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Luang Prabangs Phousi Market

Rewards for the early morning riser

Iím addicted to markets. Others may rave at the thought of heading to the museum, or more probably the local bar. I get giddy digging through mystery produce, smiling at grumpy local ladies, seeing how long I can hold my breath in the meat section. I went not once, or twice, but six times to Luang Prabang's Phousi market. Was it enough? Iím still upset about the three mornings I didnít make it.

A ten minute tuk-tuk ride out of town, which will run you a whopping 1$, Phousi is a new market. With the opening of borders and lifting of trade restrictions new space had to be made for the shampoo and cosmetics, batteries and flip-flops that have become a fixture of markets throughout Asia. The old downtown market, was abandoned in favour of this new ďsuburbanĒ location.

At 7:00am, everything is of course in full swing. The parking lot is buzzing as two stroke engines ferry shoppers and their purchases back and forth. The market is organised by item, vendors of a certain product tending to group together. Household and non-perishables—soaps, batteries, and plastic sandals—are off to one side. I wandered by a few times but that’s not what I’m here for. A few vendors sell iced Lao coffee: thick as molasses and sweet as sin. Wakes you up with a slap. Palm sugar, betel nut, and local dried food sit side by side. The sugar is dark brown and formed into cakes. Dried buffalo skin in various stages of transformation: with hair still attached, in larger chunks, cut into thin strips. Next to it jaew bong, a sauce (jaew) made from skin and chillies. It looks like dark jam and is served with kai pen a dried riverweed, similar to Japanese nori, that’s also on offer. Further down the aisle more batteries.

Across from me rough benches and tables are set up next to steaming pots of stock, offering either foe, a clear broth with thin rice noodles and assorted meats, or Khao Sway. I always opt for the second, thicker noodles, broth, and a pork and chilli sauce that sometimes tastes just like a macho bolognese. Both soups come with a big plate of herbs and greens plus whatever bottled sauces are within your reach. We’re lucky, it’s mushroom season and little bags of what look to be olives sit in a large plastic bowl. They’re not. Het Paw are about the size of a large grape, with a thick black skin and a dense soft interior. The more bags you grab the more you pay. I’ve seen guys go for as many as four bags, the rich pigs. I’ve always stopped at two. But soup is for later. First vegetables.

bats and galingale

smoked bats and galingale-Photo by Tandy Sean

Another gift of the rainy season is bamboo shoots. We’ve seen them all through Laos and they’re here as well. More mushrooms too, everyday something different, and they sell out fast. Eggplants, chillies, cabbages, pumpkins, and more greens, herbs, and foraged jungle leaves than you can wave a vegetarian at. Dill too which surprises me, but it finds a place in Or Lam the local Luang Prabang stew that incorporates meat, eggplants, and Chili wood (name). The last has a numbing effect like Sichuan pepper and although you’re not supposed to chew it I always do.

Padek, the distant cousin of fish sauce is everywhere. Plastic tubs big enough to wash in are brimming with what looks like raw fish in grey mud. Like Asian shrimp paste, this fermented freshwater fish smells like an extremely naughty French cheese. It also miraculously transforms when cooked, infusing dishes with a special depth of flavour. A cornerstone of Lao cooking.

Women sit folding banana leaves into multi-tiered sculptures for the Baci (ba-si) ceremony. From pint sized to human height, these green origami pyramids shine with marigolds, gold foil, yellow candles, and white strings. The strings are tied around guests’ wrists to offer blessing. You can go to an organised ceremony at the hotel but we managed to hold off. Maybe it was the all you can eat Chinese buffet that came along with it, or the culture show.

Stepping outside into the light, more produce, plus baby ducks peeping in the bottom of a cardboard box. Nothing has ever been so cute. Large beetles scuttling around plastic bowls. Piles of larvae shaken from their fungal homes. Tiny pink mangosteens with impossibly sour insides. Fruit from China, apples, longan. Custard apples from Thailand.

Looping back around and into the dark, towards the meat counters. Always a highlight. Nothing seems to dictate how close people are to the land as how they buy their meat. First fish, an increasingly expensive dish, what with less rainfall every year. Once China dams the rivers upstream it’ll become a luxury.

Moving down the line we see the first of the goodies. A pile of foetal pigs shine under a light bulb. A good dozen in number they look peaceful and as cute as the baby ducks. Pink and perfect. Later I’m told that stewed or roasted they’re delicious.

Pork. Hunks of fatty flesh with skin, the delicate white fat contrasting with dark red buffalo meat at the next stall. Almost black, this meat sits beside equally dark chunks of coagulated blood, shining like the baby pigs. A foetal water buffalo sits in the middle of this array. Bright yellow hoofs, again shining under the light.

Women wave plastic bags on sticks, more in theatre than an effort to keep the flies away.

In awe we retreat to the benches and order our soup having long since stopped worrying about food poisoning. We get extra bits of sausage on top before realising that it’s only 7:30 and my tongue’s already burning from the chilli.

A tuk-tuk back to town and we head to the Scandinavian Bakery for another coffee. Already this strip of the town has been transformed. Continental breakfasts jostle with pizza and travel shops. Tourists mean money. I didn’t see one supermarket in my entire time in Laos. Vientiane had a rather large convenience store but nothing any Floridian would have given the time of day to. I wonder how long before foetal pig is a thing of the past and everyone’s buying meat under saran wrap, pumped full of safety?

by Michael Elliott