Laos: Picks words and leaves

By Yvonne van Dongen

Communist Laos is still close to its agricultural roots, writes Yvonne van Dongen.
The Tad Fan Falls, on the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos. Photo / Yvonne van Dongen
The Tad Fan Falls, on the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos. Photo / Yvonne van Dongen

"When phucking tea leaves only phuck young ones. Old ones no good for phucking," says the guide, a young chap with a very un-Lao swagger and hair oiled into a rooster quiff.

We do our polite best not to laugh. After all, he did say his English wasn't great.

"Not phucking from trees, no. But phuck bushes," he points to a camellia sinensis shrub.

"Bushes cut, keep small, better for phucking."

"Someone tell the poor bastard to say pick," hisses a tourist.

"Phucking is not all year. Two times a month in dry season. In rainy season phucking every day."

And on it goes until his boss arrives to rescue the trainee guide. We are a big group thanks to the word on the wind that this tour is the bomb. They're not wrong. So far it's been a riot.

We are on a day tour of the Bolaven Plateau, southern Laos, that takes in everything worth seeing - tea and coffee plantations, waterfalls, animistic villages as well as a museum.

The actual guide does speak excellent English, a rare plus in Laos. Best of all, this tour saves days of DIY travel, a huge plus when base-camp, Pakse, is an undisputed crap-hole.

All the same it is glorious being 800m above sea level on a volcanic plateau in what passes for a cooler climate in humid Lao.

The raised land is good for coffee and tea growing. Tea production requires a lot of pressing, heating and sieving, and oolong tea is made by adding hot water to a bag of tea leaves and waiting for it to ferment to a stronger brew. And after learning about the elaborate process of picking, soaking, peeling not once, but twice, cleaning and drying I'm not surprised coffee is so expensive.

Then it's off to see Laos' watery marvels. The country is landlocked but it's blessed with exquisite waterfalls. Today we see Tad Fan, at 120m the highest waterfall in Laos, and Tad Lo, tiered and musical, overhung by a delicate covered bamboo bridge.

Getting to the ethnic minority animist villages requires negotiating chicken roads (small bumps) as well as elephant roads (big bumps of course) in our minivan.

One village is the home of our phucked guide. The simple huts house large extended families, children and few possessions. Our guide distributes clothes for the children who fall upon the second-hand items with an eagerness you might expect among Apple fans getting their latest iPhone. No wonder he walks with a spring in his step.

Head guide comes from a different world. His fingernails are long and his hands elegant. Long fingernails, he explains, are a mark of status, signifying that he does not engage in physical labour.

We stare at the locals and they stare back, our incomprehension mutual and unbridgeable. The guide rushes to assure us that the village benefits financially from our visit.

The next village makes round wooden coffins. Buddhist Lao cremate their dead, but animist Lao prefer to put theirs in coffins above ground.

"Does it smell?" someone asks.

"Of course," the guide replies.

Finally, the museum of village craft and lore where ethnic folk are paid to smile, spin and weave in tidy surrounds. Someone comments it's like Disneyland. Another says maybe but it's better than many jobs in the west.

A youthful member of our group who works for the UN frowns. Although people here may not be starving, she suspects many are hungry. Also, despite Laos being one of the few remaining communist states in the world, many disturbing decisions are made, often ignoring local interests.

To which a quick-witted listener responds "So? Same where I'm from. Thing is, you see, it's phucked everywhere."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Thai Airways flies direct from Auckland to Bangkok every Sunday, Tuesday Thursday and Friday. From there, it offers connections directly into Laos.

Accommodation: When in an ugly city, there's only one thing for it. Aim for the most expensive place you can afford. In Pakse it is the Athena Hotel. For about US$90 ($105) a night for two you get a hotel room that wouldn't look out of place in the Hilton, complete with a glossy swimming pool and a three-course breakfast.

Tour details: Buy tickets for The Bolaven Plateau Day Tour from Sabaidy, No 24 Rd, Ban Thaluang, Pakse, US$22, ph (031) 212 992.

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