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.

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