We got off the bus in Pakse just outside city limits and trekked into town, baffled at the lack of accommodation options and eventually got out the trusty Lonely Planet which guided us to one of the few guesthouses. Relieved and drenched in sweat we dropped out bags and immediately set back out in search of some food at 2130; as we learned in Luang Prabang things in Laos shut down early and we were relieved to find (just) one street restaurant open until 2300 where we succumbed to cheap, wholesome fare. The streets were quiet and almost empty of traffic; no tuk tuks inquired or shop tenders called out with cheap prices for us. As we enjoyed a plate of veggies and tofu our eyes roamed the whitewashed french colonial walls which lined the 'wider than usual' streets and Julian declared that he already felt a drastic change of vibe here. I withheld my judgement, preferring to get a taste of this place during the day before voiced my perceptions.
No obvious path was available so I carefully scrambled down onto one of the boulders and continued to rock hop and down-climb the beautiful rock formations while Julian awaited me on the plateau so he might photograph me in the pool beyond. Finally, I got stuck on a boulder, unsure of the best route and not confident enough to climb down without a spotter. Julian found his way around and down below me and guided me over a steep overhanding drop and finally, after much consideration, we found ourselves almost at the edge of the pool. As Julian clambered over the boulders to the opposite end of the pool I decided I had had enough, slipped off my clothing and slithered down in between the crevasses to the cool waters. Avoiding a few sharp rocks before finding they quickly dropped away, the pool was so deep I was unable to find the bottom. The twin falls fed the pool from above, plummeting down the sandstone cliff before me and into the best swimming hole anybody could imagine. After Julian took his pictures he joined me in the pool and we were both overwhelmed with the exceptional beauty, though conscious of how quickly the sun sets so close to the equator the moment was short lived. The last thing we wanted was to be caught in the steep gorge in the dark.
Another 60km or so down the road we re-fuelled our bike at a roadside village store before venturing off down a side path, following signs pointing to overnight accommodation. A concierge was soon leading us down a dark jungle path in candle light, up a set of wooden steps and into a single room private bungalow. Immediately satisfied we agreed to the $8 per night but decided to head back into the village for food, as prices on their restaurant patio overlooking an illuminated waterfall would triple our usual expenditure. We soon sat upon stools under an awning, sharing a Beer Lao whist a gorgeous Laos woman dressed in pyjamas prepared steaming bowls of beef noodle soup (our second one of the day), which was soon served to us by her 6 year old daughter. Neighbours casually walked back and forth, eyeing us curiously, some of them quite obviously just coming for a look, as our host spoke on the phone telling someone about the 'fa-rangs' she was serving.
Our turning towards Paksong guided us onto a well levelled dirt road which we followed without passing any villages for many kilometres; the only people down this road appeared to be construction workers and their families set up in camps along a work in progress. Remembered almost as a flash; a clearing opened up on our flank and two women appeared walking in front of a few modest, stilted huts. We had stumbled upon a tribal village which prior to this road under construction, was accessible only by foot. We did not stop out of respect for intrusion and the village was gone almost before it had time to register. This new road will undoubtably change their world for ever and I would rather let them keep their ways for a little longer before they find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes; if we stopped the benefit would be ours alone. The road steepened and conditions deteriorated until finally I was again periodically demoted to foot power as Julian dealt with the bike. With grave determination he pressed the bike forward as I trekked through deepening mud, irritated and frustrated that we had found ourselves on yet another road of this 'sort'. A sign for a waterfall gave us reason to pull over for a short moment. On the opposing side of a canyon and slightly below us, a powerful roaring source poured over the edge of a cliff perhaps 100m or more into the rocky pools below, the fully grown trees on the rivers banks looking like tiny models against the vast plumes of spray buffeting back up the cliff face. The cacophony of noise echoes around the canyon as the river continues its inevitable journey to the sea.
We backtracked to a turning we had previously contemplated only to find the main base for the construction and were, once again, pointed back in the same direction, once again assured it was the route to Paksong. Shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering how this road could warrant a line on our map (offered to tourists coming out into the backcountry) we pushed back on up the hill. Taking the entire contents of the basket this time Julian pushed the bike through pool of mud, rounded the curve in the road to find that we had only been 50 metres away from the relief of a smoothy levelled dirt road surface beyond. The heat was so intense and trekking through that mud with all our belongings in my arms was enough to cause me to collapse on the other side, debating between guzzling the last few drops of water or saving it should the situation get any more interesting.
It was smooth sailing from them (at least smooth for Laos standards), and we rode through the hills and over the highest passes to find a beautiful village where we were again the subject of curious stares.
Relieved to refuel the bike and to fill up our water bottle the only thing more we could have asked for was a cold shower, but even then we would have had no clean clothing to change into. The mud was quickly drying to our clothing and shoes, most uncomfortable must have been Julians closed toe sandals which were filled, moulding to his feet like fast drying cement. The bike was in rougher shape than we were, but still, the beauty of the back and beyond of Laos still brought smiles to both our faces and we waved enthusiastically to the children playing beneath their stilted homes, to the women washing their clothing in the river and to the young men playing in the strong current further upstream. This last sight was far to appealing to pass up and we road the motorbike to the waters edge, cleaned off clothing, shoes and toes and even pushed the motorbike into the stream, washing it so that it might be presentable and accepted upon our return; mindful of the baht we had been charged the first time we returned a dirty bike. Finally, with me fully dressed as the local women do, we joined them to play in the current. Hanging off tree branches until they were torn from our grasp and we were carried downriver roaring with laughter, eyes wild. Hugely refreshed we climbed back onto the bike, clothing dripping wet, and continued along the road, regularly asking people along the way to ensure we were correctly en-route to Paksong. The land here is covered with coffee and rubber plantations; the coffee, we later found, is some of the best in the world.
The rubber plantations are owned by Vietnamese who have apparently operated the Laos land with impunity. The coffee plantations that carpet the western plateau grow low quality Robusta bean coffee as quickly as possible with imported Vietnamese labour, for the likes of Nescafe and other instant brands who guarantee payment before the harvest, pandering to the farmers short term needs in return for low prices. The farmers are paid a pittance and moves are underway to change the current status quo to Fair Trade, organic farming co-operatives, producing high grade coffee as originally envisaged and introduced by the French during their tenure here. The conditions are perfect and high yielding Arabica plants have been brought in over the last 20 years or so. The greater financial rewards, education on organic farming and after two years of study on the co-operative farm, land of their own and inclusion as an owner within the co-op is heavy incentive for the scheme but old dogs are hard to teach new tricks and the farmers may be finding the financial outlay above their means. Set in the ways of the past they are slow in coming on board to take control of their own destiny, uncertain and untrusting apparently of credit schemes designed to empower them.
The villages grew larger and roads improved as we rode amongst and around the school children cycling home, until we were threatened by a darkening horizon, clouds billowing and rolling under a strengthening breeze. We realized with some trepidation that the monsoon was upon us once again. With no more than a few warning drops the clouds opened up and threw their load upon us, immediately drenching every inch of skin as it came down in unforgiving sheets.
The once swaying leaves of coconut palms now hung heavy with the weight of the rain and families took advantage of the natural shower, women loosing wrapping colourful sarongs around their bodies to maintain decency, shampooing their hair and lathering soap on their skin, lifting the faces to the sky. Their dirt driveways, dry until a few moments before; now alive with running streams draining into hand dug canals alongside the road. I love the rain; it washes away the heat of the day, settles the dusty road and the towns and cites come to a standstill. Construction pauses, horns cease as motorbikes pull over and the people seek shelter as the deafening sound of the monsoon pounds atop tin roves. I find peace in the rain, quiet in the fury of it. On this evening however, as cool rains whisk against our skin, drenched on the back of that motorbike, the cold penetrated my bones, reminding me of the cold of an english winter. I cowered behind Julian, wrapping my arms around myself until evening became night and it grew impossible to see more than a few metres in the downpour. We were both shivering as our hostess at a roadside cafe offered us a bowl of steaming hot soup, cooked so quickly that the rice noodles were still stiff. Still, that bowl of soup heated us from the inside out and when the skies calmed we continued on, only to ride back into the downpour as we followed it towards Pakse, forcing us to pause three times before reaching our destination. We ordered hot Ovaltine at our final rest, which they made in small coffee cups, 50% water and 50% condensed milk, fuelling us for the final stretch home.