There was a time, when we were writing and photographing only for this site and not for a living, when our travels were all about marketing. Not the sort of marketing that requires credit cards and ends with stuffed shopping bags and a big dent in your bank account, but the kind you do if food is one of the first things you think about in the morning and among your last thoughts before bed before bed. The kind of marketing that sees you cruising crowded aisles while ogling fresh produce; trading smiles, hand gestures, and shrugs with vendors who don't speak your language any better than you speak theirs; stepping daintily between puddles in dimly lit, cavernous structures; holding your breath as you transit areas thick with the smell of caged fowl; and dodging pushcarts heaped with melons or bags of ice or pig carcasses.
Yep, Dave and I are market hounds -- connoisseurs, even. "Market before sights" is our motto; quite often sights don't figure at all into our travels around Asia and beyond. Click the 'Markets' category on our sidebar and you'll find market photos and ruminations from Mindanao to northern Sumatra. We've got a stack of notebooks and a store of photos focused purely on markets that would fill a small filing cabinet.
But this changed when we started traveling for work. Sure, we always make time to hit a market no matter where we are, but rarely anymore do we have time to do markets justice, to really dig into them the way we used to. To spend hours a day, days in a row, becoming a temporary regular. Names of produce and dried goods duly recorded, recipes eeked from busy vendors and chatty shoppers, connections made over a number of visits that enable Dave to get close with the camera.
What a refreshing change it was then, to find ourselves in Luang Namtha with no work and some time on our hands. We'd just wrapped up a couple weeks of work in Luang Prabang. We hadn't enough energy for a trek (perhaps next visit -- Luang Namtha is northern Laos' premier eco-tourism destination), but we did have a few days to ourselves in a beautiful place, with no internet and no obligations.
Of course, we reverted to our old ways. We hit the markets.
Our favorite by far was the morning market in Luang Namtha town. It's not a huge market, not a packed and heaving market. But it's a just-right kind of market. Small enough to cover thoroughly in a couple of hours, lively enough to draw us back several mornings in a row.
The market building itself is a typical small-town southeast Asian affair: open-sided, concrete pillars and wood cross beams supporting a high-pitched metal roof, a dirt floor, and several rows of permanent stalls displaying fresh and dried goods.
As you enter the market, flies buzz around a row of meat and fish stalls on the right-hand perimeter. Here too are upturned rattan baskets holding chickens awaiting their fate.
Far opposite are prepared food vendors offering cubes of rice flour jelly/cake in sour tomato water, scraping green papayas for salad,
pounding chilies and other ingredients for jaew (dips),
and rolling thick rice flour sheets speckled with bits of chopped scallion greens around pork. These rolls are then shallow-fried for a northern Lao-style spring roll, to be dipped in dark soy sauce seasoned with chopped fresh chilies.
This same vendor also makes a sort of filled dumpling by pouring rice flour batter into shallow ladles, adding a bit of pork, and then covering the pork with more batter before immersing the entire thing in hot oil. It must be said that these treats are incredibly greasy -- but absolutely delicious.
In between the meat sellers and the food makers are ladies (because in Laos women rule about 98% of the market) selling fresh herbs and leafy greens, dried fish and sakan (a woody stem that imparts peppery-ness to local stews and soups), mushrooms and banana flowers and pea greens, buffalo skin and mak tua nao (fermented and sun-dried soybean discs) tied in stacks, and goods imported from China: the ubiquitous oily chili-and-black-bean condiment called Lao Gan Ma (addictive, if you're into chilies) dried prickly ash (aka Sichuan peppercorn), ginseng, and dried sweet potato noodles. Among other things.
At the rear of the market several women cook broth for kao soi Lao and fer (the Laotian take on Vietnamese pho) in huge blackened pots set over wood fires. They'll serve their noodle soups all day long, at low picnic tables arranged in L and U shapes around their 'kitchens'.
Our favorite part of Luang Namtha's morning market exists for just a few hours each day. Each morning before dawn women and a few men converge on the patch of concrete in front of the market building. Plastic tarps are rolled out, newspapers and squares of cardboard unfolded and laid on the ground, bicycle-pulled carts parked and turned into display counters.
Braziers are fired up, for making sweet puffed cotton candy-like cassava crisps. Sellers squat behind their patch of concrete, arranging vegetables cultivated and foraged, small local river fish and the occasional batch of squid or prawns imported from Thailand,
wild birds, and the odd forest creature. The most plentiful items are mint, green onions (white portion sold separately from the green, which is generally eaten raw), watercress, yellow flowering mustard,
There are other, less familiar vegetables -- including rice paddy herb
and clover, which we saw being harvested at the edge of dry rice paddies and alongside roads. Vendors told us it's eaten in soup.
An unusual find: puckeringly sour 'seeds', which the vendor called 'som pot' and said would be used to make 'mak som pot' -- dried, flattened discs of sourness to be used to flavor dishes?
And a favorite one: tart and spicy pickle of mustard leaves and chilies, sold with a frresh slivered scallion (the white part here) and feathery dill fronds. We are dedicated Pickle Lovers, and this preparation is one of the best we've encountered in southeast Asia. Dave and I took to purchasing a big bag every morning to add to and eat with our Lao kao soi and fer.
The corner of this evanescent section of the market belongs to rattan sellers, Akha women who trek to Luang Namtha from villages in the surrounding hills. You'd know them by their beautiful headwear
and the wooden yokes, attached to burnished rattan baskets, balanced on their shoulders.
Rattan -- yes, the same rattan used to make baskets and other furnishings -- as foodstuff was the most curious culinary discovery of our time in Luang Namtha.
It is the younger part of the rattan that's harvested for food. The sticks, which are covered with long thorns, are charred over an open flame and then stripped of their 'skin' with a sharp knife.
The inner core is boiled and its softened flesh pounded with shallots, garlic, cilantro, and various other ingredients and eaten as a dip, or added to soups and stews. (Note: you may be able to find bottled rattan shoots in Thai groceries.)
By 7:30am the crowd in front of the market is beginning to thin out. Arrive at 9am and you'll never know it was there.
Luang Namtha Morning Market -- every day, rain or shine. Arrive by 7am.