Tag Archives: Vientiane

Final Family Night – Lao Kitchen

It’s with a heavy heart that I report on our last Family Night dinner here in Vientiane. As the day approached, we wracked our brains to pick a restaurant worthy of this momentous occasion. Nikki researched a dinner cruise on the Mekong, but most feedback suggested health-and-safety standards were questionable. (After all this time in Asia, I wouldn’t know a health-and-safety standard if it punched me in the face, but I did wonder whether chartering a boat for four people would really be all that fun.)

We finally settled on Mak Phet, a lovely little joint that trains street kids to work in the restaurant industry. We had all been there before and savored several of the delicious Lao dishes.  Carol and Nikki arrived at the restaurant first and discovered the menu had changed. Nothing sounded good enough to warrant the unusually high prices, so we held a quick family meeting and moved the party to my favorite restaurant in town: Lao Kitchen.


Lao Kitchen is owned by Noy, a woman who used to work in our school canteen. She and her staff prepare fantastic Lao food bursting with fresh flavors. Some of my favorite dishes include chicken wrapped in pandan leaves (which comes with a to-die-for citrus/chili sauce), curry with tofu, stir-fried morning glory (with an insane amount of garlic), basil stir fry, ginger stir fry and any other stir fry. You almost can’t go wrong. The only thing I didn’t love at Lao Kitchen was the crispy pork (no, it’s nothing like bacon), although I didn’t try the duck bills (been there, done that) or the “chicken knees and elbows.”

That’s Noy in the black t-shirt.

We asked one of the lovely servers to take a photo. Maybe it was her first time?

Carol enjoys a watermelon shake.

Living so far away from home, we often find ourselves craving familiar comfort food like burgers or mashed potatoes or big salads with fancy candied nuts. It’s easy to get bored with the local cuisine; no matter how much you love it, you can only eat so much sticky rice. In Vientiane, we can choose from Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Mediterranean, Indian, Belgian, Thai, German, French, Mexican (well, it’s really more of a brothel), and countless other ethnic culinary options. But I have found myself sipping a cold Beer Lao to wash down that spicy Lao Kitchen curry probably once a week since it opened. That’s a real testament to how fab (and cheap) this place really is.

But I saved the best for last: mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. Possibly the world’s most perfect dessert. It sounds so simple, and yet I have goosebumps of joy as I write this.

Following our final Family Night dinner, we all motored to Walkman Village, a treasure trove of imported knock-off designer crap. We tried on swim caps with Nikki and helped Carol pick out a Prada bag for her teaching assistant.

Finally, we wrapped up the night with Stupid Sticks, an addictive card game Nikki brought from Saskatchewan.

No, that’s not a meth lab. Tony’s crashed on the mattress in our living room and the girls are drinking out of plastic kegger cups because the movers hauled away all our stuff this week.

Dancing through a decade – an ode to my shoes

At the turn of the century, the global panic was all about how our digital world was unprepared for Y2K. Servers were going to crash, all our personal data would be up for grabs, hackers would have a field day. But none of that mattered because I had the most amazing black velvet-patterned platform strappy sandals for the New Year’s Eve party. When you’re wearing smokin’ hot shoes, you can take on the world.

Here’s a shot of 32-year-old me and my sexy date, Tony, in his stylin’ vest at a Y2K party we attended with our friends Kelly and Dale. I still have that dress (black velvet with maribou trim is timeless, people). And those shoes have served me well.

party shoes

Here’s a shot of 43-year-old me at our school’s end-of-year party last year. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I know you can’t see the shoe very well, but trust me, it’s stunning.


Last weekend, I got a call around 5 p.m. from my friend Paula (pictured above, middle). She had two tickets to the Women’s International Group Ball, a swanky affair that raises money to support underprivileged women and children in Laos. The tickets cost $100 each, which explains why none of my teacher friends were attending (unless they were married to non-teacher spouses who earned notably non-teacher salaries). Paula’s husband, Justin (who is a doctor), was sick and couldn’t attend the soiree that evening, so she was going to give Tony and me both her tickets. I knew Tony would rather poke out his eyeballs with the heel of my awesome shoe rather than attend a ball, so I suggested that we go together. “I’ll pick you up at 6:15!” she said.

That gave me about an hour to look fabulous, which of course, was no problem.

And then disaster struck. I rummaged through a closet to find the box containing my gorgeous Chinese Laundry shoes, but when I pulled one out, the whole sole detached from the strappy upper! My only other shoe option was a pair of black Steve Madden stiletto pumps with a big button on the rounded toe, which obviously was too casual for my low-back spaghetti-strap black crepe dress. Super Glue was the only answer.

I glued the hell out of those shoes and then tentatively buckled them on. I had visions of getting wild on the dance floor and having a shoe snap in half, sending me ass over tea kettle. Broken ankles. Exposed panties. Oh Lord, what was I thinking? But seriously, I didn’t have another pair of shoes quite that hot. So I decided to risk it.

I did get a little wild on the dance floor. But just a little. And miraculously, my old Chinese Laundry platforms went the distance. When I got home, I yanked them off in the kitchen and stumbled to bed. In the morning, I prepared to pack them safely away until another rich person needed a date to a ball, but when I grabbed the strap, the whole shoe split in half. It was a sign from God, the end of an era. Sadly, I took them outside and snapped a photo for posterity and then dropped them in the trash with a little prayer of thanks for so many years of loyal service.


Looks like someone will be doing a little shoe shopping this summer.

Wat Watnak – or should I say “Wet” Watnak?

Today marks the third and final day of Lao New Year and the related festivities. According to the Xinhua News Agency:

Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) is celebrated throughout the country each April in accordance with the Buddhist calendar, and is marked by visiting temples to make merit, feasting, drinking and soaking each other with water to wash away sins and cool off.

But I didn’t need to read that to know it’s true.

Tony and I flew back from Vietnam yesterday evening and emerged from the airport to all kinds of craziness. Here are some scenes from our taxi ride home. Needless to say, I kept the doors locked and the windows up!


This morning, my friend Carol and I walked around the corner to the neighborhood temple called Wat Watnak. We hoped to witness the local people washing the temple’s Buddha statues. Again, I’ll quote Xinhua:

The religious aspect of the festival is the washing away of wrongdoing and bad luck from the previous year to start the new year afresh. Homes, temples and Buddha images are washed with water filled with petals before laypeople and novices respectfully tip the scented water over monks to make merit and bless them for the coming year.

It all sounds so sacred and peaceful, right?

Colorful flags and banners hung from the archway over the temple’s entrance, where a group of monks stood to greet visitors. We approached a bit tentatively and barely had time to wish them “Sok dee Pii Mai” (Happy New Year) before they dumped buckets of water on us and sprayed us with a hose – easily the most exuberant water blessing I’ve ever received.




Carol’s turn!

Local residents paraded in to wash the Buddha statues and receive the water blessing. They all smiled and wished us a happy new year. I loved to see the children participating in this special ceremony. My favorite was this kid, who bathed the Buddhas with his water gun.

Families washing the Buddhas with water full of flower petals.




As temple-goers departed, they received raucous water blessings from the monks. Yes, that monk has strapped on a water-backpack Super Soaker.


The gang in the back of this pick-up called Carol and me over for a few extra “blessings” before they drove off.

Cleansing my chakras

I can’t believe I forgot to blog about this recent energy workshop! It took place on the same day that our high school girls won the basketball championship and my Lao friend Johnny got married. So I guess my brain was full. Anyway, here it is.

The workshop took place in my village at Healing Mudras and was led by visiting energy guru, Guy, who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It alternated between uber-cheesy and nice. We did an awkward group dance to get the energy flowing, and the owner of Healing Mudras offered some fluffy words about our power to transform the world with energy.

But then we made an energy ball, which I loved. I’ve done this before in yoga. You sit on the floor and inhale your arms up with your hands facing each other. Visualize a big ball of energy pulsating against your hands. It really works! Sometimes I like to squeeze the energy ball and imagine all the energy dripping down over my whole body.

We also participated in a group meditation: First, some of us sat in a circle while people took turns hovering their hands above our heads. I really tried to absorb their energy, but the only person who really zapped me was my friend Whetu. I honestly felt a heavy warm vibe when she energized me. Cool. Next, I joined the standing circle and returned the favor to those sitting down. I hope I didn’t kill the collective buzz when I paused to snap some photos.

Here’s a link to Guy’s website – Lanna Yoga, where he posted a video from the energy workshop.

Energy duck duck goose.

I skipped out of the workshop early to watch the girls’ basketball championship game. I gave the team my energy ball, which clearly gave them to boost they needed to win the game!

Mayfly Invasion

As I sat at my dining room table one recent evening, a flurry of activity outside the window caught my eye. Thousands of mayflies swarmed around the exterior light, and a huge gecko skittered across the window frame for the smorgasbord. I took some photos and videos from inside, but Tony insisted I would get better shots if I ventured outdoors.

I opened the kitchen door to find another mayfly mob swirling around the carport light. Many little geckos vied for the treats while trying to avoid their oversized cannibalistic cousin. Wearing flip-flops, I tentatively walked into our dark backyard to shoot the dining room window action. When something wet touched my leg, I froze momentarily but then soldiered on.

As I approached the window, I spotted several more massive geckos, which are incredibly cool but more than a little intimidating. (Lao people believe that if one bites you, it won’t let go until there’s thunder. You have to go to a doctor to get it removed.) Sitting under the window was a toad as big as my head, and a variety of other reptilian and amphibian visitors paraded toward the mayfly buffet.

I am not too proud to admit that I beat a hasty retreat without shooting a single photo. Pathetic, I know. Here’s the movie I made from my indoor shots. I apologize for my cowardice that lead to such poor footage.

Lao Experiences Cooking Class

Many Southeast Asian tourist destinations offer cooking classes as a way to experience local culture and sample authentic dishes. Despite my aversion to everything culinary, I do enjoy shopping in the wet markets for fresh ingredients, playing with unfamiliar kitchen tools, and eating my creations. Over the years, I have “learned” to cook in Chiang Mai, Thailand; Luang Prabang, Laos; and Bali, Indonesia. Most of the time, I get distracted with my camera, fail to follow directions and botch the dishes. (In Bali, I didn’t even bother paying for the course; I just showed up for part of the day to snap a few shots on Tony in action.)

And now I can add Vientiane, Laos, to my list of places where I halfheartedly learned to cook.

Morven Smith, a teacher at our school, recently started a business on the side – Lao Experiences. The first “experience” she’s offering is a cooking class at her home on the banks of the Mekong River. As she trains the staff and tweaks the process, she invited a few of us to be guinea pigs. I warned her about my lackluster cooking history, but she kindly allowed me to participate.

The class met in an open-air cooking area next to Morven’s home.

Morven, Carol and Nikki discuss the cool wooden cutting boards.

Morven watches as Catherine and Anna collect their ingredients.

Smashing up the ingredients with a mortar and pestle – exhausting!

I wrapped the smashed herbs, rice and fish in a banana leaf and secured it for steaming.

Our banana leaf-wrapped fish concoctions went in the bamboo steamer while one of the friendly helpers prepared the grills for our kebabs.

We grilled tomatoes, garlic, shallots, chilies and small eggplants for making dipping sauces. I made a spicy eggplant dip, which nearly melted my nasal passages.

Ms. Sang brushes marinade on chicken clipped in bamboo stalks on the grill.

Carol opens the steamer to check on our fish packets.

The last dish we made could possibly be my favorite food on the planet – sticky rice with mango and coconut milk.


Finally, we all carried our dishes to a table in the garden for a little feast. Shaded by mango, passionfruit and tamarind trees, we listened to the monks chanting in the temple next door, rolled sticky rice in our fingers and sipped Beer Lao to cool our fiery tongues. Butterflies skimmed around our heads and the occasional long-tailed boat puttered by as we savored a leisurely Lao lunch.



For more information about Morven’s lovely Lao Experiences, visit her website: www.lao-experiences.com.

Family Night – Soundara Restaurant

Well, this story is getting a big stale, eh? If you’re new to Family Night, here’s the scoop: Tony, a couple friends (Carol and Nikki) and I take turns picking a local restaurant for dinner once a week. By “local,” we mean nearby and geared toward Lao customers.

This week’s Family Night restaurant had all the requisite components: twinkly lights, yellow Beer Lao-sponsored restaurant sign, karaoke, indecipherable menu, no English speakers on staff, and friendly fellow diners. Carol had chosen the open-air Soundara Restaurant, a little joint just a couple meters off Tha Deua, one of Vientiane’s main thoroughfares.

We grabbed a table overlooking the motorbike parking area (really just the shoulder of the road), where the bored parking attendant and a little boy played with battery-operated dinosaurs. The roadside restaurant’s location explains the gritty film on the tabletop, but there’s no excuse for the nails poking out of my chair that nearly shredded my jeans.

Before we could say “Beer Lao,” the ubiquitous refreshment appeared on the table. Ordering food, however, proved a bit more challenging. One waitress fooled us with her confident use of English numbers and animal words. We tried to order random dishes, so we said – and she repeated while scribbling on a pad – “One chicken, one fish, one shrimp, one fried rice” and so on. She scurried away, and we waited. And waited. Finally, she returned with three other waitresses and the busboy, who all chattered at us in Lao despite our humiliated laughter and our insistence, in Lao, that we didn’t understand.

At that point, it was time to call reinforcements. Nikki dialed our Lao friend Addie, who answered the phone with “I’ve been expecting your call.” Nikki handed her phone to the restaurant staff, who huddled around the telephone to record our order.

In the meantime, we all continued to sing along with the men at the next table to the Thai pop songs (and occasional English-language tune) playing on the karaoke screen. This place was clearly unprepared for a band of western songsters: they played neither Mariah nor the Eagles, much to our disappointment.

More disappointment came with the food. The soup cleaned out my sinuses, but the fried chicken comprised mostly chunks of cartilage and the veggies were uncharacteristically bland. Just as we were ready to write off this place for good, the fish came out and rocked our world. Usually restaurant fish here is literally just a fish: intact and grilled. This one had been dismantled, mixed with some herbs and spices, breaded and deep-fried. Bring it on!

The verdict? Pleasant enough ambiance, mediocre food, interesting karaoke selections, monolingual but undeterred servers, and Vientiane’s most tasty fish.

All Family Night photos this week are brought to you by Carol.


The English faker.


Bored parking attendant.

Dinosaurs alleviate the boredom.

Tony supervises the frantic food ordering.

Heading off to get ice-cream.

Sunday Breakfast at Joma, aka Preschool Coffee Hour

The home of good ol’ North American-style comfort food here in Vientiane is Joma Bakery Café. It’s the place to find pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, a hot iced cinnamon bun after an early morning bike ride, a tasty Greek salad that won’t give you tummy trouble, a killer BLT and many other treats that offer a safe and nostalgic break from Southeast Asian fare.

On weekend mornings, we often lug our laptops to Joma for breakfast and free wifi. This morning, Carol, Tony and I checked out the restaurant’s new branch. We had heard they were building a separate play area for youngsters, but unfortunately, that area was still under construction.

We had scarcely popped the first bites of “Bagel Egger” in our mouths before the place erupted with children. Determined to get our money’s worth, I gulped down my free refill, but then we made a break for it.

Note to self: Stick to the two-story, decidedly kid-unfriendly Joma Bakery Café downtown.

Here’s Carol in the midst of the Romper Room bedlam. Just as I turned off the camera, one of the urchins leapt on the sofa and landed on her shoulder.