Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Thought for food

So there we were, heading north from Vang Vieng in a minivan, when this woman appeared at the side of the road. We must have been about a third of the way through our six-hour journey and for the most part it had been a never-ending twisty-turny strip of tarmac, winding its way through forgettable countryside and the occasional mountain pass. Now we’d come to some kind of village and a woman with a giant rat on the end of a leash.

Was it a rat? No, not on second glance, but it was definitely rodent-like. Some kind of gopher thing, then? Maybe. And it wasn’t a leash exactly, more like a thick piece of string. In any event, our driver had pulled over and was negotiating a price for the animal. A minute or two later it was stowed in the back of the vehicle, behind our luggage. It didn’t look like a pet so presumably he was going to kill it and eat it.

A couple of minutes after that he stopped again, this time for a woman clutching a dead bird by the throat. It seemed like we were passing through Lao’s answer to Billingsgate meat market. Gasping, we Westerners craned forward for a closer look. Some of us got our cameras out (not me, it was buried too far down in my bag). With a full complement of passengers and two meals taken care of, the driver was having a good day.

Of course it’s not for me to judge the culinary habits and business practices of people in Laos, so I won’t, despite being slightly haunted by the thought of how that gopher thing must have met its end. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose I’d enjoy visiting a British slaughterhouse either. The point I‘m making, I suppose, is that the Laotians are more open and honest about the whole process of killing and eating other animals, whereas our society sanitises it.

At the moment I’m in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, now designated a Unesco world heritage site. It’s a charming place but the restaurants cost a bomb. Luckily there are alternatives in the shape of open-air market stalls. Street food, in other words. Last night, shortly after I’d arrived, I ate at a site consisting of a dozen small plastic tables, each with four chairs, arranged next to a stall doling out a cold buffet of rice, noodles, spring rolls and various tasty foodstuffs I‘ve yet to identify. It was doing a roaring trade among the backpacker set, quite rightly.

This business runs only in the evenings so for lunch today I visited one of the many smaller stalls close to my guest house. Here I bought a chicken, mayonnaise and salad baguette, watching warily as the stallholder made it, as every time she lifted the cellophane from a tray of ingredients, a cloud of flies would swarm around it.

Feeling thirsty, I was drawn to a neighbouring stall selling fruit shakes and asked the woman there for a pineapple juice. Having handed over the money, I noticed another swarm of flies hovering just above the lid of her blender. The woman then began putting my drink together, reaching down for a bucket of ice. “Oh Christ,” I thought. “Not ice. How do I know it’s clean? Was it made from boiled water? I might as well drink a cup of Lao tap water now. Oh well, I’ve paid her 40p so I suppose I’ll have to risk it.”

It was delicious and, to the best of my knowledge, harmless. My maxim that if it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for me, seems to be paying off so far, although I do draw the line at clubbed-to-death rodents.

I was reminded of Adventure Capitalist, a book I read last year by the American investment genius Jim Rogers. With his oodles of money, Rogers occasionally turns his back on the Wall Street scene and travels the world for years at a time, once by motorbike (detailed in his book Investment Biker) and once by specially-designed car (described in this book I was reading). His journeys are often dangerous, set world records and provide him with close-to-the-ground information that inform his global investments later on. Anyway, in his book Rogers notes that the only times his travelling companion/girlfriend got food poisoning was after eating at five-star restaurants. I’ll take that as a good omen.

Oh, and as for Luang Prabang… it’s all right, I suppose. My guidebook suggests it’s some kind of spellbinding Xanadu but from what I’ve seen today it’s really just a quaint old city with lots of nice temples. I’ll hang around for a while longer but whatever tentative plans I had for venturing further north, to more out-of-the-way places, have been discarded. In the days to come I’ll be going back to Vang Vieng and Vientiane before dropping in on some places of interest in the south and pressing on to the Cambodian border.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Laos and I’m glad I came here. It just hasn’t grabbed me in quite the way I’d hoped (the shallow, touristy side of my brain keeps asking: “WHERE ARE THE GIANT BUDDHAS?”) and the word-of-mouth I got from folks in the minivan was that Cambodia’s great and Vietnam is fabulous. Admittedly none of them had actually been to Vietnam, but that’s what they’d heard and I believe them.

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