December 31st, 2016 and January 1st, 2017
We got an early start today because we were anticipating a long climb (it ended up being about 3000 feet over 25 miles of continuous climbing) up the Bolaven plateau and we wanted plenty of time at these nice bungalows we booked for New Year’s Eve overlooking a waterfall called Tad E Tu. On our way to take the ferryback over the Mekong, we stopped at a guesthouse/restaurant called Champasak with Love and had a lovely “American Breakfast” with eggs, bread, bacon, and an Americano. We normally wouldn’t get American food here, but Laotian restaurants don’t usually serve coffee (unless it’s Nescafé instant coffee or this Dao instant coffee with milk powder and a ton of sugar mixed in – neither of which are very good), which we really like to have to start our day. Everything was great.
We continued to the ferry port and were directed onto a makeshift catamaran composed of two normal ferry boats (long, thin wooden boats that look similar to canoes) that were held together by a bunch of two-by-fours that formed a deck. At first glance, this did not appear to be seaworthy, but we figured it must work if they boarded us. We took off, then quickly turned back around to pick up another passenger. Another 40 passengers, really: We picked up a man bringing ducks and chickens to the market on the other side of the river. Once they boarded, we took off, and the gentleman with the poultry began to negotiate a barter for his transfer. They landed on two bundles of ducks (about 4 ducks a bundle?) which seemed like a hefty price given that we paid only $2.50 per person.
I was fascinated by this funny boat and impressed by the skill with which our captain drove it. We made it across to Don Muang and started our ride.
After about 5k of pothole-filled road, we got back on the very nicely paved highway 13 and continued toward Pakse, the regional capital. The traffic really picked up on this stretch of 13, getting progressively heavier as we neared town. There was also a lot of dust from roadwork and pollution from all of the traffic (no emissions restrictions here, and lots of old cars, motorbikes, and trucks), so we used our Buffs as face masks and chugged along.
We stopped to pee at a gas station before our turn and saw this funny dog awkwardly napping.
We quickly made it to our turnoff after our break. We had hopes that traffic would die down a bit, but it did not. They are extending this road from two to four lanes, but for now, there’s just a dirt road off to each side in various stages of construction, and with a lot of heavy machinery kicking up dust and also a lot of dump truck traffic carrying dirt and rocks. This along with a ton of tourism traffic and industrial traffic (there are large coffee, bottled water, furniture, etc. factories up this road) made for a not so pleasant ride. Plus, we were now climbing the plateau at a whopping 7-8 miles an hour, which extended the unpleasantness. We experimented with riding on the dirt side road, but it was bumpy and had a lot of gaps, so we took our chances on the actual road.
The traffic seemed to come in waves and moved in a predictable fashion: A huge, slow truck would hold up a line of fancy SUVs and buses filled with tourists, who would each be trying to pass each other and the massive truck, but once these lines of traffic passed, it would be relatively calm for a couple minutes, maybe just a few motorbikes. The scariest bits were when this was happening on our side of the road and the other side of the road, which led to some close passes. Most people slowed down for us, though. The newish minibuses and the coach buses did not slow down at all, though.
We came across this coffee shop / restaurant called Bachieng café, and I was eager for a break from the traffic, so we stopped. They have these beautiful rotted wood tables and benches, fancy landscaping, and a man-made waterfall outside – definitely a place to attract tourists. We ordered some delicious noodle soup and excellent coffee and sat by the waterfall. This place was filled with Chinese tourists in fancy Lexus and Toyota SUVs. I imagine people must be really confused about why we are biking around, getting covered in sweat and dirt, when there are so many perfectly good cars around. Meanwhile, I wonder what’s the point of driving from tourist attraction to tourist attraction when all of the good stuff is in between! Well, except for the traffic.
Anyway, we lingered here for a while, then headed out to keep climbing the plateau. It was fun to watch and feel the climate and scenery subtly change. We entered a banana growing region and got some roadside bananas, then entered the coffee growing region and were treated to some gorgeous, sweeping views of the countryside. I don’t have any pictures, though, because the traffic was too thick to safely take them. It started gently raining, which was actually quite nice as it settled the dust and pollution.
The schools here look so much like the schools in Zambia:
After a bit more chugging, we made it to our home for the night, the Falls View Resort. Sounds and looks fancy, but a room with breakfast included is $50/night, which is pricey for the region, but less than our rent in Brooklyn, so we figured we could splurge for New Years. After settling in, we ventured down to the bottom of the falls and decided that we should probably spend an extra night here in order to have enough time to swim. We had free cancellation on our next hotel, and we padded an extra day at a different waterfall that doesn’t appear to allow swimming, so we could make it work. Ted jumped in, but it wasn’t sunny and hot enough for me to overcome my wimpiness about being cold.
We headed back up, ate a genuinely terrible dinner (They failed to fully cook the kebabs, and I think they put a bunch of tree leaves in our soup? They weren’t chewable.), watched the hotel owner facilitate an awkward New Years party in Mandarin (95% of the hotel’s guests were Chinese), and went to bed early.
The next day, we had a lazy morning, eating a ton of delicious food at the breakfast buffet and reading. Then we took a walk through a coffee plantation abutting our hotel, headed down to swim at the falls, and headed up to the road to get some decent food (though the breakfast at the hotel was good, the lunch and dinner menu are filled with things like French fries and Thai food that cost 4x as much as good food at a local restaurant). We had delicious bowls of soup, then headed back to the bungalow so Ted could do some work.