There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Around the Bolaven Plateau, Part 9 of Thailand and Laos

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.

Up at 7 o'clock on a bright, clean Bolaven morning
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 elephant plodded off towards the waterfall, taking the jungle paths we had earlier eschewed. They were narrow at ground level….
The path is narrow on the ground

… and often non-existent at our height, so we brushed through the leaves and branches.

There is no path up here!
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
After the falls we passed a man tending his vegetable patch and arrived at the road we walked along earlier. It was hardly busy but our elephant clearly disliked motor vehicles and was nervous even before two lads went past on a motorcycle, deliberately revving the engine. The mahout skilfully calmed the nervous animal.

A man tending his vegetable patch, Tad Lo
Over the road we plodded through a hamlet...
Hamlet, Tad Lo

…where tobacco and chillies lay drying in the sun…
Tobacco and chillies drying in the sun, Tad Lo

…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.

A huge stick insect dangles from between forefinger and thumb
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.

Avoiding a family of pigs, near Tad Lo
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
The village was not a great advertisement for Katu life. The houses were ramshackle and broken down.....

Katu village, Bolaven Plateau
.... filthy children, the youngest naked, played in the dirt while the women lounged on doorsteps smoking large wooden water pipes.

‘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
To be fair, though, none of the children asked for anything, not money, not pens, not even sweets. The young man below did ask to have his photograph taken but that was a request I was happy to oblige.

Katu boy, Bolaven Plateau
He asked for the photo, then came over all shy but was thrilled when I showed him the picture
There were few men around, presumably they were out working, but well-tended vegetable plots were dotted around the village.

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.

Main square, Katu village
I watched the game, then they packed up, then I got my camera out - not my finest moment
Katus in Laos speak Low Katu, one of the fifteen languages which make the Katuic branch of the Austroasiatic language family. There are by 1.3 million Katuic speakers across South East Asia.

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.

Alak petrol station, Bolaven Plateau
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
Alaks are animists and the focal point of the village is a carved wooden hall where the sick isolate themselves to be tended by the village shaman.
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.
Ceremonial pole, Alak village, Bolaven Plateau

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
Five minutes driving took us to a crossroads where there was a sprawling market with permanent stalls. It was not attached to any village or settlement and was presumably used by locals of all ethnic groups. We walked through the food section among things familiar and unfamiliar. Sausages, kebabs and the usual array of spatchcocked frogs, chickens and rats lay ready for the barbecue. Ging bought some eggs on skewers.
Ready for the barbecue, 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.
Dried squid and buffalo hide, Bolaven Plateau
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
It was not all food. Other human requirements were catered for including motorcycles, hand powered mills and electric fans.

Assorted hardware, Bolaven Plateau
As we drove off Ging shared out the eggs. A hole had been made in the pointed end, the contents removed and beaten with herbs and seasoning and poured back in. The egg was then placed in a steamer and the result was a tasty snack. [I have since tried the process at home, and it works].

An egg, formerly on a stick
The French introduced coffee to Vietnam (most of the instant coffee sold in the UK is Vietnamese) and when they found they were getting a minimal return from the land-locked part of their Indo-Chinese empire, they tried coffee in Laos too. It failed down by the Mekong but adapted readily to the Bolaven Plateau and we called at the Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort for lunch.

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.
Having lunch at the Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort

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…

In the garden, Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort
….and a couple of impressive water features.
Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort

Before leaving we dropped into the shop and made the inevitable purchases.

Sinouk Coffee Plantation and Resort
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).
Tad Fan, Bolaven Plateau
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.

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