Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can I get you something to drink with that?

The monsoon has begun. Each morning Bruce and I say to each other “Do you think it’s going to rain today” which cracks us up because it is definitely going to rain today and every single day for months.

But despite the refreshing rains it is still wicked hot. Here’s a few examples of some of the beverages with which we can slake our thirst.

The national drink and an internationally recognized fabulous beer. Recipient of many awards - most recently 2010 Gold Medal winner at the Monde competition held in Weissbaden, Germany. And the Germans ought to know. It’s a jointly held company with 50% owned by the Lao government and the other half by Carlsberg. As such its sales (23 liters per person per annum) last year contributed 51.2 million dollars U.S. to Lao’s national coffers. Oh, and it’s made from rice, millet and hops making it a gluten free beer. Perhaps they should start an ad campaign in the west promoting it that way. Here people drink their beer on ice which we’ve really gotten into otherwise you wind up drinking warm beer in about three minutes flat. Beer Lao - 90 cents a quart and worth every penny.

Here’s a pack of our favorite Lao coffee. Organic Sinouk Pure Arabica French Roast. I actually met Mr. Sinouk, a sophisticated Lao who’s spent much of his life in France and is now the head of the Lao Coffee Growers Association. He started a plantation in the south of Laos on the Bolaven plateau which is ideal land for coffee growing. Laos has been so poor for so long it’s never had enough money to buy chemical fertilizers or insecticides to mess up the soil. So Mr. Sinouk’s coffee and other organic agricultural products are being recognized as an ideal niche market for the country. Mr. Sinouk’s time in France has taught him the value of the “appellation controlee” a status he is bent on creating for Lao coffee having already received organic certification from the European Union.

If you really want to get hammered this is your solution. Lao Lao, which if you pronounce it correctly and get your tones right, translates as “alcohol Lao”. It’s Lao white lightning, a spirit distilled from rice (what else?). This is a brand version – although I can’t read what brand - but in village markets you will see home-brewed stuff for sale both straight and with herbs or animal parts macerating in it. 750 ml of 40% alcohol for 75 cents. Yikesarama!

Lao Lao is mandatory at the Lao animist blessing ceremony called a baci. It’s held to celebrate just about everything – a wedding, a baby naming, a new house, a long trip, etc. There’s always a boiled chicken (with head) and a flower bedecked banana leaf pyramid with long white strings attached. Candles are lit, a shaman makes an incantation, rice is thrown and the participants tie the white strings around each other’s wrists while wishing each other good luck, good health and long life. Then everybody downs a shot and snacks on the chicken. You’re supposed to keep the strings on your wrist for at least three days but you must never, ever cut them off . If your string has been tied properly, it has a slip knot and will just slide right off. I have been to several baci ceremonies and the genuine goodwill and kindness behind it all is extremely touching. Just the thought of it brings a tear to the eye.

The country’s second most popular drink after beer. There are Pepsi bottling plants in Laos but not Coca Cola, that’s imported from Thailand. I have a theory about this that goes back to the cold war when the Russians granted licenses to manufacture Pepsi over Coke in the Soviet Union since they wanted cola drinks but not that great symbol of evil American imperialism - Coca Cola. This was a huge coup for Joan Crawford who took over as Chairman of Pepsi after her husband died – as we all remember from that great scene in “Mommy Dearest”. Laos which had thrown in its lot with the Soviets over the Chinese communists during the Southeast Asian wars followed suit – hence the ubiquitous Pepsi.

This is M-150 an absolutely vile, very popular, southeast Asian “energy” drink. I took one sip and chucked the rest. It’s basically a vanilla flavored syrup packed, and I mean packed, with caffeine. The only thing I like about it is the cute little amber glass bottle. During the “red shirt” uprising in Thailand last year it made a very handy vessel for Molotov cocktails. I don’t know if that distinction can be attributed to the glass container or the motto which you can read here embedded in what looks like Wyatt Earp’s badge – “Devotion; Courage; Sacrifice.

In the late spring people set up shop by the side of the road and make sugar cane drink. Which is very delicious over ice with a squeeze of lime. A drink “to go”, it’s handed to you in classic third world takeaway style. A plastic bag is filled with crushed ice and the drink is poured over it. The plastic bag is then put into a second plastic bag, a straw is inserted and a rubber band is used to seal your drink inside the bags. And, hey, off you go. Click here to see how sugar cane juice is made. Sugar Cane Drink

Here’s Bruce demonstrating how to drink lao hai which translates into "alcohol jar". It is much less potent than lao lao and is the preferred tipple of the Khmu, Hmong and Tai ethnic groups. A mash of sticky rice and rice husks combined with a powdered starter made from milled sticky rice and galangal juice it ferments until it’s ready to be drunk communal fashion. The jar is passed from person to person and sipped through a bamboo straw - water being added from time to time to top it up. We bought this one at an ethnic market in Vientiane and tried to ferment our own brew but the ants got to it before we did – so this photo is actually a fake. Still it’s a lovely object.

Despite our affection for Beer Lao, we are winos at heart. A beer is great on a hot day or with a sandwich for lunch but not something we want to have with our pasta al pesto or grilled New Zealand lamb chops. All our years of living in Italy have spoiled us with the availability of excellent, cheap plonk in bottles and demi-johns. In Laos all wine is imported and any bottle of red or white from whatever region in the world goes for over $10 – somewhat ruinous for the old budget. But here we have discovered a reasonable alternative we’d never seen before; what we call “box’o vino” and our Australian friends call “Chateau Cardboard”. This is five litres of drinkable Italian white for $20. I could be way out of touch and find this is available globally but the first time I saw it was in Laos. So, “salute” or as they say in Lao seun duhm.


  1. Cin-cin! It's always a pleasure to read your posts. Kudos for writing with just the right blend of useful, interesting information, humor, and your own non-self-conscious spirit.

    Can't wait to share this with Lori. No Laotian beer to be found here in Nashville... even though the guy who runs the beer store is from Laos!

  2. Jojo, the blue-labelled "lao-lao" bottle is actually vodka. The label reads "White Champa (brand) Vodka Lao. The company makes both spirits, but the Lao-lao has a green label.

    I think the vodka that you show is a better value for money at 20,000 kip than the rather harsh Lao-lao at 10,000 kip, but of course any new visitor will want to sample the real thing.

  3. Hello dear
    We want organize an event in Laos as possible be aor Asponsr company