Sunday, March 13, 2011

Talat Kok Pho

There it was in black and white in the “Vientiane Times”, Lao’s English language newspaper, the city’s largest market “Thong Khan Kham” was to be torn down and relocated into what is currently a swamp outside of town. This seemed pretty nuts given that most first world cities are trying their damndest to re-open fresh markets in their centres.

Last year the towns second biggest market, “That Luang” accidentally burned down and is now the construction site of a proposed low rise tower of luxury condos being built by the Vietnamese. Those market stands have now also been relocated to the outskirts of town.

The really crazy part about all this is that there isn’t any alternative to local market shopping. It’s not like you can go to Wal-Mart or Tesco to get your fresh veggies, meat and noodles. They just don’t exist here with no indication that they’ll be built in the foreseeable future.

Going to my market, Talat Kok Pho Tavisup, which is just steps away from the “treehouse”, is one of the highlights of my day but with all this dire news trickling in I thought it was time to document the people and the place. So I resolved to interview the women and men of my market. I called my friend Pa – who speaks English – and asked her to come and help me translate. Here they are.

This is Joy. Her stall has local vegetables but also Thai imports like asparagus and sugar snap peas. Actually, her name isn’t Joy, that’s her nickname. The Lao believe that when a baby is born you have to wait at least a month before you give the kid a name because mischievous spirits known as “phi” can enter the child through their name. So everyone gets a nickname which is what everyone ends up being called for life. Joy means skinny and can be used for a boy or a girl.

Joy is 43 years old and has two children. She’s originally from a town about four hours drive from here. Vang Vien. I asked her if she was happy with her job and she said she was indeed very happy and loved her job. Because I’m a preferred customer, a purchaser of asparagus and sugar snap peas, Joy always throws extra goodies in my bag, like a couple of limes or a bunch of scallions.

This is Noy. Noy means little. She is 35 years old and single. In Laos it is not considered strange to ask people how old they are. In fact it’s important information to have about a person because it impacts on how they should be addressed both in tone and grammar. She is a Vientiane native and gets her produce from a wholesale market downtown which I didn’t even know existed. Have to check that out.

This is Nang Kham. She is 28 and moved from Xieng Khuan in the north ten years ago. She has one daughter. Her stall sells salt, sauces, canned goods, dried beans, and other odd items like cigarette lighters. When I gave her a copy of this photo she made a seriously deep bow (known as a “nop”).

This is Song Pon. She is 40 and has two sons and one daughter. The absolutely very first question you get asked by a Lao is “How many children do you have?” It’s the Lao equivalent of “So, what do you do?”. She is originally from the northern state of Xainabouli. I like her stall because she tends to have different - often foraged - items for sale. She told me she pays 26,000 kip rent per day for her indoor stall. That’s just over three dollars. I know it sounds cheap but when a bunch of coriander goes for 10 cents and a couple of cucumbers cost a quarter it doesn’t sound like such a bargain.

Here’s Sia. He’s 24 and speaks very good English -- showing that an education doesn’t necessarily get you a job in a suit. He grills tilapia to go. The fish come from a fish farm about 30 kilometres up the Mekong river and are brought in each day and kept alive in tanks. Then they’re caked in salt and grilled to perfection. You take it home, remove the salty skin, and eat the flesh wrapped up in lettuce leaves with other goodies, like lemongrass and chili. He’ll sell you a packet of these add ons all sliced up as well.
This is Kwai. It means buffalo which is what we call him. Here he is with his daughter, Panda. He is our local pharmacist and speaks excellent English. We love Lao pharmacies because you can get whatever you want over the counter - no prescription necessary. When Bruce and I had dengue fever recently we survived on paracetemol with the kick of ample codeine purchased from Buffalo.

On a Friday night both Buffalo and the women of the market let their hair down with a few bottles of Beer Lao. I always demur when they offer me a glass but Bruce knocks a couple back with Buffalo and the boys. You have to be polite after all.