Kamis, 15 Agustus 2013

Unexpectedly delicious.

I will begin this long story with one long sentence.

"For three or four years, I've always thought that Thai food is the second best after my country's food in all over Southeast Asia, but then my thesis was wrong - Lao food has its way to be one of the best!"

I didn't expect too much for our trip to Laos, firstly because Google doesn't blow up too much about the Laos' beauty, secondly because not so many (Asian) people - for that, I mean is my friends - has ever mentioned about trip to Laos. But, Trip Advisor tells totally different stories, that's where everyone (yes, I mean is every single one!) adore Laos entirely, not only the food in this case, but all about Laos : green sceneries, charming towns, beautiful waterfalls, travelers' friendly, extreme sports, tons of entertainments but also quiet places to contemplate and relax, and etcetera etcetera etcetera.

1. Vientiane - the beginning

Short story, we arrived in Vientiane without so many expectancies, not even a kip! We tried to exchange our Singapore dollars at the airport, assuming that SGD is as global as USD, and then we were a little bit wrong. Not all money changer kiosks accept SGD, or if they do, the rate is awful. Only one kiosks - it wasn't a kiosk actually, it's a bank - accepted our dollars and was able to give us kips. Thank God!

First thing first: brunch. We arrived around 10 AM and we were sleeping at McDonalds KLCC the night before, wasn't having a good night before and we're in need of good food. So, after freshening ourselves, we opened our Lonely Planet and tracked down whatever recommended restaurant nearby. One restaurant was just opposite our hotel, Khambang Lao Food Restaurant, and obviously it was a very good choice to start the long hot day. Our first encounter with Lao food was remarkable, we're excited seeing all the fresh vegetables we didn't even order were being spread out in our table. We didn't know how to eat it, so we thought it's like Indonesian's lalapan which is eaten by dipping it in the chili sauce as side dish. Then, later, we found out that we were so wrong. Despite of our wrong way to eat the fresh vegetables, the food were outstanding. The chicken and beef were delicious, not too rich in spices like Thai food or Indonesian food, and not too plain like Vietnamese, it was in the middle but yet perfect in taste.

Being mesmerized by our lunch, we couldn't stop ourselves to take another food as our afternoon snacks. And the rumor has it, Laos' pastry is the best in Asia. Being colonized by French in the past, has made Laotian expertise in pastries. A fact that needed to be proven, indeed. And Scandinavian Bakery was our first choice, since we were stranded out of nowhere and couldn't stand the hot weather, all we needed was air conditioned room... and good taste pastries.

Vientiane also has a lot of kinds of street food. I tried one - only one piece of fried sticky rice, and the taste sticks until now. What I regret is, I only bought one. When I came back - days after - to the same exact spot of the seller, the sticky rice was no longer there.

When you walk in the street along the Mekong river, there are lots of restaurants offer you good food with quite good price. Mekong river is the main attraction, although not all of the good restaurants facing the river directly. We, in the other hand, chose the restaurant unlisted in our guide book. No harm of trying the crowded traditional restaurant with no-English speaking waitresses. Looking at the menu and looking at what people ordered, we guessed what were the best they have. We ended up by ordering Lao traditional noodle soup, fried noodle, and spring roll (and extra fresh vegetables as usual). The noodle was good, the fried noodle was okay, and the spring roll was outstanding. At this restaurant, we learned how to eat the fresh vegetables : Laotian use the vegetables as the wrapping of their dishes. For example, you have fried noodle, so what you need to do is spread the lettuce and fill in with the dishes you desire: fried noodle and chili and long bean and etc. Then close it up (like you wrap something with a piece of paper), and eat the whole wrapped in once. Voila! Congrats, you've became a Laotian! :)

2. Luang Prabang - the in between

Besides Vientiane, we visited Luang Prabang as well, another lovely city with delicious food all over the city. Arrived just nice at dinner time, and we still could run to the nearby recommended restaurant, Dyen Sabai, one of those restaurant which was built at Nam Khan riverbanks. The design is lovely, with several independent pavilions spread out, floor cushion seats and low dining tables, small lamps in each table, some nights they have live music, and the most important thing is they provide free boat riding from and to the city. Their infamous food are buffalo stew, eggplant dip and riverweed (unfortunately, the riverweed wasn't available at that time). The buffalo stew tasted like Thai green curry, the difference was at the meat, buffalo tasted a little different than beef. Surprisingly, what I like so much was the dried pork in the platter, I against pork (and seafood) all the time and by stating the above-statement, all the "tension" between us can be ended. Haha.

The other hot day, for lunch, we had one bowl of Lao traditional noodle chicken soup at opposite of Hmong market, the one that I can say the best noodle I'd tasted in Lao. The one that we didn't intend to try - thankfully we were too lazy to open the guide book and to walk around finding the recommended restaurant. Two words : cheap and delicious - best combination we always look for! The stall was small, only took one storey of a shophouse, and the seller was using her yard to put the cooking stuffs and also to cook the dishes, just like small - and yet outstanding in taste - food stalls in all around Indonesia, small and doesn't look tempting from the outside.

We had another dinner in one of the restaurant at one busy street of Luang Prabang, Xieng Muan Garden Restaurant. We ordered sticky rice - still trying to become a local by ordering sticky rice, seafood tom yum, chicken curry steam, fried spring roll, and Lao salad. The best part, according to me, was the Lao salad. 

There's one cafe/restaurant which was recommended in the book, both Vientiane and Luang Prabang has it, Le Bennetton.  Both are famous among the tourists, and many people come there only to taste the bread and coffee. Instead of having snack, we tried their complete meal as our lunch. Their speciality is western food, so that what we ordered and in the end, no one was disappointed. Do try the duck with mashed potato (I forget what's the name in the menu) and their mixed juice. Not match, but both are gooooood.

Don't forget to visit Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, they serve the best croissant in town. Unfortunately, our belly was too full and we missed their croissant. Instead of having their croissant, we decided to hangout and ordered drink to spent our last night in town. I ordered black coffee, as usual, while my friends order red wine and lao lao. Lao lao is the traditional liquor with 50% alcohol! Yeah, guess who got the headache in the morning after! 

3. Tat Kuang Si - the leisure

Tat Kuang Si was our other stop, located at 29km away to the south from Luang Prabang city, took almost an hour riding tuk-tuk to get there. If you google Tat Kuang Si, you'll find many nice images of it. But, if you come down by yourself, you'll find much much more beautiful images in front of your eyes! The color of the water would make you gasp and you couldn't not looking at it the whole time. The silence is perfect and you could take a nap for hours without worrying anything, it's one beautiful hidden paradise. And beside the beauty of the waterfall, they had food stalls and souvenir stalls near the entrance! When I got in to the waterfall, the food stalls weren't too interesting to me, but when I got out.. it was like heaven.. because I was hungry after walking and swimming. They sell grilled pork and chicken, we bought both the pork and chicken, and finished it on our way to the city in the tuk-tuk. I didn't eat the pork, but my friends said it was one of the best grilled pork they have ever tasted (I think, it's because they also drank Lao beer).

4. Vientiane - the finishing

Once again, we chose Lao noodle, at Namphou coffee! This time, the noodle was made by Chinese Lao, which make the noodle a bit like chinese food (or not, it was just the impression that we caught). The bottom line is, the noodle was really delicious! Simple dish in small stall, just like the one in Luang Prabang. The stall was really crowded with people, even the embassy workers (mostly were Caucasians) were eating there! And one more thing I will highlight: they have good varieties of chili!

As the closing of our food journey, one restaurant near Mekong river was once again became our best option. Although I don't recommend the serving (the waiter was keep shouting at his colleagues, and he was easily distracted by other things which made us a bit impatient), the food was really goooood! We ordered bbq grilled fish, bbq chicken, and - the most delicious is - Lao rice salad. It was one night that I would remember for a long time, it was the time I was falling in love with Lao rice salad. Even, until I got back to Singapore, I still try to google the recipe! Please, do try Lao rice salad - and eat it with lettuce wrap and other fresh vegetables. Unforgettable.

P.S.: Do not miss Lao fresh fruits. We stopped at one fruit stall, ordered their salad platter with yoghurt, and we were very satisfied! :)

Rabu, 26 Juni 2013

all the way from Bagan

Our life, mostly, started with a knowledge that God is the creator, who owns human's life. Worshiping God is a common practice from time to time, and it doesn't come from a particular religion (only), but from all religions with their own unique rituals. From my several last journeys to several cities and countries, I encountered Buddhism are everywhere. And Bagan has the most proofs of all, it's a small city with thousands of pagodas in it. It was simply amazing that there are almost more than 2000 pagodas in a small city with only 104 km2 as the city's core, named Old Bagan. New Bagan and Nyaung U are another city nearby (only kilometers away, and can be reached by biking), these two cities are now developing as most of the people started to move out of Old Bagan, since it's already become more of touristic area.

Pagodas are the main attraction in the city. The more you walk, the more you discover. Walk 100 meters, and you'll find another pagoda. It's just like that. You can climb to the pagodas which are accessible to people, and see the skyline of Bagan from the top of it. You might hold your breath, because the beauty is unspeakable. We, then, couldn't stop wondering how on earth they built those thousands pagodas in one small area, why didn't they get enough with several pagodas? Why thousands?

Religious practices are everywhere, people looked more religious in this area. They visit pagoda, just like we visit mall. It's a daily activity, and they pray whenever they could. They gather in the pagoda's yard, sit in a group and sometimes watch the tourist come and go.

Time went slow, and the heat was killing us. Whenever the sign showed to take off our shoes in front of a pagoda, we almost cried. Because our feet were hurt, the tiles that laid outside (most of them were brick) were very hot and we should walk faster --- almost running --- to avoid the pain. But, once we got inside the pagodas, it was very cool, like you wouldn't believe the outside's temperature was almost 40 degrees celcius.

To go around, we rented bikes on our first day and we strolled around using it the whole day. Biking was fun --- and again, the not fun part was the heat, only --- and it was cheaper compare to horse cab. It was easier for us to stop whenever and wherever, since the pagodas were everywhere. Pagodas in Bagan were quite different with those in Thailand or Sri Lanka, most of it were built using brick and exposed the natural color, earthy look. Myanmar's infamous pagoda is Shwedagon Paya, and it's gold in color. Shwedagon is shiny, while (most of) Bagan's pagodas are earthy.

We finished Old Bagan in a day, and we ended the day by climbing the most favorite spot for sunset, Shwesandaw Pagoda. Arriving there, and tourists were everywhere, wearing their sunglasses and sitting looking at the sun. Bathing with late afternoon sunshine, we joined the crowd and waited for the sun to set.

The following day, we decided to take horse cab --- one day with a bike is more than enough for the buttocks, ha! And, for the record 3 hours ride for 18,000 kyats was a pretty good deal. The horse cab driver brought us to another side of Bagan, we went northeast, the same direction that lead us to a village named Minnathu village, where cotton is the main income for the villagers . Surprisingly, this part of Bagan was barely touched. Tourists aren't go here, only a few bikes and horse cabs took the same way as ours. The pagodas were ruined and have not reconstructed accordingly. But, in a way, I like those view better. When we climbed a bit higher, Bagan looked like a dessert with pagodas in same color with its ground. Exotic!

We completed Bagan in two days, not hundred percent complete, but we got what we need, and we have seen what we wanted to see.

Tips from me :
From Yangon to Bagan, if you have extra money, do take plane. But if you have extra time, just take bus, the bus is really worth it.