Well arrived in Southern Laos after a 24h bus ride from Vietnam on Dec 6, we started to get ready for our next activity: The southern Swing - a loop starting from Pakse and taking the Bolaven Plateau and Southern Lao provinces. The area is filled with scenic waterfalls, farmland and jungle, small villages and ethnic diversity. Add to that long distances of excellent roads with hardly any traffic. A dream for the novices we are.
The best way to discover it is to bring "your own wheels", so we rented two bikes (semi-automatic scooters) from Miss Noy in Pakse, where Yves gave us the basic instructions needed together with a handwritten map of the plateau and key sights/activities. It took us four days and three nights on the road. This turned out to be a good decision as it gave us the chance to drive less each day and thereby have time to enjoy the nature, especially the waterfalls, and the villages, we passed through. In total, we drove 360 kilometers. We both felt plenty of these magical moments, wind blowing in face, where it was like the bike was giving us wings. A rare feeling of absolute freedom that we had not experienced many times in our lives before.
'Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower'
Hans Christian Andersen
Day 1 and Mr Vieng's coffee plantation
First stop at Mr. Vieng Organic Homestay, where the owner gave a tour of his coffee plantation. The Bolaven Plateau is the center of coffee production in Laos and the best place to try the delicious varieties, from Arabica to Robusta or even the rarer (and apparently difficult to cultivate) Liberica.
One of the challenges Mr. Vieng faces as an organic coffee producer is ants colonizing the coffee plant. They cannot use pesticides but can burn the cocoon-leaves used as a hive. He showed us an alternative, but not really efficient way to get rid of, which is to hand-squeeze and kill the ants inside the leaves. Funny enough, you can then eat these ants which have a lemon taste (let's be honest, just acidic taste). Michael tried, even though it was never on our bucket list.
We spent the first night in Tad Lo village and watched two mama elephants (his old ladies as the owner called them, 67 and 55 years old and still going strong) taking a bath in a natural pool between the waterfalls. Felt somewhat authentic as they seemed to be very well taken care of, most of the time ranging free, and no hook nor stick not anything hurting the animal being used.
Dinner was very enjoyed as a so-called « family dinner » at the Palamei Guesthouse. When we arrived we understood that the term "family dinner" meant that everybody participated in the cooking act. A fun way to meet other travelers, share insights and tips.
After a good nights sleep, we continued our journey, further east, up on the Bolaven Plateau. Since the elevation is around 1,200 meters, can feel really chilly on the bike, but we were very lucky with the weather. Hardly any raindrop and blue sky three of four days.
Day 2 and Mr Cook's experience
The attraction of the day was a visit in Captain Cook's ethnic village. Captain Cook is a young man who went to university, but whose family forced to come back and remain in the village, as he had broken a couple of rules, set up by the villagers themselves. One of his misbehavior was to have slept with women outside marriage – and not wanting to marry the first two girls chosen by his parents. The first was then "given" to his brother and the second one to his cousin. The third time he couldn´t reject and he had to marry and stay in the village for good.
Now he is not allowed to leave the village and he spends his day running a small, basic guesthouse and welcoming groups of travelers, telling his and his village's story. And admittedly, it is a very special story. Their religious belief is Animism and their life is a lot about spirituals, good and bad dreams, full moon, offerings etc. It was heartbreaking to hear how they, for example, sacrifice one puppy every full moon, giving the poor animal so many hits that it would die. They believe it will bring the mercy of their Gods.
Approximately 725 people live in the village. Since a man can have up to five or more wives, average in each house is rather high. There were households/families with 60 people under one roof. Girls are married at the age of 8-9 years old and pregnant for the first time around the age of 12-13 years. Obviously at the antipodes to our culture and standards, and with the consequence that hardly any girl can make it to secondary school and further.
As the education level is very low, common beliefs are, for instance, that i) the Earth is flat and ii) white people are white because they drink a lot of milk (sic!). Television came to the village six years ago, so the young generation now learns to speak the Lao language in addition to their own dialect. There is a hope that television and internet can educate and motivate the young generation to learn English as well in order to be able to improve their living standards.
Informed, overwhelmed and somewhat revolted as well against women conditions, we left the village for the drive to our second overnight. A campsite just north of the waterfall of Tad Hua Khon. Very basic place but with nice staff. Here we had the pleasure to meet two Canadian sisters, biking across Thailand and Laos. A very brave and courageous tandem.
Day 3 and 4
Third day and a visit to – in our opinion – the most beautiful waterfall of Tad Tayicsua. A rather long detour on dust road took us get there, through the jungle. We spent a few relaxing hours at the bottom swimming in pristine pools before we headed 60 kilometers west for our third and last overnight at the Tad-Etu waterfall (yes the whole Bolaven plateau is full of waterfalls...)
Last day was an easy stroll to the biggest waterfall of Laos, Tad Fan, dropping more than 120 meters in two cascades. Very scenic indeed and a good ending of our successful roundtrip on and off the Bolaven Plateau.
Back in Pakse, tired in a very good way and ready to take a night bus North-bound to new great adventures in Laos (Phonsavan to visit the 'Plain of Jars', Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang).
The secret to happiness is freedom. And the secret to freedom is courage