“No Reservations” season 4, episode 11: Laos

Location: Mr. Bourdain kicked off a new round of episodes last night with Laos. As one of the last “untouched” destinations of Southeast Asia, Laos sits nestled along the Mekong River, a mountainous country filled with mist-shrouded hilltops, orange-robed monks and a fascinating history both recent and ancient.

Episode Rating: Four bloody meat cleavers (out of five) in honor of Chef Bourdain.

Summary: Laos is one of those mysterious destinations romanticized by 21st century travelers. Still scarred by violent memories of the Vietnam War, it is a country largely untouched by the typical tourist trail of Southeast Asia but ripe with beautiful places to visit and delicious new foods to taste. In other words, it’s one of those places that Anthony Bourdain just knows how to do best – seeking out the remote, the fascinating and the cringe-inducing for our viewing pleasure.

Tony kicks off the episode by briefly stopping in the capital city of Vientiane before heading out for his “obligatory Asian noodle breakfast” in the small city of Phong Savan. Much like its Vietnamese cousin Pho, the spicy Lao soup he tastes is filled with a combination of noodles and meat, typically either chicken, duck or pork. Give Bourdain his bowl of noodles and he’s generally a pretty happy customer.
Reinvigorated by the magical Lao broth, Tony heads to the Plain of Jars for a quick visit. We are offered with an interesting sight – hundreds of giant stone vessels lie scattered across a huge field. Though there is much speculation as to their purpose, Tony’s guide suggests they either served as burial vessels for the deceased, a storage method for commodities like rice, or as a method for mythical Lao “giants” to store their whiskey (my favorite explanation).

Then, as you have come to expect with many Anthony Bourdain episodes, it was time for stuff to explode. As Tony explains, Laos was an unfortunate bombing target during the Vietnam War. Needless to say, the country is still feeling the effects. Tony watches on as the country’s team of UXO volunteers searches for and detonates a few of the millions of unexploded shells that lie hidden all across the nation’s countryside.

To further illustrate how Laos is still affected by the war, Bourdain has a simple fish lunch with a man who lost an arm and leg to an exploding shell. For someone who has built a reputation as cooking’s bad boy, I found Tony’s examination of the issue both emotional and thoughtful. Considering he’s usually ready with a sarcastic reply and a snotty comment, Bourdain seemed amazingly humbled by this very touching scene.

And then with barely a pause, it was once again time to chow down on some of the country’s many delicacies. Tony gets his morning off to a good start with an ant egg omelette. In typical Bourdain style, he relishes the dish, describing the flavor as similar to that of the fish roe typically found on sushi. While insect eggs do have a certain “squeam-factor,” I have to admit I was craving a taste to see what it was like. Not one to slow down while he’s on a roll, Tony then spends his day catching swallows, a traditional Lao food. The day’s catch was then prepared both grilled and fried and consumed bones, feathers and all in a single crunchy bite. Our normally iron-stomached travel host met his match with this dish, which he describes as “bitter” and “not enjoyable.”

As is to be expected with any “Hey look, I’m a tourist in Asia!” travel show, Bourdain takes a few self-indulgent minutes enjoying a ride on an elephant. Don’t get me wrong – elephant rides have got to be amazing fun – but the ride seemed a bit gratuitous and not particularly relevant to the episode. Let’s skip this next time, ok?

To make up for his sins, Tony heads to a Lao-Lao distillery to enjoy some freshly made samples of the country’s home-made rice whiskey brew. Though his bottle didn’t contain a serpent as in the sample photo to the right, Bourdain and his filming crew do an admirable job polishing off numerous shots with their hosts. All the while they nibble on small Lao snacks like freshwater shrimp, a typical accompaniment to the drink.

To wrap things up, Tony joins his local hosts for a traditional Lao religious ceremony along with a huge feast. A friendly send-off for a visit to one of the more fascinating places on earth.

As Tony points out in his closing words, Laos is a completely magical place. It feels frozen in time, divorced from the modern habits and ways of life with which most of us are familiar. For tourists looking for a life less ordinary, this is prime real estate. Soon the very things that make us romanticize a place – it’s unspoiled charm, friendly people and intriguing customs – become the seeds of its own destruction. That restaurant that served you the ant egg omelette becomes a fast food chain and the charming street you meandered now hosts a youth hostel. But nevertheless, there is still plenty of time to enjoy the simple charms of a place like Laos – and that is something that comes through loud and clear from Anthony Bourdain’s visit.