A view from the corner noodle shop

from : a no name noodle shop, Luang Phrabang, Laos.

There is no bill of fare for this table under a sheet of corrugated iron that functions as a restaurant. It is one of the tens of thousands of stands all over Asia that serve just one thing - noodle soup. What is sacrificed in variety is made up for in value, for this poor man's meal will fill the famished for the change in their pockets. Many of the braver (or poorer) travellers will eat at such places, but the majority are more comfortable with English menus, familiar foods and preparation methods on par with the west. This makes noodle shops ideal places to rub elbows with locals and catch a glimpse of everyday life.

Simply sitting down on the plastic covered sawhorse and bellying up to the plywood table with a Sabaidee makes my wishes perfectly clear and the proprietor goes to work without a word. A fistful of noodles is taken in hand, ripped in half to form the correct serving, and dropped into one of the mismatched and chipped ceramic bowls. Mine is decorated with flowers, the next painted with a heart and ribbons and the word 'love'. Green onions and cilantro are chopped in a blur, a tomato is sliced and a handful of bean sprouts and some pieces of cooked beef are all gathered up and added to the bowl. Finally, after two ladles of steaming broth from the tank on the wood fire are spooned in to heat the entire mixture, my meal is set before me with a thud and a grunt.

The cook goes back to the two things that were occupying her before my arrival; waving a plastic bag from the end of a stick to keep the swarms of flies from the food, and staunchly ignoring her little boy. He has planted himself on the table, cross-legged amongst the bottles and spices, trying to gain her attention by pulling a plastic bag down over his head and making faces with his squashed features. A couple of slightly older boys with wooden swords stuck in their belts race by, making the sounds of an engine shifting gears, rrrrrrRRRRRR, ah-rrrrrrRRRRR, AH-rrrRRRRRRR!

Another little one, just beginning to walk, is tottering across the uneven ground to show her father a huge pair of shears she has picked up somewhere. He frowns and points her back in the direction she had come, saying something stern before returning to the discussion at his table. The toddler wobbles off with the scissors stuck in her mouth, perhaps a little disappointed daddy wasn't more impressed, but obviously not letting that detract from her enjoyment of sucking rusty metal. I cringe, quite literally cringe with my toes curling up and my clenched fists almost snapping my chopsticks, relaxing only when she has returned the vicious things to the place she found them. Apparently the rule about not taking what doesn't belong to you supersedes the 'don't walk with rusty scissors in your mouth' law.

It appears that a pair of the numerous NGO workers here in Luang Phrabang have gotten themselves hitched as all attention at the noodle shop has turned to a procession of huge shiny Land Cruisers festooned with European Union and UN flags creeping by, honking their horns. The boy in the plastic bag accepts defeat and tumbles off the table to play with the cigarette butts beneath the table.

~ Nigel



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