divide our seedlings and pop them into the soil, then take a step backwards and repeat. It was not at all easy to walk backwards through the thick mud without falling! By this point, I had wiped my muddy hands all over my shorts so was in a complete mess, but I still wasn’t quite ready to embrace the prospect of getting entirely submerged in the mud.

Neuk showed us how to control the amount of water flowing into each rice terrace by using a thick clod of mud. This is stuffed into the irrigation channel to block it or lifted out to let the water flow into the lower terraces. It was simple but remarkably effective! This method is needed because they sometimes allow fields to dry out completely in order to force the rice plants to grow stronger and deeper roots.

Step 5: Harvest

In Northern Laos, rice farmers are able to produce two harvests per year. From planting to harvest takes around two months during the dry season and more like five-six months during the wet season. Either way, once the plants turn yellow, this is a sign that they are ready to be harvested.

We were shown how to grab a plant, face the scythe away from our bodies, and cut rapidly through the stems. We then used one of the stems like a ribbon to tie the other stems together and perched this little bouquet on top of the stalks still protruding from the rice paddy. It is then left here in the sun for a week to dry out.

Step 6: Thresh and winnow

Now we had our rice crop, it was time to leave the fields (and attempt to clean our feet, although to be honest, that’s been an ongoing project over the last few days…) We learnt how to separate the grains from the rest of the plant by bashing them repeatedly on a wooden block. I didn’t try this bit, but it was clear from our group’s attempts that it wasn’t as easy as it looked!

Once the threshing stage was completed, this left a pile of grain, mixed in with chaff, leaves, and other bits and bobs that needed separating using a fan. Did you know this was called winnowing? I’ve just learnt this word while writing this post and I’m very pleased with it!

Step 7: Husk

The next stage was to remove the rice grain from its husk. Apparently there are strict gender roles at play here – men or boys do the stamping part and women do the mixing part, never the other way around. Typically, boys will get up around 4 or 5am and do an hour of husking before school. Quite the morning work out!

This stage leaves a big bowl of rice grains mixed in with the husks, and to separate the two involves putting them into a round tray and sieving them with an action similar to cooking in a wok. I’m not sure I quite had the knack, but I was much better at it than some of our group! Any waste from this stage is used as chicken or pig feed or can be used to produce rice wine.

Step 9: Soak and steam

In Laos, sticky rice is an important component of every meal. For breakfast, the rice is soaked overnight and then steamed in the morning for 20-30 minutes, turned over and steamed for a further 10 minutes. It’s seriously sticky stuff, so turning it over is much more like flipping a pancake than stirring a pot. After steaming, it is spread out on a large tray, which helps it to cool down and dry out a bit.

Step 10: Serve and eat!

Finally, it’s time to eat. Sticky rice is always served in a kong khao dok, a bamboo rice basket. I had assumed until this point that these baskets were also used to steam the rice, but I now realise that Laotians eat far too much sticky rice to mess around with steaming dainty little portions individually! Anyway, the baskets look really pretty but also keep the rice warm throughout the meal, which is important because in Lao cuisine, every bite should be eaten alongside a handful or spoonful of rice.

I love rice (like, really love it!) but I’m ashamed to say that other than admiring pretty terraces from afar, I didn’t really have any idea how it grew, what the plants looked like or quite how we ended up with rice from them. Even though some of the steps we learnt are the ‘ancient’ way of doing things and some farmers now have machines to replace steps in the process, it was still a really fascinating crash course and a gloriously muddy morning!