The most magical light in Laos lives on the Bolevan Plateau. For some reason not many tourists seem to make it out to the Bolevan Plateau, in spite of the fact that the roads are quite good, transport runs regularly, the villages peaceful, relaxed, even sleepy, little hamlets, a rarely used word that fits exactly what I mean.
All in all the Bolevan Plateau is wonderful, and not the least in part because no one else is there. In eight days of traveling we saw maybe ten tourists. The curious thing about it was that those we did meet seemed to for some reason think that we must know what we were doing and where we were going, which is comical to us since nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, as luck would have it, often the first question someone asked would be the one thing we did know and so perhaps for that reason we came off as semi-knowledgeable. We met a very nice British couple our last night in Sekong, Jules and Ben, which for Francois Truffaut fans such as myself, was eerily close to Jules et Jim so I took an immediate liking to them. We ended up running into Jules and Ben again on the bus to Attapeu and shared a tuk-tuk to the guesthouse, which was actually more of a luxury hotel (by Laos standards anyway). Matt, Debi and I discovered that many of the nicer hotels have rooms with a double and single bed, thus fitting three people and solving the chief dilemma of traveling with three people—who has to pay more for their own room. Splitting the nice hotel three ways brought the costs down to roughly equal what we would typically pay at a rundown guesthouse and is obviously, well, nicer.
As I’ve mentioned before, wandering around this area of Laos without a guide is not the safest activity in the world, but guides cost money. Luckily, with the addition of Jules and Ben (and yes I am going to keep typing their names out, because it’s fun to say), the price of three motorbikes and guide became roughly the same as the two motorbikes we would have needed anyway. So we went for it especially given that the place we were interested in visiting was the epicenter of American bombing—the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Ask your average American to describe what they think the Ho Chi Minh Trail looks like and they would likely paint you a picture bearing some resemblance to an Oliver Stone film, a thin trail snaking though the jungle, a network of tunnels and, as I used to think, they would likely say it ran through Vietnam. In fact the Ho Chi Minh “Trail” was a road, and not just one road, but a whole network of roads crisscrossing the jungle and vast majority of it ran through Laos and Cambodia, not Vietnam.
Although we asked to be taken to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the morning our guide took us out to see a “tribal village”, which turned out to be rather more like one woman camped out in the middle of the jungle, roasting a mouse for lunch. Not to say that we were ripped off, but it was sort of a waste of a morning. It was nice to meet her and see how the villagers live when they’re out in the jungle (not very well, most having been driven out of the more fertile hill areas by the government), but it was hardly worth the effort it took to get there.
The afternoon was somewhat better; we headed to Pa’am a small village at a junction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The road getting there was a bit bumpy, especially for Matt and I. With the two of us on one motorbike we easily outweighed the rest of the group and on an aging Honda Dream with nothing much in the way of shocks (or brakes or mirrors for that matter), weight is not what you want. On the way there I made some attempts at dodging potholes and gullies (often skidding to do so), on the way back Matt drove and decided that the straight path was at least quicker, if not smoother.
In case anyone had any doubts about whether or not the Russians were helping the North Vietnamese in the war, they left behind a now rusted and falling apart SAM missile and launcher (presumably the warhead has been removed, but we never got a straight answer on that one). Otherwise the Ho Chi Minh Trail was somewhat anti-climatic, more of what I like to call a checklist site, that is, see it, check it off the list and move on.
Back in Attapeu we took a stroll around the evening market and then headed down to the banks of Sekong River to watch the sunset and sip a Beer Lao. The sunset was gorgeous, reflecting off the water and lingering on the distant clouds far longer than anywhere else we’ve seen in Laos. We watched the fishermen casting nets and canoes plying their way up and down the river with various cargos. Up the shoreline from us a group of boys played volleyball (a very popular sport in Laos) in the fading light.
If you look at a map of Laos (the one thing I haven’t been good about on this site is showing maps, I’ll work on that), there is a road that continues from Attapeu back around to Champasak where it joins route 13. This bit of road would make it possible to complete a loop around the Bolevan Plateau without having to retrace your steps. Unfortunately no public transport plies this road. Later in the evening after the sun had gone down and we climbed up the bank of the river to a restaurant, we ran into an Austrian man who was traveling by motorcycle (real motorcycle, not a Honda Dream) who had come over the road. He put it at roughly eighteen hours to cover one hundred kilometers and muttered something about “lots of rivers.” At one point in his trip it had started to rain at which point he said he was covering about five kilometers an hour.
The next day we rented motorbikes again and set out down that road for a day trip to see what sort of villages and sights might be found along the way. At least leaving Attapeu the road wasn’t too bad, but looking off at the distant cliffs and hills of the Bolevan Plateau it was easy to see how the road would likely get pretty bad. Nevertheless we had a good ride through the countryside stopping here and there to amuse the locals (we contemplated various song and dance routines, but just our existence seemed to sufficient for side-splitting entertainment, especially for children).
The one regret I have about traveling in Laos is that I’m here at the peak of the dry season, as such, as I’ve mentioned before, most plant life is brown or leafless, sort of like what you would find in Massachusetts right about now, but hot. Every now and then though we run across an irrigated rice paddy and for a moment it’s possible to imagine how beautiful Laos is around the end of August or beginning of September when the wet season is just ending and everything that’s now brown has turned a bright, almost iridescent green. If you ever come to Laos I recommend August or September, though it will be hot and probably pretty steamy.
It was nearly nightfall by the time we made it back to Attapeu. We grabbed a bite to eat at small restaurant where some Vietnamese truck drivers tried to ply us with drinks and make conversation in very rough English with the occasional Laos phrase. Walking home we decided to stop by the carnival that was in town for a few days. We wandered about the various stalls and played a few rounds of the apparently worldwide game where you throw darts at balloons. Debi and I won mints; Matt was somewhat more successful and won an orange drink of some sort. We also paid to see two obviously poorly treated monkeys ride bicycles around a centrifuge, which we at first thought might spin them around or something rather awful like that, but luckily for the monkeys their act was short and involved no spinning. The spinning was left to the bigger and perhaps one it tempted to say, not as bright monkeys—humans. Using the centrifugal force about six circus performers climbed walls, sat on chairs and did other tricks for about five minutes. It made me dizzy just to watch them. My understanding of centrifuges was that they separated fluids of different densities (ah Mr. Dukes would be so proud that I remember that), but apparently, at least in Southeast Asia, it’s a circus act as well.
Eventually the number of people began to dwindle and not wanting to steal too much attention from the real circus acts, we headed home, feeling not a little bit guilty about contributing to the rough treatment of what looked like some truly miserable monkeys. Back in the hotel we sat up watching Lost in Translation on my laptop and drinking some of the wine Debi had brought from Thailand, all and all the perfect way to end a day.