Most people, when they are missing comfort food while travelling, arrange for care packages to be sent from home, or just suffer in silence. Not so Susie Martin and Rachel O'Shea – to satisfy their cravings for cheese, they started a dairy.
And not just any dairy, but a buffalo dairy. In Laos. All without any farming experience.
"What can I say, we love our cheese!" Martin laughs as we wander around the Laos Buffalo Dairy, located in the village of Muang Kuay just outside of Luang Prabang, en route to the popular Kuang Si waterfall. "To be honest – it's a mid-life crisis, only with a purpose instead of a Porsche."
Sydney-born Martin and her partner Steven McWhirter had been working in the corporate world in Singapore when a fortuitous business meeting in 2010 introduced them to American chef O'Shea. Four years later, they packed up their respective families to seek new business opportunities in Laos, a country they'd fallen in love with during previous jaunts. It was then they discovered that Laos had absolutely no dairy industry, and hence no cheese. And life without cheese just wasn't worth contemplating.
"There is no culture of milk here, not cow, not goat, not buffalo – it's just not part of the diet," Martin says. "The farmers had no idea their buffalo could be milked – just a complete disconnect on how the whole thing operates.
"Originally we had thought, in our innocence, we could pay people to do the milking, and we could just focus on making the cheese – then we realised there is no infrastructure or industry. We're the only buffalo dairy in Laos, and until 12 months ago we were the only dairy, full stop. Now there's one other cow dairy."
From their first fumbling attempts to milk a buffalo in July 2016 – with skills learnt from YouTube – the dairy now has 70 rented buffalo in its milking program, with income (about $20,000 this year) going back to the local farmers who own the cows.
Not only is Martin and O'Shea's fledgling operation sustainable and socially responsible, it's also animal-friendly, with an unusual, cruelty-free approach whereby calves are not taken from their mothers. Each cow is brought into the farm about eight months pregnant; and after undergoing vaccinations and health checks, they give birth and are allowed to bond with their calves for a month before they are separated and the six-month milking cycle begins. After that, the mothers are reunited with their babies before being returned to the farmers in time for the rice-harvesting season, pregnant again with one of the dairy's two imported Indian Murrah bulls.
"So for the farmer, he gets the additional income, he gets vaccinated animals, he gets better genetics and the calves," Martin explains. "The calves here also have a much lower mortality rate – we might lose one in 10, whereas out there [in the villages] it's five in 10.
"The farm is set up to be like a little holiday camp for the buffalo, but to not change the way the buffalo live and work in Laos."
The cows certainly seem happy and healthy; one wiry-haired girl is practically drooling as I scrub her back during a farmyard tour – part of a new, interactive venture showing visitors around the property. I also learn just how difficult it is to hand-milk a buffalo, feed some greedy calves milk from a giant bottle, laugh at little piglets running around a palatial pigsty, and take a selfie with a camera-loving, long-lashed Insta-star named Lola, the most photogenic water buffalo in the world.
Meanwhile, Martin and O'Shea make a humble living selling O'Shea's artisan cheeses – including mozzarella, brie and blue cheese as well as ice-cream, yoghurt and delicious ricotta cakes and cheesecakes – from a pleasant little cafe set up under a thatched roof on the dairy grounds. They also sell their in-demand products to nearby hotels, including the five-star Rosewood Luang Prabang and Amantaka, as well as supplying a local hospital with dried milk whey for malnourished children.
"We've come a long way since these two crazy farangs said we just wanted mozzarella!" Martin laughs, reflecting on their unexpected career change.
"I'd never milked a cow in my life, never dealt with anything bigger than a dog. And to be honest, if we'd really known about dairy, we wouldn't have done this. Not knowing was a good thing."
Luang Prabang is a two-hour flight from Bangkok via Air Asia. See airasia.com
Rosewood Luang Prabang offers luxury riverfront accommodation 10 minutes from the heart of the city, with rates starting from $US670. See rosewoodhotels.com/luang-prabang
A 45-minute tour of the Laos Buffalo Dairy costs 50,000 kip (about $8); longer tours including cooking classes are also available. You can also just stop by for ice-cream, cakes and cheese platters served with locally-grown coffee. See laosbuffalodairy.com
Julie Miller was a guest of Rosewood Luang Prabang.