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Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been on the Asian trade routes to Europe for millennium. Southeast Asia was adept at fusing earlier European, Chinese and Japanese culinary influences and a century of Western colonial cuisine. The kitchens at restaurants of today’s tourist route destinations continue to preserve the past as well as innovate.
Laotian cuisine, like the nation, is much more than that land between Thailand and Vietnam. Neither as sweet nor spicy as its neighbors, the dishes of Laos are multi-layered creations of herbs, greens, meats, fish, vegetables and spices not used in Western cooking. Yum Kai Tom is one such dish that’s both easy to master as well as being quintessential Laos.
There’s no lack of fine restaurants in Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Once the royal and spiritual capital of several southeast Asian kingdoms, Luang Prabang epitomizes tropical post-colonial romanticism. The historic core rests high on a peninsula and restaurants take advantage of the spectacular mountain scenery of northern Laos. The Arthouse Cafe, on Kingkitsarath Road, is no exception.
Luang Prabang’s popular and excellent Tamarind Restaurant makes a terrific Khao Gam.
Stuffed Lemongrass is delicious, as the lemongrass permeates the meat with its citrus flavor.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has no lack of interesting dining opportunities from a vibrant street food scene to the legendary Mekong River at sunset providing a stunning backdrop for a relaxing dinner at the Kong View Restaurant.
A tuk-tuk full of saffron robed monks pass by the entrance to Ban Vilaylac. Their Wat is directly across the street. Appropriate location since Ban Vilaylac’s potted garden entrance bridges centuries of traditional Vientiane and French colonial Laos cuisine. Next door, reservations for either lunch or dinner are hard to come by at Makphet Restaurant, yet there are no celebrity chefs, yet the lines of appreciative diners can be long.
Much overlooked, Laos north central town of Oudomxai is surrounded by stunning scenery to view while enjoying good Laotian cuisine at The Charming Lao Hotel.
In a building as old as many bistros in Paris, under ceiling fans stirring the languid tropical air, guests of the Dibuk Restaurant in Thailand’s old Phuket Town can spend time dining with the Indian Ocean lapping nearby.
The Look-in Restaurant, just off Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road, is not on most visitors’ tourist map – not yet.
Tom Kha Gai, Thailand’s incomparable coconut soup with chicken and flavored with galangal is a Look-in knockout.
The finest restaurant in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi is also its most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, three-story French Art Nouveau townhouse.
There’s a quiet side to Cambodia’s bustling Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, on the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm.
The Italian Market/Queen Village district, to any resident of Philadelphia, is inexorably morphing into a little Southeast Asia. A stroll through these historic colonial neighborhoods provides visual evidence of Asian grocery stores, restaurants and professional offices catering to this increasing community. The area around 11th Street and Washington Avenue includes a sizable number of Asian businesses and one very good Vietnamese fine dining restaurant, Le Viet.
Set in an unassuming strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, Kinnaree Thai French Cuisine balances traditional Thai dishes with centuries old French influences.
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:
From post-revolutionary obscurity, the once ancient kingdom of Champasak is at the center of southern Laos’ eco-tourism incentive.
Cheap airfares, especially from Australia, and even cheaper cost of living attracted budget seekers of alternative vacations in the early 1990’s to the sleepy isolated islands of the Siphandon.
Just 25 miles from the Cambodian border, Laos’ Mekong spreads up to 8 miles wide creating a delta-like region, the Siphandon, sheltering human and wildlife.
Don Deth and Don Khone epitomize the Western vision of a tropical existence, sleeping in a hammock with mosquito netting, playing the guitar at night, picking fruit and spending as little money as possible.
Purple sticky rice: this nutty deep purple variety of Laos’ ubiquitous grain is usually reserved for desserts. Although a festive addition to dinner and delicious even when not sweetened, I was reminded of my favorite recipe for Purple Sticky Rice in Coconut Sauce.
You can read about all these topics in my latest articles on Suite101:
The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.
Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker – to revive Asian silk.
As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages. These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.
Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.
Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.
Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.
Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.
Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.
The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.
Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.
Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.
Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:
“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran
“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 – 1873)
“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)
That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”
Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.
To cross the street a pedestrian simplycrosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.
I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.
My wife, on the other hand, followed Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.
Was it fun at first? No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.
Famous local saying: “We have three seasons in Thailand – hot, hotter, and hottest.”
Tom Kha Chicken
You could say the same about Thai cuisine. I’ve seen innocent tourists sitting in a Bougainvillea bedecked cafe terrace enjoying Tom Kha Chicken at breakfast – the incomparable Thai lemongrass infused stock and coconut milk soup. Small chunks of chicken float in a fragrant white sea and the diner, concentrating on the interplay of lime, green onion, cilantro, tomato and coconut, is oblivious to the decorative slivers of red and green until teeth involuntarily release their oils into the mouth. The shock has often been audible. Now I know why crisp, cold cucumber slices are frequently at every meal – they’re an “ice pact” to your burning mouth. Given the subtle ways Thai’s can hide chilies within a dish, it’s perhaps the secret to remaining the only Southeast Asia nation never colonized. You figure.
Yet not even locals constantly bombard their taste buds with numbing capsicum overloads. At a tiny local street café I had two common noodle dishes mild hot. Next to me were dishes of dry and fresh chilies, as well as fish sauce and lime, to add my own layer of heat. Rarely will a Thai dish be made without any chili, but as common is accommodating personal taste and not just for tourists. I find too much heat masks the other flavors. I enjoy a soft to mild after burn once I’ve tasted the fresh herbs, mushrooms, fish sauce, garlic, lime and lemongrass. (Thai restaurants in North America forget that the quantities of the previous ingredients need to be generous – not merely garnish). Those two dishes cost US$2.00, total.
Thai’s like to play with their food. We’re all used to the ubiquitous stir fry with beef (upper left) but have we given a thought to making a woven edible bowl out of tarot root for a chicken stir-fry (bottom right). A noon time salad of mushrooms, tomatoes is not uncommon, but adding porcelain white varieties that look like sea plants along with a light, lime, chili and sesame oil dressing raises the bar. The miniature little fruit off to the left? They are edible, painted and decorated sweet bean paste creations that can’t help but make you smile.
Ban Roi Mai Restaurant serves a good and varied menu of Thai cuisine in an attractive garden setting (bottom right). Live music plays at night. It’s easy to find by Tuk-tuk or walking since it’s only a couple blocks from the Night Market. (Top left) The “fried chicken” was a chopped flat disk nicely seasoned with cilantro, chili, onion, lightly browned and topped with a lime sour cream mayonnaise. The chicken was surrounded with a ruffle of dry green cellophane noodles. (Top right) Sautéed Snake in Red Curry Sauce was a surprisingly mild dish. Snake really is as mild as chicken, and the curry was exceptionally light on chili to the point where I added a few. (Bottom left) The typically spicy green papaya salad – a dish that can go to the height of heat – was spiked with steamed purple crabs. (Lunch for 2 w/beer: less than US$15.)
It’s hard to top Chiang Mai’s Pongyang Angdoi Resort & Restaurant for location: on a hillside surrounded by the protective mountains and forests of Doi Inthanon National Park. A waterfall that attracts many visitors in its own right is within unobstructed view of anyone dining on the multi level stone terrace. For a restaurant that’s on everyone’s list, the food is surprisingly fresh and imaginative. (Top right) A classic dish of seasoned ground pork with lime, chilies, fresh basil, cilantro in broth, to which fresh vegetables are added as it’s consumed, had a good balance of heat and cold. Note the side dishes of fresh marinating chillies and garlic – one’s in rice wine vinegar the other in a sweetened fish sauce. Fish Sauce, which so puts people off with its initial smell actually becomes sweet once added to food. Along with lime it’s a great flavor enhancer. (Bottom center) The stir-fry of calamari was tender. (Lunch for 2 w/beer, espresso, tip was less than US$20.)
There are less expensive hotels than the Rimping Village, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one with a more friendly and helpful staff. Situated in the quiet of Chiang Mai’s east bank of the Ping River within its own extensive walled garden, the hotel is a luxurious oasis for US$90/night/breakfast. The salt water pool is immaculate along with every other square inch of the facilities. Fresh flowers grace every room and in the massive rubber tree are small alters with burning incense just to thank its spirit for adding such useful shade. The open air restaurant serves a superb breakfast buffet of both Western and Thai dishes (which change daily): pastries, breads, cereals, juices, sticky rice, tropical fruits, green salad, a couple Thai hot dishes such as Pad Thai with shrimp, stir-fry rice with vegetables as well as choices of freshly made eggs, omelets and meats.
Take away the chilies and Thai cuisine is more subtle that other Southeast Asian cultures. All the herbs and spices are there but in quantities that add soft layers of flavor rather that explode in the mouth – unless it’s chile peppers. In previous articles I’ve written about the street food. It’s no cliché; that’s the real Thai food – simple grilled, marinated, fried – with fresh chilies. (I need to mention that it’s best to observe the street techniques but recreate the dish in your own kitchen unless you’re not bothered by a lack of certain elements of street sanitation). The natural flavors of the fruit and produce, of course, are intense. Few factory farms exist in this land of small farmers with abundant time for food to ripen and many markets to sell their goods at the peak of freshness.
His Majesty the King is said to enjoy the simple yet beloved egg tart sweet so much that it’s prominently advertised by KFC in Thailand.
Chiang Maiin a muggy late February haze: the ancient, once fortified, city still sits surrounded by a watery moat and the highest mountains in Thailand. The hills provided vantage points warning of potential invasions from its arch-enemy, the Burmese (and their Thai cousins from Ayutthaya in the south). Yet the Ping River that nourishes the valley’s abundant agriculture inexorably continues its cycle of – all too frequent for some – annual floods.
It’s no wonder that one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples (site selected by a White Elephant and whose golden chedi emblazons the Royal Standard) should top one of these mountains. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep’s founding dates from the late 14th century. Inside the temple grounds, visitors must remove their shoes (like all temples the interior is immaculate) and must be appropriately dressed – no shorts, short skirts, sleeveless blouse or shirt. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells and shrines displaying the eclectic mix of Hindu/Buddhist craftsmanship common in Thailand. Tourism and worship, even texting, blends seemlessly within the atmosphere of common respect temples generate.
Bhubing Palace is only a few miles from the Wat. Both are less than an hour’s drive up scenic Mount Doi Suthep through Doi Inthanon National Park (offering great outdoor activity potential). The extensive Palace gardens run the gamut from common perennials to roses, orchids and a tropical rain forest yet all are seemlessly blended within the natural landscape by a small army of professional gardeners. The gardens are open to the public whenever members of the Royal Family are not in residence (information is available through your hotel or the tourist offices in the city). The Palace itself is rather modest reflecting its role as a home to get away from it all. Bhubing Palace is a popular site for foreign and Thai tourists, and with Chiang Mai’s position next to ethnic hill tribes, there’s often a colorful mix of clothing.
Wiang Kum Kam had been a Buddhist settlement long before the late 13t century when it was chosen as the first capital for King Mangrai’s Lanna Kingdom (Kingdom of Million Rice Fields: 13th – 18th centuries). Yet frequent flooding caused even the King to move – Chiang Mai. With its rural complex of 20 temples and chedi, Wiang Kum Kam remained important throughout the Lanna period, but repeated assaults by the course-changing Ping River forced most of the temples to be abandoned during the 15th century.
With assistance from UNESCO, archeological excavations started in the 1980’s removing on average 3 – 4 feet (1 – 1.3 meters) of mud and silt deposited over the past 500 years. With on-going restoration and preservation, Wiang Kum Kam is an historical park. Surrounded by village houses and deep green rice paddies, you understand the allure of the rural countryside when crickets, birds, locust and the sound of horse’s hooves are louder in the hot humid air than any man made noise.
The ideal method for touring Wiang Kum Kam is by horse carriage. For less than US$5-7.00(inc. a tip) with driver/guide, a couple to 3 can tour the lost city in a style that adds to its sense of time-warp, despite its location only 5 miles south of Chiang Mai. Many of the sites are mere ruins yet a closer look reveals stories in the fragments – decorative carvings of sea snails as stair rails, sea monsters or evidence of mortar covering thick, wide brick construction. The Wat Chedi Liamis the starting/ending point for the carriages. Remarkably, this Wat survived the destructive floods over the centuries and has remained a living temple.
Moved and restored, the 19th/early 20th century farmers elevated house and barn is a fine example of life for many people in Wieng Kum Kam over the past 1500 years. Constructed almost entirely of light but flexible bamboo, including flooring, these elevated structures prevented both unwanted animals and moderate flooding from doing major damage to the home. Rice and grains were stored in the upper floor of the barn along with light tools, while larger tools remained on the open ground floor.
The Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Akha and Karen (otherwise known as the long neck people) are collectively the ancient hill tribes speaking pre-Lanna/Thai languages. Comprising nearly 15% of the Chiang Mai area’s population and known for their craft skills, they’ve become somewhat a tourist attraction. Standard tours to villages frequently are nothing more than staged shopping trips. Check around for alternative tours or best option is to arrange through your hotel a private car/driver/tour guide. This allows for custom designed touring avoiding what’s obviously staged and explotative. Cost for a 7 – 8 hour day average US$40/60 depending on itinerary. It’s the most comfortable way to travel as well.
On the ethnically diverse east bank of the Ping River is the venerable temple, monastery and school complex of Wat Gate Ket Karem and its museum. Established within the past decade in a renovated 19th century wooden building on the temple grounds, the museum is the gift of “Uncle Jack” Jarin Bain, an octogenarian who can still be seen offering his services as a docent. Many of the artifacts and collectables were acquired by an early 20th century German expat business man. A major source of knowledge on the artifacts come from the extensive writings of Prince Damrong Rajanpub (1862-1943) regarded as the father of Thai archaeology and history. In 1962 this 57th son of King Rama IV (1804-1868) was selected by UNESCO for its World’s Most Important Person’s List.
The Lanna Architectural Center’s Khum Chai Burirat house (1893/early 20th century renovations) is not only a fitting site for a museum of pre-20th century Thai architecture, but an excellent example of “ruen kalae” or mansion style. An extension of Lanna University’s architecture department, the house-museum is free and open most days. Sitting in a walled park just blocks from the Old City, Khum Chai Burirat house was donated to the University. The smooth highly polished teak hardwood, Buddhist chapel, curved main staircase, wide covered 2nd floor wraparound porch and wood lace decorative touches tell of a time when buildings compensated for the hot climate rather than attempted control. That rarely works; just ask the Ping River.