Freaky Friday: the strangeness of travel.

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This morning we’re just hanging out in Hanoi post breakfast, drinking coffee. And we bump into this couple of ladies we’ve met on our travels. That’s not so unusual you would think? Well, no; except when we bumped into these guys when we were 3’ooo miles away in New Delhi, at one of three MASSIVE train stations. It was their first day of their holiday, and today was their last, which in itself is strange.

Oh, we also bumped into them in a restaurant in Jodhpur, AND at the Taj Mahal; as you do.

We’ve seen a few people several times, but usually in the same city, or neighbouring cities, not separate countries! Also,  turns out one of them lives in Cambridge, where I used to live, and is from near to Norwich, where I currently live (although, technically I’m homeless as I have no address, anywhere!)

We swapped blogs, so if you’re reading hello! Also, sorry I forgot to ask your names, numerous times!

Freaky. Anybody out there able to beat that for travel coincidences?

Laos food, a not very complete overview.

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So, our time in Laos has finished. We spent some time in Luang Prabang, and then headed down on the overnight bus to Vientiane. To be honest, Vientiane didn’t hold much for us, apart from the eating. A shout out has to be made to Aarto, the drunken Finnish guy, who fell through the glass door at our hostel and left blood and glass everywhere. That was impressive.

This is Laos food as we ate it.

Larp, rice soup and noodle soup have been covered, have a read.

In Luang Prabang we ate a couple of times in the ‘food alley’ at the market. The food was cheap and excellent quality, it was actually far better than our fancy restaurant meal. Expensively disappointing. Anyway, at the market we had a whole fish, stuffed with lemongrass. It had some amazing teriyaki style glaze on the skin too, which made it sweet and crispy. My mum always says she can’t eat anything with the head looking at her. I beg to differ, as long as the head doesn’t wriggle, and it’s well and truly dead I’m fine with that.

We also had barbecued pork pieces, with a sweet glaze on. like great big bits of extra tasty bacon, and green papaya salad. Quite often known as som tam but the Lao people call it tam mak hoong. The Laos version isn’t really any different, it has all the same ingredients; unripe papaya, lime, peanuts, chilli, palm sugar, fish sauce and a bit of tomato. Sometimes in Laos they will throw in a handful of green beans too. Spicy.

In Vientiane we had another of my favourite things so far. It was very simply described on the menu as rice, egg, vegetable (not fried). I only ordered it because I was watching the woman make it for someone else, and curiosity won.  Basically, it’s a cold rice salad. the rice is balled and fried and left to cool, when the salad is made the ball is broken down with peanuts, vegetables, lime, chilli, sugar, and green herbs. You get bits of crispy rice ball outside and, stodgy middle bits too. I couldn’t work out if coconut was used in the rice ball, or thrown into the salad; but it was definitely involved somewhere. If anyone knows what this is actually called please let me know.

Another trip out to eat involved larp (duck variety this time) and Laos style chicken leg AND thigh. The chicken was marinated, and griddled in a garlic lemongrass mix; and served with a mint and garlic dipping sauce.  Sauce, in Laos is known as jaew (with a suffix depending on the ingredients…) and a pot of sticky rice to mop up the juices.

We have had the obligatory barbecued meats, and spring rolls (generally, raw Vietnamese style but sometimes fried.. You never can tell) but the other thing worth a mention was bamboo stuffed with pork. It was OK, the pork was sort of steamed inside the bamboo but it was deep fried with an egg wash, and a bit too greasy for my liking.

Generally, in the UK; I’m not keen on pork.  I’ve eaten so much here that I’m generally concerned I might turn into some kind of swine hybrid.

On an alcoholic side note Beerlao is good, 5% generic fizzy beer taste. Beerlao dark is better, 6.5% less fizzy more flavour. I never got around to trying Beerlao gold, the dark lager was too nice.

Go to Laos, the food is awesome.

Laos street food : Khao piak khao (Rice soup)

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One of my favourite things about travelling is eating. Breakfast is usually something a bit different, depending on where you are. and  I’ve always grown up with toast or cereal, so I’m quite excited to be eating rice soup for breakfast.

Khao piak khao

Rice soup is really a congee, with a gelatinous meaty texture, with roasted pork meat topped with roasted garlic and fresh herbs.  There’s also all the trimmings to add to personal taste, chilli flakes, lime, Thai basil and mint. Lovely start to another day in Laos.

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Laos street food : Larp, laab, laap, lab or larb? (sour minced meat salad)

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Larp, or any of the other spelling I’ve seen is a spicy meat salad and is considered the national dish of Laos. Now, we’ve spent a little time in Laos and I’m considering myself pretty well schooled in this dish. We’ve eaten fish, pork, beef, and duck larp. As you might guess, it’s pretty nice.

It’s clearly something that doesn’t have a uniform recipe as every time we’ve eaten it the flavours have been different, sometimes more lime, more lemongrass; or, in the fish variety more chilli. A lot more chilli! Personally, I like more lime and find pork is the best meat for the spices.

The main tastes are the flavours of Laos. Chilli, lime, mint, lemongrass, ground rice and fish sauce, mixed with meat and often in our experience green beans. The flavours are so fresh, it has a salsa like quality, it’s citrusy and spicy, whilst having a strong minty flavour. Jess articulated this brilliantly, describing it as a ‘meaty mojito’.

It’s traditionally served with sticky rice and you ball the rice in your hand and dip it into the meat and any sauce. Delicious.

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Laos street food :Khao piak sen (pork rice noodle soup)

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Laos has so far really impressed us in a food sense. It’s such a great country, it’s recent affiliations to France are obvious when you browse menus.

One thing that has surprised me, has been the distinction in flavours from Thai food. Chilli and lime are used with regularity, however, Lemongrass and mint are the stand out flavours in Lao food.

Here (at least in this awesome little canteen in Luang Prabang) you get a delicious broth, with noodles, meatballs and shredded meat too.

The fixins’ include a plate of greens beans, leaves, and fresh mint. Dried chilli paste (spicy), fresh lime, and a little concoction of blended chilli and peanuts, which is strangely sweet, and adds awesome flavour to the soup base. You also have the usual suspects, Fish sauce, sugar and soy.

We ate here twice in three days. So. Good.

Border jumping, Thailand to Laos: Chiang Khong to Huay Xai, and the slow boat.

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When I was researching this trip, this was one area I was pretty confused by. I found some articles from Flash Parker, which are very useful, and served me well. Hopefully now I can add some updated information to this subject.

If like us, and a lot of others you are leaving Chiang Mai and looking to get to Laos, you will get a bus from the arcade bus station. We booked onto the 08:30AM green bus service to Chiang Khong. It stops quite a lot, but they have air con, really comfy seats and a TV. We watched a dubbed copy of Spiderman!  Also, you get a receipt for your baggage. I’m not sure this would be any use at all in the event of your stuff being stolen, but hey.  The bus was 241Baht, for about a six hour journey. I’ve read conflicting information about the station, some people say it’s mental busy others fairly quiet. The day we travelled out the bus queues were quite short, however our bus was full so book ahead if you’re on a schedule.

Okay, so now you’re in Chiang Khong! You’re there? Wrong.  Due to some great idea involving getting more money for the local tuk-tuks, the bus stops at one end of the town and the ferry is at the other. You guessed it, you have to pay another 30Baht to get there.

Make sure you have some US Dollars before you leave Chiang Mai, you cannot pay the visa fee with any other currency and I expect the exchange rate at Chiang Khong is terrible. Most prices were around 20USD for Asian countries and 30-35USD for Europe and America. Oddly, Canadians have to pay 43USD. Also, you need one passport photo for your application.

You then wander down to the boats, stopping at the customs post (it looks like the booths attendants sit in at car parks) to get an exit stamp.  The two minute ferry across the Mekong will cost 30Baht and you’re in Laos!

Here, you have to fill in your entry card and pay your fee. I’ve read online about border staff being suggestive about bribes, but in my experience they were polite and efficient, people at Heathrow could learn a thing or two! Oh, and keep hold of your departure card, unlike most places they don’t seem to staple it into your passport.  There is a booth opposite customs for money exchange, but we waited until we were further into Huay Xai as again, we expected the exchange rate to be better. The bank in the town apparently does the best rates. If you have a smart phone, get the XE currency app, it’s brilliant and it’s a ball ache trying to work out prices when everything is interchangeable between Baht, Kip and Dollars.

So you need somewhere to stay! (You can spend the night in Chiang Khong, which is bigger but I’ve read about the bottlenecking at customs, and having to get up earlier to make the ferry. Also, mid- afternoon the border was pretty much dead) We stayed at one of the standard places on the main strip. It was clean and nice enough, it also happens to be opposite a place called Bar How? which is a really nice place to eat very good Lao food considering the transient nature of the town. You can book your ferry tickets via pretty much anyone in the town. We just bought ours from our hotel. We probably paid a bit too much, but it was more efficient and stress free than wandering around the travel agents.  I hate that.

There are three options to get to Luang Prabang, slow boat, fast boat and bus. I’ve read pretty bad things about the bus and any reputable guidebook recommends avoiding the fast boats.

The slow boats vary in size and quality. Some boats have seats taken from buses with cushions, others are benches.  We were lucky our boats both had comfortable seating. Rather than buying a cushion straight away, check your boat out first!

The people in the Huay Xai have all kinds of stories to tell, some people say the boat leaves at 9:30, 10, 10:30…etc. Also, everybody is trying to sell you stuff such as sandwiches and snacks. They will all tell you that you can’t buy anything on the boat. You can buy water, hot drinks, noodle pots, fizzy pop, beer and crisps, but take a sandwich with you. I’ve also read online that people would come onto the boats to sell other stuff, but this didn’t happen on our journeys so don’t count on it.

Also, the boat leaves when it’s ready, time is irrelevant. Depends on the cargo and other things they need to send on the river, we were told 10:30, but left at midday.

Invariably, someone will come onto the boat to tell you about Pak Beng, the stop over point and that it is high season and what not. They will probably try to sell you accommodation; we foolishly took some there and then, just to make it a bit better than dealing with all the touts. Don’t believe the hype. There must be enough accommodation, and frankly it’s cheaper directly in Pak Beng. Lesson learnt.

Pak Beng is nothing more than a stopover. I can’t think of any reason why somebody would stay here longer than the one night. Lots of people tried to sell me drugs here, I can only imagine they have a deal with the police and get a cut of the fine on top of the retail price. Being as you’re in the middle of nowhere without any choice, stuff is expensive here.

The second day is back on the boat, it might not be the same boat, and I’m not sure if you can buy cushions in Pak Beng, so it’s a bit of a gamble if you buy one originally. About eight hours later you arrive in Luang Prabang! Again, if you haven’t got accommodation sorted lots of people are waiting at the dock to welcome you to town, as such.

The journey is long, but it’s very rewarding. Make sure you put a warm layer in your bag because as the sun starts to think about going down, it gets cold. The views are pretty spectacular and you’re in a boat full of people to chat to if you feel like it. It’s a far more leisurely and enjoyable way to get travel than the bus.

Rising of happiness, Sukhothai. Thailand’s first capital.

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We moved up from Bangkok, to Sukhothai, via Philansulok. The old city is the first capital from circa 14th century.

We rented some bicycles, and spent the day cycling around the old city. A lovely, leisurely day.