Laos Stories and Tips

Voem Kham - An Ice Coffee on the Mekong

Travel Photo by IgoUgo member


Do you really care what type of coffee I like?

I don’t like iced or flavored coffee. Hot and black is perfect. Despite my many visits to Starbucks in several continents, I had never tried their iced or flavored beverages. If I’m feeling adventurous, I go for a cappuccino.

Lost in the Jungle

I arrived for the first time at Pakse after having crossed the border from Cambodia. In those days the border was not officially open; less than twenty travelers per year crossed it. Deep within the rainforest, I witnessed there the most beautiful sunrise in my life, the first sunrays slowly diffusing through the trees and softly illuminating the lazy river.

After having spent the night in the Cambodian part of Voem Kham, I crossed to the Laotian part planning to catch a truck – any passing vehicle in fact – to Nakasong.

On my way out of the tiny village – next to the only curve the unpaved road had – I smelled the unmistakable aroma of Laotian coffee and all my plans were forgotten at once. Looking around, I spotted a suspicious hut: smoke was rising from its roof. Following the heavenly signal, I entered the hut – it had no door – and met the usual Laotian coffee machine. I asked for coffee in rudimentary Lao and sat next to the only table, sharing it with the only other customer. Both – the owner and the customer – looked at me with undisguised curiosity.

Laotian Coffee

By the end of the 19th century, French settlers planted coffee in the volcanic ground of the Bolaven Plateau in south Laos, a place originally inhabited by the Laven people. Despite the extremely high quality of the local product, both Arabica and Robusta varieties, it is mainly ignored by the world, maybe a result of the low yields; for example in the year 2000 it was just 13900 metric tons, most of them used in the local market. The small quantities exported, always get record prices without any dependence in the international coffee market situation, a modest recognition of its high quality. In blind taste tests, the Laos coffee get almost always the first place, a result of optimal geographical conditions with a slow paced organic growth, a subtle reminder of the charming local culture. They still place quality before quantity.

A Laotian Coffee Machine

A coals oven, made from a conical bucket filled with concrete and with an aeration open in it bottom, is placed over a few layers of bricks, ordered perpendicularly to each other, is the basis to a big evaporation vessel. This vessel is cylindrical, with the diameter of the bucket and in his upper side there are two circular openings the size of a kettle, partially obstructed by two kettles. Inside the kettles there are filters made from a circular metallic frame, to which a conical cloth filter is attached. The diameter if the filter is about 13 centimeters and the length of the cotton cone is 15 centimeters when new and about twice this size after it is used for a while. The preparation starts by putting around fifty grams of very coarse grounded coffee to the cloth filter. Almost boiling water from the vessel is poured over the filter into the kettle and the filter is left inside the kettle that is continuously heated by the vapors from the vessel. As the filter with the coffee is immersed inside the filtered coffee, it experiences a prolonged process of cooking. The length of this stage is not constant and it depends on the number of customers, time of the day and other similar variables. Since from time to time more grounded coffee is added to the filter, any practical evaluation of this time is impossible. Long cooking time can cause the appearance of a mild acidity to the taste; therefore, it is preferable to approach the stalls early in the morning to enjoy the best quality product.

The result of this process is an extremely condensed coffee, used as a base to the preparation of several coffee drinks, the most popular being the coffee with milk To prepare it, around 15% of the volume of a small glass is filled with condensed milk, the cloth filter is placed over the glass and the condensed coffee is poured again over the filter and flows down to the glass. Only around half of the remaining volume is filled with coffee and the rest is filled with hot water from the vessel that has the double effect of diluting the strong coffee and gives a final heating to the mixture. As in Vietnam, the result is a black and white dichotomy, transformed after mixing into an opaque dark brown. The coffee, both because of the preparation method and the addition of condensed milk is very dense, with an extremely heavy body, reminding very much of a chocolate drink, leading to the most popular impression of first time drinkers: coffee-tasted chocolate. Another colorful characteristic is the, luckily temporal, effect of blackening the drinker teeth and tongue.

Extremely Rudimentary Lao

I do not pronounce correctly the tones of the Thai and Lao languages. Sometimes I get them right, others I mix up everything. A word I am unable to pronounce correctly means "hot." In areas where tourists are a common sight, that’s not a problem; the locals would make sure they understood me by repeating it in the proper tones. Here, apparently they didn’t want me to feel I "lost face" by making such a horrible mistake. Instead, the coffee shop owner prepared what she thought I wanted.

With dismay I saw how she poured a cup of the most perfect coffee in the world over a cup full of ice cubes. My Lao wasn’t good enough for explaining the mistake, asking for another cup could be offensive. Resigned to my fate, I picked up the cup and took a sip.

Needless to say, it was one of the best coffees in my life.

Out of Voem Kham

Minutes later, I was standing at the village entrance, beyond the Laotian immigrations booth. There was no traffic. The guards told me a bus was scheduled to pass around noon, but I didn’t want to wait; noon was four hours in the future.

Suddenly, I saw a cloud of dust and heard a heavy truck approaching. I signaled it to stop and repeated "Nakasong" several times. The man sitting next to the driver moved his head up and down and pointed at the back of the truck. I climbed and seated over a thick canvas. Below it was the merchandise: ice blocks.

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