In war-scarred Laos, Reed Resnikoff unexpectedly comes across the ultimate Asian meal.
It is a bit unnerving eating in a dining room decorated wall-to-wall with unexploded war ordnance, but nevertheless the platter of duck in front of me had managed to grab my undivided attention. Not only was I in the middle of one of the best meals I've ever eaten in Asia, it was also being served in perhaps the most uniquely furnished restaurant in the world.
We found it completely by accident. Chris Stowers, a professional photographer, and I were driving around the town of Phonsavan, in Laos's Xieng Khuang province, looking for lodging when I spotted the sign for the Maly Guesthouse outside a decent-looking building. Chris asked
where he should park. "Next to the bomb," I said
"Which one?" he replied.
There were several bombs and rockets lined up out front and all the fence post finials were 40-millimetre mortar rounds. I ran inside for a quick room inspection, which in northern Laos is always a good idea before you sign a guest register. Rooms were surprisingly clean and spacious, and a reasonable $US14 ($20) for two double beds, hot water, breakfast, and most importantly, a sit-down toilet.
After freshening up we put on the puffy pink slippers placed at the foot of each bed and shuffled down to the dining room for dinner. Fantastic aromas wafted down the hallway. A group of 17 men, probably government officials judging by their clothes and demeanour, were feasting at a long row of tables covered with steaming plates of delicious-looking food and dozens of frosted brown bottles of the eminently quaffable Beer Lao. We were the only other diners.
The proprietor spoke some English and recommended we try a couple of duck entrees. We did so, and added our usual side of French fries, which for some reason are always terrific in Laos.
While we waited we started to notice the decor. An anti-aircraft cannon barrel had a bouquet of poppy pods sprouting from its muzzle. All the pods bore vertical slit marks, a sure sign they were harvested for their opium. Hanging higher up was a metal combat helmet with large chunks blown out of it. Inside were more bunches of used poppy pods. Behind my head was a claymore mine with the words "Front towards enemy" stamped into the lid. It was pointing towards me. A three-centimetre thick metal, stubby-finned bomb casing, cut in half lengthwise and mounted on a stand, had been turned into a flower planter. The bomb casing's opposite half was the barbecue grill.
The absolute kicker, though, was out in the parking area hanging over our jeep. A pine tree dressed up for Christmas was adorned with hand-grenades, bomblets, "bouncing betty" land mines and, in lieu of tinsel, bandoliers of bullets.
Yet somehow the Maly Guesthouse Restaurant dining room was attractive, warmly lit and filled with fine teakwood furniture.
This was one of the heaviest-bombed regions inside the heaviest-bombed country in the history of warfare. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War than by all combatants during World War II combined, and Laos wasn't even officially in the war.
Phonsavan's biggest, and only, industry is scrap-metal war debris. Tonnes of the stuff is still lying around and the countryside remains pocked with craters from B-52 saturation bombings. Before the war, this region's only commerce of significance was growing opium poppy and it is still being cultivated today, clandestinely of course.
Our platter arrived: roasted duck with diced potatoes and onion wedges swimming in a creamy yellow, moderately spicy curry sauce. Tiny, green, lethal chillies, humorously called "rat-turd chillis" because of their shape, were sprinkled throughout. Ginger, lemongrass, fresh bay leaves and fresh mint were the other seasonings.
The first item into my mouth was an onion wedge; it was simply the best-tasting onion I have ever experienced. Next in was a potato - by this time I knew we were in the midst of a rare culinary experience. The flesh of the duck was a light tan with a thin ribbon of fat running across the edge. The fat had shrivelled during cooking but still clung securely to the meat, causing it to curl. The curves held the perfect amount of curry sauce.
The only things I didn't consume were the lemongrass and bay leaf, although I did give them a nibble.
The curry was crafted from spices that individually were strongly flavoured, yet the end result was a sublime creation where each potent item counterbalanced the others and melded into a masterpiece.
Our second entree was equally impressive: stir-fried shredded duck with cauliflower, string beans cut lengthwise, carrots, pea pods, straw mushrooms and reddish-brown ribbons of tree fungus.
Dessert, a fruit salad of watermelon, papaya, and bananas with wedges of lime for squirting, was washed down with strong Lao coffee served with a slug of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of the cup. Stir as much as your cavities will allow.
This was one of the best-tasting meals in more than a decade spent searching for the ultimate in Asian dining. I had to pass on breakfast the next morning because I was still stuffed. Chris, on the other hand, had the roundest, brightest-orange fried eggs I have ever seen, snatched minutes before from right underneath a hen.
After a morning spent exploring, we drove back to the guesthouse for lunch and ordered sweet and sour pork, a ubiquitous Chinese dish. Once again, this was the most delicious sweet and sour pork that we had tasted in 20 years (between us) in the Orient. Freshness of ingredients is the ultimate key to all great cooking and that morning the porker must have been still grunting, and the tomatoes, pineapple and onions on the vine soaking up sunshine.
For our final night's dinner, I started with cream of tomato soup. It was vibrant red, one tiny step coarser than a pure puree, and had a sublime subtaste of mint. A dollop of buffalo cream floated on top. Next came an unadorned lake fish grilled to perfection, accompanied by a generous portion of lightly sauted straw mushrooms.
The most expensive item on the Maly Guesthouse menu was $US2 - and there were not many of those. Some cost $US1.50, but most were only $US1.
I have only one suggestion for the proprietor - and this has nothing to do with her cuisine, which cannot be improved upon. Could she please post a few conspicuous "No Smoking" signs in the dining room? Because the food is way too good to die for.
Thailand is the main country of entry into Laos. Thai Airways flies twice daily from Sydney to Bangkok from $1110 return, plus tax, with daily flights on to Vientiane and Chiang Mai (you can also fly on from Chiang Mai to the World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang). Arrange a visa through the Lao Embassy in Canberra before you go for $45, or get a tourist visa on arrival in Laos for $US20 ($28). Contact Thai Airways on 1300 651 960 or the Thailand Travel Centre on 1800 222 244.
WHEN TO GO
From November to February is the best time. It's cooler (the hottest months are March to May) and drier (the rainy season is from May to October, and it makes travel to some parts of the country difficult).
Depends on your itinerary and age, but the Travel Doctor's recommended vaccines include hepatitis A and B, typhoid and rabies, plus antimalaria tablets.