19 April 2009

Food in 2 Parts.

PART 1 – The Justification, Followed by the Weird.

Go ahead. Roll your eyes, shake your head, whatever you want. The truth of the matter is that I very easily get sick of Asian food. I cannot help it – I get to a point where rice looks up at me from its bowl and it's like “Yeah. I know you're not gonna eat me. I know you're gonna nibble on that tofu and eat some of those weird mushrooms and just completely ignore me, and still feel totally hungry and stop and buy a Mars bar on your way home. We're cool, though. Bitch.”

Do not get me wrong. Vietnamese, Lao, Thai – all beautiful foods. I have had some amazing meals, some of the best of my life, in Asia. Most have been expertly prepared local food, some have been street foods and some have been at chef driven fusion restaurants. BEAUTIFUL, ancient traditions, delicate flavors, bold spices, wonderful street food....but in the way that I can't eat pasta everyday, no matter how much I love IT, I just can't eat stir fried vegetables and fish everyday. Perhaps if I ate meat things would be a lot easier – there would be wayyyy more choice and variety. But even then, my brain – not my stomach - really doesn't feel full unless I have had bread, cheese or potatoes. Preferably all 3. I cannot feel ashamed about this any longer. I eat a wide variety of foods at home, Lebanese one day, Japanese the next, Westcoast Fusion, Jamaican, Italian, Greek, Indian, French.... not to mention simple home cooked meals ( I throw together pretty salads and sear tofu and Ta-da! Sean spends all day in the kitchen and creates culinary masterpieces.) If I tried to eat Ukrainian food everyday, no matter how much I love it, I would die of boredom (and a coronary) so I sure as hell cannot eat rice 3 times a day. I just can't.

If I was only traveling for 3 weeks I would feel really guilty about eating a pizza. It is really important to eat authentic foods in order to experience a culture, otherwise you end up a gawking tourist and not a real traveler. But, for an entire year – I'll eat some mashed potatoes and some tacos if I want to.

I try to have this rule: When I want Western food, I do not go to a restaurant unless it is the only thing on the menu. So, for example, if the menu is the size of a phonebook, there are only backpackers around and they serve Asian/Pizza/Continental/Ge
rman/Mexican – DO NOT eat there. If the restaurant proposes to be an Italian eatery with a cute name like “Little Hanoi” with a whole checked table cloth and candles-in-wine-bottles-vibe but half of their menu is spring rolls and fried rice – DO NOT eat there. If you go to a Tex Mex diner and they do not have sour cream or guacamole – DO NOT eat there.

Let's be clear – I do not expect every small town and village in SE Asia to have a fully stocked Western kitchen and miraculous pasta making skills. But, then again – if you do not know how to prepare, or do not have the correct ingredients - why have the dishes on your menu? (Because backpackers suck and will eat anything.) It is a strange concept to me to offer things that you yourself have never eaten and therefore have no idea how they are supposed to come out. I would make a terrible congee (savoury rice porridge) because I have never even eaten congee, and it is this reason why I would not open a restaurant in Vancouver and serve Vietnamese food.... But so so often in Asia you order something that sounds delicious and it arrives and it is the culinary equivalent of Engrish. Close, and you can kind of make out what it is supposed to be, but still fundamentally and often humourously wrong. It is less humourous when you realize that you now have to eat the 'matter' placed in front of you.

I'll give you a few examples of horrifying food I have been served (most of them were in India, but the same goes here in SE Asia):

*Veg cannelloni – Chinese dim sum dumplings stuffed with cabbage and ginger, covered in melted processed cheese and creamo. Oh, and the sauce was sweet. The manager was genuinely shocked and horrified that I left it untouched. I did not tell him that it was the single most disgusting food item I had ever been served. I told him I was sick. I kind of was.

*Sundae – I got in a verbal fight, an epic war of words with a snobby, frustrated bellboy in a Madurai hotel, each of us insisting that our version of an ice cream sundae was the correct one. It sure the hell was NOT, I assured him, dried fruit and Jello kind of smooshed over strawberry ice cream. He told me, with his nose in the air, that what I was describing (chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream) was called a tutti frutti. “No it's not.” I said. “Yes it is” He said. This went on until I finally dropped the ultimate in spoiled Westerner-speak. “Listen, I'm from where ice cream sundaes are from, and so I know what an ice cream sundae is and you don't!” He slunk away, and returned 10 minutes later with one scoop of the strawberry removed and a scoop of chocolate ice cream in its place. Fucker.

*Veg Shish Kabob – Should be veggies grill on stick, right? Maybe tandoori paneer? Instead was pieces spring roll cut up and serve to Sean on skewer? Does that make party food? Maybe it should be call “Exciting Spring Roll!” instead? Super cool taste - wow!
This Engrish and the spring roll itself made less sense because WE WERE IN INDIA.

*Poached Eggs – These arrived browned on one side and with chalky, hard yolks. I called the waiter over – this was my first attempt to “send something back” in India and a good example of what happens when you try. “Um, these are browned? These are not poached eggs?” The waiter looked at me blankly. “Yah, poach eggs.” “No, ummm, see, my friend had poached eggs 20 minutes ago even though we ordered them at the same time, and they were nothing like this. These are browned. No thank you.” Blank stare. He repeated. “Poach eggs.” I was undaunted - I wish that 'current me' could go back and give 'Varanasi me' some advice. “I won't have these. I'll just have scrambled instead, thanks.” Twenty minutes later he set a steaming hot, microwaved plate of my same browned, poached eggs now cut into tiny cubes. “Scramble eggs.”

*Breakfast in general – the eggs are cooked Asian style, sizzled and browned in an inch of hot oil, so the edges bubble up and are filled with grease. Omelets or fried eggs – both are dark brown and smell like that yucky burnt egg smell. Imagine the shreddy bits of egg in fried rice – now imagine a bowl of just that egg and it is called scrambled eggs and it is served to you with some microwaved white bread. I have nearly cried a few times.

*Cheese – 99% of the time it is processed. Yeah. Deal with that.

In conclusion, it is always better to eat the local food. It is always fresher, tastier and a better experience, not to mention a lot cheaper. But on those days you need a pizza, well. Godspeed and good luck.

Food Porn – Or, The Things the Glutton Will Eat When She Gets Home.

Some people miss their normal clothes. Some miss their comfy beds and their pets. Some miss their neighbourhoods and friends and families. And while of course, I miss that stuff – this is more important to me. It always will be. Sorry guys.

1)Nachos from Foundation: Oh, the sheer amount of cheese. The slightly sweet salsa. The humongous bowls of sour cream and guacamole. Little bits of yummy corn, extra jalapeños, black beans. The surly, navel gazing wait staff. And all that cheese. Cheeeeeese.

2)Eggs Benedict: This is really important. I need this. Commando Benny from Cafe Barney. Asparagus, Brie cheese and tomatoes on an English muffin with extra hollandaise sauce and Barney's amazing hot sauce....sigh. And so, so many hashbrowns. I also need to go to the Reef – theirs is different good, but with lots of Jamaican hot sauce it is mouth searingly divine.

3)Vera's Veggie Burger: I want that fucker smothered in fried mushrooms, onions and cheese, with a healthy amount of Vera's sauce doused on there. It has the proper consistency, and it really tastes like a beef burger without that soyish aftertaste of most veggie burgers. I miss mayo.

4)POUTINE: The jumbo sized one from Fritz on Davie that Xstina and I used to share after the bar, the thermos sized one. (With veggie gravy, of course...) I will dip that shit in Mango Chutney Mayo and probably have a bliss (ie: heart) attack and die right there in front of the bald headed “Onnnnnnnne Mediuuuuuum Poutiiiiiiiiine” guy. I also really like the poutine from the courageous naked fry lady at Wreck, but I think I'll be arriving home in the Fall or Winter, so it'll be a while before I can make Willie buy me one of those.

5)Sushi: 3 times. Once from Miko on Robson for spicy agedashi tofu, extra shitake. Once from Sushiyama for the Crunch Roll (tempura yam and shrimp with Philley cream cheese!) And once, maybe twice, from The Eatery (I will put up with the strange hybrid Kits/Hipster waitresses) for ....FAT ELVIS (tempura battered avocado, deep fried and covered in spicy unagi mayo.) Sushi is like a dear friend to me. I so sad without her.

6)Burgoo: This restaurant is heavily featured in Sean and my conversations about Vancouver food. I NEED 2 things. The gooey grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, and the homemade macaroni and cheese served in a French onion soup bowl and bubbling over with so much Gruyère and cheddar. I like to pick the browned cheese off of the side when I am all done. Why do you think I was puffy, fat and the pasty colour of Brie cheese when we left home? Burgoo. And....

7)Beer: Anything that is not a light Pilsner. No more Beer Lao, Kingfisher, Chang or Tiger. Give me a honey lager. A Hefeweisen. A Rickard's Red, hell, even a Rickard White. A Trad. A Granville Island anything. A Sleemans. Please?

8)Vegetarian Cannelloni or Lasagna: No, the experience above did not sour me permanently. I want to go to Marcello's on the Drive and cover my piping hot melty dish in hot pepper flakes, salt, pepper and extra Parmesan and forgo my fork, just dip focaccia bread in there and use it to scoop up all of the pasta-y spinach-y goodness.

9)Falafel: I'll go to Nuba, that tiny hole in the wall at Seymour and Davie, and eat the deep fried cauliflower, hummus and falafel pita wrap while I walk around downtown in a tube top and not get stared at, even though I have breasts, white skin and HUGE tattoos. But I mostly wanna eat that wrap. With extra turnip pickle.

10)Granville Island: With my debit card ready to go, I'm gonna buy all this stuff and arrange it on a plate and then make little combo bites and eat the hell out of all of it. Bocconcini, fresh basil, sundried tomatoes in oil, fava beans in tomato sauce, sharp cheese, hummus, roasted red peppers, olive oil, fancy sea salt, focaccia bread, dolmades, garlic shrimp salad, roasted asparagus and garlic (OK, I will roast that myself...I'm not that lazy,) washed down with a bottle of Pinot Noir and finished with every kind of fresh berry that they have.

I figure this will take me a good week. Who wants to join me? Even if you haven't been away, it should be really fun.....I have 6-8 more months, so I'm sure I'll think of more...anything YOU wanna add?

17 April 2009

Uncle Ho's Historiorium.

The first thing I noticed about the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh was how HUGE he was. Like, superhero huge. Uncle Ho is displayed in this enormous glass case that warps your perspective – his head alone, always a bit Colonel Sanders-sh, is like a giant white watermelon, each sparse beard hair carefully preserved during his annual 3 month respite to Moscow, where he is fussed over and kept fresh. Russians do, after all, have a lot of experience keeping a stiff dictator public-appearance ready for decades...and come to think of it, Lenin also kind of looked like Colonel Sanders. But back to the hugeness of Ho. The glass case is kept raised off of the floor, and around it is a trench in which 4 guards stand at attention. The walkway around the tomb is slightly below its platform, and so the entire effect of the body being Dr. Manhattan-sized is heightened even further. Red lights, probably important in some way for preservation of the body, beam down on Ho from all angles, accenting the red star and hammer and sickle symbols displayed behind him. Like a humongous KFC ad in an alien space pod the colour of sweet and sour sauce, this is to what Uncle Ho has been reduced. Or, I guess more appropriately, enlarged. Never one for the “cult of personality” that surrounded other Communist leaders Mao and Stalin, Ho actually wanted to be cremated and spread around the countryside with little fuss. But the Vietnamese morale demanded a focal point of glory, and that glory was Ho. (Ha! Glory Ho!) Hence the monolithic Soviet style crypt built in centre of Hanoi. In a weird way, walking inside of the air conditioned-to-the-point-of-freezing crypt, I felt like I was in a shopping mall from my childhood, in that concrete-mega-structure sort of way, that 1970's everything-is-super-modern and grey way. This is a pilgrimage for many Vietnamese, especially those from the North - they LOVE Ho Chi Minh.

In a way, like Gandhi in India, it was the Non-Vietnamese aspects of Ho that made him respected and admired, his Frenchiness, his Western education, his political savvy. It is ironic that the very things the average peasant abhorred were the things that made them love Ho, perhaps because he took the education and ideas offered by the French to promising young Indochinese men, and rather than use his position in the intelligentsia to serve the French interests, he used his elite education (combined with Russian-learned ideologies) to try to FREE HIS PEOPLE. He saw the changes taking place after World War 1, the Wilsonian concepts of National Self Determination, the French “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and he thought - “Yeah! That's us! That's Viet Nam! I wanna get me some of this independence!”

Excitedly, Ho rushed to Paris for the talks at Versailles, naively expecting to return home triumphant. Woodrow Wilson wouldn't even let him in the bargaining room to be laughed at in person. National Self Determination it turns out, was for white people in Europe. If you were a brownish person from a European colony, well, you were hardly a person at all, you were more like a trained monkey who could harvest rice or rubber. They saw educated Asian people like Ho as fancy monkeys, like chimps in clothing and eyeglasses – humanish, but still a monkey. And let's face it, when that chimp takes off that men's suit he just goes back to flinging poop.

He was deterred, but didn't give up. He balked at the French, and formed the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1925. We, the West, don't like it when those we colonize don't do what we want them to do. We still kind of see this today, whenever a puppet regime actually tries to start making choices that benefit their own country, the West gets mad. And they got really fucking mad at Uncle Ho.

The madder the West got, the more fierce the love and adoration the Vietnamese heaped on Ho. As we were forcibly prodded through the crypt area (I wanted to stay in step with Sean. The guard wanted me to fill a gap up ahead. He kept poking me with a stick. He won.) people's reactions were solemn and emotional. Here, on a big platter, was the symbol of Vietnamese resilience and spirit. The man who fought the French, Chinese, Japanese and US – and won.

The Museum was next, and I was expecting a Soviet style construction filled with dusty relics (This Ho's book. He read book for pleasures while relax during war with imperialist American scums.”) and a diorama-rama, but I was dead wrong. The humongous (are you noticing a theme here? Ginormous imposing buildings?) white structure is etched with a huge hammer and sickle, and holds one of the most modern, interesting and interactive museums I have ever been to, and I have been to a lot of museums (The Guiness Brewery is still my favourite, but this one almost edged it out). Rather than a plodding obligatory march through a room of letters and photos, the museum brought the history – the art, film, culture and ideology – of the twentieth century alive with a Vietnamese style Communist spin.

As we entered the main exhibit room, the package bus tour Japanese tourists in their matching hats who had besieged us throughout the main floor and hogged the best vantage point of the largest Ho statue for clichéd photo opportunities of themselves thinned out (No one will believe we were here unless we stand in front of the statue! Quick, put Grandma in the middle! Her honour! Her honourrrr!” Japanese tourists even posed in front of the piles of hair and prosthetic limbs when I was at Auschwitz. NOT CLASSY). This was not their thing – this museum was not an endless series of banalities and obvious focal points in front of which to stand and snap away – it was an amazing, strange and modern showcase of symbolism and metaphor.

Surrealist art, portraits of Marx and Lenin, Le Corbusier's architecture, art nouveau and Soviet film stills were etched on glass panels and created a strange hall of mirrors effect as we wound through their maze, and video screens mounted to the wall played newsreels from all periods of the twentieth century. A huge three dimensional representation of Picasso's Guernica jutted out of the wall around the corner – the state of fascist warfare and the ever rising threat of the Nazis in the thirties. Images of the horrors in Europe during World War II followed - a plaintiff question raised – didn't we learn? A huge whited out Ford car crashed through the wall around the corner, an example of the American influence, power and goods flooding the world in the '50s. In one corner, a brick volcano literally exploded with red streamers, the violence and anger felt by the Vietnamese as the French kept them enslaved and prisoners in their own divided country.

As we we followed the path, images of the “American War” (what the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War, go figure) were over almost before they began – this was clearly not a place where people want to dwell on the battles they faced to get here. They won. That is enough – there needed to be no endless wall etched with the names of villagers massacred, no obvious Napalm photos or chemically deformed fetuses pickled in brine (there is a museum in Saigon called the “War Atrocities Museum that takes care of all of those images, as well as an impressive artillery and bomb collection.)
The next bend in the path took us to life sized pears and bananas – a slightly hokey representation of the abundance of life and food in this fertile country, but apt. Rather than focusing too heavily on the horrors of war, the ideology battle with the West or the transition to capitalism, the museum's main themes were art, beauty and light – the friendly, child loving, chuckling Ho a contrast to his austere, heavily guarded and humongous corpse.

The final image in the huge room was of Ho, dressed all in white, waving to us. Beside him, etched in glass and resembling a backlit ice sculpture was his most famous quote, translated into dozens of languages:

“All the Peoples on Earth are Equal. Each People has the Right to Life, Happiness and Liberty.”

Amen, Uncle Ho.

16 April 2009

Some Possible Flukes.

I'm pretty sure that something is wrong with me – I am unreasonably tired. Like, everyday I am dead fucking tired all day, while we walk around and see sights and view temples and plod through museums and cycle in the midday heat I am just kind of biding my time before I can go to the air con and lay down.

This is not like me – when traveling I am almost OCD busy, obsessed with seeing EVERYTHING that a city is known for, things I didn't even know existed and certainly did not care about before arriving. (“Oooh, Sean look. Conical hat making! We have to go to the conical hat factory. Conical Hats!”) I plot out walking routes and sight itineraries and choose restaurants in my trusty guide book months in advance, I do research online, I assault other travelers with a barrage of questions and then I take notes of their answers– I have had Pnomh Penh planned for months and we don't even get there for 5 weeks. I am the type of annoying traveler that goes on a guided walking tour and interupts the guide to ask pointed leading questions (“Isn't it true that these temple frescos were designed as moral warnings for the locals in the 15th century under Chinese rule?” “Aren't Rasjasthanis known for their unique chai spice blend?” “Wasn't this statue erected for the Queen's visit in 1960?”) to the point that people start ignoring the irritated, upstaged guide and asking me questions instead. I am a know-it-all. I travel. I read. I plan. This is what I DO. It is my calling in life.

And yet, here I am in the city I love most in the country I love most with the person I love most, and I am incredibly tired. I am not the type of person that this happens to – I like action orieted solutions to problems, and I have run down the list of possible ailments I could have. I have been eating enough protein and iron. I am not pregnant. I do not have malaria. I do not have the flu, a cold, the rheumatiz' or croup. No bends, dropsy or dengue fever. I may have a whole host of disgusting parasites - we did swim in slightly dicey, possibly liver fluke infested Mekong river water in the very South of Laos, near the Cambodian border, and I ate a lot of street food in India.....but those potential parasites seem unlikely to cause this kind of fatigue. (There are also ways to kind of tell if you have most food borne parasites. It is gross. Use your imagination.)
(Actually, please stop using your imagination. I don't want you to think of me that way. The next time you see me, my bowels will be all you'll be able to think about, and neither of us want that.)

No, I think I have to bend my brain and accept the concept that maybe I need to SLOW DOWN. Maybe I do not need to drag Sean to every pagoda, organic farm and handicraft district. Maybe I can forgive myself if I ignore a palace or two. Maybe I do not need to write an epic blog about every experience. Maybe I am mentally, rather than physically, exhausted. This is hard for me to accept. It feels weak willed.

This reminds me of my first tour of Europe, when I was 18. I was determined to see all of Western Europe in 2 months. All of it. One or two nights in each city - museum after museum, night train after night train, palace after palace. By the time we got to Amsterdam at the end of our trip, we stayed for a week., and did NOTHING cultural except the Heineken Brewery Tour (this was almost 10 years ago, mind you, and they hadn't yet put a limit on how many beers you could drink. You had 45 minutes at the end of the tour to eat as much edam and drink as many half pints as you could, which led to me stumbling out into the daylight at precisely 10:45am, smashed and gassy from all that cheese.) No Anne Frank House. No Van Gogh Museum. I remember seeing every single backpacker throughout Europe with a bright yellow poster tube jutting from their bag, filled with prints from said museum, and I felt shame. But this shame pales in comparison to my cultural vapidity in Paris. As it was my final stop before home, and I was freshly 19 years old and stupid and similarly tired (not to mention with eyebrows that looked like catterpillars marching across my forehead) I am mortified to admit that I arrived at the Louvre, asked where the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo were, took a photo of each and left. And then I ate at McDonalds. There are no words to describe that kind of tourism. (Well, maybe one: Japanese.)

And so, in order to prevent my next 6 months from becoming a chore rather than a delight, I guess I have to take a break. In order to be able to sit in temple courtyards and breathe deeply and feel history, in order to care about scenery and beauty and terraced rice paddies, in order to view each experience as more than a photo opportunity and grow mentally and have my own cliched personal epiphanies, I have to sit still for a while. Our last long break, Mumbai – was months ago now. I am justifying this to myself: After 3 days in Sapa, I, Jessica O'Neill, grant myself permission to sit in a nice room in Hanoi for a minimum of 5 days and read magazines, eat junk food and drink cheap draft beer and mocha frappucinos. I will get 2 leg massages and a facial (Sean, stop giggling like a woman. An actual facial at a spa.) I will go to a movie at the theatre. I will buy pirated Gossip Girl and Lost on DVD (so, so incredibly cheap!) and watch all of it. I will not read anything about global warming, harrowing history or corrupt politics. I will watch CSI re-runs on AXN. I will not visit a single cultural sight. I will relax, in the most North American way possible.

And if I'm still tired after all of that, I will go to the damn doctor and get these liver flukes removed.

14 April 2009


I was going through my old myspace blogs in preparation for my new website (don't you all worry, all of these facebook ones will be archived as well) and I realized just how funny I was 3 years ago. And fun. Like exceedingly fun. I know a lot of people who try to have these crazed lives filled with debauched parties and insane fashion, but mine just seemed to happen to me. It often happened accidentally and when I was looking the other way and while Xstina was at the bar getting us another round. My life was like a crazy fusion of a Warhol/Hughes plot – with the added bonus of a lot of late night poutines.

That is, of course, not to say I am boring now....I am a traveling diva as comfortable on a Laos public bus as in a 5 star Honolulu hotel (That is a fucking lie, by the way. I will poop in a filthy squat toilet and spit bugs and pebbles out of my food, but I still love a good towel warmer and crave a polite concierge and some sushi.) But in Vancouver in the last 2 years I was boring. Like super amazingly intergalactically fucking boring (I cut my finger and had to go to the hospital 3 weeks before we left for Asia, and it was like, the MOST exciting thing that had happened on a Friday night in ages.) I like Sean, we like food (wine) and on Fridays I was bone achingly tired and mentally retarded from the week. Putting on heels would have been like WORK - and my pants, frantically undone by the time I was unlocking my apartment door, were not going anywhere near my ass until Saturday morning. Hell, even if Xstina or Brandon were over I just walked around clutching an afghan around my waist (most of the time. Sometimes I went afghanless and just wore Sean's briefs, y'know, for modesty's sake.)

Contrasted to three or so years ago, I could be sitting in my undies (there is a theme here – I do not wear pants at home. I am not wearing pants right now) at 11pm on a Tuesday watching CSI and a random friend would call and say “Be ready in 7 minutes. We goin' out.” And lord love a duck, I WOULD be ready, skintight jeans shimmied up, vintage boots wrestled on and false eyelashes glued in place. It was all about meeting boys and maintaining image. Was I happy? Like, 'HAPPY happy, know I'm loved and in love too, healthy and cute' happy? Fuck No! I was empty and bitter – but man did I have fun.

Sean and I were watching a Lady Gaga video, and reading an article about the uproar of media surrounding her and her “underground party circuit hipster lifestyle”, and I was like “I did that. How is this new?” But I was a bit jealous, I guess. And nostalgic. Sometimes I feel a bit like maybe I would love to move to Toronto or LA and bar hop again, be a part of insane afterhours and avant garde art scenes, but I remember how empty and shallow it all was and I am glad to be in Asia and actually living life rather than drinking it away with scenesters. So when we go home (wherever and whenever that will be) I am happier to eat asparagus and chevre and drink lots of red wine with interesting Sean rather than guzzle double vodka sodas and engage in spurts of vapid conversation with strangers and 'bar friends' in the bathrooms of dive bars.

Well, let me recant a bit. I will go out to bars occasionally, I will party sometimes and OF COURSE I will still drink double vodka sodas (sometimes with supper.....) It just won't be on a Friday night. That's m'pantsless time.

I just want to apologize again to vodka.

13 April 2009

Baci Ceremony

Just past dusk after a four hour trek from Savannakhet, five of us sat in the large dining/living room of a traditional Lao teak house. Surrounding us, slowly murmuring protection prayers, were the villagers of Ban That. We all leaned in to gently lay hand on the tiered silver platter laden with fruits, money, eggs and intricately braided bracelets as the dozen Lao adults and their children swayed in incantation. Those whose hands could not reach the offering simply touched the body of someone who could, and we all pulsed together while they blessed us, the visitors. Though the next morning we were to be awake at 5am to give alms of sweets and our clumsily made balls of sticky rice to the Theravada monks on their daily procession, tonight we abandoned Buddha's teachings and focused on Phi. The traditional, millenia old animism has nothing to do with Buddhism – it even contradicts and should offend it – but somehow in Laos they mix like liquids swirling down a drain.

Phi are the 32 friendly spirits that belong to each person's body - like a soul. The spirits like to go off wandering, sometimes because they are scared away by loud noises or bad energy, but mostly just because they are curious and like to play in the forest. People leave treats hanging in trees for their Phi when they are not needed. The Baci ceremony calls all of the Phi back to your body so that you can embark on a journey as a whole person, safely protected by all of your brother spirits.

As the Village Elder called our Phi from the forest, the elderly women approached us one by one and nimbly tied multicoloured string bracelets to our wrists, chanting under their breath as they did so. A small girl watched intently, and then with guidance from her grandma took her turn affixing the bands on Landon and I (she was too shy to touch the boys.) It is her soft, unsure touch that I remember most vividly.

We were presented with a dish containing a candy, a hard boiled egg and a banana, as well as a shot of Lao Lao (fermented rice liquor) to purify our body. Once the foods were eaten and the liquor swallowed the Baci was complete, and jovial sentences spoken in a broken Lao/English/French patois were exchanged. A huge feast of vegetables and fish was laid out in front of us, but no matter how much we ate we could not put a dent in the food - chattering women appeared every few moments to ply us with another ball of rice or scoop of long beans.

Musical instruments appeared, and the open windows slowly filled with local children who had scaled the small fence around the house to catch a glimpse of the five strange farang draped in ceremonial silk scarves, singing and laughing, finishing a final bite or two of sticky rice and picking fish from the bones. Fearing it was rude to offer the staring kids the families food, I waited until everyone in the house was occupied to hold out some candy bars. But it was too late – the children scrambled away when I looked toward them.

Despite the early hour, the entire village started winding down. Five am comes early, and so after a few more folk songs and a rousing off key rendition of “O Canada” we too retired to our gender segregated beds.

We drifted to sleep, filled to the brim with food, rice whiskey, Beer Lao and most importantly - our 32 reunited Phi, fresh from the forest.

(If you want to book this exact trek, or something a little more difficult (up hills, with bikes) just contact the amazingly friendly people at the Savannakhet Tourist Office. For more info about responsible tourism in Laos click here)