Thursday, June 22, 2017

Exploring Southern Laos – Pakse and the Bolevan Plateau

June 22, 2017
Pakse, Laos

Caroline, standing on the viewing platform and getting soaked in the mist from the raging Tad Yuang waterfall in southern Laos
First thing in the morning, we got a ride in a luxury sedan to the Vientiane airport. That was thanks to the Ansara Hotel insisting it would be the only way to ensure we’d get a ride at such an early hour. It surely wasn’t. But it cost us almost as much as our flight to Pakse! Okay, not really – it was $20, which has come to seem like a king’s ransom – compared to our $100 per person flight. At least the hotel did give us each a huge to-go breakfast, even though our departure before the official start of breakfast time.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, and after attempting to eat part of our unwieldly breakfasts in the airport general waiting area, we were led to the boarding area upstairs. Here, we waited a little while longer, while watching the daily morning communist propaganda show on a small TV at the front of the room, where patriotic Lao music is played while showing scenes of the military, productive farmers, and some dancing female soldiers.

After a pleasantly uneventful flight, we arrived in Pakse.  We got out of the airport cab near our number one hotel choice just as it was starting to rain. The cheap rooms we’d seen advertised online were sold out and the remaining rooms seemed too expensive for the quality, so we set out on foot (in the rain and toting all of our luggage) to look at our second and third choices. We ended up at a place that wasn’t even on the list, the Athena Hotel, although it was clearly the nicest place in town, and with a price tag to match, at $50 per night vs. the $30 everywhere else. 

The Athena Hotel, our digs for the night
As the priciest place in town, they would have been well-advised to update their lobby to match the quality and style of the rooms.  Based on the lobby, full of ugly, bulkily ornate and uncomfortable dark wooden furniture, the $50 they were asking looked like highway robbery.  Luckily Caroline insisted on seeing a room, which promised a pleasant night’s sleep (if you ignored the couple of mosquitos that managed to make their way inside).

Spacious, well-appointed and clean, our room at the Athena provided a comfortable night's sleep
Our room opened onto a charming little patio, overlooking the pool
Luckily, the weather cleared up shortly after we checked into the Athena, and we were able to go for a steamy walk around town. We started off by having coffee at the cute, tiny coffee shop called simply 124 Thaluang Coffee. We were surprised to see how clean and organized the café was, and then less surprised once we found out the owner was originally from Japan. 

Pakse coffee break
After our coffee, we strolled over to the Mekong River, where we stopped for a cold, refreshing drink on a floating restaurant. 

Stopping often for a cold drink is essential for getting through the day in the steamy temps of SE Asia
We enjoyed walking around the sleepy town (even sleepier than Vientiane). It felt very much like the only civilization for miles around. While walking along the Mekong, we spotted a couple of women casually walking back to the truck with their purchases after shopping for live geese on a Tuesday afternoon. While passing by, it was quite evident that the woman nearest the truck was sporting a military uniform.

Get your live geese and pigs here!

This scene occurred just moments after we witnessed two other women loading live pigs of various sizes - by tossing them haphazardly - into a sidecar on a motorbike.  Never a dull moment, this deceivingly sleepy Pakse place.

Pigs in a basket, for sale. Of course.
We were treating Pakse as our departure point to tour the nearby Bolaven Plateau, the high altitude land of waterfalls and coffee plantations, by motorbike. Other westerners in town (although there were not so many here) seemed to be planning the same type of trip. After our riverfront stroll, we headed by the motorbike rental shop that had the best reputation – Miss Noy’s (different Noi than the chef in Vientiane; it’s a very common name here).

At the motorbike shop, Noy’s French husband sat us down with three other pairs of motorbikers to talk us through, in heavily accented English, potential itineraries depending on whether we were doing one night, two nights, or more. Being the old, fancy folks there, I imagine we had a lot more luggage to bring with us, and were sharing a motorbike with Caroline wearing the backpack, so we didn’t seriously consider anything more than one night. That meant “the short loop” for us. Most of our French guide’s advice revolved around only parking places where you have to pay. Otherwise your motorbike will be stolen. We’d read about this problem back in Luang Prabang, where many times it’s the employees of the motorbike shop itself stealing their own scooters back, then proceeding to shake down the renter for replacement cost.

Early the following morning (Wednesday), we loaded up Caroline with our pack, picked up our motorbike, and were off on our loop. 

Ready to ride - Bolaven Plateau, here we come! And yes, this was all of our luggage for the next two days.
Thirty minutes from the shop, we were very much out in the rural countryside, passing by farmland, before getting into jungle scenery.  

Villagers farming the land outside Pakse
 We spent some time at waterfall #1 (Tad Pasuam), taking photographs of the falls and the unique suspension bridge hanging precariously over the river.

Tad Pasuam
Our next stop was a Katu coffee plantation and homestay called Mr. Vieng’s. 

Mr. Vieng's
Katu are one of the ethnic minorities living in this part of Laos, and stretching into Vietnam – villagers don’t care so much about the borders of countries that don’t care so much about them. Mr. Vieng wasn’t available to give us the plantation tour, as he was apparently in the hospital in Pakse at the time of our visit. Hopefully he’s okay. So we decided to break for some coffee and bananas. And peanuts – everywhere, peanuts. Grown on the plantation.  Quite tasty.

Enjoying the very local bananas and peanuts at Mr. Vieng's
The main structure at Mr. Vieng’s was a large, stilted home, with the ground floor serving as the dirt floor, open-air gathering space for daytime activities, meals, etc – like most countryside homes in Laos (and I suspect much of Southeast Asia). There were a couple of extremely friendly adult women working in the kitchen and making our coffee. Seated on a platform near our table were four young girls, chatting and singing together, while weaving Katu fabrics and shelling peanuts to sell. 

Girls working at Mr. Vieng's
Caroline used the facilities at Mr. Vieng's. Just in case you were wondering, this is what the restrooms in these parts typically look like.  It was perfectly clean, and as you can see, there was plenty of TP. :-)
On the way to our next stop, we passed up a turn, and while backtracking got caught in a torrential downpour. We had jackets and ponchos, but by the time we found somewhere to pull over and get them out, we were soaked through and freezing. Even with the raingear, it was nearly impossible to drive due to lack of visibility and the road turning into a river, so we pulled over at a no-frills roadside eatery to wait out the monsoon. The proprietor and his two young children were very friendly, and offered us a sheltered place to sit until the rain stopped. I saw old teapots hanging all over, and decided to order us some tea while we waited so we could warm up a bit. He sent his daughter running off to get us tea – which turned out to be cold, bottled, iced tea that I’m sure he thought was more suitable for us westerners. Oh well.

Once the rain stopped, we hit the absolutely raging Tad Lo Falls, where we tested the strength of the thin bamboo “bridge”, constructed of slats placed at least a foot apart, heading over the rushing water for the best view of the waterfall. 

Tad Lo Falls
Caroline was not excited about the prospect of either one of us walking on this bamboo bridge
Not sure if that was the highlight, or if it was watching all of the piglets scampering about town. I’m sure the locals loved seeing the tourists (us) chasing piglets around with cameras.

The last stop of the day was a Katu village where local, English-speaking guide “Captain Hook” gives tours. This animist village is located just off of the main road, but feels extremely isolated from the rest of Laos, and definitely from the rest of the modern world. Our tour guide apparently was given his nickname by a couple of Texans working for an NGO who ended up working near the village, and who taught him English. I’m sure his name was something like Huk.  

Waiting for Captain Hook to tour us around the village
While waiting for Captain Hook in the open-air, dirt floor area under his house, his wife made me what might have been the best coffee I’ve ever had, using a couple of pieces of bamboo  and a very slow filter made of some other plant matter. 

Mrs. Hook(?), cheerfully making Scott's coffee
It probably took a couple of minutes to make each sip, which was about a third of an espresso shot.

While I enjoyed my coffee, and Caroline her fresh-squeezed lemon juice, we watched as the rest of the family smoked their home grown tobacco out of large bamboo water pipes. 

Homemade bamboo pipes
The kids start smoking at a very young age (like 5 or 6). We even watched as the woman we assumed to be grandma put an infant’s face over the pipe. The smoke is thought to ward off evil spirits.

The village is completely self-sustaining, and for a fee of about $2 per person, Hook showed us all around the land surrounding his village.

Touring the lush village farmlands with Captain Hook
During the tour, he explained what each plant is used for – food, medicine, hunting, etc., while telling us what separates his animist people from others in Laos. 

During our tour, Hook grabbed a handful of ants off a leaf, crushed them up and offered us a taste.  Scott partook. Caroline declined.
I think he knew quite well what would surprise or shock the western tourists, like such facts as:

-  When a woman gives birth, she is forced into the forest away from the rest of the villagers for a number of days so as not to infect the village with evil spirits.
-  Same thing if a person dies of unnatural causes. That person’s family must abandon their home and go into the forest for a year to make sure bad luck doesn’t continue.
-  Dogs are considered bad luck, and you must kick a dog if it comes near you or crosses your path. Every year there’s a ceremony where a puppy is tied to a stake in the center of the village, and people line up to kick it until it dies.

Overall, it was a fascinating tour with an interesting and intelligent guide. Their way of life is changing – there’s now a TV in the village, and people are buying clothes from the nearest market instead of making their own – so we’re glad to have had the opportunity to visit before Hook’s village becomes like the rest of the small towns of Laos.

Our accommodations for the night were at the Sinouk Coffee Resort. Not much of a resort by western standards, the property contains lovely grounds kept up as sort of a showpiece of Lao coffee and horticulture. 

Sinouk Coffee Resort
The area behind our building at the Sinouk Coffee Resort
Common area near our room at the Sinouk Coffee Resort. The glass table top showcases a design of coffee beans beneath.
Maybe it’s considered a resort by the local mosquitoes, who all appeared to show up there just after we arrived before a beautiful sunset. Smartly attired in western-style, business-casual wear (but with sandals on his feet), our diminutive host (bellboy/front desk clerk/waiter) showed us to our room. Caroline towered a full head above him. 

Our hospitable host shows us to our room at the Sinouk Coffee Resort.  And no, this is not an optical illusion.
The room was also petite, and a bit cold (and mosquitoe-y), and so Caroline was happy to be staying just one night. 

Our room at the coffee plantation was a bit rustic by western standards, but quite luxurious by local ones
Sunset at Sinouk Coffe Resort #nofilter
It was an early night, after dinner at the hotel, where Caroline got another “deconstructed gin & tonic” like the one she had in New Bagan, Myanmar consisting of a glass of gin, bottle of Schweppes Tonic, bucket of ice, and plate of sliced limes.  Caroline also managed to inadvertently order one of her spiciest meals in Asia. Indeed, this was the only time on the entire trip where she was forced to order a replacement meal so as not to go hungry.

The next day saw us heading back to Pakse in the cold Bolaven Plateau morning, but only after first making three more waterfall stops. The first waterfall stop of the day, Tad Yuang, was the first that seemed to be a legit tourist attraction. There was even a bus with Cambodian plates in the parking lot.

A Legitimate Tourist Attraction: the restrooms appeared to be brand spanking new, and with your choice of toilets, as indicated on the door of each stall! So fancy!!
It was so windy and misty down the narrow, slick, viewpoint path that it seemed like quite an adventure just getting there. 

Even the upper viewing platform at Tad Yuang was damp and dangerously slick in the mist
Scott braved the lower viewing platform Tad Yuang for the money shot. Ummm hmmm. LOL

The sun came out briefly right before we left Tad Yuang. :-)
Tad Yuang parking lot.  I don't think they meant to get so existential on us. They just wanted to direct vehicles on how to get out. LOL
The second waterfall of the day, Tad Fan, was across a huge gorge, where it towered higher than any of the other falls we’d seen.

There was so much mist generated form the thundering Tad Fan that frequently the falls were largely obscured.  But it was fascinating to watch as the mist constantly changed the view.
We could see tiny, speck-like zip-liners gliding well over 1,000 feet above the river below. For $100, and a long trip around to the other side of the gorge, we could have partaken – but the interest was not quite there.

Enjoying Tad Fan from the viewing platform
The final waterfall, Tad Champi, was a walk of close to two miles down a slick dirt (mud) road then a climb down a ladder to a viewpoint. 

The muddy road through the coffee trees that we traversed to our final waterfall of the trip, Tad Champi
Stairs, always stairs...

This section of the stairs made clever use of old tire treads as an anti-slip measure. Safety measures, in Laos...go figure...
Apparently people swim there, but surely not when the water is running as fast as it was during our visit.

The rushing Tad Champi falls
The bridge at Tad Champi was a bit precarious...
All in all, this motorbiking trip will surely go down as a highlight of our time in Asia, and one of the most memorable adventures. We hope to do more motorbiking during our remaining time in Asia.

Although a lot of fun, it was an exhausting trip, so much so that the final stretch back into town saw Caroline nodding off on the back of the bike.  After returning our trusty motorbike to Miss Noy’s, we crashed for the night once again at the Hotel Athena in Pakse, where they were holding our luggage for us, and gave us the same room we were in prior to our motorbike trip, thinking it would be most comfortable for us.  They’re kind and thoughtful like that in Laos.  

Back in civilization: relaxing over a Beerlao and a glass of wine before the next day's journey
Before passing out from fatigue, we figured out how to get transport to our next destination of Don Khone, one of the “4,000 Islands” in the Mekong in southern Laos. An early bus would take us directly to a longboat to the island. Stay tuned...

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