Cows graze in a sloping patch of grass. A couple of chickens dart across the road. Hills are shrouded in the haze that falls from the sky. In the frosty daybreak, half a dozen travellers idle outside a bare concrete building. Its yellow paint is mildewed and dirty, denuded, in parts, by the monsoon rains. The interior looks as vacant as the view.
As if wanting to keep warm, but wrestling with the paradox of closeness in such a vast space, we’re all standing separately, with arms folded and hands tucked under opposing pits. A barrel-chested man rocks on his heels, decidedly not cold. “Poor guy must be burning up,” he says, nodding in the direction of a short-haired mutt dressed in a shabby red t-shirt. The man has on a sleeveless sports top, a hat worn backwards, and Reeboks. His accent is thick with Massachusetts. He’s here with family. A woman — his sister, maybe his wife —chats with an elderly woman in Lao. A feeling like amor fati floats around here. The excitement is palpable.
Guarding against the December chill, I’m wrapped up in flannel. I’m also dishevelled and exhausted, with the kind of greasy hair and cudgelled eyes that follow restive nights, positive that I look suspicious to all but my partner(and, possibly, to her, too). We’ve taken a bus from Bangkok to Vang Tao, an equally dishevelled border town east of Ubon Ratchathani, etched into history as the site of a curious, but rapid-fire, uprising in 2000, when about forty rebels attacked a customs building and were putdown swiftly. The Vang Tao Incident, as it’s called, was aired live on Thai television. That blip notwithstanding, this humdrum outpost quietly serves as the gateway to southern Laos.
A little after 8 in the morning, a border agent dressed in khaki appears behind the dark glass window. He collects passports and tea money and disappears. Thirty minutes later, we’re passing through customs with visas scribbled by the agent’s hand and climbing aboard a Korean-built bus to Pakse, a town of 87 thousand, the third largest in the country, but today, for us, a stopover.
To varying degrees, Laos is dusty, austere, lonesome, lush, and beautiful. Where the country abuts Cambodia, the map is rippled like meringue — soft peaks formed over basins, green and golden in equal parts — and rewards deeper exploration. East of Pakse, roads rise from the banks of the Mekong, tracing an oval-shaped track along Attapeu, Champasak, Sekong, and Salavan Provinces. The space between is the thousand-metre-high Bolaven Plateau. It’s speckled with sheer cascades and hedge-like coffee plantations that nearly all its villagers tend to for a living. Though it’s far from a paragon of prosperity, the Bolaven Plateau is, in fact, the second wealthiest region in Laos. And it’s all thanks to coffee.
We rent a motorbike in Pakse and head for the hills. The road is potholed, poorly marked, and lacking lane lines. The throttle vibrates in my grip. My cheeks jiggle as we cross gravel patches. After an hour, we reach two waterfalls, Tad Fane and Tad Yueang, spitting distance from one another. My muscles are still trembling from the journey.
Surrounding Tad Fane is Xe Pian Forest. Here, elephants, yellow-cheeked gibbons, sun bears, and the critically endangered pangolin roam. Hiking down the red dirt path, carved out of the forest, we’re greeted by a brassy roar. The air grows chillier at the base of the towering twin falls, the country’s tallest. Two kilometres down the road, we visit, Tad Yueang. It thunders with the same merciless vigour, its white water diving into a basin painted with a patina of vegetation. From this perspective, it’s easy to understand why this kind of scenery is either gluttonously consumed or lavishly praised.
Before we stray too far, we climb back on the hard vinyl seat of the bike and drive to Sabaidee Valley, a Thai and Lao-owned resort that overlooks the verdant scree to the south. It’s one of very few resorts in the Bolaven. While its Thai roots are undeniable — a quaint café and gift shop, signage reminiscent of “Pai in Love” — the handful of high-end villas, built in the Lao vernacular, and the tight relationship of the manager, Noppon, with the local community indicates a clearly defined sense of place. He says we should visit Jhai Coffee House, an NGO based in Pakxong.
From the road, the coffee house looks as nondescript as any building in Pakxong, but the lounge-like space is decorated with indigenous tapestries, specialty coffee appliances, and an acoustic guitar or two. In other words, it could be transplanted anywhere along the Banana Pancake Trail and fit in just fine. Jhai purchases coffee beans at 25 per cent above fair trade price, roasts and brews them in-house, and re-invests the profits in the form of clean water and hygiene education projects in the community that farmed the beans. The NGO was founded by Tyson Adams, a hirsute young American from Seattle. When he talks, his cadence flows from even-keeled to feverish as he reveals the project’s reason for being. “Really, it’s a lack of education,” he says. “So you have a nice house, a nice farm, a nice tractor. Great. Your kids are still sick. [Our efforts are] more about providing hygiene to the villagers and the teachers themselves so that they can replicate them in the future.”
In one-and-a-half years, Adams and the “Jhai tribe” have installed nearly a dozen clean water wells, instituted hygiene programmes in schools, and built a warehouse where they train farmers how to roast and dry their own coffee. More importantly, the farmers have been able to taste their coffee and compare it with other brews. In other words, they’re learning what makes good coffee good. The villagers pay 15 per cent of the initial costs for water pumps and 50 per cent for water filtration units, an arrangement that Adams says empowers the communities to lift themselves out of poverty.
Another two hours on the bike, and we arrive at Tad Lo. A series of guesthouses has been fenced off, forming a sort of sustainable tourist zone near a stubby waterfall. It’s peaceful. Roving to the other side of the river, we find a middle-aged foreign man hacking at a tree with a hand axe. He’s moving with noticeable effort, sort of convulsing with urgency, like Clark Griswold stringing up Christmas lights, but he nevertheless interjects when he hears us gushing about the natural beauty of this fertile commune. His name is Klaus. He’s the manager-cum-groundskeeper of Tad Lo Lodge. “This is it, man. I mean, mmm,” he says, with a little fist pump for good measure. “I came here twenty years ago. All I thought about was when I was gonna come back.” He implores us to visit the riverbanks behind his lodge at 5 in the evening, when the mahouts bathe their elephants in the river.
As the sun casts a fiery farewell on the treetops, the elephants lumber into the water and Klaus appears, brandishing a smile. As if forever relishing the last bite of chocolate cake, he can’t get enough of it, the devouring raptures of living in his paradise. “I wake up every day and I get to have this,” he says, sweeping his arms to embrace the falls, the village, the mahouts scrubbing the elephants with their sandals in the fading light. “You come here and you just get it, man. That’s all.”