Monday, November 9, 2009

Double, double boil and trouble

Phongsali is at the pinnacle of Laos; not many travellers get much further north into the tip of the country than this. It’s a slow-moving backwater that’s about to be demoted even further as the provincial capital gets moved to Boun Neua, 1.5 hours away, where the nearest airport is and where the governor wants to move it.

It’s the kind of place that seems resigned to its fate. Big government cars prowl the streets as do the UN office against drugs vehicles manoeuvering between the odd motorbike and songthaew. Projects for the ‘replacement of poppy’ can be seen alongside the bumpy tracks. Opium production was a major source of income in the area, home to 28 ethnic minorities. Bizarrely, the tourism office displays a picture of a backpacker sniffing a pink poppy as if it was part of one of its tours.

I spent a long time in the tourist office while a French group who’d just about made it from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam (they said the Lao were building the road in front of them as they moved) wanted to get a ride to Udomxai. By the time I was done, a guy from the tourist office and a local policewoman dressed in a green shirt, decorated with Communist badges, stiff epaulettes, an enormous name badge and a matching official green sinh, wanted to come out on a day trip.

We bumped along a track to the village of Ban Khounsok Noi. The track clung to the edge of what seemed like a precipice. The mountains of Phongsali fell away beneath us and the spread of green hills and huts undulated across the horizon.

Ban Khounsok Noi is known for its production of lao lao (rice wine). I asked Tae why the policewoman had left her post for the morning. She wanted to buy rice wine, he told me. So... the policewoman who was on the job fancied a trip to buy genuine fresh-from-the-boiling-pot rice wine while she could get a lift.

At Ban Khounsok Noi, a rickety cluster of homes, we found an old man manufacturing the lethal liquid. Except, today he was making corn whiskey and not rice wine. The Lao in my company were a bit unsure about this unexpected turn of events and eyed the green liquid in the jars with turned up noses. But after chat and watching the man cool the cauldron by tipping out the boiling water and soaking the top with cold, they asked for a taste. The liquid was green as it was poured through leaves after funnelling out of the cauldron. I was passed a tiny glass; the corn whiskey burnt my throat half a metre before it reached my mouth. I could feel it stripping my throat lining as I necked it down. The Lao were laughing now; the policewoman put in her order as did Tae. One litre cost 15,000 kip, just over one pound. It would be the best party gift — one snifter and you’d be under the cauldron in a drunken daze!

1 comment: