We rose early and in the gentle morning sunshine set off to walk to the Tad Lo waterfall. Rather than strike out into the thick jungle we made for the road thinking that it must cross the river and we could orientate ourselves from the bridge. The locals were up and about and everyone we met gave us a smile and a cheery sabadi. Disappointingly, the road took a twist in the opposite direction and seemed reluctant to twist back so we returned to the lodge for breakfast.While we were eating, a young man approached and introduced himself as Ging, our guide for the next few days. He outlined our programme and we were pleased to find it accorded completely with our expectations – a new experience in southern Laos.
But before setting out to explore the plateau we had an appointment with an elephant. Lynne was wary; on our last Lao elephant ride the beast had been fractious and when we discovered our route involved wading for a couple of hundred metres through the clear, warm, waist-deep waters of the Nam Khan River my wife became a little stressed. Sensible as I always am, I welcomed the river; a grumpy elephant cannot bolt and wade at the same time – but then I am not the one with the irrational fear of water.
Lynne sent Ging to tell the mahout she would only go if he guaranteed no water. Once reassured, we climbed onto the gantry, the elephant was led up and we eased ourselves into the rickety howdah. There was no safety bar but perversely this made Lynne happier as she felt less trapped.
|Safe and secure up here, Tad Lo|
|The path is narrow on the ground|
… and often non-existent at our height, so we brushed through the leaves and branches.
The path rose steadily and was often rough but the elephant was sure-footed and amenable, responding instantly to the slightest touch from the mahout. We soon reached the falls.
|The Tad Lo Falls from elephant back|
Over the road we plodded through a hamlet...
…where tobacco and chillies lay drying in the sun…
…and children played with plastic bottles and old tyres.
|Child playing with an old tyre, Tad Lo|
Then we reached a small lake and the elephant headed straight for the water. The mahout spun round, ‘only drink, only drink,’ he said with alarm in his voice. We wondered what Ging had said to him, but he had clearly made the point. And indeed the elephant did only drink, sucking up water and squirting it into his mouth. The evening had been cool and morning gently warm, but it was now undeniably hot and we did not begrudge a well-earned drink. We would have preferred it, though, if he had not spent the rest of the walk waving his trunk around and showering us with water/elephant snot.
We continued through more jungle. At one point the mahout stuck his hand into a tree and seemed to break off a twig. Then we realised that dangling from his thumb and forefinger was a stick insect almost as long as his arm. When we had taken a good look he leaned over and hooked it into another tree.
We had been out for over an hour by the time we returned to the lodge. We promptly set off again, this time by car for a tour of the Bolaven Plateau, avoiding a family of pigs as we went.
Minorities are the majority on the Bolaven Plateau (yes, really). Together the Laven (after whom the place is named), Katu, Alak, Taoy and Suay outnumber the Lao.
We dropped in on a Katu village 30 minutes from Tad Lo. Some 20,000 Katu live in Laos and 60,000 more in Vietnam.
At the roadside market our driver bought a large bag of wild mushrooms to take home. Meanwhile Ging paid a small fee and we walked away from the road and into the village, pausing first at the coffins. All villages keep at least two ready at all times, an ornate one for a village leader, and a plainer one for anybody else.
|Katu coffins, Bolaven Plateau|
|Katu village, Bolaven Plateau|
‘They all smoke,’ Ging said with distaste, 'even the children.'
|Ging with Katu women and children|
The woman in the centre is smoking a water pipe, tobacco is drying on the mat in front of the hut
|Katu boy, Bolaven Plateau|
He asked for the photo, then came over all shy but was thrilled when I showed him the picture
In the main square a group of girls were playing a game involving flicking a small stick out of the dust with a longer stick. Sometimes the small stick was caught, in one case with impressive athleticism, sometimes it landed on the ground. They measured the distance using lengths of the larger stick. The rules seemed elaborate, but everyone understood what they were supposed to do.
It was only a short journey to an Alak village. There are only 4,000 Alaks, all of whom live around the Bolaven Plateau and speak a language belonging to the Bahnaric branch of the Austroasiatic family. I find it remarkable that 4,000 people have their own language and even more remarkable that their nearest neighbour’s language is as different as German is to Italian. Odder still, Lao, the national language, is from a different family entirely and is no more closely related to Katu or Alak then it is to Swahili or Swedish.
We parked beside the petrol station and walked into the village. Like the Katu village it was off the road but instead of dirt and bustle, everything here was tidy, well-looked after (I must resist the temptation to call them the Smart Alaks) and largely deserted – during daytime the inhabitants were busy being industrious elsewhere.
|Alak village, Bolaven Palteau|
|Medicine hall, Alak village, Nolaven Plateau|
Once his potions and incantations have worked, a buffalo is sacrificed amid rejoicing and celebration. An area to the side of the square is reserved for this around a ceremonial pole from which hangs a symbolic stairway to heaven.
We wandered past neat houses and vegetable plots but here nobody came to talk to us. We did meet one local who clearly thought he was the village chief - and beautiful to boot. We negotiated our way round his ego and left.
|Am I not beautiful? Alak village, Bolaven Plateau|
We saw dried squid, which is popular in Vietnam (where these presumably came from) but rare in landlocked Laos and wondered at strips of buffalo hide. People chew them, Ging said, when working in the fields. They did not look appealing, but then I have never understood the attraction of chewing gum, either.
Rather more familiar were bundles of asparagus, a crop I associate with more temperate climes, like the Vale of Evesham, or even our home turf in north Staffordshire.
|Asparagus and other fruit and veg, Bolaven Plateau|
|Assorted hardware, Bolaven Plateau|
|An egg, formerly on a stick|
The restaurant spilled out onto a shady terrace. While Lynne drank noodle soup and I ate pork and ginger we watched children playing in the garden and considered the contrast between these privileged youngsters running around on a lawn and the filthy children of the Katu families playing in the dirt just a few miles away.
After we had eaten – and of course, finished our meal with an excellent coffee - we strolled round the gardens. We inspected the coffee bushes and Ging pointed out the differences between varieties, Arabica, Robusta and the rarer Excelsa.
|Ging among the coffee bushes, Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort|
We have seen coffee before but this was, I think, the first time we had seen it in flower.
|Coffee flowers, Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort|
The garden contained plenty of other spectacular flowers…
….and a couple of impressive water features.
Before leaving we dropped into the shop and made the inevitable purchases.
Continuing round the plateau for forty minutes brought us to Tad Fan (or ‘Fane’ or ‘Fang’). For a small fee we walked through a hotel/coffee house and perched on their viewing platform to see the joint highest waterfalls in Laos dropping 120m to the valley below. Despite appearances they are on two different streams which only meet at the base of the cliff, making them two separate waterfalls with only one name (but several spellings).
From Tad Fan we descended towards Route 13 which had brought us south from Vientiane, but reaching it was not the end of the day’s driving. Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), our destination for the night, was still a couple of hours to the south. Darkness fell as we drove – which happens about 5.30 with dramatic suddenness, no messing with twilight here. Our driver put on his lights, but not all drivers seemed to think it was necessary.
|Driving towards Route 13|
In the last 20Km before the Cambodian border the Mekong spreads out to a width of over 8km to form an area of rapids, waterfalls, placid pools and many, many islands (though 4,000 is poetic licence.) We crossed the new road bridge onto Don Khong, the largest island and soon reached the largest settlement where we checked into the hotel.
|Round the Bolaven Plateau and Down to Si Phan Don|
Our comfortable third floor room (a lift would have been nice) had a riverside balcony and we ate in the hotel restaurant on decking above the river. Our red curries were seriously under-chillied in deference to the believed preference of the largely western clientele.
A group of a dozen or so bikers – middle aged men of various European nationalities – sat at a long table behind us. Interested to find out who they were and where they were going we interrogated the man in the Welsh Rugby shirt – well who else? They were, we learned, a pan-European group put together by a specialist Austrian tour company and had not known each before the start of the trip, though they seemed to have gelled well. They had started in Bangkok on hired bikes and were headed for Beijing; we wished them well.
Thailand and Laos
Part 1: Bangkok and the Train North
Part 3: Across Isan to the Lao Border
Part 5: South from Vientiane
Part 9: Around the Bolaven Plateau
Part 10: Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands)
Part 14: Following the Mae Klong to Samut Songkhram and the Gulf of Thailand
Part 15: Cha Am and the Thai Way of Beach