The Bolaven Plateau: Wild Beasts and Waterfalls – 1st Week of Oct. 2005

The Bolaven Plateau: Wild Beasts and Waterfalls

We left our paradisiacal island and headed north to the tune of bright blue skies, white fluffy clouds, chartreuse paddies, bananas, papayas, and large trees and mountains. We thought it prettier than Cambodia because of the mountains and trees, which added height to the landscape. There were few villages, no traffic aside from a few water buffalo and children riding their bikes to school, and open clearings that made it a camper’s paradise.

Everywhere in southern Laos are streams and small rivers. Over each little stream or river was a small bridge and an unused hut (built during construction of the bridge but afterwards abandoned). The advantage of these huts is that they provided shelter from the rain and they necessarily meant a river, which meant that we could find water for our cooking and cleaning. We slept in one of these on the first evening, hoping to spend a peaceful evening, but a group of men walking the roads spotted us with their torches. They walked back and forth, back and forth, eyeing us and our little hut. Two of them crowded into our house, armed with both smiles and AK-47assault rifles. They just wanted to share a smoke and a chat, but their weapons didn’t reassure me in the least. We kept thinking about the stories of the armed guerillas who still have power in certain regions of Laos. Then another half-dozen men and what looked to be a military officer joined them, and, to ease tension, Stephane handed out his European rolling tobacco all around. Although they proved to be nice enough, I was thankful when they all left and took their weapons with them.

As for the time we spent biking and camping in southern Laos, we could have termed it “Animal Plant: Laos,” hosted by Stephane Marchiori. Other tourists had told us how they hadn’t seen any animals in Laos, but we saw plenty! First was the scorpion that stung Stephane in the middle of the night as we were putting up our mosquito net. The scared the crap out of me, as some stings can be fatal. He survived that one, but it wasn’t over for him, yet. The next day, he was attacked by several large, black leeches as we were swimming in a pool of water – right there where no man would ever want to be attacked! I literally thought my heart would stop beating! He thrashed his way out of the water, tearing them off. And that very night, as we were camping, an army of termites converged upon our tent and ate hundreds of holes through several of our bags! All this within 24 hours!

Then there were the less scary animals, such as the lightning bugs, the large toads, the colorful parrots, and the large, beautiful butterflies. The saddest, though, were the baby monkeys that we sometimes saw tied up – usually used for a tourist attraction, such as on Don Det. But we saw it in tiny villages far from any tourist activity, too. It was quite sad – usually the monkeys were very small, as if they had just been taken from their mothers and the sound of them crying and screeching and tearing at their chains was just about enough to break your heart.

Before arriving at the Plateau, we spent a couple of days in the town of Champasak, where we visited the Wat Phu Temple Complex. To read more about this UNESCO site, please click on the section entitled “UNESCO sites” under the Laotian flag. After our visit of Wat Phu, we visited the local village festival, which takes place once yearly. The fair was miniscule – a tiny swing set for children, a dart board, stalls of plastic toys, and a blaring band playing down by the river. The little boys played with their plastic guns and ate ice flavored with red and green mint syrup or bread smeared with a bit of condensed milk. The adults had their lao-lao (rice whiskey), and when it finally kicked in around mid-afternoon on Sunday, some of them took to the dance floor. Finally we saw what we had come to see: the long-tail boat race. About 26 men crowded into the narrow long-tails and synchronized their rowing while their teammates shouted encouragement. It was the big event of the year.

We took the boat back across the river to the other side of the Mekong and continued biking to Pakse, the largest town on the Bolaven Plateau. From there, we rented a motorbike to visit the Plateau, which is a beautiful, lush green plain, world-renowned for its coffee. The highlight of the visit was the view of Tad Fan Waterfalls from the other side of the gorge. It was spectacular: two 120 m.-high streams, doubly majestic in almost mirror image of each other, falling down the steep canyon into a pool below. There was dense, green jungle all around.

It was while admiring these two gorgeous waterfalls in the midst of the jungle that we first spoke about the possibility of going home to see the family. It was a Wednesday evening, and I had just received word from my brother in an e-mail message the day before about a surprise party for my parents’ 60th birthday that my siblings were throwing for them that coming Sunday. We had gone over five weeks without e-mail while we were trudging through the mud in Cambodia and then relaxing on our little island in Laos without electricity – completely cut off from the world. And then, the day after arriving in Pakse, I received this message that I should write back with anecdotes, stories, or memories about them – by the next day!

Well, anyway, we’ve missed all the big family events for years, and I was a bit sad about missing the party for their 60th, and Stephane said, “Well, why don’t we go?” I hardly dared hope he was serious, but one look reassured me that he was, and so we made a quick calculation as to when we could be back in Philadelphia, and determined that we had just enough time if we left the following day.

And so it was determined that we would try….