One of the touristy-but-totally-worth-it things we did in Laos was take a cooking class. They're pretty popular and for good reason - I learned a lot about Lao cooking and culture, and the food we made was delicious, if I may say so myself.
The class was held at a restaurant called Tamnak Lao, which also housed a bookstore that benefited a nearby orphanage. It was run by an older Australian woman named Ruth. She was such a character - holy cow, I could not get enough of her. First of all, she clearly enjoyed making people uncomfortable. When asked an innocuous question about Laos, she would smile bitterly and say things like, "Well, they're starving to death in the countryside" or "tourism is ruining this country" and then luxuriate in the awkward silence. She also would make vague references to her inclusion in the Lao people. Naturally, tourists would ask, "How long have you lived here?" and she would reply in her really strong accent, "Well, we came back in '95." And that was it. Oh, my brain was going nuts. Came back from where, and when did you leave, and why? But she clearly liked being an enigma, saying things like, "We had no money back then," referring to herself and the people of Luang Prabang. Oh, she was a weirdo. But fascinating.
Anyway, we joined a few Chinese and Americans in this class. There were about eight of us in total. First we watched the teachers, Leng and Phia, as they demonstrated the dishes. Lao people eat a lot of sticky (or "glutinous") rice and it's unlike any other rice I've known. You eat it with your hands, by rolling a small ball of it in your palm and then use it to pick up other food or dips. First, you have to wash it and then soak it for several hours, or overnight. Then you put it in a woven steamer and steam over boiling water, like in the picture below:
After watching the demonstration, it was time to make our own dishes!
Oh, the glory of it all!
I think our food turned out quite nicely. If my memory serves me correctly, from left to right we have: Tofu Laap (traditional cold salad), Tom Chaeow Pha (fish with eggplant), and Luak Puk (mixed vegetables with spicy tomato jeow/dip)
When the food was finished, we all sat down outside and ate together. It was really nice. My favorite people were Kelsey and Ross, a couple (our age) from Portland. They currently live and teach on a South Korean island where they are the only foreigners. They were generally awesome, and after the class and the meal, the four of us went to get drinks at a very French bar, where we shared funny stories about living in Asia and teaching and traveling. Here's a very bad picture of my drink - lemon and lao lao, a traditional Lao rice whiskey. It was yummy. Stay tuned! Lao lao does not treat me so kindly in the future...