Coffee beans and waterfalls

I caught the bus to pakse with Bianca and Simon at 8am and it’s probably the hottest 5 hours i’ve spent on a bus to date : there were no fans and all that was blowing through the windows was the hot air from the dusty roads outside. We had the usual random stops and at each one the bus was boarded by numerous Lao food vendors selling whatever your stomach desires – on a stick : bugs, chickens, eggs, pork balls, donuts, barbequed bananas, as well as the standard drinks in plastic bags. The 3 of us managed to get rooms in the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse, and then Bianca and Simnon disappeared for a nap whilst i went for a wander around Pakse’s hot and unfamiliar streets.

In the evening Bianca, Simon and I shared a meal, conversation and beer Lao at Delta Coffee. Although it doesn’t sound very Lao it does actually have a long list of Lao and Thai dishes, as well as Italian and continental, and a huge selection of coffees, teas and fruit shakes.

The next day the three of us joined 8 others (a lovely well-travelled older Canadian couple, a pretty, super fiendly German girl called Rebecca and her 2 friends, a very opinionated woman from London and her friend from New York, both of whom were caffiene and nicotene fiends, and Laura, a writer from Canada who’s actually had a travel book published entitled ‘Tro Tros and Tuk tuks’) on a day tour to the Bolaven Plateau. It was a lovely relaxing and educational day with a (mostly) good crowd of people. The British woman was very knowledgeable and did have a lot of valid points to make about the country, it’s culture and economy and the impact of tourism on these three things. However a lot of us did wish at times that she would not try to force her opinions on other people. Poor Rebecca was apparently helping to destroy the local culture and economy by simply choosing to drink Nescafe instead of the locally cultivated Lao coffee!

The Bolaven Plateau is famous for its cool climate, waterfalls, fertile soil and high grade coffee plantations. It’s also known for being one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the second Indochina war, and in fact we walked past a huge bomb crater on our way to Tat Fan, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Laos. Tat Fan is on the edge of the 1100sq.km Dong Hua Sao National Protected Area, and has 2 parallel streams of the Huay Bang Lieng plunging out of dense forest and down more than 120m. We were able to get a fantastic view from the Tad Fane resort, a collection of wooden bungalows built on a cliff opposite the falls. It costs $20 per night to stay at the resort and if you’d have seen the view, you’d know why.

As we wandered through the plantations, the cultivation process was explained to us and we were shown the instruments utilized in this process. The scenery was simply beautiful, interspersed with a wide variety of interesting and colourful flowers. Children were climbing trees, pushing wooden carts full of plants and playing jovially in the streets. We were shown the 4 different varieties of coffee plant : Big Bean has the biggest leaves, followed by Robusta (the most popular variety of coffee consumed in Laos), Arabica (which has a slightly chocolately flavour) and a forth one beginning with a C whose name now escapes me. We all stopped for a coffee break where we were able to sample some fresh Arabica, before walking down some bamboo steps to another waterfall where we could swim in the pool at the base of the falls. On our ascent back up to the village where we ate lunch, we encountered a collection of over enthusiastic Thai tourists, all keen to have their photographs taken with us!

After lunch we were driven to a Katu village. The Katu are distinctive for their face tattoos of their women, a custom that is slowly dying out as the Lao influence in the area increases. Another Katu custom, which is still in existence, is the carving of wooden caskets for each member of the household well in advance of an expected death ; the caskets are stored beneath rice sheds until needed. We witnessed a lady pounding rice by hand, a few dirty looking children in the deserted school begging for pens and money, and an old lady (with the kind of face where every wrinkle tells a story) smoking a long wooden shish pipe, which apparently contains a mixture of tobacco and honey.

The last waterfall we paid a visit to was Tat Lo. This is a 10m high waterfall, where the flow of water is controlled by the dam authorities. Apparently the tour group who visited the falls yesterday were unable to do any swimming because the dam authorities hadn’t turned the taps on! The water was beautifully warm and the place had a certain serenity about it. We met a few travellers who had chosen to stay at one of the guesthouses surrounding the falls, and i can see Tat Lo turning into a bit of a backpacker’s hideaway in years to come : the accommodation is cheaper than Pakse, there’s a waterfall right on your doorstep and there’s an elephant lodge at nearby Tad Lo Lodge, offering rides into the surrounding forests.

We finished the tour by visiting one of the local weaving villages where we watched the villagers dye the cotton using natural plant colours and then weave it into intricately detailed garments such as belts, scarves, skirts, shawls and table runners. By the time we’s completed the long drive back to Pakse, we had seen the sun set and it was approaching 7pm. For $13 the tour had definitely been good value for money. The day began at 8am and included all transport, guides, entrance to the park and waterfalls, lunch, coffee and an endless supply of water and bananas.

I’d definitely recommended Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse, not so much for the fact that the rooms are paricularly outstanding but for the fact that the package as a whole is. The staff at the guesthouse organise and conduct excellent, value for money tours, have an endless supply of information for travellers (including how much you should be charged for a tuk tuk ride to all major sites/points of interest in the area), visa, laundry and motorbike rental services, as well as a pretty little garden containing a pond full of Coi Carp and a wooden seating area where you can enjoy food from the guesthouse restaurant (at very reasonable prices) or a beer Lao with all the friends you’ve made there.

Photo to follow.

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