The Road to Buffalo Shit

The morning after our evening at the karaoke brothel our Laolao hangovers were worse than ever. But never mind – we woke up early, ate a breakfast of fresh doughnuts from the market, chugged a few thick, sweet cups of Lao coffee, and hit the road.

After three days on the motorbike, I was asking myself, why didn’t I do this sooner? The cliches of slow(er) travel are true: on a bike you can leave when you like and stop where and when you like. But you also experience the road in a more personal way – it’s up to you to avoid potholes, gauge the right speed for the conditions, and decide when it’s safe enough to let go with one hand to wave to the gleeful children celebrating your passing through. Instead of catching whiffs of vomit from fellow bus passengers inevitably but discreetly puking into small plastic bags, you are surprised by the tang of pine trees at the top of the Plateau, or the scent of thick jungle around you – a smell that I can best describe as “green.” If you’re looking for an un-signposted waterfall, you merely stop and listen for the crash of water on rock.

The 90 kms of unpaved track between Paksong and the main road to Attapeu (pronounced as if you are encouraging your child’s toilet training: “atta-poo!”) was the most challenging riding of our trip. We had to weave back and forth across the road, avoiding deep ruts and the slippery loose mud. This stretch also features the most untouristed waterfalls, the largest packs of children gleefully shouting “sabaidee!” as you pass, the longest stretches without seeing another human, and the greatest number of chickens, cows, water buffalo, ducks and goats crossing the road out of nowhere. In other words, it’s the highlight. We did it twice (out and back).

We stopped at three waterfalls on the way out. At one we climbed over rickety “footbridges” that were no more than three skinny logs tied together with vine and that independently an unpredictably rolled as you stepped on them. At another we saw a man collecting bamboo shoots, carefully choosing only what he needed. At another we watched an older man showing his son how to fish in one of the pools. We didn’t see another foreigner, never mind a tour bus.

We crossed dirt bridges, found decaying funerary shrines being swallowed by the jungle, and only took one wrong turn. At last we rode into Attapeu, a provincial capital at the confluence of the ubiquitous Mekong and Se Don rivers, about 100 km from the Vietnam border. Attapeu, by the way, means “buffalo shit.” Evidently it was so named when explorers asked a local the name of the town, and the local pointed to a steaming pile of buffalo shit. I don’t care if the story is true or not. Do you?

We checked in to a quiet guest house off the main road and headed straight for a restaurant/bar on the Mekong for a sundown meal and beer. Though the Lonely Planet says the specialty of the restaurant is roasted goat, when we inquired about food the waitress opened the beer fridge and took out a plastic bag of wok-roasted crickets. This was the menu option. We decided to look around for something else instead.

As we rode around town, rejecting the various pho stands, Stu, with his keen eyes, spotted a hand-painted English-language sign for a restaurant. We rode right across town, to the banks of the Se Don river, to find the Sabaydee Restaurant. The only other guests were just digging in to what looked like Korean BBQ with fish and prawns. “We’ll have one of those, and three beers.” The Lao version of Korean BBQ includes a narrow trough around the edge of the grill. You pour broth into the trough, add fresh mint, coriander, cabbage, egg, and rice noodles, and let the occasional piece of fish or prawn slip into the soup. For dipping you also get a peanut sauce to which you can add fresh garlic, lime and chilis. The friendly, giggly staff showed us how to put all the pieces together. For 50,000 kip (about $6) total, all three of us were *stuffed* with the one of the best meals I ate in SE Asia.

The next day we did a day trip to see a Russian-made SAM (surface-to-air missile), a remnant of America’s “secret war” in Laos, on display at the nearby town of Pa-am. The ride out was pleasant enough, but the SAM is…a rusting missile sitting in a patch of scratch grass surrounded by a fence of barbed wire strung between decommissioned UXO (unexploded ordinance). Even that description makes it sound much more kitschy and interesting than it is. Whatever – we were all exhausted from our long ride the day before, so we retired to our rooms to nap and/or watch “New York Minute,” starring the Olsen Twins.

The next morning, over coffee, Wes told us how the previous night the Vietnamese woman who runs our guest house came to his room, at around 10 pm, with the excuse of giving him more toilet paper and shampoo. (Neither Stu nor I received the same service). Then she offered him a “massage.” He politely declined. She offered to call other nice (younger) ladies to give him a massage. Again, he politely declined. Good times. [I’ll link to his first-person account of the evening, if he ever writes it and posts it to his blog. (Not-so-subtle hint, Wes.)]

This was the day of our return trip to Paksong, retracing our tracks from two days before. This time we stopped at one of the biggest waterfalls on this road, what I think is the Katamtok waterfall but which is marked by a rough hand-painted sign for “Senajam Wather Fall.” We paid 5000 kip (about $0.75) each to park our motorbikes at a farm, and followed a steep narrow trail to the bottom of the roughly 60-meter fall. To me, waterfalls are kinda boring – usually it’s the trip to see them that’s the most exciting. But watching river water chase itself as it hurtles 60 vertical meters, crashing into the rocks below and creating a halo of mist that reached halfway back up the falls – this waterfall was special. So special, in fact, that I joined Stu in down another path to a different fall – Wes had had enough and returned up the trail to the bikes. The second fall wasn’t a fall – it was a wide flat bit where the two area rivers met – but still lovely.

As we began our climb back up the hill to our bikes, the rain clouds that had rolled over the hill started to spit and sprinkle. We decided to take shelter under a small stand of bamboo and let the shower pass. To make a long story short, the rain only got heavier and we discovered that bamboo stalks don’t offer much protection. We made a run for it, stopping only to grab banana leaves as makeshift umbrellas (another example of Stu’s resourcefulness). We arrived at the farm dripping. Wes was sitting with Sulin, the owner, drinking tea by the fire in the cooking area. Sulin, who had been drinking Laolao since 8 am, didn’t stop talking – telling us how much he paid for his farm (1,800,000 kip), encouraging us to sleep in his homestay, offering to show is the 10 area waterfalls the following day. We stayed only enough to dry off a bit and let the rain abate slightly – an entire night listening to Sulin would have made us all crazy.

It didn’t stop raining until we were practically in Paksong. The road, which I thought would be a muddy disaster, wasn’t so bad. But I got a flat tire. We were all soaked. We were worried about making Paksong before sundown. When we finally arrived, just before dusk, we were all shivering and none of us could feel our hands.

We decided to avoid the Green View, as the staff was unhelpful and had stolen my flip-flops…though we did stop by and I actually *found* my shoes and reclaimed them – all that is a different story. Anyway, after checking out every other guest house in town we ended up at the pleasant, friendly Paksong guest house. Hot showers all around, a noodle-soup dinner during which we met two strange, drunk expats, and to bed. A long, wet day.

Finally, the next day we dropped out bikes off in Pakse and checked into the Souchitra guest house in Champasak, about 20 kilometers south on the Mekong River. Other than one sweaty but lovely pedal-bike ride to nearby Wat Phu, Wes, Stu and I did nothing for the next six days but sit at the restaurant, sipping Beerlao and watching the Mekong slide by.

The perfect last episode of my 17 months in (mostly) Asia. Thanks, Wes and Stu. You guys rock.

On the bike with Wes and Stu

Yes yes it’s been ages since I posted. Beyond my well documented laziness, Laos somehow fails to inspire writing. I’ve been surrounded by beautiful nature, charming old colonial towns, bamboo villages clinging to hillsides, and hundreds of half-naked children shouting “sabaidee!” (hello!) as I go by, yet none of that seems create anything to write about. The joke about Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is that the PDR really stands for “please don’t rush.” While that attitude does translate into a wonderfully relaxing, maƱana-time country, it also means that nothing much ever seems to happen.

Until I met up with Wes and Stu.

If you recall, I met Wes on a bus in Vietnam, bouncing from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the border. We kept in touch to see if our paths would again cross, and as it turns out we both wanted to hire motorbikes and tour the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. So I headed south from Luang Nam Tha, stopping for a few days each in Luang Prabang and Ventiene, crossing over to Nong Khai, Thailand, to renew my Lao visa, then back into Laos at the town of Tha Khaek. Finally, I caught a bus that took me 15 hours south to Pakse, where I was due to meet Wes. Wes was bringing along Stu, an Australian and avid biker he met in Vang Vieng. After traveling (mostly in Africa) for the past 8 years, Stu’s making his way home for his mom’s 80th birthday.

Due to the vagaries and delays of Lao internet, I missed Wes & Stu in Pakse – they left about an hour before I got Wes’s email. But they agreed to wait for me in the riverside village of Tadlo, about 85 km north of Pakse. Tadlo should be a backpacker’s paradise: cheap bungalows by a waterfall, friendly and tiny town, relaxed all around. Yet oddly, the place was empty.

How empty? The day I arrived the three of us went to find lunch. Our guest house restaurant was closed – the whole staff was asleep or watching TV. We wandered down the one road in town, and were rebuffed at two other restaurants. Finally one old woman agreed to take our order: three Beer Lao, one grilled pork, one chicken with basil and one beef with basil. About 2 minutes later we watched mama’s son run off with three warm beers – off to the shop to trade them for three cold ones. As we giggled over that, mama came back out to check our order: chicken with basil, right? (“Looks like I’m getting chicken, too,” said Wes.) Off she went, returning 10 minutes later with two frozen chicken breasts in her hand. (No, not in a bag. In her bare hand.) We sipped our beer and laughed. Minutes later, a disgruntled teenage girl arrived by motorbike, bringing with her a wrapped package of frozen pork. Finally, the girl was sent off again, this time returning with a bouquet of basil. Clearly the restaurant with the fewest resources – no ice box, no ice, nothing at all in storage – was the one that most needed our money, and was therefore most willing to piece together a meal for us.

This just-in-time system is reflected in many aspects of Laos. The small shops attached to most every house in town are thick with hanging vines of one-serving packets shampoo, laundry detergent, and other sundries. I can’t explain this aversion to stocking up – is it a lack of money? Storage space? It’s not like shampoo goes bad. Maybe it’s just that subsistence living is deeply ingrained in the Laotian psyche.

The next morning we set off late, sporting Laolao (rice whiskey) hangovers, for Sekong, a provincial capital about 140 km further east. We were meant to take a smallish road to the town of Thateng, and then carry on on the main road to Sekong. Imagine our surprise, then, when a couple of hours after leaving the Thateng market we arrived in a large town that was not Sekong. Confused, we pulled into a dirt track and asked a young man on the side of the road. “Sekong?” asked Wes, pointing down the road. He shook his head. “Sekong!” he said, pointing back the way we had just come. Impossible. “Where are we?” I asked. He shrugged – no English. This time I pointed at the ground. “Sekong?” He shook his head again and pointed down the road. “Sekong.” Impossible.

Now, in Laos you learn quickly that every place has at least two names, often many more. And like the Westwoods in Mass, New Jersey and California, towns with the same name can coexist in other provinces. So we tried to figure the directions of other towns in the area. We had already established the way to Sekong. “Attepeu?” I asked, pointing down the dirt track. He nodded. I pointed to the ground. “Where?” “Paksong!” he replied gleefully. Again, impossible. Paksong is another town, at the top of the plateau, where we would arrive in about 5 days. “Paksong?” I asked, pointing at the ground. He nodded. “We’re in fucking Paksong!” I said to Wes and Stu. “How the hell did that happen?”

As it turns out, we had taken a wrong turn (or, more specifically, not taken a turn at all) in Thateng and had ridden 40 km in the wrong direction. By then it was mid-afternoon and none of us relished the idea of rushing through another 80 km before dark – not on potholed, unfamiliar roads. Instead we checked in to the Green View guest house, had lunch, purchased a bottle of Laolao and settled in for the evening. Directly next door to our guest house was the main karaoke bar in town, so as we sat on the balcony watching the lightening in the darkening sky, we were serenaded by the atonal screeching and yowling that is karaoke heard from a distance. At least there’s an 11:30 curfew.

In the morning we stopped at a coffee bar/free Wifi place – the only one we found on the Bolaven Plateau – run by an odd, talkative Dutch guy and his sprawling Lao family. We studied the map and Lonely Planet and decided to skip Sekong and head straight for Attepeu, an interesting-sounding town at the confluence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers. Unlike what we had ridden so far, the road to Attepeu was unpaved clay, which can turn into mud pretty quickly in the rainy season. I probably wouldn’t have tried it alone, given my riding inexperience, but it was a no-brainer with Wes and Stu along.

But first we had to see the Ancient Rock. Yes yes, it’s true that all rocks are, in fact, rather ancient. But there was a giant faded billboard in town promoting the AR, which is clearly a must-see, as well as a couple of waterfalls. We’d visit the rock, pay our respects, and hit the road to Attepeu.

The road to the rock started as a wide, flat dirt track, passed through a couple of villages, and quickly deteriorated. A few km from the Ancient Rock we came to the top of a steep hill unevenly covered in rough, loosely packed stones. Stu started down. Wes stopped at the top and said what I thought was, “We should just walk down.” “Yeah, there’s no way I’m riding down that hill,” I replied. But Wes had really said, “We should walk ’em down” – meaning the bikes. Now, given that this was the beginning of my third day ever on a non-automatic motorbike, and my first day ever on non-paved track, you could correctly surmise that my ride down was a bit troublesome. Added to that, we weren’t on dirt bikes – We were riding 100 cc street bikes with mostly treadless back tires. I had to keep the foot brake slammed down to keep from rolling too fast, but occasionally I’d come to a pile of rock that required me to hit the gas…and then slam on the breaks to stop from flying down the hill. To make things worse, I was in second rather than first gear, yet was too scared to try changing gears on such a slant. It took about 10 minutes to go about 10 meters, but I made it. And I didn’t break my leg. Bonus.

After the stones – what Wes termed “the hill of death” – came the mud. Big, thick, slippery puddles of wet clay that we avoided by veering halfway into the brush, over tree roots and across rotting planks of wood. At last we rolled through a narrow mud track and stopped in front of a large Buddha tucked under a rock overhang. A sign in Lao pointed down a narrow, steep trail through the jungle to…something, 800 meters away. Another sign pointed up some rickety wooden stairs leading to the top of what turned out to be the Ancient Rock. My flip-flops weren’t really appropriate for the jungle trail, so Wes and I climbed the rock while Stu went to see what was in the jungle.

Wes and I wandered along a trail that crossed wide, smooth rocks bearded with moss. We came upon two sculptors sitting under a blue tarp, eating a sticky rice lunch next to half-finished Buddha statues. It started to rain, so we joined them under the tarp and worried about our bags, sitting on our bikes in the rain. We offered them cigarettes and they showed us how we could make an offering to Buddha, by sliding a 1000-kip note into a hole in the back of the hollow statue.

The more social of the two pointed down a path and mimed “waterfall,” so when the rain let up we followed the steep, muddy trail to the top of the waterfall. The fall itself wasn’t visible – we’d have to follow an even narrower, steeper trail to get to the bottom – so after sitting out another shower in a rotting wooden shelter, we clambered back up the hill. A cloud had rolled in, shrouding the hill in mist. One more shower ensured that we were nicely soggy by the time we climbed back down the stairs to meet Stu.

Our bags, miraculously, had been moved to a dry area under the rock overhang. There was no one else around. “Buddha moved our bags!” we decided, glad we had made an offering. We dried off as best we could, climbed on our bikes and picked our way back to the main road. Considering the tough riding conditions and my extreme lack of experience, I was feeling quite proud of my motorbiking performance. I made it up the hill of death with no problem. At the top I remarked, “Coming back up is so much easier!”…and promptly dropped my bike in the mud. Hubris, paid.

By then it was too late to ride to Attapeu, so we decided to check back in to our hotel and go to karaoke instead. You should know, first of all, that in most of SE Asia, “karaoke bar” really means “bar with party girls and convenient rooms upstairs.” This place was no exception.

It was Saturday night, so the place was fairly full. We were seated near the stage. The singers were accompanied by a man with a drum machine and keyboard. Occasionally the “couples,” who were seated at a long table behind us, would get up to dance. To karaoke. This so-called dancing consisted of awkward white-man shuffling counter-clockwise around a post in the middle of the dance floor. We just drank our Laolao.

A drunk soldier left his consort and introduced himself to us. He wedged himself between me and Wes, his beery breath suffocating, his rapid, nonsensical English dizzying. He offered to sing a song for me – “You know ‘Take Me to Your Heart?’,” he belched into my face. As his annoyed, miniskirted date glared on, he took the stage and began to sing. He only knew the refrain, so in between he would babble to the music: “I don’t speak English well. I don’t know all the words. But I want to sing this for my friends from America…” Finally he was kicked off stage by the main singer, much to everyone’s delight.

At a nearby table, a group of young men were (I imagine) waiting their turn with the girls (who were occupied with a vanful of Thai sex tourists, believe it or not). The bravest of them came over, offered me a glassful of beer, and asked me to dance. What could I say? As we joined the other couples for our round-the-pole shuffle, two other men asked Wes and Stu to dance. This was, by far, my favorite awkward moment of an evening full of them. Two middle-aged, white, straight men shuffling around a pole with two young Lao…gay men? Wes and Stu think they were gay, but honestly I’m not convinced. I think they were just trying to be polite.

The night ended fairly early and without incident. We did meet some of the Thai sex tourists outside the bar, as they handed out “tips” to the girls and piled back into their van.

ed note: Read Wes’s hilarious version of the night’s events here!

Next up: The Road to Buffalo Shit

NOTE: I’ll post the second half of our journey once I’ve written it. We three have been sitting in Champasak, south of Pakse, for 6 days, watching the Mekong slide by. Today Stu and I are going to Thailand – probably all the way to Bangkok, if we can make our connections. So my next post’ll be from my last stop…