Southeast Asia is drowning in plastic bags.
This is the land of carry-out meals and, in some parts of the region still, twice-a-day ingredient shopping. But once upon a time prepared foods purchased to go were wrapped in leaves (banana, predominantly) -- or at worst, newspaper -- and fresh fruits and vegetables were carried home in market baskets.
Today one might come away from a trip to Warorot evening market in Chiang Mai with charcoal-grilled chilies, eggplant, and garlic to take home and pestle into a nam prik (dip), a couple of fiery gaeng (curries), fresh greens to eat alongside, and a slab of sticky rice.. Each item, purchased from a different vendor, will be placed into its own clear plastic bag --, and each of those bags slipped into another, larger one. Customers leave the market with their fingers dripping yellow, pink, black, red plastic bags.
(Casual observation suggests that perhaps less than 5% of the market's customers eschew larger plastic bags in favor of a something they've brought from home to carry purchases in.)
Most of those bags will never see a second use. If you live or have traveled here you've probably seen where they can end up: alongside roads, strewn over hillsides, on beaches, blanketing land resting between crops.
I've been as guilty as other consumers. Until this trip I've not thought to bring along something reusable to carry foods I've purchased at a wet market or the cans of Diet Coke I buy at the 7-Eleven (hey - we all have our vices).
But having seen too many ugly rubbish mounds in remote northern Lao villages and biking through plumes of smoke rising from piles of burning plastic I vow to make a cloth market bag part of my travel kit from now on.
Morning market, Luang Namtha province
One bright spot: in Laos, at most markets that we visited (granted, in a very small slice of the country), plastic bags were but one means of food conveyance.
Fresh leafy greens and herbs accompany every Lao meal and pak salat, or lettuce, is the leafy green we saw most often. Several bunches strung together with a strip of bamboo or rattan (opening photo), hung from bicycle or moto handlebars, arrive home in much better shape than if they were crammed into a plastic bag.
(And how easy would it be to wash a bunch of strung-up lettuce? A good dunk and a swish in a bowl of water, or a thorough rinse under the faucet of a pump, and the bunch can be hung up to air and drip dry. Ingenious.)
The same minimalist packaging works for cabbage and cilantro,
mint (these dainty little bundles, photographed at a noodle stall, are tied into individual servings but large bunches are similarly strung up at markets),
a delicious tart/astringent leafy green that I know from China as zhu er gen (left), and another (right) that I'm not sure of.
The same goes for bamboo tips,
and strips of sun-dried fish.
But ultimately in Laos, as elsewhere, the allure of plastic is difficult to resist.