Location: Pakse, Laos
We’re in Pakse for two reasons. The first is that it’s the last stop in southern Laos with a Vietnamese embassy (Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that requires you to complete the visa approval process before arrival). And, as our visa in Laos runs out soon, we need to get everything sorted for our upcoming country hop. The second is that it’s a necessary pitstop between Vientiane and 4000 Islands, our next touristy destination.
When we arrived and discovered it would take about four days to process our Vietnamese visas, we found ourselves with time to fill in the baking hot, quiet little city and its mostly empty streets.
Of course the first thing you do after an eight hour bus ride and an extensive search for the cheapest (but also livable) accommodation is check out the local eats. You have to fill your sweaty, hungry, unkempt and sleep-deprived self with some kind of energy. It’s also a kind of tourism in itself, devouring one cultural cuisine after another. We’d been in Laos now for about two and a half weeks, and I thought that between Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and all those little stops between, I had a good handle on the food possibilities. It seemed to be a mixing pot of sorts: fruit shakes, crispy pork in sweet and sour noodle soup, the always present fried rice, Cambodian-style curries, Vietnamese coffee and banh mi, and stir fried noodles. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself surrounded by Indian-owned restaurants. I had yet to see a single one in the country so far. I was a little weirded out and wondered what the historical answer was as to why there was such a large Indian population in Pakse, and Wiki’ed it to no avail. But hey, who can say no to a hearty helping of tiki masala and garlic naan?
I actually found a new favorite Indian dish. It's a veggie curry, eggplant based, called Baingan Bharta. The globs of green, darkened by spices, were both scrumptious and spicy. I also tested out a kind of roti I'd never eaten before. It was flavored "menthi," and was made from fenugreek seeds. It had a bittersweet taste and left my mouth feeling a touch tingly.
- Baingan Bharta: $1.90
- Menthi Roti: $.90
- Three Month, Single-Entry Vietnamese Visa: $65
- Local cuisine doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional Laotian food. If you find neighborhoods bursting with restaurants dedicated to a particular ethnic cuisine, be sure to check it out. You never know what kind of awesome fusions you can find!
- And in conjunction, it’s usually best to stick with local dishes. Most menu choices with “American” slapped in front of the title are usually rip offs or poor imitations. I repeat, it is most likely a lie — even if there are tasty-looking photos beside the item. I found this out firsthand when I ordered an “American fried rice.” The photo tempted me: regular fried rice but with corn, peas, carrots, a fried egg and two fat pink hotdog-like sausages and a chicken wing as accompaniments. It turned out to be the worst thing I’ve eaten in Southeast Asia; the sausages were strange, sweet and mushy, made from meat of unknown origins. The chicken wing was probably taken from a chick. And the veggies in the rice were canned and uncooked. Don’t let this happen to you!
- If you snag a room with a television, don’t just flip straight to HBO. You might skip out on some prime entertainment (depending on your sense of humor). One of my friends is now addicted to an almost-traditional Laotian soap opera…The only exception is that everyone’s wearing cowboy gear and all the characters ride around on sticks with fake horse heads. It’s quite a gem.
- Visa prices vary from city to city. A one-month, single entry Vietnamese visa cost $60 in Vientiane, and a three-month, single entry cost $65 in Pakse. However, the Vietnamese embassy in Luang Prabang was charge $70 for a one-month, single entry visa. I haven’t really researched much into the subject, but it’d definitely be worth a gander before you decide where you want to buy your visa and what your entry point will be.