Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau

“I felt a light expectancy.  This, I thought idly, was how people died: by mistake, imagining themselves bodiless.”  — Colin Thubron

August 13th-16th

I was driving my rented bike down a road on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos, gazing with my jaw agape at the vista that unfurled in front of me.  It was a little foggy, a little dewy, the road empty for long stretches.  It was on one of these stretches that a horn snapped me to attention and I veered out of the way of an oncoming truck.  Colin Thubron’s words drifted featherlike for a while after that and settled in my head.

My trip to the Bolaven Plateau was the highlight of my all my travels.  It started in Pakse, a small town in Laos and my first stop after Kratie, Cambodia.  I liked it immediately but I can’t quite figure out why.  For two days I lazed about, met a nice French architect, drank Beer Lao, and had dinner with some wonderful young Lao men.  We feasted on grasshoppers, eel, frog, stir-fried noodles, and steamed fish.

On the third day I rented a motorbike and began the ascent to the plateau, which is only 50km from Pakse and 1000m above sea level.  It’s a gradual climb and a good road without much traffic, which affords one the opportunity to gaze.  I wasn’t going there with any specific intention or itinerary, but there are fair trade tea and coffee plantations and so many waterfalls.  A couple hours later I arrived at a guesthouse in Paksong, a very small town on the plateau, and dropped off my bag so I could explore the area unencumbered. 

I left the road to find one of the waterfalls in the early afternoon.  Clouds coalesced and it looked like rain.  I was utterly alone.  As I neared the falls I could hear their thunderous tumble but it was still humbling when I stepped out from the trees and into the mist that whipped around.  Can mist whip?  I stood there getting drenched, thinking how funny it is that water is often ‘uncountable’ in a grammatical sense (that it cannot be divided), but here I was, watching it divide into bits and settle, once again, on every inch of me.

Clouds darkened and it looked like rain and I walked back to the bike but knew I’d need to find a hideaway stat.  There was a solitary café not too far up the road that smelt like new lumber.  I got there just in time and ran under the awning as the rain began.  The only other person there was the barista, who brought me a coffee as I settled into a couch (a proper couch!) and watched the water carve arteries in the mud, briefly wondering if it would carry my bike down the hill.

For three hours it rained and for three hours I thought and read and wrote.  There was a stereo on and Edith Piaf’s beautiful lilt carried just barely over the sound of the water.  When I finished my coffee the barista brought me pots of green tea, grilled bananas and roasted squash, on his own accord.  To call it peaceful is probably clichéed but it was certainly something of the sort.  After a while I realized I was smiling irrepressibly and when was the last time that happened?

Eventually I returned to the near-empty guesthouse where the family’s teenage son took a shining to me.  He handed me a bunch of bananas and pointed to the backyard, which you can imagine would be a little perplexing when we had no language between us.  Turns out they have a pet gibbon who lives in a tree.  We threw bananas in the air for a while, and then he showed me around their front garden and picked bright yellow dahlias to put in my hair.

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Filed under On Human Connections, Travel

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