14th – 26th January
Living off the land
Asian river fish are large and greedy. Once you’ve located them, you could attach sprouts to the end of your fishing line and still reel them in...
From Savannakhet we’ve driven south, through the sprawling, uninspiring colonial relic that is Pakse, then east into the remote confines of the Bolaven Plateau, to spend a week fending for ourselves in the hills.
We spend our first night illicitly camping within the grounds of a Thai-run eco-resort. No guilt about not supporting the local economy here, none of it’s local. It’s more like a Thai theme park: complete with contrived ‘tribal’ village, coach park and artificially improved waterfall.
The place does offer some benefits for us, though. The river that cascades through the lightly forested complex is stocked full of catfish. Fed by the coach-loads of Thai weekenders, these monsters will fight over anything that is flung in to the water.
As dusk descends, we surreptitiously descend an overgrown rocky path to the riverbank and throw our line in. Within five minutes, we reel in and net a feisty, foot-long catfish each, just as well as we’ve forgotten to stock up fresh produce from a local market.
The fish are delicious – grilled on our stove with minimal seasoning to preserve their delicate flavour. It’s wonderfully liberating to be camping again, especially in these higher, cooler regions where it’s comfortable enough to sleep in the car.
Bathing, local style
The following day we drive 40km further east, climbing all the while, to the sleepy farming village of Tat Lo, spread along a single street hugging the meandering curves of the Xe Set river.
There are more waterfalls here; a 50 metre wide semi-circular granite outcrop forms a craggy barrier across the river, resulting in a foaming crescent of cascades and rapids.
No fish here unfortunately – the locals, with their long-nets and primitive but effective bamboo traps have essentially cornered the market. No matter – we’re back in the camping groove so make do with an excellent veg curry.
By the morning it’s apparent that we’re both in need of a decent shower. There’s not enough privacy anywhere in this country to make use of our snazzy solar shower, so it’s time to test out the local method – i.e. the river…
Actually, it’s far more effective than it sounds. The Bolaven Plateau, nestled in a huge, elevated volcanic crater is blessed with a myriad of unpolluted, laterite-filtered watercourses, plenty clean enough for washing in. Modesty requires the use of swimming trunks and sarongs but other than that it’s as good as using a shower; Nina even manages to wash her hair!
Dodging the traffic
Sparkling clean, we drive north off the main road towards the remote tribal village of Ta-oy, home to some of the regions more diverse hill-tribes and some of Laos’ most dense and pristine forest. Whilst the scenery, a colourful panorama of kilometre high rocky mountains massed with ancient primary forest, is spectacular, the road is quite the opposite.
Laos’ infrastructure is basic to say the least and roads are either brand new or non-existent. By way of example, the principle highway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang was only sealed in 1997; down here, the few tarmac roads have only been completed within the last 18 months.
This embryonic road network has spawned a whole motorised generation with negligible experience of driving at speed; consequently the general standard is terrible. Scooters are rarely controlled with two hands, the other being used to shield one’s eyes from the sun, chat on their mobile, or smoke. Car and truck drivers spend little time looking where they are going and often drive in the middle of the road.
Presumably this accounts for the country’s visibly high accident rate: within 10km of leaving Tat Lo we witness the immediate aftermath of two nasty collisions, taking our tally of accidents witnessed to date here to five.
Given the relative lack of traffic on the roads, we reckon there may be more accidents per vehicle in Laos than in India, possibly even Bangladesh.
Dodging the mines
The Ta-oy road deteriorates with every metre we drive. Three hours yet only 20km from the main road, it is little more than a rocky dried up river bed. Not impassable, but having just spent a small fortune repairing our long suffering car we take the sensible decision of turning around - our first retreat of the trip so far!
On our outward journey, we’d been too focused on looking at the road to notice what lay at the sides.
This particular road formed part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used in the second Indochina War to ferry supplies and people from the communist strongholds in northern Laos and Vietnam to the battlefronts in the south.
To disrupt the Trail, American and southern Vietnamese forces heavily bombed and mined the entire area – indeed Saravan is the third most heavily bombed province in Laos.
The densely forested terrain surrounding the track has made it impossible for ordnance clearance organisations to make anything other that the road itself safe. As we drive back, we notice at least eight live mines, some not more than two feet from the road, all marked out with triangles of bright red sticks. Without the sticks the mines, even with the surface leaf litter cleared from them, would be nigh on invisible.
Colour-coded markers warn of other UXO scattering the vicinity. Neither of us has ever seen live mines before; it is sobering to think of just how dangerous day-to-day life is for the local inhabitants. It’s not even safe to go for a pee at the side of the road…
Back at Tat Lo, our enjoyment of another excellent home-cooked supper is briefly disturbed by the arrival of a Thai ‘weekend tour’ bus: a psychedelic double-decker coach brimming with drunken, microphone wielding revellers. The karaoke is still in full, tuneless swing as they are spewed forth from the bus in a cloud of dust and alcohol fumes. Not a good advert for their country.
Thankfully, after a perfunctory view of the waterfall they are herded off to disturb some other poor picturesque village.
The following day we drive south, climbing to 1,200m and the centre of the Plateau. Cooler mountain air wafts over carefully managed plantations of coffee, teak, bananas and rubber. The French brought agriculture to the Plateau over 100 years ago, now it is one of Laos’ chief cash crop regions.
We lunch in the ghostly sprawling grid system that is Sekong, the provincial capital, where there’s little of interest except for a modest UXO Lao office. A friendly and helpful official proudly gives us an office tour and reels off some admirable statistics
In 2009 they cleared 1,844 unexploded ‘bombies’ and 1,904 items of other miscellaneous ordnance from Sekong Province. It’s impressive, as is the figure of 404,344 – the number of ‘bombies’ that UXO Lao has cleared across the country in the last 12 years.
Unfortunately, this figure represents less than 1% of the estimated 78 million unexploded ‘bombies’ that still litter the Lao countryside.
A few days later and we’ve nearly had our fill of waterfalls and jungle scenery. We weave west along dusty red dirt roads, past spectacular 120m high cascades hidden away in the jungle, to Paksong, Laos’ coffee capital.
Paksong has little else to offer, except coffee. But that’s fine – we’re self sufficient and we find ‘Mr Coffee’ a laid back, good-natured Dutchman in his forties who’s been living out here for two years.
His life really does revolve around coffee. Over a cup of delicious home roasted Arabica, he gives us an insight into the tribulations of coffee farming and invites us to join him on a tour of some of the local plantations the following day.
The tour is fascinating, especially for an avid coffee fan such as Charlie. As we walk through delicately managed nurseries and orderly Arabica and Robusta plantations, Mr Coffee explains the process.
Each tree takes five years from planting to full capacity production. The ‘berries’ are harvested by hand in the dry season (i.e. now) and dried in the sun for a month on large tarpaulins in the farmer’s front yards. Their annual crop is so valuable that farmers sleep amongst the drying beans to ensure their safety.
Every day the berries are turned by hand. Once dry, the bean is removed from the dried berry, which is then re-dried and de-husked a week later. This ‘white bean’ is then finally ready for roasting.
At the end of it, a kilo of beans is worth $0.87 on the open market. Here, there’s no price differentiation between organic and inorganic, the latter of which produces a 25% greater yield - understandably most of the stuff grown here is chemically enhanced.
It’s not a great return, given the skill and labour required to harvest the crop efficiently, especially when the stuff sells for $4 per kilo on the export market…
Four thousand islands
After a week ‘roughing it’ we enjoy a decent curry back in Pakse then head south to the Mekong’s inland archipelago on the Laos – Cambodia border. For around 40km, the river swells to its widest point, encompassing thousands of densely leafed islands and sandbanks and periodically crashing through sets of thunderous, un-navigable rapids.
Three of the largest islands are inhabited, mainly by subsistence farmers but increasingly by throngs of tourists looking to unwind. It’s busy when we arrive and finding accommodation at all (no cars on the islands, hence no camping) is difficult – we end up in a primitive bamboo shack complete with lumpy insect-ridden mattress and the filthiest, shared, squat bathroom we’ve seen in some time.
Aside from that, the trip to the islands is very worthwhile – the highlight being a jaunt down the river in an ear-splittingly loud longtail boat at sunset, watching incredibly rare and elegant Irrawaddy Dolphins rising serenely to the surface to breathe.
We’ve only another few days in Laos before our visas expire and we need to dash across to Thailand. Driving north to the nearest vehicle border crossing, we stop for a few nights in Champasak, another ancient royal seat, but more low-key than Luang Prabang.
The solitary main street, running parallel to the ubiquitous Mekong, is lined with crumbling modest palaces and elegant French colonial mansions. It would be hard to imagine a more civilized spot to while away a few days in relaxation, which is exactly what we do.
Lao towns are invariably laidback but Champasak is in a world of its own; possibly the most relaxed place we’ve visited on our trip so far (excepting the hordes of chronologically challenged cockerels continually crowing throughout the night). The pace of life here seems to reflect the almost imperceptible flow of the adjacent Mekong, timelessly, serenely winding its way south.
Maybe we’ll stay one more day…