(Written by Dave)
What a difference a day makes. The wind shifted a few degrees to our back, just about the same time that the road shifted a few degrees downwind. We rode 120k today before noon which is a trip record (yes, I keep track of this stuff – I know it’s a little like keeping track of how many miles per Twinkie eaten or something like that. I’m sorry, I can’t help it, that’s what you get when you put a numbers nerd on a bicycle). Anyway, we had a good day. We’ve ridden 370ks in the the past three days (there I go with the numbers again, sorry) and we should have been tired today. We were, but the wind really made a big difference. It was on the nose for the first 40k but we had such an early start that it was not too bad. Then both the wind and road made their direction changes and we made great time the last half of the ride. Having said that, we are both happy to be leaving the bikes locked up for a few days – we are ready for a break.
We were outside our bungalow before 6AM this morning and waited for it to get a little lighter. Our bungalow was in such a small town there was no real traffic. People don’t drive too much at night and even though it was light enough to ride, we don’t like being on the road with no traffic at all. It’s a bit more reassuring to have some other folks around when you are out on the road. I’m sure it perfectly safe but after watching the crash scene yesterday, we decided to wait for travelling company to join us.
The sunrise was beautiful, a big red ball. I guess that’s what happens when there is so much dust and smoke in the air. Actually today, we had fewer villages and generally better air quality. I’m pretty sure that most of the smoke that we see is just from folks burning their trash. When we near villages you can sure tell a difference in the smoke. Yesterday we had some clear blue sky and it was quite noticeable after the haze of the last few days.
Our first stop was around 50k where we took a break for water and something to eat. We bought water, bananas and fried egg doughnut things from three different roadside stalls, then sat at the water stall to drink and eat. Both the water stall and fried egg stall had young kids that really wanted to get a look at the pale-skinned foreigners. For a change they were not shy and more than happy to have their photos taken. They both were doing the weird box like thing with their fingers. We were not sure what the meaning was, if anything or whether it was just kids being kids. As no one spoke English, we couldn’t really ask. As handy as our Laos phrase book is, it does not have a direct translation of “what is that weird box-like thing that your child is doing”. And there is no way to mime this. Later in the day, we showed the photo to someone in our lunch restaurant and they told us that it is an eye/hand coordination thing that mothers teach their children. Now we know why both of the young kids seemed so proud to show us their skills.
And yes, the fried egg doughnut things were very tasty. I think it may have been a quail egg, covered in sticky rice, dipped in batter, deep fried and finally rolled in sugar. They say that anything deep fried is good and this certainly was. Nancy was a bit reluctant to try it but more than happy to eat her two eggs once she’d taken the first bite. I should have just told her that they were bad and that I would choke them down, “for the team”.
We saw quite a few very poor homes today. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a poor home and a rice field shelter. The homes normally have laundry hanging out or you can sometimes see pans used for cooking. There are quite a few older straw shacks that have a partially built or in progress brick home beside them. So it appears that folks are at least slowly getting better places to live, though some of the brick buildings look somewhat deserted with grass growing inside. Many of the straw homes seem fairly worn out and partially falling down and would be pretty uncomfortable in the rainy season.
It appears that many different governments have been trying to help Laos climb out of poverty. We’ve seen many sign posts with cooperative development where both Laos and some other country are listed. Japan would be seem to earn the title most gracious country as we’ve seem many signs with the Japanese flag. But we’ve also seen Belgium, Swiss, Australian and Korean. Many of the bridges crossing the Mekong are joint development. Vientiane had the Australia-Laos-Thailand friendship bridge and here in Pakse there is the Lao-Japanese friendship bridge.
We arrived in Pakse and headed straight for our fist choice in hotels, the Sang Aroun Hotel. As Pakse is more on the tourist trail, we tried to book in advance but didn’t have much luck. We didn’t expect to find a room so when they said yes, we were pleasantly surprised. The room is a little spendy but it ticks all the boxes so we’ll be good for a few days here (English TV, fridge, hot shower, flush western toilet, sink and even wifi).
We read all the reviews in Lonely Planet and were not sure where to go for lunch. So without a plan we headed out the hotel and made it only across the street to the Bolaven Cafe. It is not in the Lonely Planet but what a find it was. The cafe opened in January of this year and serves pretty good food and has a great story. The cafe is part of a franchise run by a Laos-born man who has returned to try to re-establish Laos coffee beans as the high end coffee product that the French developed in the early 1900s and change the way coffee production affects the local economy. Traditionally, coffee growers barely make ends meet – they live from harvest to harvest and are normally desperate for a crop to come in so that they can have some money. Desperate, some farmers sell their crop before it is ready, taking a loan from the buyers. The farmer still needs money and wants to clear this debt so they pick the crop early before it is ready. This yields a lower quality coffee and really short changes the farmer. The price they typically get is well below market value and “loan” interest very high. Once a farmer gets in this cycle, if they want to continue feeding their family, they have to keep it up.
Most of the coffee of this kind was being sold to Vietnam for bulk processing to Nescafe, instant coffee. The good folks at Bolaven basically work off the principle that growing higher quality, longer ripening coffee lets a farmer make more money and breaks low quality cycle. Farmers are trained with organic farming methods and after participating in the program for several years are given ownership of a piece of land to grow their own crop. With this program, they are restoring some of the tradition of Laos coffee that the French started and helping the farmers rise out of poverty. It could be marketing spin but my espresso was pretty darn good.
Coffee was only part of the story at Bolaven. We sat there a while and got to meet the owner of this particular cafe. The owner is Mama Tan and she has quite a story. She was born in Thailand to a Laos mother and Thai father. She married an American and graduated from college in the US. She speaks Thai, Laos and English and holds both Thai and US citizenship. She and her husband had three children and adopted several more. Her English is perfect and we had quite a nice visit with her. She is quite proud of the Bolaven story and very proud of “her kids” as she refers to all the young staff working in the shop. She pays them twice the normal wage for only a 7 hour day. This let’s them continue their schooling while still working. We took advantage of Mama Tan to clear up a lot of questions that we’ve had about Laos and get some information on our future routes. Best of all, Mama Tan and her husband are cyclists – we’ve not met many of them here in Laos.
Today is the fourth Thursday in November, meaning that for Nancy and I, and our family and friends in our native homeland, it is Thanksgiving. One of the reasons we pushed it to get here was to make sure that we get good enough wifi to be able to Skype with our families tomorrow when it is Thanksgiving in the US. The state of wifi in Laos has been very hit and miss. We purchased the Killing Fields movie (to watch before we reach Phnom Penh) but it has taken us 10 days to complete the download. We have been connecting the laptop wherever we can but the wifi speeds have been very slow. Surprisingly our phone has gotten 3G signal more often here than in Thailand (but we are not sure that we had the right plan in Thailand).
So, we’re here for a few days. The plan is resting, eating and route planning. Plus we need to purchase a new immersion water heater (ours died this morning) – we depend on this to make our morning oatmeal and coffee. I’ll take the broken one with me when we go shopping – if I couldn’t mime “chicken with herbs” for my dinner last night, then for sure I’ll have no chance a miming an immersion heater.