I have come to realize that I start off most of my stories with a tale about transportation. I think about leaving them out and getting straight to the point. But I can’t bring myself to do it. After all, it is the journey that leads to the destination and the destination would not be the same without the journey.
We went to the south Pakse bus station and caught a local bus heading to Salavan. We were early enough to score the front row seats that we had so coveted on other rides where the leg room was nonexistent. But as luck would have it, it’s the one time when we wished we hadn’t had the front seats. As soon as we left the bus station we had found reason to nickname the driver and his "assistant" Beavis and Butthead. While driving down the road the driver, Beavis, would occasionally flick Butthead’s ear, who was sitting next to him on a little pink plastic chair. Sometimes he would change things up a bit by slapping him on the shoulder or punching his arm. In between these kindergarten antics he took great pleasure in scaring anyone walking or biking on the side of the road by getting as close to them as possible and then blaring the horn right as the nose of the bus was passing them. Every time he did this he and Butthead would laugh (hehehuhuh) and then look back at us to see our reaction. After the first time of showing my shock I attempted to display a poker face as to not promote these near murderous pranks.
When there weren’t any people on the side of the road and in between harassing Butthead, Beavis would use his size (the big bus) to intimidate any other vehicles on the road. He would lay on the horn, the extremely loud and irritating horn, and speed towards them until they pulled off the road and got out of his way. But I found it quite amusing that whenever a large cargo truck was coming at us, that our horn was conspicuously silent and that we were the ones moving towards the edge of the road. It was like observing wild animals asserting their dominance and claiming their territory. Like observing wild Transformers, machines with human behaviors.
Beavis dropped us off on the side of the road in a little village, Ban Khoua Set and then sped off to harass more people. In the busses dust we blinked our eyes and tried to figure out where we should go. There were no signs to follow and the feeling of remoteness enveloped us. However, we remembered seeing a road further back that went the direction that we wanted to go, so we headed there. As we were walking down the road, a few guys in a truck asked us where we were going and offered us a free ride there. Ahhh, it’s the first time we’ve had help offered without an expectation of a reward, it is so refreshing, and so rare.
They let us off on the road where a few guesthouses are located and we got a decent little bungalow perched in the middle of a green fish pond. A little bizarre, yes, but I really liked it. I have always wanted to stay in one of those “over the water bungalows,” the kind you always see in pictures, set off of a tropical island over turquoise waters. Well, I guess I finally got my “over the water bungalow.” I should have been more specific in my wish.
The day was hot and it was late so I stayed on our porch until we went to dinner at the super cheap shack next door. After dinner we went for a walk down the road where I realized we were only a few hundred yards from the large Tad Hang waterfall! I can’t believe I didn’t hear it.
In the morning we walked back over there and had breakfast at the fancy place overlooking the waterfall. The falls here are wide and full of water but not terribly tall. After breakfast Jereme went for a swim and then we decided to walk up the trail to see the popular nearby Tad Lo waterfall. I actually thought that Tad Hang was more impressive. Unfortunately we were not able to get to the pool of the Tad Lo waterfall because the torrential rain the night before had left the boulders slick and precarious to cross. So we just enjoyed it from afar.
There is a nice sign that shows a trail network connecting these two waterfalls with another one, Tad Suong, a few kilometers away as well as passing through a few villages. I was actually impressed with this organized trail system until there were no more signs and we got to the first village where there were a dozen different trails in all directions and people who stared at us with unwelcoming glares. Just then it started to rain and provided us a good excuse to head back. Just as we got back to our guesthouse the skies opened up into an epic downpour that provided a nice break in the heat and a nice setting for a cup of tea.
In the afternoon when the rain had passed we decided to walk along the paved road to Tad Suong, about 6km away. The walk along the road has some nice views of the mountains (behind the slash and burn forest) and hardly has any traffic unless you happen to be walking by after the secondary school lets out. I was actually stunned to see a procession of motorcycles coming towards us as far as the eye could see. I kept wondering how every single kid could have a motorcycle. I guess people here must be pretty well off, even in the US not every high school student has a vehicle. And then I wondered why they would build a school out in the middle of nowhere so that all of the students would have to drive. And then I found myself thinking like my grandpa “it’s not that far, why don’t these kids ride bikes. In my day kids used to walk to school…” Anyway, at least they are in serious need of a bus!
We passed a hydropower station and then crossed a bridge which brought us to a village where we could get to the waterfall. Once again there was no sign and I think it is actually intentional so that you have to get the local kids to show you the way and then pay them off later. We had a crew of 3 little boys, maybe 8-10 years old. They were actually great little guides, with a good command of English and who were very attentive, showing us exactly where to step as we made our way through muddy gardens and then through a massive boulder field.
The waterfall would be absolutely amazing if it would have had more than a few drops of water coming down, but the huge cliff was still impressive even if it was dry. There are tons of pools along the way that some people swim in, but they seemed a bit murky to me. I didn’t go all the way to the base of the cliff because it was pretty far and there were a lot of scary giant boulders to climb around, but Jereme went and said there were some great natural waterslides up there. Meanwhile I stayed back and watched a group of little boys playing war in nothing but their underwear and hats. One group would count to 30 while the other would hide then they would jump out from the rocks pointing toy guns (or sharp sticks) at each other and make gun noises. Sometimes they would throw a grenade (rock or stick) and make an exploding noise while the victims jumped into a nearby pool. Apparently boys are the same everywhere on earth.
Once we were back in the village, our little guides asked us for money or soda. But I was not about to give them soda or money which they would then use to buy soda and candy with (they were already finishing their Pepsi’s from the group of tourists before us when we first got to the village and whose cans they later threw into the river). This is what I really hate about this situation. I don’t mind giving to a good cause or paying for a guide service, but not when it does nothing but harm. I know people want to think that they are giving money which these kids will use to buy school books with or rice for their families, but it’s not true. I wonder how these tourists would feel about putting money into a dental care fund to take care of the kids’ cavities. I think that if these places are going to develop a tourism site it needs to be done appropriately so that it actually benefits the community. Luckily we had a bag of fruit which we gave them instead and they were very happy with it. Otherwise I probably would have gone to the local stand and tried to buy something useful or healthful for them.
We walked back along the then deserted road in the lovely evening light. It was getting pretty dark when we got close to where we were staying. At one point we had to walk past a herd of cattle moving down the road. I heard a loud noise next to me in the bushes and figured it was another cow when suddenly I saw the outline of an elephant! It scared the crap out of me! I am really scared of elephants loose in the wild after living in Africa where people always get killed by them, so I took off down the road. Jereme was too excited since this was his first sighting of an elephant in the “wild” so he just stood there looking at it. A little further along we saw another elephant on the other side of the road! I couldn’t believe it! There were no fences and it didn’t look like they had leashes on, but it just seemed too weird for them to be truly wild. I did see a truck at a nearby resort with an elephant conservation logo, so I am assuming that maybe these elephants are somehow domesticated or trained. Either way, it was pretty exciting and was the last thing I was expecting to encounter while walking down the road.
The next day we packed up and were walking towards the main road to catch a bus back to Pakse when we saw a minivan of tourists packing up. They were also going to Pakse but stopping at a coffee plantation and another waterfall along the way so we decided to pay a little extra and join the fun. We first stopped at the Sinouk coffee plantation. It is a beautiful place with a huge, well-manicured gardens and a path through the coffee plantation. Unfortunately we didn’t actually get a tour and just had to show ourselves around, but there were a few signs explaining the coffee making process so it was easy to get the gist of it.
For some bizarre reason (probably just to get more money out of the trip) the driver took us to the Paksong market, as if it were some amazing, unique market that tourists should see. It was actually the crappiest market I have been to. I could see no reason to stop there unless someone had never been to a developing world market (which are almost impossible to avoid here) and wanted to experience it. It was just your average local market, but especially grimy and seedy. We did, however, get some pretty yummy donut like things to eat and Jereme sucked down some noodles out of a plastic bag.
Before arriving back in Pakse, we stopped at the Tad Fane waterfall. Now this is a waterfall! It was spectacular, the best we have seen so far in SE Asia. It was so high that I couldn’t even see the bottom from where the viewpoint is at the top of the opposite cliff. There is a steep little path where you can climb down to another viewpoint to see the whole length of it, but there is no trail to the very bottom. There is also a hotel and a nice restaurant overlooking the falls as well as hammocks that you can lay around on. This was worth the minibus ticket alone.
We made a last minute decision to go visit the Bolevan Plateau. This higher elevation area in south central Laos best known for its waterfalls and the coffee plantations that provide the majority of Laotian coffee. We thought the drive there would take us up some steep mountains but in reality it's hard to tell that there is any elevation change at all. So don’t get your hopes up.