March 22, 2009


So here we were in Luang Prabang. A UNESCO-listed French colonial-style former royal capital straddling the mighty Mekong surrounded by lush, green mountains. And what a difference from Siem Reap where noise and pollution hang over you like a dirty blanket as you ricochet your way among the ancient monuments.

What do I remember most about Luang Prabang? Was it the longtail boat trip upriver - into Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now territory like some latter-day Colonel Walter E. Kurtz figure swanning up the Mekong? Was it the sight of rows of saffron-robed monks silently collecting alms every morning at 6 am? Or the magnificent royal palace, a host of sloping-roof temples, cobbled ancient lanes and alleyways?

You guessed right - it wasn’t any of those touristy things. It was food. But, I hear you cry, Laotian cuisine isn’t exactly world-renowned. When was the last time, after all, you went to a Laotian restaurant in London? But this wasn’t any old food. This was street food. But not the kind you can pick up in any of the food stalls lining the streets of Luang Prabang.

This was street food from a bug cart.

P reminded me of our joint new year’s resolution to eat more adventurously. And we now had just the opportunity as soon as we heard about a wizened old transsexual selling a selection of delicious snacks from a cart. Crickets of various sizes, large, black deep-fried scorpions, giant cockroaches, meal worms and large water bugs.

But the timing never seemed right. The carts seem to appear at odd hours before vanishing into the night so, after a few days of disappointment, we’d almost given up. Then, on our last night, as we were just about to return to the hotel, a cart suddenly appeared.

Bugs! Whoopee! The vendor, the gnarled old transsexual, excitedly helped us choose the bug courses. It was oddly reminiscent of ordering from a cheese trolley full of exquisite delicacies at some Michelin-starred French restaurant. Anyway, I got a small scoop of each bug - ten in total. All were deep fried and sprinkled with pepper. Before starting to eat, we glanced at each other as if for reassurance we hadn’t completely lost it. But for those of a nervous disposition, better skip the rest now.

Two varieties of lizards. Soft and slimy. Surprisingly tasteless.

Meal worms. Like school-style tapioca pudding. Revolting to look at. Even worse to eat.

Tiny yellow snakes. Similar to eel, but more delicate and white like fish. Supposed to be good for you, I reminded P several times. An aphrodisiac apparently. A view not shared by P it transpired later that night.

Crickets. Crunchy, tasted like potato crisps. I could snack on these any time of day.

Huge grasshopper. Not surprisingly I suppose, tasted grassy like some Sauvignon Blanc wines do. Wouldn’t hesitate to try again.

Malengdaa water bug. Resembling a giant cockroach, this is the insect that’s ground into chilli paste here and in Thailand. A bug jam souvenir you can buy in any supermarket. In the event, this one wasn't remotely interesting. But the most difficult to bu-n-g in the mouth!

Various kinds of maggots. This was the highlight of the meal. One tasted like almonds, another of cream - all juicy and sweet.

Left this almost till last. Black scorpion. Couldn’t bring myself to put the stinger bit in my mouth but downed the rest of the tail in a couple of quick bites. After all the build up, a bit of a let down. Flavourless.

The rest were small and indistinguishable - maybe other types of crickets or spiders or merely bits and pieces of legs, wings and assorted antennae.

All in all, a steal of a meal at 13,000 Lao Kip (=£1)!

ADDENDUM: No dogs were involved in the preparation of this post. Least of all any known blood relatives of Lola (Sra. Noriega's "guard dog") above.

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