Ten hours on the Bolaven Plateau

Trip Start Aug 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 15, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Champasak,
Saturday, October 1, 2005

As usual for me, I felt fine the next morning, although it required a bit of knocking on my door by the Germans to wake me up on time. Leaving at 8am, we were joined by a Swedish couple who had with them daughters 9 and 7 and a 5 year old boy. At first I was a bit concerned, but they turned out to be the most well behaved kids I have ever seen in my entire life. The parents were exceptionally well tempered too. It's hard to explain it really, but I could only hope to ever have a family as nice as theirs.

The Bolaven plateau tour is basically a loop we made around the mountainous region northeast of Pakse. The region is famous for its coffee plantations, and supposedly the coffee fetches one of the highest prices in the world. If nothing else, the region's altitude of 600-1200m brings a welcome relief from the heat and humidity down below. Our first stop was at a tea plantation where some Vietnamese immigrants had been growing green tea plants for the past 30 years (since the war time). The growing of these plants is rather odd, as they are basically trees that are pruned so much that they never grow over a meter in height. Our guide said the ones at this plantation were planted in 1929. The workers go around with baskets and pick the leaves from the top of the plants every 15 days and once a year the branches are pruned back until the plant is half a meter in height. The leaves go through many processes on the way to becoming tea. A few that I photographed include being cooked in a tumbler for 6 hours, ground up by a milling device, dried and sifted by basket and eventually boiled. We all got a sample of tea but my distinct lack of taste allowed me only a "this is hot" sensation.

We stopped at quite a few waterfalls along the way, all of which flow eventually to the Mekong. At 180m in height, the twin waterfalls at Tat Fan are the first ones I've seen that felt "real". Our view was quite breath taking from the opposite side of the gorge. Two separate rivers flow to this one point and create the "twin" waterfall effect. Depending on the wind and sun, we couldn't even see the waterfall at times due to the mist cloud.

We visited a coffee plantation where the various types of coffee (which I couldn't keep straight) were explained. Various machinery was around the farmhouse and the owners were rather adamant about not using any pesticides on their crop. Although I've always intentionally stay away from caffeinated drinks, the thought of Lao coffee being my first coffee was too tempting so I had a half glass of it. Tasting like a combination of mocha ice cream and leaves, I can't really see what the draw to coffee is. I suppose it's an acquired taste, like everything.

The most enlightening part of the day was without a doubt a visit to the remote Lao village. We stopped at an ethnic village inhabited by a hill tribe that moved to the plateau from the Vietnam border in the 1970s to escape the war. As soon as the truck pulled up, kids were literally coming out of the woodwork towards our vehicle. Most of the parents were apparently at work in the fields leaving the kids to take care of themselves during the day. Many of the 5-9 year old girls had an infant sibling slung on their backs. Most of the kids under 10 had only a shirt on, sometimes they were completely nude. Our guide explained that there were about 30 families that lived in this village, most with more than 10 children. They weren't Buddhist like most of the city dwellers, but had some animist belief structure. Our guide said that each man could have 1, 2, or 3 wives, all living in the same family home. This explained why each family had more than 10 kids, but we couldn't get a reasonable explanation as to how that worked out mathematically. Our guide said that the man would have to go out in the forest a ways and build a temporary hut when his wife was near giving birth. At that point the woman would go live isolated from the rest of the village until 3 days after the birth of the child. We sort of confirmed from our guide that someone does help the woman give birth. The villagers grow a small tobacco crop and smoke it in what is a water-bong made out of various bamboo pieces. They start smoking tobacco from these pipes at around age 4 and continue it the rest of their lives (go figure). The village had just recently been provided with electricity from the seemingly ever-present Lao power grid. The government deal is that they will receive 1 year of free electricity after which they will pay for it. Just like investing a few dollars in passing out free cigarettes to Asian teens, the Lao government wouldn't mind getting the villagers hooked on electricity in the hopes of them eventually becoming a part of the national economy. Our guide said that already many of the houses had a television and they mostly sat around in the evenings watching it. He explained that the villagers sometimes traded their goods with other nearby villages, but for the most part were self-sufficient. Medicine, clothes, and candy are often donated by visitors (or tour companies wanting to add the village to their tour). As we drove off, I took a swig of water from my bottle, generating quite a bit of laughter from one of the old village women nearby.

After a couple more waterfalls, we stopped at an ethnic museum. The museum is one of those intentionally created heritage villages made to look like "the real thing". It's very similar to the "Missouri Town 1855" that exists near Kansas City, Missouri. The German government and some private individuals sponsored this project, and it includes kind of a hodge-podge of various villages from around the countryside. The museum invites families from various tribes around the province to come live here using only the traditional way of life. The construction of the buildings was very detailed and clean, almost to a fault. Even though the buildings were all made of bamboo and straw, I would almost swear they had to be prefab with some kind of lumber holding them up. In the center of the village was a small hut about 7 meters off the ground atop a large wooden pole. Resembling an odd tree house, this was the "honeymoon-hut" that was used by villagers for their wedding nights. Talk about feeling exposed...

We eventually made it back to Pakse around 7:00pm. It's good that I took the tour, because riding around on the bike would have been extremely confusing and not nearly as informative.

On this trip, I've often pondered the notion that I left my job because I was extremely bored and unfulfilled with my life back in the states. The people in these Asian countries run the same shop, live in the same village, or till the same field their entire lives. They usually never have the opportunity to leave their own country, and only rarely travel outside their own province. How can I have felt so bored, but they seem so content? I was unable to reconcile this adequately until the particularly intelligent German girl pointed out that the people here generally rank lower on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs than we do. It made perfect sense, I can't believe it never occurred to me. They people here are not bored, because they have a struggle, a struggle to earn enough money for food. In America, most people can afford food, but are more worried about their kid's education, or what activities to spend time on.
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