The Long Haul to Phongsali

Dinner in Udomxai: spicy tam maak hung (Lao papaya salad) with padek, and Lao khao soi (noodle soup with pork-tomato-chile sauce and lots of fresh herbs)

It took four days to travel overland from Chiang Mai to Sophoon, in the northern Lao province of Phongsali, where we camped in the village dispensary with Jim Harris and his team. Eight days in the field, then another four (again) to reach the big city of Luang Prabang. A long haul, indeed. We’re tired, but thrilled to have made such progress in our research. (This just in: Jerry’s photos from this project received an Honorable Mention in the Santa Fe Center 2010 Project Competition. Jerry also has been selected to participate in this summer’s Review Santa Fe.)

In the 35 years since the end of war, Jim and the PCL team are the first to clear ordnance from Phongsali–bomblets in rice fields, mortars among cassava trees, even a 750-pounder that a villager found on the hillside where she plans to plant rice. In Sophoon, like elsewhere in Laos, village blacksmiths make their knives and hoes from bomb fragments found in the ground. Villagers said they’re often afraid to work in the fields or collect vegetables in the nearby forests. But what choice do they have? Until Jim arrived last year, with promises to return and destroy ordnance in a safe manner, Sophoon residents had no reason to believe they’d ever be free of bombs. They still aren’t. The job is far too large for one team to complete.

Don’t worry, I’ll have many stories to come. But I’m still dealing with painfully slow Internet connections amid continued travels.

For now, imagine the lovely Lao mother who served us a simple but delicious meal (above) in Udomxai. We recognized the flavors of Laos as soon as we crossed the border at Huay Xai. That night, we ate chicken laap infused with dill, thick sticky rice, a spicy jaew maak len (tomato chile sauce) and a deliciously herbal or lam stew with eggplant–everything distinctly Lao. Still, this country too often gets squeezed between its neighbors, its language and cuisine lost in their similarity to those of neighboring Thailand. Not surprisingly, some Laotians tire of visitors speaking to them in Thai or asking for foods using their Thai names. Laotians tend to be mild-mannered people, but sometimes, enough is enough:

Restaurant menu in Huay Xai, on the Lao side of the border with Thailand

6 thoughts on “The Long Haul to Phongsali

  1. The menu says it all “we don’t have pad thai” – This sort of faux pas happens throughout the world by well-meaning, but unwitting travellers. I personally think its great that the menu spells it out – I’d rather be told than make the mistake.

  2. LOL! That hilarious. pad lao. Lao khao soi? is it khao poon? I’m loving it all. I love to see my homeland through the eyes of others. Different eyes give way to different perspectives. Padek rules! Thanks karen.

  3. Sasha, yes! I’ve certainly made more than my share of culinary mistakes–and sometimes it’s downright funny. For the longest time in Cambodia, I kept asking for “no fart” in my rice rather than “no egg.”

    Souavarat, thanks! Just had a big taste of padek in my salad. Actually the Lao khao soi is very similar to that found in Shan State — noodle soup with pork, tomato & fermented soy, no coconut. Nothing like Chiang Mai khao soi.

    Susan, thanks (on behalf of the photog). All in all, that was a very simple little place in a grungy little town. But the woman was delightful and the food tasted all the more fantastic because of it.

  4. Karen, that’s too funny! I find it interesting that the names are similar, after all they smell similar! Thanks for the laugh! 🙂

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