Luang Prabang Pigs Out

13 December 2016
Luang Prabang Pigs Out
By Bernie Rosenbloom

Luang Prabang’s hotels and restaurants hold “The Battle of the Pigs” to raise funds for families making their livings at the dump.
Troy Matusow frequently visits the Luang Prabang dump. The man behind Asia One Resort Supply knows the people who live amid piles of plastic under tarps. He’s watched them eke out a living by scavenging through the garbage pit, and often brings them water and food. But, he knows this is far from a fix. 

John Morris Williams, the general manager of Luang Prabang View Hotel, began joining Troy on his trips. “What I saw is alarming,” observed Big John. “Even the kids work in this very appalling situation. They scrape a few kip together to stay alive and feed their families, but nothing more. Still, they always smile.” He paused. “They live off our waste! What can we do for them?” 

Let the Battle Begin      
Troy and Big John brought their discussion of the recyclers’ plight to the Luang Prabang Motorcycle Club in October. The debate required lager lubrication. Joining them were Paul Burnett and Brent Rinehart. All four have time behind a stove, and professional cooking conversations often get heated. 

Paul is Lanith’s Food Production Advisor, and once served guests of Australia’s prison’s…though not as an inmate. Big John spent years as a 5-star executive chef, and Brent displays his culinary talents in southern Laos. As for Troy, he once owned The Hive restaurant, with a menu based almost solely on pork. He even offered a veggie burger with bacon.       

The dialogue about the dump dwellers’ dilemma twisted into who was the best pork chef. According to Paul, “Brent came out with, ‘I cook the best ribs in the world’. My reply was, ‘Actually mate, I reckon that bloke does the best ribs,’ and I pointed to Troy. Big John suggested that we have a contest to see who the best rib cook is, and it evolved from there.”
Big John noted. “So, after a few more beers and cocktails, and intense debate, we decided to hold something similar to the battle of the bands like in the ‘Blues Brothers’. A few beers later we settled on The Battle of the Pigs.”  

It still seemed like a good idea the next morning. Big John said, “The basic aim of The Battle of the Pigs is to bring awareness of what’s going on at the dump…The people of Luang Prabang need to know about the families’ livelihoods and poor sanitation and working conditions, and what we are not doing for the community.” 

The proceeds from The Battle of the Pigs would be earmarked for providing appropriate clothing for working with garbage, and improving water and sanitation facilities and equipment.

A Community Effort
Troy, Paul, and Big John huddled up to organize the December 10th function. They set a goal of 250 guests at 50,000 kip per head for 12.5 million kip, or some $1,500. Support and funding for The Battle of the Pigs would rely on goodwill from the tourism community, who readily jumped on board.

Lanith Luang Prabang Director Chounlachan “Nickie” Phengdy provided the venue and facilities. Her staff and students at the Technical Vocational Education & Training College pitched in. Lanith also rented the tables, chairs, and iceboxes, and offset the cost with alcohol sales.
Alex Garcia from Sofitel Luang Prabang stepped up with 15 kg of cooked pork, and Alistair Jones pitched in for additional food items. Paul’s wallet found money for cutlery. “All items are recyclable….plastic cups, tinnies, plastic cutlery, paper plates, etc.  All garbage at the event will be separated.”
The number of sponsors and supporters from Luang Prabang’s tourism and hospitality community skyrocketed. Chefs Somsak Sengta (Blue Lagoon) and Khamphoui Thavngsy (Luang Prabang View) signed up. A list of hotels followed suit: Amantaka, Belle Rive, The Sanctuary, Victoria Xiengthong, and Villa Maly, along with Mekong Cruises.

More support poured in from the F&B crowd such as the Buffalo Dairy, German Butcher, Thansimay Supermarket, Joma Bakery Cafe, Saffron Coffee, and Richard Prewer. Queen Designs boutique joined the fray, and for entertainment, The French Fries & German Sausages performed for free, backed by guitarist, Lam.

The six-week build up from the October barroom boast seemed to be going smoothly. The situation begged for a hiccup. “Salad,” Paul urgently emailed with five days to go. Paul takes salad seriously. He once scolded me over a head of lettuce. I had mistakenly bought a ball of green leaves called cabbage. 

Paul pleaded, “We would ask all those who would like to attend to bring some salads or vegetarian food to contribute to this great charity and event.” 
Big John wanted solid salad numbers. “Some” didn’t work. Paul responded, “Five kilos would be great. Up to you!” Big John coughed up the greenbacks, and Paul and the Lanith staff were in vegetable heaven.

The gates opened at 16:00, with Big John collecting tickets and money. People began trickling in and sipping Beer Lao as the chefs and Lanith got ready for the 18:00 feeding time. By the time the dinner bell rang, the seats and tables for 250 were almost full, and people kept coming. 

A 19:00 phone call found Paul in a salad-tossing frenzy, and no time to talk. Guests were feasting like Roman warriors. Food was running low. Big John announced more than 300 people had passed through the gate. It was standing room only when the band and guitarist went on stage, and they, along with Beer Lao, carried the crowd until midnight.  

“We didn’t have enough tables and seats,” Big John admitted. “We were only prepared for 250, but it was great to see a mixed crowd of locals and expats. Some dishes went faster than others, but all the guests said the food was great.” 

Big John was still counting the proceeds the next day. “So far, we’ve taken in nearly 15 million kip ($1,800). It was a success for sure. People are already asking for another one.” 

Big John, Troy, and Paul are already discussing The Battle of the Pigs 2, possibly within six months, with an eye on a third round next December. The local tourism community is eager to raise funds for other causes.

So, who won Luang Prabang’s inaugural Battle of the Pigs? According to Big John, the event spiralled way beyond a rib-cooking contest. “The big winners here are the families living in the dump, and the people of Luang Prabang, who will never again look at their garbage the same.”