We were really looking forward to the food in Southeast Asia, especially after spending two weeks in Nepal, which is not exactly a place one visits for culinary reasons. Laos and Cambodia are squeezed between the two culinary powerhouses of the region—Thailand and Vietnam—but they actually have quite interesting cuisines of their own.
For what Vientiane lacked in quaintness, Luang Prabang made up for in droves. This entire little town, situated on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is a UNESCO world heritage site. From the 14th to the 16th century, the peninsula of Luang Prabang was the capital of Lane Xane, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Its strategic position along the Silk Route is responsible for the wealth and influence it amassed. Much attention has been put into restoring the traditional wood and bamboo buildings that line the streets.
We tried to make Vientiane truly feel like home for Eilir's birthday. She had been waiting with such anticipation for her party, starting a countdown 27 days in advance, inquiring if she would have a jumpy house and if her friends would be there. When we explained that it would be a more intimate party of four, with just the family, she suggested we could perhaps invite the waiters from the hotel, or our porters and guides from the trek, but we explained that we had to carry on and would be in a new land.
I have to admit it, we find ourselves in Vientiane because I liked the sound of the name. I've toyed with coming here for years on weekenders from China, but always felt compelled to see more of China itself. The name Vientiane conjures up images of an old French protectorate, with long-tailed boats meandering up the Mekong river and dotted with golden temples.
Walking the crowded, narrow streets of Thamel in Kathmandu, with its chalkboard menus shouting momos and banana pancakes, trekking and whitewater rafting companies crammed into the alleys, and shops stuffed with knock-off trekking gear, pashmina scarfs, rugs, Tibetan thankas, and idols of Buddha and Ganesh, you could almost lose yourself, tele-transporting from this to any other backpacker enclave in the developing world
Namaste! (pronounced Nam-ah-stay, with much-varied elongation and stress on the last syllable), is the traditional greeting in Nepal, whether between Nepalese or passing villagers or trekkers of all nationalities on the steep and rocky trails. I've now said it hundreds of times in a handful of different ways: mostly with a smile, sometimes with a grimace, often very quietly in an effort to conserve energy, with a loss of breath.