A three-pronged Auntie Anne’s pretzel topped with hearty sticks of imitation crab. Encountered on a Nok Air flight from Bangkok to Nakhon Phanom. Resemblance to airplane propeller moderate, but edibility negligible.
More to follow soon from my most recent trip to Laos.
The tiny village of Ban Nong Ping (Leetch Lake Village) lies at the eastern edge of Laos’s Khammuan Province near the border with Vietnam. Its 200+ inhabitants are a mixture of lowland Lao and Salang who were ordered to moved here more than a decade ago, and who have yet to experience the joy of electricity (it’s meant to arrive in 2012). The village is the access point for Hin Namno NBCA and some of the more remote stretches of the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as for the amazing Tham Lot Se Bang Fai, which is why we there there. After having explored the cave and stayed with the villagers, we had a bit of free time on our last day and I did some impromptu portraits. The images were taken with my D700, a 80-200mm f/2.8 VR and illuminated with two off-camera strobes, a SB-800 and an SB-900, both activated by the camera’s built-in flash. I didn’t have much time and the flashes were acting naughty, but at the least the images provide a bit of insight into the inhabitants of one of the most remote and poorest villages I’ve ever visited.
To commence a slideshow of 12 images, click on the image above and use keyboard arrows or hold your mouse above the images to navigate through them.
Despite having many of the same culinary resources and origins as neighbouring Thailand, the people of Laos subside on a markedly more basic diet. Considering Laos’s poverty and lack of both infrastructure and large-scale agriculture, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But the monotony of the rural Lao diet can come as a shock if you’ve never encountered it personally. This post describes another blogger’s nine days of very basic meals in a particularly remote corner of northern Laos. I spent six days in the country on my most recent trip, only four of which were spent in the boondocks of central Laos, but I’d say we had a somewhat similar experience.
All of our meals were based around sticky rice. At a couple dinners this staple was accompanied by dishes such as sour soups with frog or fish, grilled chicken, and on one occasion, bamboo shoot soup (kaeng nor mai). Otherwise we ate sticky rice with tinned fish and a grilled chili dip, sticky rice with tiny grilled fish or chicken and a grilled chili dip, or instant noodles. None of it (other than the instant noodles) was bad, but it was pretty monotonous, and given the almost blanket absence of vegetables, not entirely nutritious. Yet despite this, I suspect that our meals had significantly more variety and nutrition than those of the people hosting us.
A notable exception to this diet came the day we explored Tham Lot Se Bang Fai, a 6.5km-long cave created by the flow of the Se Bang Fai. While we were busy inside the cave, a few of the villagers of Ban Nong Ping, our host village, had gathered the baby swifts and bats that had fallen to the cave floor or in the water. These were boiled and plucked:
and like most of our meals, were grilled:
And as if eating scavenged baby birds and bats wasn’t enough, the villagers had a particular way of preparing them that made already questionable (by our standards, at least) food even worse. Basically they charred the bats and birds, grilling them until they were unrecogniseable black shells. I suspect that this makes the bones, wings and skin easier to eat:
Luckily for us, the bats and birds were a special treat for the people who’d gathered them, and our meal was the reassuringly monotonous mix of grilled chicken, instant noodles, sticky rice and a grilled chili dip.
Jay So originally comes from Yasothon, if I remember correctly, and opened her eponymous northeastern Thai restaurant in Bangkok’s Silom area more than a decade ago. She’s cheeky and boisterous, and eating at her place, with the smell of plaa raa (fermented fish) and the sound of the northeastern Thai dialect being spoken, is probably not unlike eating at restaurant in her home province. I’ve been eating here for years, and despite not having been back in a long while, she still somehow remembered that I like my som tam without sugar.
Jay So’s dishes run the standard Isan (northeastern) repertoire, and with one exception, are solid, but not amazing. Of course she does several types of som tam (papaya salad), including som tam lao:
Lao-style som tam, made with fermented fish, salted crab, crispy eggplant and dried chilies. We also ordered som tam khai khem, a Thai-style som tam (ie made bottled fish sauce and including peanuts and dried ship) with salted egg:
There’s kai yaang:
grilled chicken, which is really just OK, and a not-so-subtle tom saep, a spicy/sour broth of pork bones:
But the real reason to eat at Jay So’s is the plaa duk yaang, grilled catfish:
It’s not the most photogenic dish in the world, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Before grilling, Jay So stuffs the necks of the fish with a coarse paste of lemongrass, garlic and salt, providing them a delicious herbal flavour. The skin is crispy and lightly seasoned as well, and on a good day, the meat is just a touch dry, like I prefer it.
So although Jay So’s standard menu and occasionally heavy-handed seasoning may fall short of an exceptional Isaan eating experience, it’s a welcoming and chaotically cozy place, and there’s always the catfish.
146/1 Soi Phiphat 2
085 999 4225
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