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  1. Travel books and cookery books are not my normal fare. But on this occasion, following a terrifically good holiday to Laos I was lent a copy of Ant Egg Soup – an account of a food tourist’s visit to the Lao PDR. Essentially, Ant Egg Soup is an exercise in journalism rather than literature. The theme is reportage, even if there is a leitmotif of food and recipes through the text. And that is fine, Laos is an interesting country about which the world knows little. Natasha du Pont de Bie’s food orientated travel broke down barriers with the Lao people, allowing her to gain very personal perspectives on the nation’s troubled history. This comes into particular focus in the Plain of Jars chapter, where Natasha du Pont de Bie meets the cousin of a Lao chef she knows in London. This in turn leads to an introduction to a sleazy local entrepreneur who sheds light on both the legacy of the secret war waged on Laos by the US, and on the ongoing issue of corruption within a nation lacking in vital infrastructure. But the question is really in why anyone would read Ant Egg Soup. Foodies may like the recipes – assuming they can get approximations of some of the exotic Lao ingredients. And armchair tourists are likely to be irritated equally by the abundance of food and the scarcity of glossy photos. I found myself most drawn to the sections that dealt with places I had visited or food that I had eaten. But this didn’t offer me any great new insight. Rather, it just provided written confirmation of what I had seen myself: the pretty old buildings of Luang Prabang; the temples of Vientiane; the ubiquitous laap salad and barbecued meat. I identified with Natasha du Pont de Bie’s lament that parts of the nation were ruined by druggy backpackers. But, to be fair, they are less common in Laos than in the rest of south east Asia. They also congregate around Vang Vieng, drinking themselves into oblivion whilst floating down a slow moving river in tyre inner-tubes, dreaming of an evening spent in a bar where all the chairs face the TV showing endless repeats of Friends – next door to a dozen more identical bars, each showing a different Friends DVD. The sections that dealt with places I had not been, or with food that I had not encountered (primarily the last couple of chapters) seemed less interesting. That made me wonder about the wider appeal of this kind of writing. And there were some aspects of the book that did grate. Firstly, I wish Natasha du Pont de Bie had not reported Lao speakers in such a raw state. Did we need to have phrases like: “those found by tourist two months ago”, or “nothing grow there now”? And when we have Lao speakers referring to their country as Lao, whilst Natasha says Lao, I wonder what point she is making. Laos is, after all, a French phonetic spelling of the name of the country in which the “s” is silent. And Natasha’s somewhat pious reflections on all the other foreigners in Laos – who seemed to be having a worse experience because they were not as open-minded as herself – was rather hard to take. Even if it was true. Travel books would also seem to have one weakness over a novel – the lack of a plot to drive the text forward. In Ant Egg Soup, Natasha du Pont de Bie seems to have made a frustrated quest to try ant eggs the driving factor. The trouble is, it looks like an afterthought. Apart from a mention at the beginning, and, if memory serves me well, one further mention in the forest, the ant eggs don’t seem to be a crucial factor until they are mentioned in the last chapter. Thus, the problem doesn’t really manifest itself until it is about to be solved. The result feels a bit gimmicky. I really wouldn’t want to damn this book, or travel writing in general, with heavy criticism – but faint praise, maybe. Ant Egg Soup was mildly diverting, and did appeal particularly given that I was in Laos only a month ago. I am sure the book will one day offer a fascinating insight into how people really live in Laos. But for now I would recommend going there rather than reading a second hand account of a trip there. I just can’t understand who would pick up a book like this through choice. And as an aside, I was intrigued to know how Natasha was able to get a visa to stay in Laos for many months. ***00
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