Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bolaven Is For Lovers

This was the perfect place to visit during the beginning of the rainy season. Unlike my other bike treks, I was able to stay on sealed roads the whole time.

This also carried with it a fair bit of frustration because I know that Laos, the real Laos, the vanishing Laos – can only be accessed off dirt roads. Sadly, most of the dirt roads I saw were already hopelessly flooded or in a state of muddiness.

And so I was condemned to have an easy time of it.

Having said that, my reaction to the Plateau is to return in the dry season when I can discover the little parts of it, the people parts of it. The main axe is a Vietnamese colony. Not in the sense that the Vietnamese rule the roost, but rather that everybody is Vietnamese: the barber, the repairman, the waiter… And so I will return in the dry season, hopefully with Marie-Do.

Bolaven is for lovers. In everyplace I chose to stop, save one, I was able to sleep in a resort, on a waterfall, and slumber away my aches in clean, ironed sheets. I was able to enjoy excellent foods and that ultimate luxury: bacon and eggs for breakfast, real coffee and toast and English speaking staff.

The climate on the Plateau during this season was Southern European in August, although it did rain every day. Just a little bit, never too much. At the beginning of the drizzle, a simple raincoat would keep me dry and gliding along deserted asphalt road. Listening to the light rain hitting the flat rice fields or the leaf large forest trees was refreshing, a pleasure. Heavier rains could only be dealt with by seeking shelter.

The landscape is very reminiscent of Europe, as well. Gentle hills and valleys, cows grazing in pasture. A soft green sweet land…

One dry morning I took a dirt road and what I discovered was a troop of several hundred workers planting coffee trees on what looked like newly cleared land. They stood or shovelled, made holes in the wet red earth; the eternal stances of working men and women of all time. Some smoked a cigarette, babies were carried on hips; and on the other side of the road the new plantation stretched over hills.

Surely there is more to this story than I can see with my naked eye. Like many other pleasant destinations, the soil of Bolaven is surely soaked with all kinds of mischief.

BTW, my new camera really sucks. I cannot get the thing to take pictures without some incorrect date stuck in the corner, and I haven’t got the patience to figure it out.

The Lao take one day at a time, you know, to such an extent that many of them have already forgotten about last year. The monsoon comes every year and so I wonder why I see so many hamlets that are already flooded out. Satellite dishes they have, but raising the road to keep it dry no one has thought of.

Smithy shops line the road.  It doesn’t take a huge leap of the historic imagination to remember a time when such things were common in Europe and the Americas.  Everybody here is making the same object: a machete which is perfect for most basic agricultural jobs, such as cutting down fruit. We can also remember a time when waste water was just thrown in the streets in Europe, so there is hope that one day the Lao will stop burning their garbage.  Most of the time, it must be said, living in a time machine is a unique privilege.

Getting there. Staying there. Getting back.

Practical information about the trip. This is stuff you have to know if you don’t want to go crazy.

I always buy bus and train services at the same travel agent, RD travel, just down the street from the Benetton, right downtown. The staff there is efficient and speak perfect French or passable English. When they tell you the tuk-tuk will be in front of their agency at 7 PM, it will be in front of their agency at 7 PM.

So, to get to the Bolaven you have to either fly or take the night bus to Paksé. This is a ‘VIP Sleeper Bus’ and your seat is a bunk which is already reclined. The problem is that there are two bunks, side by each comme on dirais en Québecois, and your individual space is very narrow. My heart sank as the bus filled with Chinese workers desperately in need of a wash, smelling of stale tobacco and each other. This time I lucked out and managed to get an entire berth, but next time I will certainly invest in reserving both bunks. Price for one bunk is 160,000 KIP (20$US). You get to travel in relative comfort for 320,000 (40$US).

Coming back is a different story. I caught the VIP Sleeper Bus out of Tat Lo as it wound its way from Saravan to Vientiane. I bought the ticket from the old guy at the crossroads but he was as helpful as a toothache. Be that as it may, the people who designed that bus deserved to fail engineering school. There were no double bunks; everybody had their own single bunk but it was so narrow you couldn’t even place a hand bag on it. Your feet are trapped into a plastic tank at the bottom of the bunk and your weight plus the angle of the bunk are continually forcing you down. The television plays Lao hits – the singer sings and the dancers dance – at a splendid volume and the overhead lights blare on and off at unpredictable intervals all night.

In both cases, Charlene was stowed with the baggage.

Arriving in Paksé I headed straight for the buffet breakfast at the Hôtel Paksé, a French-run establishment where the coffee is fresh, the toilets are clean and the internet connection is fast. The latest edition of The New Yorker downloaded effortlessly onto my Kindle and off I went, a new man. (Presently reading “La Guerre d’Indochine”, by Lucien Godard, by the way…)

The ascent to Paksong is not horribly difficult. You go up about 1,400 meters over a 50 kilometer stretch. The problem is that it simply never ends. On the sides of the roads are fruit stands. Fresh durian and mangosteen. The durian hang one by one in the shade of the fruit sala; customers come and tap the fruit, listening for ripeness. Between visits, the sala owners drowse or sit staring at the floor. I am amazed by the Lao ability to simply sit, and do nothing, for hours. No-one reads a book or a newspaper. Riding through the countryside I see the same scene over and over again: if people are not working they sit staring at ants on a table, finger steady on the off switch.

Of course I never cycle in Vientiane – I don’t see the point in it, and at km 35 I was paralysed by cramps. Look, if you want to give up, then give up. But all it really takes is a rest and a walk using the bike as a cane and soon enough you’re back in the saddle.

The afternoon sky was darkening and my goal was the Tat Fane Resort at km 38. Paradise – a waterfall, a comfortable bungalow with fresh sheets and a goodly breakfast. 20$ brings you the silence of the jungle and the roar of the water. Excellent restaurant.

Paksong itself is absolutely nothing to see. Many thanks go to Mr. Coffee Dick who provided me with a lot of information about the Plateau on his website ( We never got a chance to meet, however.

The sealed road from Paksong to Thateng is easy and rolling. There is also a dirt road that sort of goes in that general direction but a Korean coffee plantation manager I met in Paksong told me it would be a very muddy affair. Next time, perhaps. How he sat in that restaurant, his feet on the chair in front of him, throwing his cigarette butts on the floor and screaming instructions in “Engrishi” to his workers on the plantation was sickening. How can one man leave so much waste behind him I do not know, but his advice was good.

The traffic on that road was scarce and in the villages that lined the road people called out their sabaidee with that smile and bit of laughter that says, “You’re another crazy falang and we’re glad to see you’re having a good time”.  The children see you coming: falang! falang!

In Thateng there are guesthouses and whorehouses. It seems that the life of the young in rural Laos, especially along the sealed roads is all about wearing tight jeans and spiked hair and listening to horrible music at high volumes. Anything they can do to be passive receptacles of whatever noise someone else has manufactured is OK by them and they seem willing to pour whatever money they may have in perpetuating this slavery.

In Saravan I stayed at the Phoufa Hotel. The gardens are magnificent and the rooms are comfortable. On this trip I was able to make my acquaintance with satellite television. Emmanuel TV is a treat: Africans with leg ulcers line up to be healed by ‘wise men’ who tell them they are healed and they limp off raising their hands in Halleluiah singing ‘I am healed’ but not once did I see a post-blessing leg ulcer disappear. Another case was a woman who began bedwetting after she got married who was saved by The Grace Of The Lord. Her husband was relieved, as well. Many women were possessed by evil spirits and they would roll about on the ground and foam at the mouth as the spirit was exorcised from them. But my favourite was a pregnant woman who was past term and visibly suffering. The wise man prayed and placed his hands and she shook and Praised The Lord and stood up saying she was healed but as far as I could see she was still very pregnant and not healed at all and I wondered just how credulous people could be. All the while, a voice off in Parisian French narrated, “Et maintenant le Sage va lui soigner du mal qui lui habite…”. Is there no limit to what people can be made to believe, despite the evidence before their very eyes?

Yes, the hotel grounds were beautiful but no thought was given to the guests’ comfort. In the morning there was no hot water for me to make a coffee and the tight-jeans-wearing-punk who ran the place just sat there with a cell phone dangling from a cord around his neck. The cell phone was open and playing a pop song. No have hot water!

Dinner was BBQ fish at the Hong Lek restaurant on the river. Fabulous fish, great service and a lovely place to sit and watch the rain beating down on the countryside and admiring the bend in the river; the sound of the pre-monsoon rain on the thatched roof was all the dinner music I needed. The air turned ochre as the rain threw the soil up into it; the river was red and blasted with the pinpoints of raindrops. Like all rain here and in this season it was over by the time I wanted to leave.

I am getting lazy. There is no doubt about it. After my last trip up to the Golden Triangle when I thought I would die from the effort I really just wanted an easy ride. A pleasant au revoir to Laos before the monsoon kicks in and we would be out of here for the summer. And so slowly, ever so slowly I rode to Tat Lo.  My pace was turtle. I wanted to go no faster and I could hear the chain on the teeth of Charlene’s gears.

Slowly. Inching. PDR means ‘Please Don’t Rush’.

In Tat Lo I stayed at the Saise Resort, the one just beyond the bridge to the left. Terrible and unfriendly welcome: I was shown the most ratty bungalow in the place and spotted by myself a really beautiful one. For $20 I had a fabulous room with a bathtub (!) and a veranda overlooking a high-altitude tropical garden. Clean, comfortable, quiet – only slightly within hearing distance of the waterfall and so I was gently lulled into sleep and back into dawn wakefulness by its continual chant. The restaurant, right on the waterfall, was excellent.

I arrived back in Vientiane in the early hours of the morning and rode home from the station near the University. The sleepy city shook off the dreams from its eyes as I rode – restaurants were opening and cars were beginning to fill the streets, shop shutters were being opened. I was home.

The Shimmering

The shimmering.

There is a point where you come off the Plateau. All the guide books say there is nothing to see in Salavan and this is largely true; and hence the charm of the place. Just a thick winding river and a fish restaurant, it would seem. It turns out that Salavan is the centre of a whole new world but I will need another bike trip out there to explore it.

In the meantime, coming off the Plateau towards Salavan is a lovely experience. The only uncomfortable thing about it is the rise in temperature and humidity: gone is that Southern European climate.

On the other hand, you are suddenly reminded of where you live, as lowland flooded rice paddies remake their appearance. Gone are the tall trees and dense Plateau forests, gone are the endless rows of coffee trees. Now I am riding through a land covered in low storm clouds and flat paddies – hills shine in the distant sunlight.

The play of early monsoon rain and the brilliant illumination of cloud-breaks on the stubble filled mud flats is wonderful. The occasional tree, planted in the middle of a paddy gives off a shimmering reflection.

Shimmering. I have been back in Vientiane for a week now, and yet that word, shimmering, echoes in my mind as I wake up and remember the sight of it.