My kids eat two kinds of cereal, mixed together in a bowl. In winter, in Australia, they eat porridge. Every day. Cereal or porridge. Occasionally, we persuade them to mix it up a little with an egg on toast or pancakes. But they're creatures of habits, and at 5 and 2 1/2, remain stubbornly fixated on a singular goal.
Now that we're in Laos and it's summer year-round, they eat cereal year-round. They also make their own breakfast: 1 Weetbix + 1 small person's handful of Straight Things, mixed together in a bowl.
However, for the last couple of weeks, the breakfast balance has been awry. We can't find Straight Things anywhere.
Before we arrived in Laos, I did as much research as I could via the internet and badgering friends of friends and perfect strangers with email questions. No doubt both ingratiating and annoying, I wielded my newbie status shamelessly.
The upside of my information scrounge is that yes, you can pretty much buy anything your falang (foreigner) heart desires at the minimarts around town.
The downside, and one that we didn't comprehend until we had arrived, is that such falang goodies cost about 3 x the price. Particularly so with our Aussie dollar currently floundering around the 6,000 kip mark.
Of a weekend, it is highly likely that you will run into a familiar falang face at one of the minimarts around town. Minimart popularity peaks and falls with regularity, with new ones popping up like mushrooms. The current three favourites are Simuang (particularly known for its freshly cooked bread - best arrive after 4pm), Phonesili (with the friendliest staff who gathered round to admire my hessian recycling bags), and the newly re-opened Siavong (which has the biggest selection but is the most expensive).
You can get all the dry, packaged, tinned stuff you could want: chocolate; booze; local, fresh bread and dairy; frozen, imported meat and fish; imported French cheeses; and a load of sugary cereals. There are even portions of fresh fruit and veggies glad-wrapped on little styrofoam trays that I assume are from the local market down the road and are resold at a 800% markup. If the demand's there, why not?
A few bigger supermarkets abound like D-Mart, Home Ideal and the nameless one at the newly opened Vientiane Centre. These are like more spacious versions of minimarts with larger trolleys and slightly more choice on things like nappies and skin-whitening products. But essentially it's all the same stuff. And the last time we visited D-Mart, they played the same Top 40 song on repeat the whole time, which only added to the strange, Ground Hog Day feeling of having done it all before.
Of course overpriced minimarts are just one piece of Vientiane's food-buying pie. There's also the local fresh fruit, veggie and meat markets, which I've wandered through but need to return to for a proper assessment, and better photos. There are a few organic markets open briefly each week, and there are various other little speciality places like cheese shops, butchers, the quail egg stall downtown, the cafe that makes its own peanut butter, a Korean supermarket (with fresh kimchi and marinated pork in the fridge), and a tiny Japanese supermarket called J-Mart where I can sometimes find my precious Genmaicha green tea.
But no Straight Things.
And, for the really big 'hypermarts', there's always Thailand. The idea of driving to another country for groceries still sounds a bit strange to me but Thailand is literally just there. It's so close across the river that, at night, you can hear music playing from the other bank.
The Thai town at the border crossing is called Nong Khai and they have a couple of massive warehouse-like supermarkets such as Makro where lots of falang and wealthy Lao like to stock up on fresh and imported meat and fish, and dry goods, all sold in bulk.
Another hour further on will get you to Udon Thani, a much bigger town where swanky shopping malls like Central feel and look like alien ships amid the cracked pavements and crazy electrical wiring adorning the surrounding streets. In Udon, the supermarkets look like this...
This is a pretty fancy supermarket in my book, full of familiar looking products plastered in Thai packaging which ends up being kind of confusing. Similar to a trip to Ikea, we arrived with a shopping list and left with an assortment of random things like two enamel flowery cat bowls; a car phone charger that may or may not work; 30 tins of tuna that we can buy in Vientiane but were a few dollars cheaper here; and 50 million packets of dried seaweed for which the kids have developed an addiction.
But no Straight Things.
Well, I can't say we haven't tried. Two choices are now left to us - bite the bullet and hand over $13 for a packet of short-lived Straight Things, or move on to new breakfast pastures. Seaweed, anyone?
What tops your shopping list in a foreign country?