Thursday 31 January 2013

A letter from Luang Prabang

The airport in Luang Prabang is still tiny, although it seems not for long, they are frantically building a huge international airport closeby which will bring huge numbers of people to this enchanting little city, already over loaded with visitors. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

We were staying in a new hotel about 15 mins outside the town, it was lovely really except that it was like the Marie Celeste, not another guest in sight, everyone seemed to vanish into town and not return until late at night.

The service was like Fawlty Towers with a long series of misunderstandings partly because virtually none of the staff spoke or even understood English. They had no map of the town ,no newspapers, they didn't seem to know where things were or what tour options there were available . On the way to the airport today ,we discovered from the handling company that the hotel is in fact owned by a Thai businessman and virtually all the staff are Thai, so it wasn't our imagination, they didn't actually know anything about Luang Prabang!

On the first evening,we got a tuc tuc (our favourite mode of transport) into town. A brand new one with brightly coloured stripes arrived driven by a super cool young guy with spiky hair and sneakers with bright red laces to match the tuc tuc. He took us to the night Market, this is a collection of close to a hundred stalls that set up along the main street at night by local tribal people selling all kinds of textiles, souvenirs, and handcrafts supposedly from Laos but much of it seems to be coming in from China now. Here and there are some lovely things so Tim whisked me out of there pretty smartly with lots of muttering about enough clutter!

We had a very good dinner on the veranda of a little restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet called Tamarind, lots of Lao dishes including crisps made from river weed which we saw being harvested next morning when we took a day trip in a covered flat bottomed boat along the Mekong.

There are lots of tiny vegetable gardens on the rich alluvial soil all along the river banks, higher up above the flood mark (between 20 and 30ft) there are little thatched bamboo and timber houses on stilts with verandas over looking the river.

The local river people fish and collect river weed off the stones along the rivers edge, it is washed and sundried and then made into a kind of crisp sprinkled with sesame seeds which they use to scoop up a variety of dips one of which includes buffalo skin, they seem frightfully keen on that, I saw lots for sale in the market.

There's a backdrop of hills and mountainous forest, here and there are temples half hidden by the trees and glimpses of the Buddhist monks in their saffron robes. Some of the temples are super ornate, beautifully gilded and decorative, others are very simple, accessed only by rickety bamboo bridges.

Our boat had really comfy seats with lots of distressed cushions unlike some of the boats that have recycled car seats and we've just passed a petrol station on a large barge. Around noon there were lots of children down by the rivers edge washing their buffalo and splashing in the rock pools. Later there are young Buddhist monks climbing trees and bathing in their robes, giggling and having fun like any young lads of their age... there are great photo ops everywhere!

On Thursday I decided to take a cooking class in a little school called Tamnak Lao that Rory recommended from his trip a couple of years ago. It started at 10 am with a Market tour, we arrived back to the school after 11 am with the ingredients.There were just four of us in the class, Tim had opted out so he could really chill if such a thing is possible in 30+ degrees!

Then the two teachers demonstrated a couple of dishes which we then cooked for lunch ,one was a Lao version of our Traditional salad with roasted peanuts and minced pork, the other a sticky rice noodles with vegetables and chicken called Feu Khua.

After a leisurely lunch we had another short demo, this time five dishes from which we could choose three each to cook, I totally loved a sticky aubergine dish with pork, Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo and a banana flower salad. We cooked in pairs, I was paired up with a very nice German chap from Munich called Gunter. Overall it was a very worthwhile day, and I should be able to reproduce several of the recipes easily.

Afterwards, I went back to the Marie Celeste for a swim , then back into town for dinner, we had a terrifically good meal at a restaurant away from the madding crowds in a hotel called Aspara overlooking the Khan-Luang Prabang river, a tributary of the Mekong. It was so good that we went back again today for lunch, last night we ate on the front porch but today we had a little table overlooking the river.

We had two absolutely delicious salads: prawn and green papaya salad with chilli and coconut dressing and dried beef salad with mint, coriander and lemongrass (I think it was buffalo). A third one with aubergine roasted cashew nuts, tomatoes, and tons of crispy garlic, was less successful.

We met the owner Ivan Scholtz from London and told him how much we loved his food and asked him for the recipe for the lentil soup... and the Massaman Curry from the night before! Guess what,  he gave them to me! It's always worth asking, the worse that can happen is they can say no! If I return to Luang I'll definitely stay there, it's a lovely chic hotel with staff who speak great English!