The Loops of Southern Laos
We drop our bags off in the back room of our hotel and head for the motorcycle shop. The young Laotian guy behind the desk looks like he is right out of a rock band. His has plugs in his ears, an obscure band t-shirt, and his hair is an un-gel’d mohawk. The three of us cruise out of town on our two meager-motored bikes. The wind whips past us as the open road unfolds in front of us; the start of a two day journey around the Bolaven Plateau. We pass a small man wearing a soldier’s helmet as his bike putts along; the motorcycle looks as if it predates the man himself. Potholes blend into the pavement and the motorcycle jumps and wobbles to correct its path. The bike is built to stay upright and keep moving. The waterfalls along the road increase in awe as the day continues. The first waterfall is small, but beautiful. The last waterfall of the day is large and wide, stretching far out across the river and falling onto a valley of stones which are gently smoothing with the passage of time. The rolling Bolaven mountains surround the gravel road in every direction, and clouds sit halfway up the forested slopes hiding the ridges from view. Olympus hides in this tropical evergreen highland. Our journey ends in the small coffee capital of Laos, Paksong. Coffee plants full of ripe red berries stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see. The Laotian beef barbecue is a welcome end to a full day of riding. We lay in our beds listening to David Bowie and Pearl Jam as fatigue takes over and sleep descends.
The road back to Pakse is an easy downhill ride with waterfalls scattered on both sides of the road. We speed along and the headwind makes me feel as if we are flying. The motorcycle is broken in a way I cannot fix with my limited knowledge. It has now taken on a life of its own, accelerating as it pleases. We give it the nervous moniker of “the magic bike” and I focus my attention on breaking; the throttle is now an unused tool. Our first stop is Tad Fane, the twin falls that stretch 180 meters and disappear below out of sight. As the water falls from both falls it bounces and careens off the stones in its path, sending mist into the air that twists and dissipates like tendrils of smoke. We stand and watch in silence as we watch the endless stream. “These waterfalls just keep going forever. Amazing, they have been going forever and will never stop…” Kate contemplates out loud; the other two of us nod in agreement. We take a break at the coffee shop nearby. A passionate Dutch barista has set up his shop in a nook of the jungle resort. He excitedly explains everything about Laotian coffee and coffee culture in general. I take a budget-priced cup of coffee, but enviously watch as he places Luwak coffee grinds into a press. As I finish the last drop of the bitter brew, he begins to refill my cup with the Luwak roast, lifting his finger to his mouth in secrecy. The Luwak beans are cleaned and readied for brewing in the stomach of a jungle cat related to a civet. It tastes very similar to the previous cup, yet the aftertaste is rich and complex. The last waterfall of the day is down a steep hill and a poorly built bamboo ladder. We are the only three people there, it feels as if we have discovered something incredible. The girls quickly trek to see the back side of the waterfall while I strip down and jump into the frigid water. The water is refreshing, a word I use scarcely because I have a strong aversion to cold water. I head out of the small waterfall pond and try to hurry after Kate and Lena, but before I catch up I am distracted by a small pontoon built of empty water barrels and bamboo. A broken bamboo pole reaches halfway down into the water and I weakly use the pole to push myself out into the middle of the pond; I stare straight into the full strength of the waterfall. I struggle to stay in the middle of the pond, but the water rushes from where it splashes down and pushes me back to the shore. The rocks are slippery with algae and moss, causing me to wobble, twist, and fall. My elbows and shins become bruised, but no skin has been broken, no blood needs to be washed away by the falls. As I stand behind the waterfall, the wind picks up the sprays over me. I stretch my arms out, push my chest out, and yell as loud as I can into the falls. Perhaps this is Neverland.
Five-hundred kilometers North of our adventure through the Bolaven Plateau, we decide that another adventure beckons us: The Thakhek Loop. Our group has lost one member as Lena moves on to Thailand, but Kate (my newest German travel partner) and I throw all of our belongings into one day and take off in the morning to make our first stop in time. Before long we turn off the paved road and head down a bumpy back dirt road towards Buddha Cave. The motorbike is new and the tires are still stiff, before long the bike slips out from the dusty path, but both Kate and I acrobatically land on our feet as the bike skids forward. The motorcycle is still in good shape and we continue on our way in no time. The cave is a huge disappointment: men stop us to take charge us for the bike’s entry, further down another man charges us for entry to the cave, and then two angry women yell at Kate to put a skirt over her already full-length jeans. The cave is a disappointingly full of blue and red lights, giving the “sacred” cave a comical look. We leave angry, discussing how truly religious places should never require a monetary levy. As we carefully drive back to the main road, the motorcycle slows to a halt; the broken fuel gauge still reads full. As the frustration begins to build we walk the bike down the dusty road. Laotian men in trucks drive by, always stopping to point and laugh at our situation. On the side of the road, four men are fishing in a small pond and summon us over. They quickly ascertain our dilemma and siphon gas from their own motorbike to fill ours. Although we offer them money for the fuel, they warmly smile and refuse. Another victory for altruism abroad. The paved road once again winds like a ribbon in front of us until it meets the horizon. Trees surround green rice fields filled with small amounts of water. Every so often a water buffalo will stand as guard in the middle of one of the rice squares; staring pensively out over the land. The next stop, Aen Cave, is another disappointment on our first day. The entrance fee is extremely high, the aesthetic value of the cave far below our expectations. Our only interest in the cave is the M.C. Escher-esque staircase that runs through the core of the mid-sized cave. Once again we head back to the main road, uninspired and slightly poorer. The road ahead not only twists and turns, but also tilts causing the motorbike to drift in the turns. The wind picks up with a strength I haven’t experienced before. The motorcycle now disobeys my every command, being thrown left and right across the road as large trucks blare their horns and speed past. I stifle my fear for Kate’s sake, but her hand that usually grips the back of the motorbike comes up to grip my shoulder; she is clearly afraid. The wind refuses to come from one direction, it pushes us in one direction before pulling us back the other. I slow the bike down and stretch my leg out to assist in balancing the bike, but it still is just shy of minimizing the terror-filled conditions of the road; we pull over. We are clearly defeated, maybe this was too much. Doubt sidles up to the fear and almost end our trip. “I’ll try to go slower, or maybe we can shift the bags to keep us more steady,” I offer up in a hollow voice. “Maybe I will grab a bus back at the next stop,” Kate replies equally defeated. “Let’s try to just get past this stretch, maybe make it to the guesthouse, then we can call the motorcycle company to grab us,” I offer up in a last ditch attempt to salvage the trip. We get back on the bike, crawling along the road as more trucks speed past us, pulling the bike into their wake. The next hour is full of remembering the disasters and disappointments of the day as the bike’s low grumble seems voice our thoughts. Finally, the wind dies down and we begin to climb a winding mountain road. The sunlight feels good as we make our way up the cutbacks to the top. At the top of the mountain we find panacea for our fear and mood; the flooded valleys of the Thakhek. Small green islands sit in the middle of dark, blue waters. Reeds grow along the hillsides, swaying in the breeze as barren, white trees stick out from the middle of the lake. The trees stand like entrenched soldiers, broken by their environment. The sight is breath-taking and we can’t help but pull over to take photos that will inevitably be unable to capture what our eyes see. Invigorated, we get back onto the path and head to our guesthouse. We pull into the Hotel Sabaidee (“welcome/hello”) and the owner is the living embodiment of his hotel’s moniker. He helps pull the bike up the dirt driveway and asks us if he can bring us anything to the room. We take turns with the hot water showers as the owner builds us a bonfire just steps from our small, wooden bungalow. Later in the evening he gathers all of us weary motorists and brings us down to the water; the full moon hangs over the flooded valley and leafless trees. I am the first to turn in for the night. My hands are stiff and my shoulders tight, but the murmur of fire-lit chatter acts as a lullaby causing the day to fade away.
The morning spills in through the curtains and before I take two steps out the door the owner has already offered me a cup of coffee. This guys has already made the friendship list. As I drink the gift of the Bolaven Plateau I left only days before, I watch as a small motorboat crosses the flooded valley. The soft glow of the sun illuminates the water, causing it to sparkle and create a long yellow line that stretches between myself and the sun. We are connected. The boat’s engine thrums steadily as it carefully moves in between the white trees that were once an evergreen forest, now submerged underwater by progress via hydro-dams. The thought of hydro-dams, selected flooding, and displacement fill me with anger at first, but it occurs to me that Laos is attempting to bring their land-locked country into the 21st-century. It is a painful process bent on the whims of neighboring countries and foreign investment with strings attached, but in the grand scheme it is not extremely different from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s controlled flooding in the ’30s to promote economic development. Laos has been in a Great Depression longer than anyone living here can remember. The day of riding is another difficult one, filled with steep downhill slopes on red rocky roads where development has yet to reach. The bike responds much better to my commands; the tires grip, the bike moves in tandem with my desires, and the brakes acknowledge the danger of the treacherous road. The bike bumps and throws Kate up and down on the back of the bike as I carefully try to choose the best path; there are no good options. The slope is filled with dips, potholes, and slippery packed dirt. Through divine intervention and steady nerves, we make it to the bottom and continue along the path. By the time we make it to the bottom, we are both wearing new clothes of red and tan dirt. Our first stop of the day is far in the North, just shy of the border to Vietnam. We had expected to find hot springs, but once again had been disappointed as it had vanished. With the bike parked on the side of the road, we walked down to the river where the hot springs had once existed. A man with a toothy half-smile approached us and began to speak to us in Laotian. The Tower of Babel strikes again. His words are completely lost on us both, but his hand gestures are descriptive and tell a sad story: “The hot springs were once just over here, but the flood came and covered them, pulled trees from the ground around the river, and destroyed my resort and home. I am now destitute.” His face is pained and sad, but still friendly. We are both quiet as we return the way we came. A few hours later we cut off from our path and head down a dirt road towards the forest that sits below the black behemoth of a mountain behind it. Farm animals and dogs jump out of the pathway and we pull into Sala Konglor resort. A quick swim in the river and a meal finishes our day, and night falls over the small, straw one-room house.
Sun splinters in between the woven straw walls and is further filtered by the mosquito net draped around my bed. I wake to the sounds of crickets chirping in rhythm with the cicadas that line the forest. A dog whines and barks in the distance, while ducks and roosters attempt to best each other. Footsteps on long wooden boards thump quietly as children’s laughter joins and mixes with the other sounds. A cow bell jingles noisily as the beast stretches its morning legs. A group of birds chirp but are quickly drowned out by the strange laughter-like call of a Kookaburra bird. Behind it all is the steady babble of the river that cuts through village. This is the orchestra of a Laotian highland village. As I get up to begin packing the motorbike, I watch as an adolescent boy in green shorts stands up to his shins in the river, brushing his teeth; the moon still hangs high above the mountains in the crisp, blue morning sky. Just upstream from the boy, a woman and her two children paddle down river, their boat moves slowly and effortlessly with the river’s current, never breaking the reflection of the green trees and the towering black mountains on the surface. Small once-green leaves float lazily alongside the boat in their new yellow skin. Overturned logs create small natural bridges into the middle of the lake that cause the boat to make knocking sounds as the carved wood connects with the downed tree. Four small, white ducks split the water as they move upstream towards the boat, muttering to themselves as they take their morning swim. Goats attempt to stand with difficulty as they awake from the tan river rock that was their bed last night. A long day awaits them of foraging for food along the mountain’s snake-like ridges. Morning dew sits on the black leather seat of the motorcycle, seeping into our pants as we head up the forest’s dirt path. Large black rock faces surround the main road, each of them show large horizontal lines that stretch across their entirety. My mind dances with fanciful thoughts that exclude all science of plate tectonics. A giant clawed his way across the mountains of Laos a millennium ago. Goats, dogs, and cows litter the side of the road, but quickly dart back to the side of the road with the blare of the horn. Dragonflies, black butterflies, and small winged creatures alike perform aerial maneuvers across the road, a few giving their lives as they crash into my chest and motorcycle; a sharp pain that is as brief as an insect’s life. We reach Konglor Cave before the gates are open and decide to head back to a small coffee shop we saw on the road. As we sip the bitter, dark liquid I smoke my tobacco pipe. Laotian men come one by one to marvel at this strange visage. They pinch and smell the tobacco, the ask to hold the wooden pipe, and each of them smiles and comments in a familiar, warm Laotian tone. “Very beautiful,” one man says. I offer him the pipe to try, but he refuses and returns to his cigarette. The gates to the cave open and we are among the first inside. The only access to Konglor Cave is by boat, and our boat driver is a half-blind man with only a few teeth left in his mouth. The cave quickly swallows us and the darkness wraps around the boat. “The stalagmites and stalagtites look like sharp jagged teeth,” Kate says, conjuring an image in my head of Monstro the whale swallowing Gepetto and Pinnochio. A bat silently flies parallel to our boat, just above the water’s edge. At each turn through the cave, the boat scrapes the pebbled bottom of the cave. Millions of smooth stones like the bottom of the cave, just a foot below the surface. As the boat passes over them, they rumble and shift underneath the square hull. Occasionally, the two Laotian guides are forced to jump out and push the shallow boat through the even more shallow water; only once requiring my help. The flashlights on top of the guides’ heads dance back and forth looking for rogue rocks, and as the beams of light hit the water they reflect up onto the ceiling illuminating the entire cave. The stream of light is interrupted only by small drops of water from the ceiling. A warm air blows through the cave and causes my hair to shift out of place. The purr and pitch of the small boat motor changes as the cavern widens and holes appear in the smooth walls that I know perceive as a whale’s rib-cage. An orange glow illuminates the passage ahead, causing the rocks to take a hellish hue. Another small boat approaches in the distance, the only visible markers are the two white orbs approaching like the twin lanterns of Charon taking spirits across the River Styx. The River Styx is in the stomach of Monstro the whale. What a beautiful result of mixed metaphors. As we exit the cave, we both agree that this will definitely be the highlight of our entire Laos trip. As we drive back to Thakhek, I am filled with the beauty of nature, the uniqueness of each small place on Earth, and a renewed love of travel. The emotions mix together in a cocktail of dopamine and I begin to feel invincible; I throttle the bike to 100km/h and feel more free and alive than I can remember. It takes a cautious warning from Kate to realize the recklessness of my driving. The bike slows down, but the emotion remains. What wonders will Laos bring next?
Stay: Paksong Guesthouse (Bolaven Loop), Saibadee Guesthouse (Thakhek Loop 1st night), Sala Konglor (Thakhek Loop 2nd night).
Eat: Pretty much wherever you stay. Most of the guesthouses on the loops have great food that isn’t too expensive, but there are also great local Loas restaurants in all of the towns that you pass during the loops.
Do: Tad Lo waterfalls (Bolaven), Tad Fane waterfalls (Bolaven), Tad Cham Pee waterfall (Bolaven). Highlands of Tahkek (end of 1st day, Thakhek Loop), Konglor Cave (3rd day start, Tahkhek Loop).
Don’t Do: Other side waterfalls in Bolaven are pretty small, costly, and not worthwhile. Buddha Cave and Aen Cave are both not worth a trip in the sense that they are out of the way, very costly, and wildly unimpressive. They are just there to take money, but don’t care about cultural or religious value.
Notes: Like the post and want to see a video to go with it? Check out my video of Don Det and motorbiking through the Laotian highlands.