We rattled along the newly paved road under black threatening cloud, closed in by mountains on all sides, dense and tropical. A few more people were crammed in and held on the back fror the hour it took to reach Pakse. We clambered out amongst a throng of market activity. A wealth of goods were being sold, mostly food. Trevor reached for his Lonely Planet to find where the centre was, as we needed cash. We asked the nearest person andsoon left the hubub and tuk tuk drivers behind. Finding an ATM that doesn’t charge is always a mission (update: Commission free cash withdrawals is illegal in Laos. Expect to pay minimum of 28,000 kip per 1000,000 or 3% – 4% depending on the bank) and this time we failed, settling for the only bank close- an ANZ. King of charges at 4% (avoid).
A tuk tuk driver had followed us, knowing we would need a ride, but as Laura was doing the banking I have time to negotiate 20,000 kip instead of 30,000 to the southern bus station, 6km away. Time gives you leverage in South East Asian countries, desperation does not! Everything went smoothly, except some other tourists who climbed aboard thinking we were on an arranged pick u. As we reached 4km the wrong direction we had to take them back. Either way we made it to the muddy bus station, paid the 30,000 bus ticket to Tadlo and went in search for coffee and food. Sat on the ubiqitous red plastic chairs in a dark restaurant where meats of low quality were being BBQ’d. A bottle of unidentified liquid with herbs in (a condiment perhaps?) sat on the table, turned out to be 40% spirit called Lao Lao. Essentially a “Lao rice whiskey”, so I had a “Lao coffee” and ordered some sausages (trying to work out how the locals would eat breakfast). The table next to us had raw vegetables and some kind of relish, we now know is called Jiao- a spicey, chilli based/herb accompaniment to most Lao food. We used the pointing strategy to get in on this action with sticky rice. A filling but taste intensive breakfast, which set us back 20,000 kip, a price that made me suspicious of being ripped off (we were not as it turned out).
With time running out we rushed and were soon pulling out of the station, when a load more people got on just around the corner. It turns out that in Lao there is always a bus stop directly outside the bus station (why we still have yet to figure out!) We past cassava plantations, an Asian staple food and endless banana trees, stopping once to pick up 60kg of long beans, before reaching the bottom of Bolavan plateau, which looked similar to the other pure green mountains we had seen in Champasak. We followed the directions we had been given for 15 minutes, eventually reaching bamboo and wooden houses crawling with pigs and chickens. We were looking for the recommended
“Mama Paps”, where Trevor wanted to stay, the cheap option at 20,000 kip per night. Mama was sat at the table and laughed and clapped wildly, bouncing up and down when we called out her name. We soon left Trevor to move on and find the bungalows on the river bank that were touted as a river hideaway. These were smaller and more rustic, but you couldn’t beat the view down the river and waterfall, just 100 meters away. The price was 25,000 kip per night (2 pounds), but after walking with her to the “office” in private we negotiated 20,000 per night staying 4 nights or more (a better price can generally be negotiated for a longer terms stay) and agreed not to tell anyone.
With that sorted we found Trevor at Mama Paps to try the infamous omelet baguette. A massive foot long sandwich for 10,000. Ace value, basic, but perfectly filling. That is what it is all about. Vegetables it turns out was cabbage, as it was in season. We then decided to explore our new locality and crossed the hole ridden bridge that somehow was a road and reached the river bank just below the 8 meter waterfall and sat with our feet in the icy water to cool down in the afternoon heat, the roaring falls that fed the quiet river, winding its way through quaint Tad Lo. Ladies washing clothes downstream and buffalo slowly chewing grass with satisfied faces were icons of the place overall.
We pushed on and wound above the falls for a perspective from above. Walking upstream we soon reached the base of a larger waterfall. Heading up a narrow path, jungle either side, weary from stories of poisonous snakes (the bamboo pit viper to be precise) falling out of trees we nervously reached the top of the next falls, surrounded by bamboo. Trevor shrieked, convinced something bit him and with rumbles of thunder not that far away we headed back, just missing a massive cobweb with yellow and black spider stretched out at face height.A few minutes later I saw a rustle off the side of the path and saw a black and red snake. Heading towards it, the snake froze as if to stay hidden and then slithered off quickly into the undergrowth as it realised I was heading its way.
That evening we relaxed, exhilarated by our jungle environment. The next day after a mama’s breakfast and the world’s most filling pancake, we set out to find the elephants that are kept to give rides to tourists and see their condition and price. It turns out that Tadlo Lodge let them roam free, but at $25 for an hour on a seat, we felt this was not the way we wanted to interact with these amazing animals. We hung out with them regardless and scrutinised their hulkish figures and stroked their course, leathery skin. We found a place to sit looking directly down the waterfall on the other river bank and dangled our legs over the raging water before heading back to try lunch at the more expensive looking place on the river next to our bungalow. Our fish Laap (meat pounded together with herbs and chilli) and green Papaya salad were great and not too much more expensive than Mama’s, which was a pleasant surprise. Their ice coffee with condensed milk were gorgeous as well, as rich as a dessert.
Next day after relaxing for the first 3 we embarked on our mission to walk to the Tad Song waterfall, a quoted 10km walk. Only a rice paddy tractor and 2 motorbikes carrying tourists past on what turned out to be just 3.6 km to the tiny village next to the dried up falls, which you could see pretty much from Tadlo itself as it towers over the rest of the countryside. Its lack of water was the result of the resident hydro-electric station on the river, which reduced this estimated 40- 50m drop to a fine sprinkle.
Walking through the traditional village, houses all facing a common square of the earth in the center, in the middle of which was the open walled community center. Everyone we walked past pointed us towards the visible face of rock. Some kids started to weak with us to show us the way. We were convinced they wanted money to guide us, but didn’t say anything discouraging. We hopped and tip toed across rocks down the trickle of a river bed, deep in undergrowth. We really were in the middle of the country. The rocks got bigger and soon we emerged to see a group jumping 7 meters into a pool below, isolated by the low water level, but fed by the trickle of water to keep it fresh and cool. The formations carved into the rock and mini waterfall gave the place a truly magical, storybook like feel. Deep jungle surrounded us, the cliff towered over us and everywhere there were still pools to cool down and swim in. I was soon jumping off the 7 meter edge into the murky pool with two Lao kids and paddled around a mini waterfall that had carved a smooth vertical gutter, before scrambling back up a natural staircase to the top.
Moving towards the rock face we lazed on huge rocks positioned by the falls. Cylindrical hollows provided the kids with pipes to crawl through. The place was literally a jungle gym! After a few hours we decided to head back. The boys tentatively asked for money, seemingly not expecting anything, which was enough to give them a token thank you of 1,000 kip each. Walking back was hard in the radiating sun. Soaked with sweat and resting in the sparse shade we waved at a farmer to give us a lift. He shook his head to our surprise. People in Lao were supposed to be the most friendly in South East Asia. We made it back and ate at the restaurant on the river front. Relaxing and working out our finance, with food and invigorating iced coffee.
That evening we met Trevor and some German people we met a few days before who told us about a pumpkin celebration come festival as they had just come into season. This would mean staying an extra day. Mama Paps enthusiasm about “Beer Lao, music and dancing” was enough to convince us. The next day was another of relaxing and swimming in the river. A local boy, about 4 years old had got used to me being there at the same time each day and throwing him up and down. He made a beeline straight towards me turned around and held his arms up and I started to hurl him into t
he air as the short-term tourists watched on amused. We splashed around for 30 minutes as the day turned into the blueish hue of twilight, before walking through a herd of buffalo and their excrement to get back to our bamboo hide away.
Then it was pumpkin day! Mama told us it was an all day affair , so in true western style 8 of us converged on the restaurant at 10am sharp for breakfast, to start proceedings. A massive mound of pumpkins in the corner 80+ strong. This it turned out was the day activity- a truck taking loads from each house to the monastery, which the monks would then sell to get by for another year (Monks all rely on donations from the local community). We ate and the truck arrived with 5 kids aged between 5 and 13 years of age to load and drive them off. We all helped them and waved them off, the driver only just being able to reach the handlebars. To get into the spirit we decided to buy the Lao spirit aptly named Lao Lao. I went and past a house, outside of which was a tarpaulin spread out and hunks of meat lying in distinct piles. A man on one side was busy hacking parts of a carcass and passing it to each person in the large group that was gathered around. 2 buffalo had been sacrificed as part of the festival and was being shared around the village. After picking up 4 plastic bags full of transparent alcohol at 5,000 kip for 500ml (45p!) We were soon watching Mama expertly syphon them into empty beer bottles and tasting the strong, slightly fermented tast
e. Not great the first shot, but good by the 4th. Our party group invited every visitor or passerby to a shot, and each one pulled a complete taste of disgust afterwards, which now seems as much part of the Lao tradition as the drink itself.
We never saw music, beer and dancing though, but hungout having fun at Mama Paps, which was great. Mama soon told us in her amusing Lao style English that we were all going to share a buffalo lunch. The buffalo that she was given from the sacrifice. Buffalo Laap with sticky rice was really tasty, but really strong in the chilli department. A French girl ran out coughing due to the spice explosion. The rest of us learnt how to eat like the Laotians with sticky rice and your hands. Later we hung around the temple, but people were praying so we left to avoid intruding. We had a long swim and enjoyed a night on Lao Lao.
The next day we were forced to get up early, feeling ropey to walk back to bus stops, picking up a bunch of 12 bananas for 5,000 kip for the 1 hour bus journey to Salavan. Salavan is further east and was touted as a region that no one visits, so we pushed further East to get off charted territory. Drifting in and out of sleep on the bumpy roads until we hit a paved road lined with billboards and posh looking hotel blocks near the station where we emerged.