Vern: With a little help from a cup of coffee, we were up early again and zipping toward the bus station in a moto-taxi: a small chariot bolted to the side of a motorbike. It's a better ride than in the back of a tuk-tuk because you're up front with all the action, but I imagine that one wouldn't fare as well in an accident.
The bus station was uneven, unpaved and full of litter. As so often happens, we got there and a three-quarter full bus was idling and ready to go. We boarded and bought some summer-rolls and dipping sauce for breakfast, out of the bus window from vendors buzzing around in the dust. The bus was a leper, a skeletal shell of its former self, and the remainder of a suspension system did nothing to stop the uneven road from summoning up a white squall in our packet of sweet-chilli sauce.
We were the only foreigners on the bus and our two caucasian faces peering out of the window didn't go unnoticed by the townspeople in the villages we rode by. We got lots of waves, a couple of hello's in Lao and English, and I even notched up an, "I love you!" from a young lady having her nails done in a shed. Obviously, strangers loudly shelling me with affections happens all the time back home, so I am pleased to see that this behaviour has gone global!
We were dropped at a junction and walked the last 15 minutes down a dirt road, passing wooden houses on stilts, with chilli peppers drying in their satellite dishes. Goats and pant-less children roamed the spaces between lots. Our journey brought us to an area known as Tat Lo, the same name as one of its three nearby waterfalls. We chose a super-cheap guesthouse and took residence in a little cabin with woven palm-leaf walls and furnished with a double-bed and a mosquito net.
The sound of the river murmurs through the village all day and all night, interrupted only by roosters, and humans shooing stray cows out of their yards. We followed the sound down to the bank. To the left, Tat Hang waterfall riots down over reddish brown boulders, scattered like fallen Jenga bricks. The water flows under an old bridge and settles into a wide shallow channel which to's and fro's toward the horizon on the right, but sharply bends out of view before it gets there. Soap-sudded villagers bathe in natural jacuzzis amongst the boulders, the adults wearing only their undies or sarongs for a little privacy. A little plastic basket containing toiletties and laundry detergent sits on the closest rock, because once they're done cleaning themselves and their children, they move over to where the water is quieter and scrub clean a load of clothes on wooden washing boards carved from tree trunks and shaped like skateboards. We'd left a load of laundry with our guesthouse proprietor before we left, not giving a second thought to her stain-removal methodology, and suddenly felt a little guilty realising how effort intensive this service is here. (The next day we got it back clean and fragrant, so there's no doubting the effectiveness of a river, some soap and a scrubbing brush).
The bridge arched over the river like a beggar's dilapidated smile. We crossed carefully, dodging the holes left by fallen planks and hesitant to put much weight on the ones which remained. Our prudence was however ridiculed by the locals who sped over on scooters or squeezed across in farm trucks. Thrown caution has long since blown away in the cool wind.
On the far side the dirt track curled 90-degrees and then followed the river bank upstream. We followed it up a gentle incline before veering off on to a path signed 'Tat Lo Waterfall'. On the other side of a ramshackle footbridge, constructed out of sticks loosely bound to staves rammed into gaps between rocks, boulders neatly delineate a rock pool where the water is clear and calm. Behind the pool, Tat Lo waterfall is not very high. Less than ten metres I'd guess. But the water coming over is raucous, plentiful and white like full cream milk. It pounds the pool beneath it like a baker kneading dough.
I stripped down to my board shorts, clambered over the slippery rocks and plunged into the pool below the falls. Then I took a deep breath, put my head down and executed my best crawl strokes, headed toward the cascade, but to no avail. My goal was a 'Prince of Thieves' type shower au natural but all my energy got me only to the brim of the white water and as soon as I stopped paddling I was flushed away.
I returned to our dry spot on a cluster of boulders, panting. Andrea was splashing away bugs resembling wingless mosquitos which were skating on the water's surface and easing herself in to the numbingly cold water. Once in, she repeated my attempts to pierce Tat Lo's forcefield and perhaps was a little more successful, but again as soon as she stopped to see her progress, the current would sweep her downstream back to her starting point.
It was a warm afternoon and we were already half dry when we made it back to the old bridge which crossed back to the village. There, however we were halted, because thirty or so Ford 4x4s, heavily branded like rally cars, were lined up and crossing the bridge two by two. Curious, Andrea went over to the open window of one of the trucks. The driver explained that this was the Ford Adventure Challenge, a three day rally around South East Asia. Andrea recognised the man's accent and general appearance and was about to ask if he was from Israel. "I am Palestinian," he said, before she spoke (phew!), "but I live in Cambodia. I run a company that imports Ford and other US Brands to Cambodia. Yes, products from America, even though I come from, according to Newt Gingrich, a made up country."
That night we enjoyed a curry at a little place called Mama & Paps'. There was no sign of Paps, but Mama was more than enough of character to keep us entertained throughout our meal. She was quite old, with wispy grey hair, thin eyes and chubby cheeks. Despite taking our order, and making small talk, in English, she delivered our food with a "Merci Beaucoup" and a grin. "Big food, small kip," (where kip is the Laos currency) she said beaming, referring to these same words written on the menu board. She waited for us to agree with her that her portion sizes were more than generous before she'd leave us to it. We left full and promised to return.
At seven the next morning we walked back into Mama & Paps'. "Come back," said Mama curty.
"Why? Are you not open? 'Cause we're going on a trek in a bit and need to eat now."
She pulled out a seat, "You come back, you were here yesterday." Aha, she wasn't ordering us out, she'd just recognised us. She took our order and returned with a large mug of coffee and a Merci Beaucoup. Then, "Big cup huh?"
"Yes, big cup. Good stuff. Big food small kip," I replied beating her to the punchline and sounding her cue to leave, but Mama wasn't done.
"Over there," she said pointing to a fellow villager's restaurant, "small cup. Small small cup. Same price. At Mama's, big cup." Once she was satisfied that our head nodding was vigorous enough she went back inside to finish making our meal. We quite enjoyed that she had no problem dissing her competitors and had a good chuckle.
After breakfast, our guesthouse owner slash local guide, Samly, took us on a four hour trek through dusty stilted villages and out to Tat Suong, the highest waterfall in the area and the furthest from town. The area, called the Bolaven Plateau, is populated by several different ethic groups including the Alak, Laven, Ta-oy and Suay. The residents don't consider themselves Laotian (the country is actually battling with forming a national identity to unite the many disparate groups) and don't speak Lao unless they've been schooled. The weed-riddled subsistence farms were quite interesting and Samly pointed out chilli, cotton and peanut plants (who knew peanuts grew underground?) but walking through the villages as they went about their Sunday morning was awkward and Andrea didn't like it much. They didn't really want us there unless we were there to buy bananas, chicken or pepsi, we didn't really want to intrude, and Samly was puzzled that we weren't taking photos. So no one was particularly happy on that bit of the walk. I guess the trekkers who come through these parts are intrigued by the villagers, young and old, who smoke tobacco though a bamboo bong but we didn't see much of that anyway.
Walking and talking with Samly was pleasant though and enlightened us as to how simply they live out here. Many people's prize posession is a (£500, 5 000 000kip) scooter which they work for an age to afford. Land ownership however seems a breeze and you just build or farm where you want. Samly struggled with understanding what tax is. Heartbreakingly, Samly asked if we have the sun in our country. "In London, well no" Andrea and I answered in unison but one of us tried to explain that the sun is everywhere though in some places we don't see it much.
After the walk, I bathed in a rock pool while Andrea napped and later we lunched at a place on the river. For a late snack we returned to Mama's to sample the banana, ovaltine and condensed milk pancake which she'd invented. The last two ingredients were mixed to create a decadent chocolate-ish sauce which was lacquered onto the dense pancake (which Mama of course assured us was much bigger than the pancake at the neighbouring restaurant).
The next morning, we piled onto the back of Samly's truck. Twelve villagers wearing their town clothes piled onto the 'local taxi' too and Samily drove us all down the dusty rural roads and back to Pakse.