After the success of our trip to Champasak we decided to take on the Bolaven Plateau Motorbike Loop. The Bolaven Plateau spreads across all four of Laos southern provinces and is a fertile plateau known for it’s quality coffee, lush waterfalls and ethnically diverse population. We were looking forward to some cooler nights, gorgeous scenery and good Lao coffees.
The night before leaving Pakse I headed over to Miss Noy’s motorbike rental where Yves was giving his nightly talk on ‘The Loop’. A group of travellers sat on hard stools and crowded around Yves in a rough semi-circle. The frenchman handed out maps and filled us in on info about where to stop, where not to stop, recommended guest houses, pointed out stretches without petrol stations and informed us about road conditions while we hastily scribbled these extra details onto our maps. It was a fun and informative 2 hours. We could have done the loop without this additional info, but our experience was so much richer because of it. I headed back home and recounted all I could recall to Alex and we decided that we had the time, we might as well do the whole loop – about 300kms, give or take. We packed up and got an early night.
It was a sunny morning when we were ready to leave. It was also Friday the 13th. We hoped this wasn’t an ill omen for the journey to come. We’d packed most of our belongings for the trip into one bag and left the rest at Miss Noy’s. Helmets donned, it was time to leave. But not before Miss Noy stood in oncoming traffic for 5 minutes trying to work out my camera, as cars and tuk-tuks weaved around her and she hollered back at them, to take a family picture for us.
We drove out of Pakse and as we hit the town limit, the smooth four lane street abruptly narrowed into a two lane unmarked road of bumpy asphalt, with potholes regularly interrupting its dusty surface. Those of us on Motorbikes kept to the edges while cars and trucks barrelled past, kicking up dust that flew into our faces and stung our eyes. This wasn’t quite what I had imagined, but I remained optimistic and kept my eyes on the odometer. There’s not a lot of road signage in Laos, and what there is certainly isn’t in English. What there are though, are kilometre road markers which show you the distance to the nearest large town. Pakse was the nearest town and our junction for turning left was 21 km away from it. Once we made our left turn, the road became a lot quieter, the dust settled and my optimism paid off. We drove past fields of green and through small villages lining the roadsides. We slowed down for cows on the road, beeped our horns to warn goats not to run out in front of us, and watched pigs with their piglets trot alongside. Dogs slept on the road while locals slept in their roadside stands selling bunches of bananas in front of their wooden stilted houses. The sun shone brightly, the sky was blue and large fluffy clouds floated above.
Around lunchtime we stopped at a roadside shop with a table and chairs, and a few metal pots full of undetermined soup-like meals. It quickly became apparently that we were woefully linguistically prepared for this trip. We spoke no Laos and they spoke no English. Much smiling and pointing to things that looked like they didn’t contain offal managed to get us a bowl of very spicy noodle curry. I was dubious about Alex’s choice, especially once I noticed pieces of liver in it, so I chose some large rice cakes to snack on. They were caramel flavoured and delicious.
We passed a sign for Mr Vieng’s, and having heard good things about a visit there, decided to pull a U-turn and stop in for a coffee. We drove down a dirt track into a small Katu village, past some small wooden houses with children playing outside, and came to Mr Vieng’s at the end of the path. A large open walled cafe stood empty apart from two women who sat on a raised wooden platform using backstrap looms, weaving beautiful beaded textiles. We sat down and one of the women who turned out to be Mrs. Vieng greeted us and brought us some iced coffees. The coffee being organically grown on their own coffee farm, the trees of which surrounded us as we sat sipping our drinks. You can’t get more local than that!
Mr. Vieng arrived and gave us a tour of his farm while we left the kids chilling with Mrs Vieng and some adorable puppies. It was fascinating. I had no idea how coffee was grown, didn’t even know it grew on trees! It’s amazing how many things in life that we use or consume daily that we just don’t give any thought about. He showed us how to tell if the beans are ripe, how they harvest and process the beans prior to roasting.
Mr Vieng explained the differences between Arabica and Robusta, and that Robusta is the most commonly grown up on the Bolaven Plateau. He walked us through his plantation, showing us trees of different ages, how far apart they need to be planted and how wildlife like termites and weaver ants can affect the harvest and need to be dealt with. Fire is the tool of choice for large ant nests, but for smaller nests there’s an alternative. He demonstrated this by simply scrunching a nest up in his hands, the dead ants not being wasted as they became a tasty lemon-flavoured snack. Apparently. We politely declined his offer.
It was a really interesting tour and well worth the £1.50 price tag. It gave us a whole new appreciation for the hard work involved in small scale local farming and valuing the price of a good bag of coffee.
We stepped out of the grove of Robusta trees to find Ben swinging in a hammock and Chloe chilling out reading her kindle beside Mrs Vieng who was once again weaving on her loom. I asked her how long it took her to weave each piece, expecting the answer to come in the form of a number of hours. Boy was I wrong. Ten days. Days!
It was mid-afternoon. The sun was hot, the cafe was shady and the coffee was good. People were friendly. There were hammocks, and puppies! We saw the signs for a homestay. We asked ourselves if there was any good reason not to just stay here and chill for the rest of the day and night. There wasn’t. We dropped our bags in the simple rooms – just a bed, mossie net and fan – and just did a lot of nothing while the kids chased puppies, shooed away the chickens and drew pictures with the Vieng’s children and their friends.
We didn’t quite make it as far as we’d planned on our first day, but we had time on our hands and figured we might as well use it.
General Loop Info:
Cost of semi-automatic motorbikes : 50,000 kip/bike/day
Distance travelled on day 1 – Pakse to Mr Vieng’s Homestay : 60km
Hours of rain: 0
Tour of Mr Vieng’s coffee farm : 15,000 kip/person
Accommodation : Night at Mr Vieng’s homestay – 20,000 kip per adult, kids half price
Food: Evening Meal or Breakfast @ Homestay – 15,000 kip per meal (substantial and very tasty fried rice or omelette and rice dishes were what we were served)
Cost of Katu beaded textiles : 150,000 kip for the narrower pieces, 200,000 kip for the wider ones.