Thursday, 11 October 2012

From Sunstroke to Hypothermia on the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

(Still have to take time to review dates, urgh!!)

After the chaos of Vietnam and the corruption in Cambodia we both felt a needling desire to make our way north through Laos rather quickly and to enter China, which we have heard is drastically different from the SE Asian peninsula. Both of us are excited by the possibilities there and the blend of Chinese traditions and architecture, Himalayan hill tribes and developing politics have appeals that right now seem far removed from the desperation of the Cambodians.  With every interaction, every purchase, every conversation we have had, we felt it necessary to be in 'defence mode' for the past few weeks and even then, corruption, rip offs and scams around every corner were inevitable and unavoidable. Singapore and Malaysia felt a world away. Places we had been able to mingle comfortably and where local residents had taken us into their home as family.  There is something enjoyable and openly honest about the Thai's desire to make as much money from you as possible. Their game is fun and you can learn it and play along with them, it's all done in good spirit and every evening we headed home in Bangkok, we went with a smile. The grumpy demeanour of the Vietnamese in the north lessened as we travelled south through the country to a point where strangers would strike up a conversation for the sake of conversing in Saigon, but the pressing aims for our foreign dollars remained with most transactions.  The rules the Cambodians play by (in the popular tourist zones of the country) appear twisted, underhanded and dishonest in comparison to the rest of the peninsula.  From our couch surfing experience to bike rentals, from purchasing at the market to buying bus tickets or even trying to leave the country with our own passport in hand, blackmailed by the border guards.  It felt impossible to walk out of our room in a relaxed manner; a constant wall of defence and expectation surrounded me to the point where I felt I didn't want to roam the street without Julian, and felt constantly targeted.  I hope, and I expect, that others who have walked the path I have around SE Asia have been left with different impressions of Cambodia from the ones we have gained, but these interactions have been enough to taint the way we feel; enough even, to plough through Laos quickly for a taste of a radically different culture in China.

We got off the bus in Pakse just outside city limits and trekked into town, baffled at the lack of accommodation options and eventually got out the trusty Lonely Planet which guided us to one of the few guesthouses.  Relieved and drenched in sweat we dropped out bags and immediately set back out in search of some food at 2130;  as we learned in Luang Prabang things in Laos shut down early and we were relieved to find (just) one street restaurant open until 2300 where we succumbed to cheap, wholesome fare. The streets were quiet and almost empty of traffic; no tuk tuks inquired or shop tenders called out with cheap prices for us. As we enjoyed a plate of veggies and tofu our eyes roamed the whitewashed french colonial walls which lined the 'wider than usual' streets and Julian declared that he already felt a drastic change of vibe here.  I withheld my judgement, preferring to get a taste of this place during the day before voiced my perceptions. 

Gorgeous, slender women with long, jet black hair glistening with fragrant coconut oil, were dressed in colourful silk or cotton sarongs stitched with various traditional Laos patterns accompanied with a single tone, collared blouse.  When my admiring glances were noticed and my wide chocolate eyes met their almost black almond eyes I greeted them in their native language and was offered shy half smiles as they returned my greeting "Sabaidee".  Tall white columns supported large, open entranceways to shops at street level and curvaceous art deco apartments lined the second and third floors.  Freshly baked baguettes and croissants are sold along the street and coffee shops serving some of the most beautiful espresso I have ever tasted is a constant reminder of the french influence in Laos and I find myself not only quickly growing very fond of this place but also slightly confused.  From what I have read Laos is supposedly the least developed country in south east Asia, and labeled as one of the poorest nations on the planet, yet from my few days up north in Luang Prabang and now here in Pakse, I struggle to find evidence of this.  As acquaintances who were with us from Cambodia decided to get on the next bus to Laos capital we decided we wanted to spend more time getting to know the surrounding areas in one of the more remote corners of Laos. 

With only a reusable shopping bags worth of clothing and toiletries we hired out a motorbike and with a hand drawn map set of on a two day tour around the Bolevan Plateau which offers many large waterfalls acting as points of interest, breaking up the loop of the countryside.  

A slightly late start with a few uncertain decisions to find the road we were after was further delayed by a flat tire which was easily repaired at a roadside stop where three men worked under a blue tarp.  Finally, confident of our route we set off into the rolling hills cruising past and through many villages.  Huts of all shapes, sizes and quality were constructed from bamboo and wood as is similar with much of rural areas of SE Asia we have explored but one thing struck as different.  Contrary to the many piles of rubbish which littered the grounds in neighbouring countries, this part of Laos seemed much cleaner, possibly due to less plastic packaging being used.  The first waterfall attraction we visited offers tourists various styles of waterfront 'traditional' accommodation and a nine year old example of a minority village gives a taste for the coach parties, of tribal life. 

Back on the main road we pulled over at an empty cafe where we communicated our desire to satisfy hungry stomachs and were soon presented with a bowl of beef noodle soup.  Leaving the broth unseasoned, it is common to be served a plate of various fresh herbs like basil, coriander, mint, lime and tiny, blazing hot yellow and green peppers.  As my palate enjoys the spice and Julians prefers neutral flavours we love this option to season to our hearts content. Our chef enthusiastically engaged us in conversation, speaking at us in laos as we nod and respond in english.  Clearly, nothing is being understood by anyone but good natured interactions left us feeling light hearted and content as we thanked her for her hospitality with large grin, "Kop chai le li"

As we road deeper into the plateau people would stop to watch us and greet us and it was nice to see adults as well as children partaking in the exchange.  Often, parents will encourage children to interact with us but out here the adults, just as much as children, offered waves and smiles of greeting.  I found I was unable to wipe the smile from my face as we passed villages and it was then that I decided that Laos is indeed much, much different than its neighbours.  The change is dramatic and we felt more refreshed the first couple days in Laos than we did during weeks of rest in Cambodia. Finally, we can relax into Laos culture. 

Following the sign for another waterfall we paid our small entry free and followed one of two paths down a steep slope throughout the jungle.  Narrow, slippery wet clay was interwoven with large tree roots and rocks.  Massive, thick leaves dripped with moisture and glowed a vibrant green as they were illuminated by rays of sun, I was grateful for their protection it.  The going got steeper and we used tree trunks, alive with pillows of moss, to lower ourselves down long drops in the trail and across a small stream fed by a waterfall which trickles over large boulders.  The path traversed a narrow ledge underneath large overhanging boulders and out, onto a clearing, offering views of twin falls cascading over a long drop, maybe 150m, into a deep green pool below. A river carved its way through a valley beyond littered with hundreds of huge, pocketed sandstone boulders.  

No obvious path was available so I carefully scrambled down onto one of the boulders and continued to rock hop and down-climb the beautiful rock formations while Julian awaited me on the plateau so he might photograph me in the pool beyond.  Finally, I got stuck on a boulder, unsure of the best route and not confident enough to climb down without a spotter.  Julian found his way around and down below me and guided me over a steep overhanding drop and finally, after much consideration, we found ourselves almost at the edge of the pool.  As Julian clambered over the boulders to the opposite end of the pool I decided I had had enough, slipped off my clothing and slithered down in between the crevasses to the cool waters. Avoiding a few sharp rocks before finding they quickly dropped away, the pool was so deep I was unable to find the bottom.  The twin falls fed the pool from above, plummeting down the sandstone cliff before me and into the best swimming hole anybody could imagine.  After Julian took his pictures he joined me in the pool and we were both overwhelmed with the exceptional beauty, though conscious of how quickly the sun sets so close to the equator the moment was short lived.  The last thing we wanted was to be caught in the steep gorge in the dark. 

As I rung out my underwear from atop one of the boulders I noticed some young boys in the riverbed beyond who had squatted down, looking towards the falls.  Women are very conservative here; they will bathe and swim fully clothed, never bare their shoulders and rarely offer views above the knee and and I began to wonder if the boys perhaps had caught a glimpse of their first white bum.  A moment later they had disappeared and I consciously began to dress quickly, anticipating their arrival. Julian came around the corner, immediately followed by three young boys who had caught up to us with astonishing speed.  Perhaps aware of the fact that they knew their way around these boulders better than we did they began to guide use back to the trail.  They were like monkeys, these boys, as even without a useful tail, they jumped large gaps onto the steep faced boulders beyond us following, feeling cumbersome until finally I hesitated, unwilling to subject my knees to the brutality of the landing.  They rejoined us effortlessly and guided us a different way, easily halving the time we would have spent clambering around looking for the best route back to the trail.  We thanked them and parted ways, the refreshing cleanse in the pool only moments ago was short lived and we were just as drenched in sweat getting back on the bike after our scramble as we were when we got off. 

Another 60km or so down the road we re-fuelled our bike at a roadside village store before venturing off down a side path, following signs pointing to overnight accommodation.  A concierge was soon leading us down a dark jungle path in candle light, up a set of wooden steps and into a single room private bungalow.  Immediately satisfied we agreed to the $8 per night but decided to head back into the village for food, as prices on their restaurant patio overlooking an illuminated waterfall would triple our usual expenditure.  We soon sat upon stools under an awning, sharing a Beer Lao whist a gorgeous Laos woman dressed in pyjamas prepared steaming bowls of beef noodle soup (our second one of the day), which was soon served to us by her 6 year old daughter.  Neighbours casually walked back and forth, eyeing us curiously, some of them quite obviously just coming for a look, as our host spoke on the phone telling someone about the 'fa-rangs' she was serving. 

The following morning I stepped outside the door and for the first time had a good look our surroundings.  Vines wound up the trunks of large, mature trees.  Exotic pink and purple flowers in full bloom provided a sweet taste for an army of ants and termites marched along the stone walkway. Blue and yellow birds welcomed this fine morning as I admired the power of Tad Lo (waterfall) gushing downstream where children swam as a local man fished with a cast net above the falls.  We decided on tackling the big loop of the plateau rather than the shorter one and with a long day in the saddle ahead of us we set off, back through the village and continued east, again to be greeted by all and sundry with waves and calls of "Sabaidee". All that is apart from a group of three young children watching a jet trail streaming across the sky. I wonder what they were thinking. Would they know it was an airplane? Would they have any concept of a metal tube carrying 400 people (more than the population of their village) at 1000kph, thousands of kilometres across the planet? Language barriers permitting, how would you even begin to explain beyond the abstract? It was a fleeting moment, a glimpse of life where horizons are measured in walking distance, or at most a bus ride away.  Other children reached their arms out and we connecting our hands with theirs in enthusiastic high fives.

Our turning towards Paksong guided us onto a well levelled dirt road which we followed without passing any villages for many kilometres; the only people down this road appeared to be construction workers and their families set up in camps along a work in progress. Remembered almost as a flash; a clearing opened up on our flank and two women appeared walking in front of a few modest, stilted huts. We had stumbled upon a tribal village which prior to this road under construction, was accessible only by foot.  We did not stop out of respect for intrusion and the village was gone almost before it had time to register. This new road will undoubtably change their world for ever and I would rather let them keep their ways for a little longer before they find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes; if we stopped the benefit would be ours alone.  The road steepened and conditions deteriorated until finally I was again periodically demoted to foot power as Julian dealt with the bike.  With grave determination he pressed the bike forward as I trekked through deepening mud, irritated and frustrated that we had found ourselves on yet another road of this 'sort'.  A sign for a waterfall gave us reason to pull over for a short moment. On the opposing side of a canyon and slightly below us, a powerful roaring source poured over the edge of a cliff perhaps 100m or more into the rocky pools below, the fully grown trees on the rivers banks looking like tiny models against the vast plumes of spray buffeting back up the cliff face. The cacophony of noise echoes around the canyon as the river continues its inevitable journey to the sea. 

Grunting as I remounted the saddle and the road promptly melted away before us into pools of thick, knee high mud.  Our small bag of personal items plummeted from the basket as Julian roared the bike forward through the ruts and over rocks, forcing me to backtrack to collect our soggy, filthy clothing. A deep grumble resonated from my throat as I trudged through the impassible section of road. Finally Julian somehow, turned the bike around stating that this section of road was surely only bulldozed yesterday, is not yet a road and never has been a road; the workmen who pointed us in this direction must be having a giggle.  

We backtracked to a turning we had previously contemplated only to find the main base for the construction and were, once again, pointed back in the same direction, once again assured it was the route to Paksong.  Shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering how this road could warrant a line on our map (offered to tourists coming out into the backcountry) we pushed back on up the hill.  Taking the entire contents of the basket this time Julian pushed the bike through pool of mud, rounded the curve in the road to find that we had only been 50 metres away from the relief of a smoothy levelled dirt road surface beyond. The heat was so intense and trekking through that mud with all our belongings in my arms was enough to cause me to collapse on the other side, debating between guzzling the last few drops of water or saving it should the situation get any more interesting. 

It was smooth sailing from them (at least smooth for Laos standards), and we rode through the hills and over the highest passes to find a beautiful village where we were again the subject of curious stares.  

Relieved to refuel the bike and to fill up our water bottle the only thing more we could have asked for was a cold shower,  but even then we would have had no clean clothing to change into.  The mud was quickly drying to our clothing and shoes, most uncomfortable must have been Julians closed toe sandals which were filled, moulding to his feet like fast drying cement. The bike was in rougher shape than we were, but still, the beauty of the back and beyond of Laos still brought smiles to both our faces and we waved enthusiastically to the children playing beneath their stilted homes,  to the women washing their clothing in the river and to the young men playing in the strong current further upstream.  This last sight was far to appealing to pass up and we road the motorbike to the waters edge, cleaned off clothing, shoes and toes and even pushed the motorbike into the stream, washing it so that it might be presentable and accepted upon our return; mindful of the baht we had been charged the first time we returned a dirty bike.  Finally, with me fully dressed as the local women do, we joined them to play in the current. Hanging off tree branches until they were torn from our grasp and we were carried downriver roaring with laughter, eyes wild. Hugely refreshed we climbed back onto the bike, clothing dripping wet, and continued along the road, regularly asking people along the way to ensure we were correctly en-route to Paksong.  The land here is covered with coffee and rubber plantations; the coffee, we later found, is some of the best in the world.  

The rubber plantations are owned by Vietnamese who have apparently operated the Laos land with impunity. The coffee plantations that carpet the western plateau grow low quality Robusta bean coffee as quickly as possible with imported Vietnamese labour, for the likes of Nescafe and other instant brands who guarantee payment before the harvest, pandering to the farmers short term needs in return for low prices. The farmers are paid a pittance and moves are underway to change the current status quo to Fair Trade, organic farming co-operatives, producing high grade coffee as originally envisaged and introduced by the French during their tenure here. The conditions are perfect and high yielding Arabica plants have been brought in over the last 20 years or so. The greater financial rewards, education on organic farming and after two years of study on the co-operative farm, land of their own and inclusion as an owner within the co-op is heavy incentive for the scheme but old dogs are hard to teach new tricks and the farmers may be finding the financial outlay above their means. Set in the ways of the past they are slow in coming on board to take control of their own destiny, uncertain and untrusting apparently of credit schemes designed to empower them.

The villages grew larger and roads improved as we rode amongst and around the school children cycling home, until we were threatened by a darkening horizon, clouds billowing and rolling under a strengthening breeze. We realized with some trepidation that the monsoon was upon us once again.  With no more than a few warning drops the clouds opened up and threw their load upon us, immediately drenching every inch of skin as it came down in unforgiving sheets.  

The once swaying leaves of coconut palms now hung heavy with the weight of the rain and families took advantage of the natural shower, women loosing wrapping colourful sarongs around their bodies to maintain decency, shampooing their hair and lathering soap on their skin, lifting the faces to the sky.  Their dirt driveways, dry until a few moments before; now alive with running streams draining into hand dug canals alongside the road.  I love the rain; it washes away the heat of the day, settles the dusty road and the towns and cites come to a standstill.  Construction pauses, horns cease as motorbikes pull over and the people seek shelter as the deafening sound of the monsoon pounds atop tin roves. I find peace in the rain, quiet in the fury of it.  On this evening however, as cool rains whisk against our skin, drenched on the back of that motorbike, the cold penetrated my bones, reminding me of the cold of an english winter.  I cowered behind Julian, wrapping my arms around myself until evening became night and it grew impossible to see more than a few metres in the downpour.  We were both shivering as our hostess at a roadside cafe offered us a bowl of steaming hot soup, cooked so quickly that the rice noodles were still stiff.  Still, that bowl of soup heated us from the inside out and when the skies calmed we continued on, only to ride back into the downpour as we followed it towards Pakse, forcing us to pause three times before reaching our destination.  We ordered hot Ovaltine at our final rest, which they made in small coffee cups, 50% water and 50% condensed milk, fuelling us for the final stretch home.  

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