Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations

Season 4 Episode 11


Aired Monday 10:00 PM Jul 07, 2008 on Travel Channel

Episode Recap

A motorized canoe is seen traveling the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand. In a voice over, show host Anthony Bourdain explains that he has always wanted to visit Laos, which he refers to as, "the last, unexplored, terrain of Southeast Asia".

The viewer is shown glimpses of a seemingly barren land, untouched, for the most part, by western technology and fast food eateries. Anthony calls Laos, "a country shrouded in mystery."

From the capital of Vientiane, a one-time French territory, Anthony flies to Xian Khoang province, and is shown a frontier town, where a market shows foods from nearby Asian nations. Anthony enjoys a breakfast of Khao Pia, a soup made with chicken, duck, and pork, served with a wide variety of condiments. Although the soup is Vietnamese, he says the condiments are "pure Lao".

Anthony is then taken to a field of large "jars" in Phonsavan, the capital of Xian Khoang province. Anthony explains that the jars' purpose is unknown. It is thought they might have been used in a burial ritual, or to store salt or rice. He goes on to say that local legend says "giants" carved them to store alcohol.

Later, Anthony is taken to a village where shrapnel and unexploded U.S. ordnance are used as raw materials, and even as decorations. He says that more bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war than on all of World War Two Germany and Japan, combined. An organization called "Uxo Lao" tries to clear the land of the various munitions still buried from a decade of bombings. Each discovered mine is destroyed with a single explosive, underlining the seeming futility of the task, where millions of such arms are believed to be strewn across the country. As Anthony watches the spectacle, Edwin, the technical adviser for "Uxo Lao", says, "Very big explosions...", to which Anthony chuckles uncomfortably and off-handedly responds, "Thank you", as Edwin pointedly continues, "...destroyed some of the things that your countrymen left behind." Afterwards, Anthony is taken to the home of a farmer, whose leg and arm were blown-up by the very mines Anthony saw being destroyed. The farmer and his family treats Anthony to a lavish - - at least by local standards - - meal. Through an interpreter, Anthony asks the farmer how the incident changed his life. The farmer says that he was once open-minded, but is now bitter and lonely, even though the viewer sees an amiable, smiling, perhaps content, man, surrounded by his family, who are clearly uncomfortable by Anthony's and the camera crew's presence. The farmer then asks Anthony if he is afraid to see the results of the travesty caused by Americans. Anthony, equally uncomfortable, says that all Americans should know of the "price of war", and suggest that such stark realities are not a movie. In a post-production aside, Anthony says he is out of his element, being not only just a traveler and observer, but something of a diplomat, never quite apologizing, but trying to make it obvious how the travesties done to locals have affected his own psyche. As he leaves the farmer's home, Anthony notes that, yet again, a family has opened their homes and hearts to him, when they had no reason to do so. The family smiles, albeit, uncomfortably so, as they watch Anthony leave.

After visiting another family, Anthony is asked why he is visiting Laos. He responds that he has read about the nation, and had become fascinated by its "veil of mystery".

Taken to an ethnic enclave, where, in the 1970's, American military officials had tried to educate the Hmong people to the "perils" of Communism, the people were eventually taught and armed to battle the Communists, only to end up being brought to the US to protect them from Communist sympathizers. The few that survived, today, live either hidden in the hills, fearing reprisals from the Communists, or live in modest homes with seemingly out-of-place motor scooters and satellite dishes.

Anthony takes a motor scooter, and then rides an elephant, to the Luang Prabong monastery town, where tourists watch the inhabitants give rice and alms to young monks who ritually walk through the small town to make the meager offerings their sole sustenance for the day. The camera shows well-dressed tourists taking pictures of the somber, dignified, ages old, spectacle. When Anthony asks a local about the "foreign intrusion", the man says that he welcomes it, to show the world the "real" Laos. But, in an off-camera aside to the audience, Anthony begrudges that showing the world such beauty and culture could ultimately lead to destroying it by over-commercialization and tourism.

Later, in a small town down the Mekong River, Anthony is shown how Lao-Lao, the national, rice whiskey drink is made.

In his last day, Anthony is shown a Buddhist Basi ceremony of health and happiness. He participates in the multi-purpose ceremony, which is being held in his honor and to wish him a good voyage home. Then, he is treated to a festival, and he romanticizes about Laos, lamenting its seemingly inevitable surrender to tourism, technology, and western civilization.