Am back in Vientiane after an all-too-brief visit to Bangkok followed by a week in the central Lao province of Savannakhet. And what a week it's been... My job at the moment is essentially to walk around towns in Laos and gather information, a task that's been made increasingly difficult by the arrival of summer here in Southeast Asia. Although I've lived in the region for over a decade now, I've only spent a couple summers here, typically having spent this time of year at home in Oregon or Sweden, or somewhere else cool. As a result, the intense heat feels relatively new to me, and is almost unbearable, particularly for one who's walking as much as 10km or more a day. I honestly don't think I've ever sweated so much in my life, but rehydrating in Savannkhet was a literal pleasure, thanks to Centella asiastica:
a green herb known in English as Asiatic pennywort and in Laos (and incidentally, Mae Hong Son) as phak nork (it's called bai bua bok, 'land lotus', in most of Thailand). The herb is used as a side dish, salad ingredient and juice component from Sri Lanka to China, but I never really took to the latter form, particularly in Thailand, finding its herbal flavour a bit too intense. But in central Laos, as I've also seen done in Vietnam, it's prepared slightly differently. Here, a couple fistfuls of the herb are tossed in a blender with the juice and meat of a young coconut (and the inevitable and inevitably large ladleful of syrup). This is blended for a good minute or two and the resulting frothly green pulp is strained into a tall glass of ice. The result has substantially less herbal flavour than the Thai version, but rather is green and grasslike in flavour, with a slight hint of bitterness. It's incredibly refreshing -- I think I had three glasses one particularly hot day.
Another equally refreshing drink found on nearly every street corner in Savannakhet is sugarcane juice:
Branch-like sugar canes are peeled then passed through the wheels of an electric press several times to extract every last drop of liquid. This is, I suspect, perhaps another Vietnamese influence, as the vast majority of vendors use Vietnamese-made machines, specifically the ones with the funky 1960's lady one sees everywhere in that country:
Served with a squeeze of lime, it's almost as good as nam phak nork, and isn't nearly as sweet as one might suspect -- I'm generally not a fan of sweet flavours, but had no problem downing both the glass and pitcher shown above.