Fishermen in cone hats floated down the river in their long tail boats. I was thrilled to be where we were, and feeling like I had just met a celebrity because the Mekong is just that—more popular than Leonardo or Oprah in this part of the world. The same water that flowed past us originated on the Tibetan Plateau in China and is said to be, after the Amazon, the world’s second most aquatically bio-diverse river. As a result it is also the lifeline and trading route for millions of people.
As the sun set, the fishermen made their way back to their respective shore. Since the river forms the border between Laos and Thailand, some of these fishermen went home to Thailand for the night while others went to Laos. The two sides of the river represent two uniquely different worlds, cultures, and faces.
Brad hummed the lyrics of “Mekong” by The Refreshments, a local band from Arizona, and ordered a beer.
Barkeep, Another Mekong please
Yes of course you can keep the change
A new glass here for this new friend of mine
Forgive me I forgot your name
Being that we were along the Laos-Thai border it was decision time. We were at a loss for what to do next: cross into Laos at the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge (just a mere hour away) or follow the Mekong for another couple hundred miles South and then drive back up the other side in Laos?
Thailand had been really good to us with more mountains, elephants, temples, spicy food, beaches and bioluminescent creatures of the sea than we could ask for. Yet we agreed it was time for a new adventure.
For our last miles in Thailand we passed through the country’s spring-roll-wrapper and rice noodle production capitals. We made a quick stop for lunch at a rice noodle stand, snapped an obligatory photo of Nacho next to the King and crossed the border towards Vientiane.
Oh joy. Capital city time.
If there is one thing we hate doing it is driving in capital cities.
We were ready. I paused the music and cleared the emergency break of jammed books and water bottles and Brad tightened his grip on the wheel, prepared to swerve around dogs and children and motorcycles if need be.
But then the most amazing thing happened: the unrelenting chaos never came. We passed Patuxai, the city’s war monument and then all of a sudden were cruising down the capital’s main avenue. It was strangely peaceful. We could hardly believe that this was the country’s capital. There was even street parking! Well kind of. We did as the Laotians do and launched our bus on the pedestrian sidewalk and parked.
“Pepe, we’re here.” Five minutes after hanging up the phone we met Pepe, another friend of a friend of a friend of a friend in the Volkswagen community.
Reason #168 for choosing a Volkswagen for around-the-world travel: instant friends.
Pepe was not a native Laotian but was originally from Thailand. He had however married a Loatian woman, had a child, and had now lived in Laos for the last 20 odd years. He also owned a gas station where he stored his Volkswagens, which he had temporarily put to use as storage containers for boxes and boards and other materials. The gas station was also a great place for Brad to change the oil in Nacho. Pepe introduced us to his young son, who wasted no time in naming his dad’s 1960’s-era VW bus “Nacholine”. Next, we all watched as smoke mysteriously wafted up from under our floorboards—something that Brad discovered minutes later to be the controller for our UV water purifier in self-destruct mode.
The guys talked car stuff for most of the afternoon and when dinner rolled around Pepe led us to a Vietnamese joint. Despite the capital’s petite size, its selection of international food was fantastic: Laotian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and because of former French rule in Laos, French food. There was even French-Lao fusion food on the streets such as the baguette fully loaded with cucumber, meat, pickles, radish, green papaya, meat pâté, sweet chile sauce, spicy hot sauce and topped with cilantro and spring onions.
As for dinner, Vietnamese food was new to us so Pepe did the ordering: cut-up fried spring rolls, sausage, a plate heaping of vegetables and herbs, rice noodles and rice paper wrappers, and many, many bowls of dipping sauces.
“Watch.” Pepe pulled a sheet of rice paper from under the lettuce stack and cupped it in his hand. He added a small piece of lettuce as the next layer.
“Always cover the rice paper with lettuce, that way they won’t dry out. Next take one piece of everything on the plate: a slice of cucumber, some bean sprouts, a little bit of rice noodles, basil, mint, cilantro, some bitter herbs, and a bit of sauce. And last, add a slice of sausage or fried spring roll if you want.”
While he talked I built my own supersized lettuce wrap.
“You put the entire thing in your mouth. This way you will get all of the flavors in one bite.”
I tightened my wrap to condense its size and stuffed it in my mouth. I was in heaven. This was what I was looking for. Not only was the mixture of flavors amazingly fresh and good but the scene around me was something entirely new: men eating lettuce wraps. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Nothing turns an ordinary man into a beefcake like a lettuce wrap in hand.
For the next few days, with our umbrellas at our side we explored Vientiane’s temples, the massive gold stupa, the night market, and riverside boardwalk. The women in Laos all wore traditional sarongs, even if working office jobs, paired with a collared blouse and high heels. I can’t describe how or why, but life felt different on this side of the river.
On one of our last evenings, Pepe took us to a fancy Laotian restaurant where he said important people from the embassies and government take their visitors. At the front of the restaurant a small stage was set up where a male college student played the khaen, a traditional Laotian wind instrument made of a double row of bamboo-like reeds. Girls with porcelain faces and cone-shaped buns atop their heads performed the national folk dance of lamvong, extending their arms and legs in deliberate movements while their hands swayed back and forth, their fingers arched back towards their wrists.
Pepe told us that the arch of the fingers in Laotian and Thai dancers is very important; a symbol of the dancers experience and abilities. Dancers start training at a young age, beginning with their parents bending their fingers back in attempt to mold the bone. As a result many dancers are extraordinarily elastic and able to bend their fingers backwards almost to the wrist. The young Laotian dancers and musicians at the restaurant were all students at a local music school, practicing here as part of their program. At the end of each dance, each girl would bow and then quickly race off to the back in a fit of giggles.
While we watched the girls dance we ate sticky rice,a food that can easily be described as every Laotian’s staple: eaten as the base for every single meal in Laos. This translates into a consumption rate of 240 pounds of rice per year per person! In comparison, the average American consumes 20 pounds.
Pepe showed us the proper way to eat sticky rice. He pulled a chunk of rice from the clumped mass in the bamboo container and held it between his fingers. “What you do is squeeze the rice between your fingers.” While he talked, he continued to squeeze and pinch. “Many foreigners don’t do this correctly. Some of the eat it with a fork!” He looked surprised and disgusted. “They don’t understand that the more you squeeze, the better the sticky rice will taste. Once you are ready you just dip your sticky rice into your curry or soup.”
I pulled off a chunk of the sticky rice.
Without going into the history of my dislike for rice I will say that I didn’t believe kneading this bland hunk of rice between my fingers would make me like it any more. Yet I followed procedure. I pinched and I kneaded and I eventually turned my rice into an unrecognizable ball of white putty. It was moist and chewy and delicious. I realized I was beginning to fall in love.
In the evening we left the restaurant and returned to our sleeping headquarters. We had parked Nacho along the Mekong River across from the Grand Hotel. Just a few steps away, a long row of clothing vendors had set up on the boardwalk for the night market. People walked around selling snacks, and mobile pedicurists each carried a stool and a shallow tub for washing feet and carrying manicure tools, ready to start scrubbing with the wave of a hand. Yes, we live in our van down by the river. But it’s the Mekong River, so we’ll drink to that.
[grooveshark width=”580″ id=”1332702″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Mekong by The Refreshments on Grooveshark[/grooveshark]