Tuesday 31 March 2015

Vegan in Luang Prabang, Laos

Time for some real talk, Luang Prabang is freaking beautiful. If you were only going to check out one place in Laos this would be my recommendation. No hesitation. We arrived here fresh off of a mini bus from Vang Vieng and were immediately under the impression that we'd left the best of Laos 'til last. 

Backtracking a just a little Nick and I managed to find THE BEST way to get from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Most of the mini busses and all of the regular sized busses are still taking the old road between the two but we managed to find a couple of companies that run one or two busses a day to Luang Prabang using the newly resurfaced road that forks left instead of right about halfway through the journey. This cuts out a huge swathe of road that's full of potholes, hairpin bends, huge drops and is prone to landslides. I'm so happy that we discovered it! We booked the 9am Japanese bus (it has seat belts!) from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang with a tour operator on Ban Savang. (Directions: Starting at the place you rent tubes from because everyone knows it walk towards the river, follow the road around to the right past a few air conditioned mini marts and two bars showing Friends and it's there on the right opposite the Domon Guesthouse.) I would strongly suggest that it's the only way to do this journey! Everyone I've ever spoken to or read about who's taken the other road has hated it, why would you do that to yourself?!

Back to Luang Prabang and the first place Nick and I ate was Indigo Cafe which we chose because they actually have a vegan page in their menu.

Whilst our first visit was farcical due to a huge language barrier between us and our waiter, who kept bringing us beer no matter how many times we asked for water, the food we ate hit the spot. Nick went with the Indigo Fried Noodles, no egg, which is a little like a room temperature pad thai and, despite the silly plating, is apparently tasty enough to order more than once.

I wanted something that I could be assured didn't have chilli so I chose the Khoa Khng Taohu which is a coconut based sauté flavoured with ginger and lemongrass.

This was actually kinda bland the first time I ate it and then intensely gingery the second time around. The third time I ordered it my cold was so bad that I couldnt really taste anything but it made great comfort food. On our final visit I decided to branch out and try the Lap Hmak Kheua with no chilli which kinda worked in that the chilli was there on the side and I could move it.

Now from what I know about the traditional Laotian minced meat salad Larb I think that this was Indigo Cafe's vegan take on it. I was excited to have finally found somewhere I could try it sans chilli and it was definitely enjoyable, it came with a side of rice but I wished there had been more lettuce to make little crunchy salad pouches with!

I had been warned by a Happy Cow reviewer to avoid the spring rolls as they were served a pork filled variety and I can definitely see how that mix up could happen here, the menu item "spring rolls" is in both the meat and vegan sections of the menu and, having been in a hidden pork situation before years ago, I decide to skip them. 

As with almost every other city I've visited in Laos or Thailand there are beautiful Buddhist temples and Monasteries all over the place. The French influenced architecture is gorgeous too and there's a really special feel about the city. I don't really know how to explain it, it's kinda peaceful whilst being busy and despite being packed full of tourists it didn't seem like they were over-running the city and ruining everything. I might have felt differently about this if I hadn't decided to skip watching the monks receiving alms early in the mornings, the more I read about how they feel about this tradition and how much tourists have ruined it I just didn't want to play any part in it. Not everything is for westerners to gawp over.

We chose our hotel really well, it was in the perfect location right by the morning market which is just one street south of the night market. It was also right by Wat Mai at one end of the street and the Mekong at the other. Lao Lu Lodge has cute rooms which are a little noisy in the mornings but they have air con and everyone working at the hotel was super lovely. After we extended our stay we ended up in a twin room which was kinda cute and turned out to be a good thing when I got sick during our last couple of days! 

Breakfast every day was bread and jam with fresh fruit and juice. I usually subsidised this with Peanut Butter from my stash or something from one of the many juice spots around the corner.

The night market quickly became our go-to for dinner once we'd realised that you can't rock up 30 minutes before closing and expect there to be any food left. This all vegan buffet is a fill your plate as high as you can deal and it costs 10,000 kip which is about 80p / $1. Crazy.

First night plate, I think I did a pretty good job of piling my plate high with delicious noodle dishes, tofu dishes, rice and deep fry. They even had deep fried bread. Like, battered and fried. It was great! I think my second night plate was more impressive though. 

I really enjoyed their fresh spring rolls, the macaroni style pasta dish, the steamed butternut squash and the veggie fried rice. Oh and the deep fried bread of course. I didnt take third or fourth night pictures because we ended up there after dark but rest assured that I made the most of the buffet! If spicy food is your jam then everything here will probably be a little bland but they have you sorted and the long communal tables have a variety of hot sauces for you to choose from.

Just down the road at the beginning of the street the night market is on is a whole row of juice and baguette sandwich places. We came here a lot so that we could offset the deep fry with 80p fruit juices. Our favourite stall was Nancy's whose stall we went back to over and over both in the evenings and at breakfast.

Both the Apple, Lime and Mint and my own off-menu creation, Orange and Mango, were my favourites and Nick loved Orange and Pineapple.

Our week in Luang Prabang was totally like doing a juice cleanse just one where you intersperse the juices with deep fried bread. I think this could totally catch on.

I don't often drink booze but I find it hard to resist quirky bars and drinks that are delicious so when the two come together I tend to cave. As soon as I spotted a mojito on the menu of this pop up bar in the middle of the night market I couldn't resist.

Yum town. 

Food and drink aside Luang Prabang's environs are gorgeous and we knew we had to take a trip out to Kuang Si Falls because holy wow is this place gorgeous. It totally lived up to every picture I'd seen of it on the internet, it makes the Blue Lagoon from my last post look like a random puddle.

You reach the falls via a trail and even thought the first two pools look beautiful keep going all the way to the bridge. It just gets more gorgeous. You can swim in the majority of the pools although some are closed because they're sacred sights.

This was yet anther place where other tourists wanted to take pictures with me, this lady was hilarious. She'd just taken about a million highly posed pictures on her own and then she insisted that I joined her!

Another reason to visit Kuang Si falls is that right there at the entrance is Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre. Now I didn't take many bear pictures, certainly none that are good enough to share, because I was far too busy squeaking internally to focus my iPhone. This place is small but really wonderful. 

Tat Kuang Si bear rescue is run by Free the Bears and is a haven for both Malaysian Sun Bears and Asiatic Black Bears who have been rescued from the illegal bear bile trade which I didn't know a whole lot about before my visit. Nick and I were actually really lucky because we arrived at just the right time to watch two bears playing together in a small pool. At one point one of the bears left and came back with a snack for their bear friend. It was an amazing moment to witness especially knowing what kind of lives the bears would otherwise have been living if Free the Bears hadn't intervened. Laos Free the Bears work really hard to improve the effectiveness of the response towards the illegal wildlife trade which is sadly still rife in Laos as well as working to increase environmental awareness among local communities and school kids. If you're in a place to help a bear in need you can make a donation here.

Overall I really enjoyed travelling through Laos, as a country it was super different to anywhere I'd been before and I definitely found some aspects, like the fact that there isn't a train system, challenging but it's totally a good thing to push your boundaries now and again to see which things are just deal breakers. I also liked that every place we visited was totally different from the last which kept me on my toes and made the whole journey super interesting.

Friday 27 March 2015

Vegan in Vang Vieng, Laos

The bus ride between Vientiane and Vang Vieng was certainly less harrowing than the one I took to Pai a little earlier in my South East Asian adventure but I still didn't love it despite enjoying the company of a group of fun and chatty youngsters (oh gawd, I just typed youngsters! Does that mean I'm old?!) from Taiwan. It was great to be dropped off at our guesthouse this time too because, and trust me here, navigating anywhere after taking anti sickness meds is hard. They make you so sleepy! I stayed at the Laos Haven Hotel which is on one of the main roads but at the end away from all of the bars which was why Nick and I picked it. This was the view from our balcony. Wowza.

Despite the fog it totally took my breath away and I knew I was going to like Vang Vieng. We had an incredibly laid back first day in town, mainly chilling out in one of the many Friends bars, yeah, you read that right, dotted around town. Vang Vieng is a very traveller orientated town and what do travellers like to do? Lounge around eating, drinking beer and watching TV apparently. After two whole months away from TV I couldn't resist. Friends is one of my favourite shows and these places also sell fresh mango shakes. Yum town!

That evening I watched the sun set from the balcony and marvelled at the fact that the sky can be such a ridiculous colour. So pretty.

Our hotel were pretty wonderful when it came to breakfast and they happily whipped us up some egg free fried rice (it was already meat/fish sauce free) to go with the vegan baguettes, jam and bananas that were available. This is definitely going above and beyond what most of the places we've stayed at so far have managed. 

They did the same with a noodle dish the next morning which was a great start to the day. If your hotel has breakfast included in the room rate I'd definitely recommend letting them know your dietary requirements either in advance via email or at check in, that way they have time to help you if they want to and you have nothing to lose, you're paying for it anyway! Laos Haven also have a pair of pretty kitties living at the hotel. They weren't into being petted but they were beautiful to look at and enjoyed playing with our keys and headphone cords whilst we were checking in!

On our first full day in Vang Vieng we got up semi-early to beat the crowds going tubing. Our guide book said that the party on the river starts around midday so we figured 10am would be a better time to go and we were so right!

After a couple of false starts Nick and I managed to get our shit together so that we were tubing in-sync rather than floating quickly downstream meters apart. It's actually surprisingly hard to do and involved me falling out of my tube and Nick holding onto a bridge for dear life waiting for me to catch up. I am not coordinated at all so I'll bet this was pretty hilarious to watch!

Once we'd mastered holding onto each others tubes / hands we spent the most gorgeous few hours tubing down the river. Vang Vieng is SO stunning and I can't believe anyone thinks that drinking at the bars dotted along the river is a necessary or enhancing part of this experience.

Vegan food wise Vang Vieng is pretty meh but you aren't going to starve. We pretty much just ate at Veggie Tables, the only veg spot in town, every time we fancied cooked food and otherwise relied on fruit and snacks from local marts.

We tried a couple of Thai dishes for dinner one night, a fried rice dish and this noodle dish with veggies and mushrooms.

These were both filling but kinda bland, heavy on the rice / noodles and pretty light on the veggies. The falafel and pita plate we tried there was okay, good bread, semi-decent hummus and it's best that we don't talk about the falafel themselves.

This breakfast plate turned out to be the best thing they make IMO which is not a great compliment when the meal in question involves heating up packaged food. 

I do love a veggie sausage though and this was good fuel for mine and Nick's afternoon adventure to the Blue Lagoon. Our tuk tuk journey there was fun and it was enjoyable going through villages and peeking into local life. If it had been less hot we'd definitely have rented mountain bikes to do the 7km journey.

The blue lagoon is fun from a people watching perspective and less fun from an actually swimming perspective. There really isn't any room to swim because there are people freaking everywhere!

I bobbed about in the water for a bit whilst I mustered the courage to join in with the excitement of jumping off of the tree's branches into the water.

Everyone was doing it, small kids, older Chinese tourists, people who clearly couldn't swim, women in cute dresses who'd just kick off their shoes, throw their handbags on the ground and go for it, but I'm still a bit of a wuss when it comes to anything involving water. It probably took me about an hour to work up the courage! I was super glad that I did it though, mainly because it proves that I'm chipping away at my water phobia bit by bit. I'm remembering to be proud of that rather than annoyed that I haven't plucked up the courage to learn to dive yet. I'll get there!

One minor phobia I've nailed is going to the hairdresser! I couldn't justify bringing my clippers along on this trip because I'm only travelling with a hand luggage sized backpack so I've had to brave a couple of barbers along the way. I'm glad my hairstyle's pretty low maintenance!

Post-hair cut street snacks, this actually might have been the best thing I ate in Vang Vieng. I love corn on the cob and this was super simple, straight up BBQ'd, husks on, no embellishments. Yum.

I would definitely recommend swinging through Vang Vieng if you're travelling in Laos. Even if participating in abhorrent drinking culture isn't your thing (one bar actually has a sign outside that says "Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single". Gross.) the natural beauty of the area is unmissable and it seems far less destroyed by tourism than Pai in Thailand. I'll be back next time with my take on Luang Prabang and some tips on how to get there from Vang Vieng in the least barf inducing way. Oh and, speaking of barf inducing things, if you've been following my adventures in getting sick abroad on Instagram I'm totally getting better and hope to be continuing the adventure soon!

Sunday 22 March 2015

The Journey Continues! Vegan in Vientiane, Laos.

Well, I finally left Thailand! I wrote this whilst I was in Laos and now I'm hitting publish from Vietnam. Phew! Apologies for getting a little behind with the blogging from the road thang but terrible wifi connections followed by a bad cold and a two day long migraine killed my blogging mojo. I think having to get a flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi with a migraine might just have been my worst travel experience ever. Bright airport lights, dealing with people, the worst turbulence I've ever felt... it wasn't a great day. Back to the fun side of my travels though, let's talk Laos!

Rather than choosing the (probably sensible) option of travelling from Chiang Mai via bus and slow boat to Luang Prabang Nick and I decided to get one overnight train to Bangkok and then another overnight train (that same night) to Vientiane. Well to Nong Khai really where we changed to a train bound for Thanalang where we grabbed a tuk tuk to Vientiane. So many steps in that journey! A whole lot of things played into this decision, firstly I get incredibly bus sick so I wanted to minimise the amount of bus travel I had to deal with and secondly we were planning on going from Luang Prabang onto Hanoi so going from Luang Prabang down to Vientiane and back again just seemed silly. Lastly the idea of spending two days on the deck of a slow boat when it was hitting 40˚C most days just didn't sound all that fun. I get that travel is sometimes all about the journey and from all accounts the slow boat is a great way to see the countryside but I know myself well enough to know when I'm just going to be putting myself through 48 hours of hating everything.

What probably tipped this idea over the edge from a thought to a full blown plan is that I loooove taking the train, it's always so much fun and these journeys were no exception. Apparently I'm like some kinda human tourist attraction over here, everywhere I go people stop me and ask to have their picture taken with me... it felt awkward at first especially as when it first happened I tried to take the ladies' camera off of her to take a picture of her when what she wanted was a picture of me. Ooops! Anyway, now I'm just rolling with it and Nick's trying to take pictures of all of the people taking pictures with me. So meta. Even these law enforcement dudes got in on the action!

Nick's blinking was kinda ruining this already outs focus picture so I've starred him out. I'm ruthless like that! Oh and he wants me to let y'all know that he didn't ask me to do that!

One of the main places Nick and I were interested in visiting during our stay in Vientiane was the COPE Visitor Centre. COPE are an organisation who help people with disabilities by providing them with prosthetics and orthotics as well as physical and occupational therapy. 

We learnt a lot about the UXO (unexploded ordnance) problem in rural Laos during our morning at the museum. I knew a little bit about it already from reading Nick's sister's friend Ant's book A Short Ride in the Jungle last year but I hadn't realised the full extent of the problem or delved into the effects on real people like those I read about in the exhibits at the museum. A lot of the people hurt by UXO are children as they are often used to seeing parts of bombs in their day to day lives, perhaps repurposed as a kitchen implement or other household item, so when they see them whilst they're working or playing they can often pick them up resulting in horrific injuries. One of the things COPE is committed to is educating kids in rural areas about the dangers of UXO with their outreach and education programme. They also help to support MAG (the Mines Advisory Group) who travel all over the country carrying out controlled explosions on unexploded cluster bombs.

If you'd like to Stand Up For COPE with me you can help by writing to your government and asking them to sign the Convention of Cluster Munitions to ban cluster bombs (if they haven't already, the UK has), by donating via the website (or even buying a leg), or by visiting COPE whilst you're in Vientiane and then spreading the word once you're home or via social media. I know that a lot of people believe that charitable giving should be some silent behind-closed-doors thing but often getting the word out about a charity or an issue is as important as whatever donation you can make. I know that I've discovered so many great causes through blogs and via the people I follow on social media.

To keep myself going on my adventures around Vientiane I, of course, sought out some delicious vegan eats. I actually got a little obsessed with Reunion Cafe and ended up eating there at least once a day. This friendly little spot is definitely one of those vegan gems that takes you a little off of the well worn tourist path which is a bonus. The first thing I had to try was the Pad See Ew, which, if you've been reading about the trip so far, shouldn't be a big surprise.

It was delicious, I really don't think you can go wrong with Pad See Ew. The Duck Teriyaki became one of both mine and Nick's favourite dishes at the cafe and we ordered it over and over again. Saucy delicious mock meat over rice. What more could you want?!

I also branched out on our final day in the city and tried the Tofu in Special Sauce and I totally wished I'd ordered it sooner, it was delicious and tofu is my faaaave.

Fried sides were another must at Reunion and and I tried both the Deep Fried Fish and the Grilled Chicken.

If you're a mock meat fan one thing you have to order at Reunion Cafe is the Grilled Chicken. My photo doesn't really do it justice but this stuff is creepily real right down to the "skin". If reading that grossed you out you definitely shouldn't order it! The reminiscence to the chicken my parents used to barbecue for my brother and I on summer weekends was eerie. I loved it!

Oh and if you want something bland and crunchy to snack on (which I often do!) then this place has you covered. These crispy things, that's totally their real name (it isn't!), are yummy. My guess would be that they're a vegan take on pork scratchings but way less disgusting.

There was plenty to see on our whirlwind tour of the city from the Victory Gate, which was built with American funds and cement donated to Laos to help them build a new airport hence it's nickname "The Vertical Runway", to the many wats dotted about the place.

It was definitely an interesting city to explore mainly because it was so incredibly different from anywhere else I'd ever been. As well as exploring I did some chores whilst I was in town, that's one of the big differences between a short trip and this travel thing just being my life now - I need to try to fit in things like exercise and cutting and dying my hair alongside the fun times. Nick and I sorted out our Vietnamese visas because it takes 24(ish) hours in Vientiane compared to three days in Luang Prabang, we went to the gym (I loved the brand new machines and the large rooftop pool at Sengdara Fitness) and payed a visit to the local swimming pool which was a wonderful peek into life in Vientiane.

It was hot, hot, hot in the city and this is clearly where all of the local kids come to cool off. The place was rammed. Aside from a mixed group of kids from a French Korean school who were attempting a swimming class we were definitely the only westerners taking a dip. I kept the majority of my clothes on as I would have felt super out of place even in my pretty modest one piece. I didn't get any lengths in but it was fun nonetheless, watching kids dive-bombing and splashing about in hoodies and jeans was pretty cool.

Another decent spot for vegan eats in the city is Noy's Fruit Heaven. Their mango shakes were a favourite of ours and I can't resist sharing this picture that Nick photobombed. He does this a lot whilst I'm taking food pictures!

The falafel sandwich was our go-to order because their pita bread was oh so fresh and delicious and I hadn't eaten chips for a while. I've heard that the fresh spring rolls are good too but you need to remember to order them without the egg.

Joma was another regular stop because they had the holy trifecta of air con, wifi and soya milk. Perfect. I'm pretty sure that Joma is the most westernised coffee shop in all of Laos but as someone who can only handle a latte I needed to find somewhere with vegan soya milk.

I can't really comment on the quality of the coffee because this was my first time dipping my toe back into the caffeine pool since, oh, 2011? Caffeine hasn't always had the best effect on me but I wanted to give it another whirl as sitting in the window of a coffee shop watching the world go by seems like a nice way to pass time in a new city. I also think that my palate is becoming more sophisticated as I age because I didn't even need to add sugar!

This is the soya milk they use at Joma. Did you know that a lot of soya milk in Asia contains dairy? I didn't until I was researching my trip to Japan last year and it's the reason why I sometimes break my Starbucks boycott when I'm travelling here - they're one of the few places I trust to have vegan soya milk. Sadly none of the food at Joma is vegan but it's still an excellent place to stop, take a load off and, if you're also blogging from the road, write.

Snack wise Vientiane had us covered with a scattering of air conditioned marts. I found all of these goodies in Homeideal on Rue Hengboun I didn't pick any of these up because of my ever growing snack pile (coming up!) but they're all vegan and I am totally kicking myself for not buying the apple pie cookies, they're actually a UK import but I've never seen them there.

One treat I did grab was this pack of Oat Krunch cookies from M-Point Mart which have to be the most exciting accidentally vegan treat I've found in a while. I almost always pick up one wildcard item when I'm in a new store in a new country, city or town. That one thing I spot and think "Wouldn't it be so cool if these were vegan?". Quite often this ends in laughter at my own hopefulness as I read out the myriad non-vegan ingredients to Nick but sometimes, sometimes I hit the jackpot!

Not only were these cookies delicious but they were also individually wrapped! Individually wrapped stuff is often a bit of a peeve at home as I hate the waste but when you're travelling individually packaged items are a major win. Mainly because you can stash them in every available space in your luggage rather than trying to find space for one large item.

This brand of crisps was another M-Point Mart find, crab shaped and seaweed flavoured these became a firm favourite pretty fast. Before my trip to Thailand I kept hearing about all of the vegan seaweed flavoured crisps (or chips!) I'd be finding on my travels but this is the first time I've seen any that had the seasonings broken down by ingredient. My trip to Japan taught me that with something seaweed flavoured the seasonings often contain fish bits, gross.

There is one small health food store in Vientiane if you're after snacks that hover at the healthy end of the spectrum or if, like me, you just want to support a small business. Agroasie is located at the end of Chao Anou Road right near the night market but I popped down one morning to check it out. The shelves aren't exactly heaving with product but they do have a decent selection of organic fruit and veg as well as skincare products (look out for beeswax) and snacks. I just grabbed these GrainNY bars which were a little too healthy tasting and low sugar to be a repeat purchase but they were okay.

I'll leave you with this street kitty and next time I'll be back with stories and pictures from my time in Vang Vieng. Spoiler alert - it might be billed as a party town but it's so much better than Pai