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EATING & DRINKING

Beers by the Mekong

By thirsty hack Ignatius Rake
Vientiane, Laos

Posted December 05, 2013
beerlao
Beerlao: They bloody love it! © Ignatius Rake

Not for nothing is Beerlao billed as the "national beer of Laos", as this particular hack discovered when he went for a few scoops in Vientiane.


Weighing in at 5%, Beerlao Lager is considered by many to be the finest beer in Southeast Asia.

And while I've drunk damn fine local brews in Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines (where San Miguel comes from), I have to say that this particular tipple, produced using "the best local rice and overseas high quality malt" by the Lao Brewery Company (LBC), itself 50:50 owned by the communist state and Carlsberg1, definitely ranks among the best I've tasted.

Eminently quaffable, it is ideally suited to the local climate and slips down the gullet without any negative attributes that might otherwise impede its beeline to your bloodstream.

Admittedly, on first swig I was somewhat underwhelmed: I'd heard so much about it across the region that it had quite a reputation to live up to, I guess.

On the second, it put me in mind of the Cisk you get in Malta, although it's not as sweet and a tad more gassy.

By the third, I was hooked.

I wasn't just drinking a beer; I was replenishing an essential humor.

Better still, as I quickly discovered, this wondrous potion generally retails in Vientiane's pubs for around LAK 9,000 to LAK 10,000 (£0.69 to £0.76)2 for a 640 ml bottle, rising to LAK 15,000 a pop in the city's more salubrious saloons, such as Sticky Fingers on Thanon3 (Th) François Ngin and the highly atmospheric Drop Zone, an excellent watering hole with a streetside bar and pool table on Th Setthathirath that could have come straight from the pages of The Quiet American.



sunset over the mekong
Evening, all: A Beerlao in SPK (left) and the view shortly after I necked it. © Ignatius Rake

SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS
First produced in 1973, two years before the Marxist Pathet Lao swept to power, Beerlao has long commanded a local market share of 99%4 and thus may quite legitimately be called the taste of Laos in a bottle.

It's somewhat ironic then that while you see the Beerlao logo and colours pretty much everywhere in Vientiane – "the beer of the wholehearted people", as the branded umbrellas proclaim it to be – there aren't all that many bars in which to drink it, with most places that do punt it out closing at around midnight if not well before.

Poznań it most certainly ain't and thus, like the locals, you have to start cracking the whip early if you want to make the most of your drinking window.

Certainly, one place I most definitely do recommend is Samyek Pakpasack Khemkong (SPK) on the corner of Th Sithane and Th Fa Ngoum that, as well as the 3 Something Or Other5 nightclub below, boasts a perfectly positioned wooden roof terrace from which to watch the sun set over the mighty majestic Mekong: a truly spectacular sight to behold, especially if you've got a LAK 10,000 Beerlao in your hand.

Just bear in mind that you'll need to be getting the first ones in at around 17:00 at the latest.

After all, night falls faster in the tropics than it does in a Hammer Horror film and at that latitude it's completely dark by about 18.30 all year-round.

Another good roof bar worthy of any boozehound sniffing out the area is Bor Pennyang, which overlooks the T-shirt-tastic night market on Th Fa Ngoum.

Located atop three or four flights of stairs as opposed to just one, this bar is quite literally more up-market than SPK and thus charges LAK 15,000 for a big Beerlao.

However, the extra notes are well worth it as you while away a balmy tropical evening slumped against its central circular bar, possibly, as in my case, chatting to a couple of Sandgropers about cricket, crap and competitive eating.


THE WORD ON THE STREET
Back at street level, meanwhile, it quite quickly becomes apparent that the bulk of Vientiane's not-exactly-Hong-Kong nightlife is to be found within spitting distance of Bor Pennyang's panoramic views.

While I never made it into the somewhat seedy-looking Galaxy on the corner of Th Fa Ngoum and Th Manthaurath, I did, however, make a point of checking out Chockdee Café two doors down as it boasts the city's largest selection of Belgian beers.

Not that I actually drank any, mind.

As a devotee of Belgian beer, the fact I opted for Beerlao in this cracking little bar is surely a ringing endorsement of the local nectar's virtues.

That and the fact they wanted anywhere up to LAK 80,000 for a Trappiste.

"I feel really guilty about not ordering a Belgian beer in here," I told the Belgian owner.

A friendly chap from near the border with Luxembourg, he didn't seem at all offended.

Neither for that matter did the bearded Frenchman to my right, who turned out to be the very chap who had painted the reproduction Bruegels and Hergés adorning the walls (yep, there's a fair bit of Tintin going on in Chockdee, plus some pretty attractive Belgian grub to boot).

"It is OK," the artist reassured me in a tone that would have put Dr Kildare to shame.

"Beerlao is a very good way to start the night."

And by Jingo was he right.

What's more, when I clocked his own poison, I saw that he, along with nearly all the other francophone bar huggers, was drinking the same as I.

Santé!

Or chockdee! as they say in Laos, Thailand and, er, Chockdee.



beerlao sign
Another Beerlao sign! Sadly this open-fronted bar was closed. © Ignatius Rake

THE WITCHING HOUR
But what about finishing the night?

Well, while there aren't any Poz-style 24-hour drinking dens in Vientiane, there are still a few places that keep the Beerlao flowing past midnight.

Samlo, for instance, a few doors along from Drop Zone, springs readily to mind6.

Open till 02:00, this bar, like Bor Pennyang, is something of an expat institution.

Perhaps because of this (or maybe the other way round), its clientele also includes a fair few ladies of negotiable charms, something at odds with this ostensibly hooker-free city.

Not wanting to go down the Thai route, you see, the communist regime sometime back decreed it illegal for foreign men to stick their gutsticks in the local womenfolk without first tying the knot.

I raised this with an English teacher who was in Samlo "simply for the drinking".

"Yeah, there is that law," he said as we swilled at the bar, "but everyone just ignores it."

Not that Samlo is a knocking shop per se.

It's just a late-doors boozer and when you venture away from Europe or North America you tend to find that such places very often attract a certain type of femme fatale who isn't there for the peanuts.

It's just a fact.

Go for a drink in Manila if you don't believe me.

No, on second thoughts, stick to Vientiane.

It may be a darn sight quieter but the beer's bloody good and the locals aren't half as likely to shoot you.


See also The killers of Manila, posted 18/5/12.


Ignatius Rake
is a freelance journalist and geographer who has so far visited 70 countries on six continents. A published lyricist, he has fronted punk bands in both the UK and Poland, including the only band to be kicked off BBC Radio Cornwall. He has been known to like a pint.


Footnotes

1) In addition to its flagship Beerlao Lager brand (which everyone just calls Beerlao, something reflected in this article), LBC also produces 6.5% Beerlao Dark; 5% Beerlao Gold; 5.5% Lanexang; 5% Carlsberg; and 3.1% Eve. For more information and to listen to a fantastic song all about Beerlao, make sure you surf your way over to the LBC website.

2) LAK is the ISO currency exchange code for the kip, the Lao unit of currency. You can check out the latest exchange rates here.

3) Due to the city's French colonial past, some roads are called 'rue' or 'avenue' but for practical purposes it's best to stick with the Lao word thanon.

4) Beerlao is certainly not the only local beer to be had. Vientiane-brewed Namkhong, for instance, is a perfectly acceptable 5% lager that retails for the same price and which is brewed, so the label says, "with natural water 80 m underground that conform[s] to the standards of [the] World Health Organization (WHO) for drinking water". Which is kinda good to know, I guess.

5) Sorry. My Lao is pretty ropey so all I could make out was the number 3 in its name. However, I can tell you with a fair bit of certainty that Bor Pennyang translates as 'No Problem' while Khop Chai Deu on Th Setthathirath translates as 'Thank You Very Much'. I have no idea what Jazzy Brick across the street is meant to mean, although it's pretty pricey and a tad too sophisticated for my liking. Plus, while the barman was friendly, they'd run out of Beerlao(!), specialising as they do in foriegn spirits and cocktails. Unfortunately, they didn't have 12-year-old Redbreast or else I'd have stayed for a few.

6) There are a number of nightclubs (as in discos not brothels) dotted around the city that stay open until 03:00 or so, such as the one I found myself in after Samlo kicked out. To be honest, I haven't a clue where it was or what it was called on account of all the bar snacks I'd eaten. However, just be warned: if you do fancy a pint or three in such a place, the Lao love to play really bad chart music really loudly and I mean really loudly, as will be detailed in a forthcoming article once my ears have stopped ringing.




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