Monday, 10 December 2012

Back in the LPDR

Three years ago we travelled to Laos for the first time, bobbing around the north for two weeks, by the end of which we’d fallen in love with the country. When thinking about a destination in SE Asia for a few weeks it immediately sprung to mind as a potential destination, but I’m always wary about the curse of the second visit never living up to the initial impression and spoiling both memories. 

As our bus slowly rolled over the border from Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand on route to Pakse in southern Laos, that trepidation rapidly dissipated as time visibly slowed to Laos time. Maybe it’s the baking heat, maybe the air has a greater density, but the whole of Laos, with the exception of the odd crazed minivan driver, operates as if time is very much a secondary concern, an attractive prospect.

Pakse is a moderately sized town on the banks of the Mekong that, while not having many sites, has its own certain charm and as all roads lead to Pakse, acted as an unofficial base for our forays to the surrounding countryside.  After a few days in Pakse I’d already developed a two shower a day strategy as by days end my skin had accumulated, to varying degrees of thickness, layers of suncream, sweat, general dirt and grit and finally insect repellent, an attractive combination.  Relief was at hand however as we were headed to the cooler mountainous climes of the Bolaven Plateau, famed for its coffee plantations and waterfalls.

Heading to Pakse’s southern bus station we found a public bus leaving in a few hours that would drop us off near the small town of Tad Lo. Having caught public buses before in Laos I know to expect that the bus can and will generally be filled with as much livestock and people as possible and that this overriding desire to fill the bus far outweighs any consideration of time.  Within this context we had a relatively easy time of it as we only had to clamber over large sacks of rice loaded into the aisle and into our seats.  Then the bus slowly wound its way up onto the lower levels of the Bolaven Plateau and a few hours later we were dropped about 2km from Tad Lo.

Tad Lo
Walking through the midday sun we reached the edge of Tad Lo feeling like two scrunched up balls of sweat, but I couldn’t help but smile at the simplicity of village life as we passed a veritable menagerie of farm yard animals, from enormous lumbering water buffalo and snorting pigs, to befuddled ducks and chickens, goats and dogs. The gringo part of town consists of one very sleepy street on the banks of a lake at the base of the impressive Tad Lo waterfall.  The picture created by the still waters of the lake, flanked by green grass and farmyard animals, was strangely reminiscent of an English village in spring.  For lodgings we’d splashed out and secured a cabin in a prime location overlooking the waterfall.

Tad Lo Waterfall
At this stage we’d booked no departure date from Laos so were free to spend as many nights in Tad Lo as felt right.  We ended up spending three nights and indulged in amongst other activities, a highly enjoyable ride around the nearby villages and through the river feeding the waterfall aboard a friendly, but hungry elephant with a penchant for bamboo.

During our time in Tad Lo we also had a long conversation and coffee with an Austrian, Manfred, whose current residence was a tent under a wooden shelter at the entrance to the town. I’d say Manfred was in his mid 40’s but had a physique that made Iggy Pop look portly and like Iggy I wasn’t convinced our Austrian Freund was the full quid.

He had however a comprehensive knowledge of Laos, built up through 11 years of visits and living here permanently for the past 4, working as an adviser on the quality of the coffee beans from the surrounding farms. He who advised I never entirely worked out, but I’m sure someone was interested.

Through our conversation Manfred highlighted the rapid changes taking place in Laos at the moment as the Government is currently involved in a fire sale of the country’s wilderness resources and minerals and has embarked on a wide spread campaign of constructing dams along the length of the Mekong, something which has attracted the attention of WWF.  Being surrounded by the economies of China, Vietnam and Thailand, the Laos Government can see the opportunity through the hydro schemes of being the low carbon power cell of this part of the world. There’s a certain logic to this, but there are also significant concerns about the potential impact on the livelihoods of those villagers who depend on the Mekong and species, such as the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin.  It’s also highly questionable where the average Lao will see the benefits flow to them from the revenue generated by these schemes. The debate to a degree eerily mirrors that encountered during the first week of my travels on the other side of the world in San Francisco.

While in Tad Lo we found it odd that despite being the only foreigners on the bus there were quite a few in the town itself. It became apparent that most people had hired motorbikes from Pakse and driven themselves up to the town, the benefit of which was highlighted on our journey to Paksong, the central town on the Bolaven and a good base for visiting the Tad Fan waterfall.

Our ride to Ban Tateng
To travel to Paksong required us to make our way to Ban Beng, catch a bus to Ban Tateng and then catch another bus to Paksong. Managing to negotiate a ride on the back of a pick up to Ban Beng, we arrived in time to meet the scheduled 8am bus service. 

Sitting under a shady tree we noticed another backpack resting on its side with no site of its owner.  A little while later, Min from Beijing ambled into view.  For the next three hours or so we sat there chatting and taking walks up to the junction keeping a lookout for the missing bus. Into the fourth hour Min took matters into her own hand and spying a liquid chemical truck slowly rounding the corner leapt in front causing the driver to break.  After wildly waving her hands she convinced the driver to give her a lift.  Opening the door she then waved us in and up we clambered into the trucker’s cabin where his startled little boy had started to wail having been rudely awoken by our presence.

I’m no truck driver, but I’m not sure our man was either. I’m also sure the Mandarin on the side of his truck read something along the lines of ‘can’t find it grind it’ as we were either crawling on the brink of stalling, or bunny hopping with the engine at the top of its rev range, either way averaging about 10km/hr.  Still we were very grateful for both Min’s forwardness and the generosity of our driver. We bade farewell to Min at Ban Tateng and stood again by the side of the road, but this time for not very long before a sawngthaew (a flat bed truck with a roof on the back and bench seats) picked us up on its way to Paksong.

Tad Fan
View from the sawngthaew
That afternoon we made our way to the magnificent Tad Fan waterfall before checking into a $6 a night guesthouse in Paksong.  While it was very affordable it was possibly the most disgusting rooms I’ve stayed in and I was very grateful for my sleeping sheet as I wasn’t too keen to touch anything in the room, least of all the mosquito splattered walls. 

Our journey to the Bolaven Plateau over and feeling like we were truly back in the backpacker mode we jumped on another bus the next morning to catch the ride back to Pakse and plan our journey south along the Mekong to the Cambodian border.

1 comment:

  1. Oh I could almost smell the dust and the animals. Great description Rob.