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

Monday, 16 March 2015

Learning to Cook Vegan Thai Food with May Kaidee

Before coming to Thailand I had an ever growing list of must-do activities and right at the top was "Take a Cooking Class", more specifically a May Kaidee cooking class, which had been recommended to me by two experts in the cuisine, Kip from Messy Vegetarian Cook and Jess of Get Sconed / Vida Vegan Con fame. There was only one small hiccup in my plan to take the class, last autumn I was diagnosed with an allergy to peppers. After almost two years of struggling with worsening joint pain issues that doctors were finally associating with my stomach / digestive concerns, a combination of tests and an elimination diet that saw me quitting potatoes for a month, resulted in me feeling a million times better. Almost as soon as I quit peppers, including chilli peppers and paprika as well as the classic bell pepper, I was able to exercise again, I could sit cross legged, I could type for more than five minutes at a time and I could walk up and down the stairs of my own house without being in excruciating pain. It was a pretty amazing transformation and after months and months of worry I was honestly pretty okay with the diagnosis - when words like Lupus are being thrown around an allergy doesn't seem so bad. But then I remembered Thailand. Thailand without chilli was surely going to be impossible / boring but there was no way I was cancelling or changing plans. This trip, and the beginning of a whole new life on the road, had been in the works for so damn long that nothing was going to hold me back. There have definitely been a few chilli mishaps resulting in some less than fun pain issues but on the whole I've been managing... I've been a little sad to have more of a limited eating scope because when you want to order the Thai green curry you can't just ask them to hold the chilli because it's the base of the dish, it would be impossible. I was basically totally over the moon when a quick e-mail exchange with May Kaidee confirmed that they'd be able to modify a class for me using peppercorns instead of chilli. Amazing. I could finally get stuck into Thai cuisine.

Nick and I showed up at the class not quite knowing what to expect and were greeted by Duan, May Kaidee's sister, at the meeting point just across from her restaurant Morning Glory. She's super friendly and a joy to be taught by and we dived straight into an introduction to the flavours needed to make some classic Thai dishes, minus the chilli of course! Kafir lime leaves. Galangal. Lemongrass. Garlic. Thai basil. Coriander. Lime. All flavours that I love but that have always been overpowered by chilli before. We used fresh green and red peppercorns to create something a little left of mainstream that was perfectly suited to me.

Next we met the veggies and I learnt some valuable chopping skills, I cook but I've never paid attention to the knife skills and now I can cut a squash with confidence. Pro tip: you need a crazy sharp knife, it does't even need to be that big, just sharp. Also am I the only vegan on earth that didn't know you could steam both pumpkin and potato?! I've always seen these as things that needed roasting, or boiling in the case of the potato. I am very excited to have learnt that there'll be a way for me to enjoy pumpkin whilst I'm living the van dwelling vegan hippy life this summer.

Apologies for this horrific picture, but how cool is that steamer?!

After a swift lesson in fresh peppercorn filled red and green curry pastes, the base of so many of the foods we created in class, we whipped up a quick batch of pumpkin hummus in the pestle and mortar.

I was blown away by the fact that we could create something so delicious so quickly and this feeling quickly became a constant during the class!

Pumpkin soup two ways came next followed by peanut sauce and fresh spring rolls. The spring rolls were filled with crunchy veggies and the freshest herbs and we ate them dipped in the peanut sauce. I've never worked with fresh spring roll wrappers before, they're definitely slightly superior texture wise, but Duan insisted that the dried kind we can find at home are a-ok.

Next up a fast Pad Thai and some fried veggies with cashew nuts. Again I was blown away by how fast these came together!

Soups were next and we created two variations of Tom Yam soup to illustrate how one small change of herb can greatly impact the flavours, as well as Tom Kha soup from one base recipe. The creamy Tom Kha was my favourite and I pretty much devoured the whole bowl right there and then.

Now I have pretty much never eaten curry, I've always been super sensitive to chilli (now I know why) so it's not something I've ever really enjoyed and when making curry at home I always just left out the chilli paste entirely and added a tiny splash of ├╝ber mild chilli garlic sauce which, of course, resulted in super bland uninspiring dishes. We made both Masaman Curry and Green Thai Curry and whilst I enjoyed both dishes the Green Thai Curry blew me away with it's depth of flavour. I've always been a pumpkin fan so I guess it's no surprise that this was my favourite but it was so good that I've been craving it almost constantly ever since.

We went on to make a beautiful fresh crunchy Green Papaya Salad, something else I've always wanted to try, and not one but two desserts. Mango Sticky Rice and Pumpkin in Sweet Coconut Milk. My pictures of these are best left in my iPhoto library rather than out there in the world but rest assured that they were delicious.

The class was an absolute joy and I'm adding myself to the chorus of endorsers. At the time of booking I wasn't aware that we'd be in a class on our own or that we'd be cooking in a real restaurant kitchen rather than a test kitchen set up for students and I'm not sure if these things are the norm or the luck of the draw. 

As we decided to hang around Chiang Mai for just a little longer we were lucky not to have to miss the amazing food we cooked for too long because a day later we paid another visit to Morning Glory for dinner where Duan thankfully still had fresh peppercorns knocking around. She was able to make us another perfect Green Thai Curry and she even insisted I come back into the kitchen again to help pound the green peppercorn paste!

It's perfection in a bowl and I finally understand what people have been raving about all this time. I can't wait until I have a kitchen again so that I can make Green Thai Curry over and over.

We also ate fried and fresh Spring Rolls with the latter being served with Peanut Sauce.

I looooved the tomato based peanut sauce we whipped up in class and this one was no different, I could eat it by the spoonful but I think a fresh spring roll is probably a more polite instrument! The fried rolls were great too but I'm totally on team fresh if you're going to make me choose.

Morning Glory is definitely on my must-visit list for Chiang Mai and the class, as well as being a whole lot of fun, was a totally transformative experience for me. Ten out of ten!