Bolaven plateau by motorbike
Trip Start Jun 16, 2011
69Trip End Nov 10, 2011
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It's only 50 Km to Paksong but I stop once for coffee in order to warm up and get a bit of a dry feeling. Rain doesn't bother me too much, after all I am from Britanny and Haute Savoie. But it kind of hurts a bit when you are on the motorbike and the rain gets heavier. The place where I stop is tiny and is not a coffee place so to speak, rather one of these thousands of sundry shops you get all along any Asian road. The people don't speak a word of English and with my three words of vocabulary (hello, thank you, no problem), conversation is limited. It's complicated to explain I want a HOT coffee and not a cold one. I have to show them I am shivering, show my lighter and put it under the glass... They laugh so much ! So do I, and then I get my coffee, which is actually a three in one Nescafe, for 1,000 Kip (10 euro cents...). Real coffee here is very expensive and you'll know why later, but Nescafe is the cheapest shit you can get.
After that stop, I reach Paksong at around 4. In that village, there is ONE place where you get wifi... It's a coffee shop, owned by a Dutch guy who married a Lao girl four years ago. His nickname is Koffie ! He had been in love with good coffee for a very long time, even coming to Lao years ago to buy dry coffee beans in order to roast them himself in Holland... He was not there that day, but I got to meet him the day after. Soon after i arrived and checked my emails (thanks guys for your comments !), two French girls stop at the same place. They have mud up to their knees and start explaining to me what a nightmare they have just been through for the whole day... Apparently, the road they took is extremely muddy, in construction and at some stage, they were not sure they would make it. It took them the whole day, without any lunch break, to drive 85 Km... Wow. They showed me the pictures and indeed, ouch ! When i then take out my wholewheat crackers for them, I am their new hero :-)
We decide to find a guesthouse for the three of us and, well, it's not too complicated : there are two of them in Paksong. After we freshen up, we decide to go for dinner and end up... In a Vietnamese restaurant where I can, with great pleasure, take my long missed Pho Bo while they have... Korean barbecue. Hahaha ! So much for local food... We end up having these - again - top confidential girls talk until quite late (basically until they kicked us out) and headed back to the guest house.
Next to it, there was what I thought was a karaoke (the guy who was singing was so off tune it could ONLY be a karaoke) but ended up being what they call a night club. There were 10 customers in there, including three girls and I can tell you that three French girls coming in that shack was the highlight of their month, if not year. The waitress brings us BeerLao without even asking (I suppose that's all they have !!). Less than 10 minutes later we are literally surrounded by all the male customers who all want to cheer with us, inviting us to dance, while the singer carries on hurting my delicate ears with his off tune singing. It was absolutely hilarious. The three of us were laughing so much ! The place was unreal. We could not leave without having our photograph taken with absolutely every single guy. It closed down, like every shop in Lao, at 11pm. So much for a night club :-)))
The next day, we leave the guesthouse at 8 and go straight to the wifi coffee place. Here, a small cup of coffee is 10,000 Kip (a bit less than 1 euro) so it is quite expensive. But we won't really pay for it because we decide to take the tour with Koffie who is explaining absolutely everything about coffee growing and processing in a very nice one hour walk around the coffee farms. There I learn an incredible amount of things. First of all : forget everything I told you about coffee in Vietnam :-) as Koffie nicely puts it : "over there they grow money, not coffee".
Ok ! Coffee trees are best in altitude, between 600 and 1200m for arabica and between 1200 and 1800m for robusta. Arabica originates from the Arab world and Robusta from western Africa. Brought by the French about 100 years ago. Coffee trees can grow coffee fruits in the sun but the coffee is better when in the shade. This is why, unlike in Vietnam, Lao coffee farmers have plenty of other trees around their coffee trees. First of all they also produce rut (pomelo, jackfruit, durian...) but they also protect coffee trees. Harvest of arabica is in October to December and robusta from January to March.
Right there I could taste what is already to me an excellent coffee, but not the best, that is a pre-harvest arabica dried above the fire and not in the sun. I got indeed the coffee beans that were more exposed to the sun and therefore were ready for harvest quicker than those in the shade, and as it's the rainy season, it cannot dry outside on the road... So this is definitely not his best arabica but hey... I saw it dry yesterday, i saw it roasted this morning and in my coffee cup not much later... For me, that was a way good enough coffee ! I also had, with a bit of reluctance, some robusta coffee. To my great great great surprise, I found this way better than arabica ! Well, listening to Koffie I understood why. Robusta has always been 60% of the arabica price. Therefore, in order to make the best margin out of robusta, most big coffee farms harvest by machine, all together, even the coffee beans that are not ripe yet. All of those will be mixed together and will lower the overall quality. In this case here, people harvest by hand, only the red beans (and come back the next day for more). All farms are organic : the coffee trees are fed with fertilizer obtained from coffee seeds !
I eventually understand why coffee is so expensive here : there is more work than workers... And growing coffee is apparently quite a job. So workers here insist on getting paid the right price or they simply won't work... There ! This is the solution to fair trade ! Make sure we need more work than there are workers ! That's what Marx said... : the best way to rip off workers is to make sure there is always some good unemployment rate... to make sure that they don't argue too much over their salary... Well, Laos seems a bit better off !
Oh and this stupid 13 or 15 years longevity ? Naaaah. Count 75 years for the lifespan of a coffee tree... The only thing is its branches will often break from harvesting. When it happens, it doesn't produce coffee beans for three years. And they are more likely to break around 15 years old when they have reached a good size. So that's probably what Vietnamese do : they kill coffee trees before their time to replace them with younger ones... In Laos they do differently : whether you put one, two or three coffee trees in the same spot, it will produce exactly the same amount of beans per square meter. So they plant two trees in the same spot : if one breaks, the other will keep on producing until the other one repairs itself...
With all this knowledge, watching the roasting, of course, I bought some coffee. Daddy, as said on the phone, it is some awesome robusta from the Bolaven, roasted in front of me ! Drink it fast ! :-) indeed... The quality decreases very quickly : it's going to be at it's best for a week, then very good for two to three months... After that, it's "supermarket quality" says Koffie. The boss has spoken !
After this short and nice walk in the mud of the coffee plantations, I hit the road again to go to Tad Lo. It's 65 Km from Paksong and othe way back to Pakse, via a loop. Nature is beautiful, really. Nothing spectacular, but simply harmonious. I have a big fat smile on my face, despite the constant rain. I can't help but feeling absolutely fantastic and a strong strong desire to just stay here for ever. On the way, every single kid waves at me, shouts "sabaidee !" with a big smile. Even adults do this. Those people start with a hello and a smile. Even when you are on a motorbike and visibly not stopping. Incredible. It reminds me of the lost countryside in France. But maybe it was a long time ago... At one stage, I was passing a village when kids just got out of school. There were maybe 50 kids on each side of the road and they were all waving at me and laughing, shouting "sabaidee" everywhere. For 10 seconds, I felt like the queen of England, waving back at them with a huge smile.
I arrived in Tad Lo in the afternoon, around 4pm. I was looking for two things : the Palamei guest house and Mamma Pap's. To the latter I was supposed to say hi from Koffie and Kami. To the first, I was supposed to check out the rooms and possibly stay there, in order to follow the advice of my two young french ladies. I found Mamma Pap's later and first stayed in this AWESOME Palamei guesthouse. I took the most expensive room (50,000 Kip) which was right at the back, with it's own terrace overlooking a rice field and the beginning of the jungle. Cherry on the cake : a hammock was winking at me, right on the terrace. That's when dad called me. Hehehe. I sat in the hammock and started chatting with him to try and describe where I was and how close to paradise it looked. Soon after, my neighbor, a 50-year old Canadian, comes towards me while I am still talking to dad and hands me.... a joint :-) oooooh, does it get better than this ?? So i had my FIRST joint since i arrived in Asia ! Yup !
After I hung up, I started chatting with my new friend until it was dinner time. In this guesthouse, you can have dinner with the family... So we did ! And I was back in bed at around 8pm as there is not much to do around here. A bit of writing, a bit of reading and off to sleep.
I woke up at 6:45 in order to just hop into the hammock and do nothing until 7:30, just check the view, listen to the jungle sounds. After breakfast, it started raining again, quite heavily... So I cancelled my four-hour trek... Pity. Three waterfalls and three villages missed. It's strange, I feel I am missing stuff on purpose so that I need to come back. I will come back here. It is so so so magical. Indeed, I was supposed to get back to Pakse that day but... I simply couldn't. I stayed another night there, doing not much : battery had ran out of my iPad and when Neil (my Canadian neighbor) old me he was leaving this book behind, showing it to me, I simply took it and read it. I am nearly finished with it now : Farenheit 451... about burning books and censorship, among other interesting themes... About a society which does not read anymore, doesn't talk about anything. It looks so much like ours... It's frightening. This is a book in the line of soyland green, best of worlds and 1984... Nice light reading :-)
So after yet another day of doing nothing (mostly napping in my hammock), i left the next day, in the morning. Arrived in Pakse around noon (85 Km), pay for the motorbike, have lunch and book a bus to Ubon in Thailand because my Laos visa expires... Today. At 3pm, I took that bus, arrived in Thailand at 6:30 (after an out-of-this-world border crossing : the bus drops you in a sort of buffer zone where you get your passport stamped by Lao authorities. Then no one tells you nothing. :-) it's by watching the locals walking in a direction that I found out you had to go to Thai authorities, but it was much further down the road. Meanwhile the bus has disappeared, very reassuring. It's only when you finish dealing with Thai immigration that you see your bus waiting for you. Strange :-)
I wasted quite a bit of time to find a place to sleep in Ubon. The first one i went to was definitely not possible for me : I got in and a HUGE cockroach welcomed me. Yuuuuuk ! I can deal with jungle spiders but I definitely cannot handle the giant cockroach on my bed (because that means "on my face" during the night. So I had to look for something else. So there we are : Nadege, the only tourist, in a NOT touristic town, where everything is written in Thai only (so even when you see a hotel you don't know it's one...), at night, with all her stuff on her back. Yes, see ? The backpacker in me is waking up :-)
I ended up at the Tokyo Hotel (no kidding !) which was cheap and clean. Early night again... It's crazy how tired you get doing nothing :-)
More soon !