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Coffee, anyone?

So where was I? Ah yes, Cambodia. It was the day before I was to take the boat to a city close to the Laos border. I spent the evening riding around and snapping photos of Kratie as the sun set. The way the sun hit the city as it set was incredible. I got some really cool photos. I went out to dinner with Marcus and Layra, with whom I had gone on the boat trip to see the dolphins, and we filled the evening with lively debate about politics, religion, philosophy and psychology. It was great and I got some interesting perspectives from them. The next morning, I got up, had breakfast, said my goodbyes and hopped on a boat. The boat trip was up the Mekong River which is rather shallow, so sometimes the boat had to slow down and weave around invisible sandbars below. Like I said, they have no concept of a lawsuit here in Cambodia, so I was able to spend the duration of the 5 hour trip lying on the roof of the boat with several other passengers, hanging on to the railing and nearly falling off. It wasn’t made for passengers, mind you. I watched Cambodia lazily float by as we made our way to the border. People and water buffalos bathed in the water, people fished, people swam and had dinner by the shores. Kids smiled and waved. It was a beautiful trip.

When we finally arrived at the last city, I hopped into a speedboat (a dodgy boat just barely big enough for me, my bag and the driver and with a huge motor attached to the back) and negotiated a fare for an hours ride to the border: $5 bucks. And with that we were off, barreling through the river with rocket-like speed, dodging sand islands and reeds along the way. The front of the boat was high in the water and a large wave could have easily flipped the boat. The scenery as the sun set was spectacular and as it got darker, I switched from sunglasses to my eyeglasses (as bugs kept smacking me in the face) and saw everything in perfect detail (I keep forgetting how much clearer everything is with glasses on). You could see where the water level gets to in the wet season and the trees were bent nearly vertically from the current (it is now dry season). We eventually arrived at the border, I got stamped out of Cambodia (and was unofficially charged two dollars for “overtime” which I bargained down to $1) and then arrived on the Laos side and was stamped in and charged unofficially $2 dollars for overtime (which I negotiated down to $1.50).

Now, this wasn’t a common foreigner border crossing. Indeed, it was just me and a Cambodian guy and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to cross. There were no tourist accommodations, just a few shanties with locals dancing about yelling “hello!” And it was dark. It was here that I had my first encounter with Laos hospitality.

“Where you go?? Pakse?!” a guy my age asked.
“I don’t know. Sure,” I replied. “How much?”
With a big smile he replied, “No money!”

And with that, I hopped in the back of a pickup truck with 6 other locals and was off. My new friend didn’t speak English well, but we were able to make small talk. He introduced me to his friends and told me they were making a delivery to Pakse (about 2 hours away). We had to stop at the roadside while their stuff was inspected and I was told that the guards were trying to get a bribe. But they didn’t pay and we were soon off, zooming down the road in a new country, with complete strangers to a city I wasn’t exactly sure was anywhere I wanted to go. I stared up at the stars and picked out the very same stars I gazed at back home. It’s interesting how you can be so far from home and still feel so close when you look up at the sky.

“Where the hell are you?” I asked myself with a smile.

About halfway there, the other guys were getting pretty cold and I whipped out my sleeping bag and converted it to a blanket and gave it to them as I had a jacket with me. They were pretty happy with that and we eventually arrived to Pakse around 9:00PM, and they dropped me off at a nice hostel and we said goodbye.

So yesterday, I rented a motorcycle and drove about 150 miles around the surrounding area, called the Bolevan Plateau. The French planted coffee here a long time ago and that is how the majority of the people here seem to make a living. Everyone has their own personal coffee plantation in their backyards and they spend their days picking the coffee beans, drying them out in huge sheets on the side of the road, then roasting them in a wok over an open fire and selling them. They also sell sugar cane. The people here don’t rely on tourism in the slightest and make their money by selling gas (the same way they do in Cambodia, with a little pump), coffee, fruit and the like to people passing by. This is what I couldn’t explain to my mom, aunt and stepdad when I was explaining what was so different about Vietnam. There is such a sweet innocence about a place where people are just living their own lives. Everyone seems content going about their business and when they see you they give a huge wave and yell hello (the kids do, at least. The old people just stare). I was riding quite a distance and going by a pretty poor map I had and thought I was lost for a while as I was going down a dirt road with no signs or anything of the like. But I eventually found my way and made it back to the hostel without a problem. The basket fell off of my motorcycle though. And the bottom piece broke off, but I (at least) made it back in one piece. One thing you notice about Laos pretty quickly is that everyone has a fire going. Everyone is burning something and smoke is everywhere. The smells of this place are incredible – lush, moist green grass, mixed with the smell of burning eucalyptus, roasting coffee, and bananas. The heat from the fires ablaze as you cruise by heats your body and the drafts from the cool and hot air every few hundred feet are an incredible sensation. Riding a motorcycle is so much better than a car. Of course, you have to be careful of the water buffalo, cows, chickens, goats, ducks, geese, and people in the road everywhere (and I mean everywhere). That goes without saying. I had stopped on the side of the road to put on my glasses and about 20 kids, half of which were naked, starting running up to me from around the neighboring houses to yell hello and wave.

Today I woke up early and visited a temple a ways away from the town. It was built by the Cambodians in the Angkor period and was pretty cool. I had to ride about 30 miles and take a little ferry (which was basically a guy with a floating board onto which I rode my motorcycle) and was taken across the river to the other side with the temple where I had to ride another 10 miles.

I got back this afternoon and have spent the rest of the day reading “Understanding Vietnam” which I bought in (you guessed it) Vietnam. It’s quite interesting to read about a country that you’ve visited and I think I’ll read more about Cambodia and Khmer Rouge next.

So I’ve got to run. Enjoy the pics from Angkor Wat (Siem Reap), Kratie, and Pakse!