After several years working in Laos, NGO contractor and author D.C.J. Waddle reveals how to travel like a local in the south of the country
Noodle soup (Dreamstime)
Fer is noodle soup, normally with meat, to which chili and green vegetables such as cabbage and long beans are added. The Han Fer Khaemm Khong noodle shop in Pakse is considered the best place to eat it in the south.
This busy but efficient restaurant is on the road that follows the bank of the Mekong. It is particularly famed for its beef fer, homemade meatballs and peanut paste. The slurping of soup, smacking of lips and adding in copious amounts of chilli is all part of the enjoyment of the shared meal.
Indeed, the fer served at the Han Fer Khaemm Khong is so good that many people will travel to Pakse just to eat there.
Sign at Laotian airport (Shutterstock.com)
Several people I’ve met over the years have said they’d cut it a bit fine in arriving at Pakse airport, only to find that they missed their flight because it departed ahead of schedule.
Be warned that there is a winter and a summer flight schedule. Just because there was an 8.00am flight last Monday it doesn’t necessarily follow that there will be one this Monday. After many years in Laos I still check the flight every time I travel, and the time is invariably different from the previous flight I took a few weeks earlier.
Roadside fruit stall, Laos (Shutterstock.com)
There is a good reason why travelling by road in southern Laos takes so long. Certain villages are famous for a specific food and it is an essential part of every journey to pull over at each of them, haggle, and then stock up on the spoils to take back as presents for the family – or eat them in the car.
Na Pong in Saravan is famous for barbecued chicken. You can choose your barbecue, and then eat in the roadside restaurant or takeaway. It is considered inconsiderate to travel through Na Pong without buying up a few barbecued birds to take back to the family.
The road from Pakse to Sekong, particularly between kilometres 14 and 25, is known for its fruit: pineapples, durian, and bananas. There are avocados further up the road near Paksong, and watermelons are sold around kilometre 7, all depending on the season. Negotiations are particularly important with durian fruit as their sharp spiky exteriors need to be tapped hard with the flat of a large knife by a wise fruit seller, so that the sound produced can indicate the fruit’s quality.
Karaoke is a much-loved pastime in Laos. The passing around of a microphone seems to release an inner-child and provide never-ending delight in restaurants, barbecue shops and even tour buses.
If you plan to join in, asking for your favourite death-metal song probably won’t go down that well (or even be available). Understandably, most of the ‘standards’ are Lao and Thai songs, but there are a few English language tunes that locals may know. ‘Take Me To Your Heart’ and ‘That’s Why’ by Michael Learns to Rock are popular. And ‘My Love’ by Westlife also goes down well.
Whichever song you choose, remember that a heart-felt rendition will always be appreciated and help you bond with your fellow crooners.
Local treat in Pakse (Shutterstock.com)
The key to passing through this part of Laos in the style of a local is to relax, enjoy the journey as an event in itself, be prepared for a bit of singing, eat plenty of fruit and barbecued meat, allow plenty of time, and base your route on where you’ll stop for food rather than on where you’re trying to go.
D. C. J. Wardle manages emergency and development programs in Africa and Asia and currently lives in Laos. He also writes novels. His latest, The Feiquon Heist, can be ordered on Amazon now.
Main image: Girl riding a buffalo in Laos (Shutterstock.com)