Bat by the Se Bang Fai

A bat caught in Tham Lot Se Bang Fai, Khammuan Province, Laos 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:

Plucking birds and bats caught near Tham Lot Se Bang Fai, Khammuan Province, Laos

and like most of our meals, were grilled:

Grilling lunch near Tham Lot Se Bang Fai, Khammuan Province, Laos

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:

Eating lunch near Tham Lot Se Bang Fai, Khammuan Province, Laos

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.