(Written by Dave)
So we’ve worked out the plan for the next few days. First we are riding east to the Bolaven Plateau for a few days in the highlands. The area was little farmed until the early 20th century when, during French rule, they started clearing the jungle and planting all sorts of things that wouldn’t grow in the heat of the Mekong valley. When the French left Indochina in the 1950s, many of the French farmers left. Most remaining farmers, locals and French, left when US bombardment became unbearable in the late 1960s. Both the Americans and the Vietnamese viewed controlling the Bolaven Plateau as vital. It was part of the loose group of jungle paths that became known as the Ho Chi Min trail – a vital resupply route for the North Vietnamese.
At one point in time Laos was the most bombed country on earth (Afghanistan or others may have taken this dubious title today). Bomb technology in the 60s and 70s was not what it is today (one may argue that this is devolution rather than progress). It is estimated that up to 30% of the bombs did not explode leaving remote Laos countryside, including the Bolaven Plateau, littered with UXO (unexploded ordinance in UN terms). It is a slow process to clear UXOs but in the 1990s fields big enough for farming became safe again. This gave the coffee farmers a chance to get restarted and they have not looked back. The rest of the French crops have not come back but coffee seems to be well suited and if done properly it can be profitable for farmers – providing much needed economic sustenance in a poor country.
UXOs still remain and are a good reason not to camp in Laos. There are lots of warnings about staying on the “path” and not digging. This is advice which we will be taking quite seriously in the coming days. We plan to ride a loop up to the plateau, taking one day off to tour the coffee plantations. They are harvesting cherries (as raw coffee beans are called) now so there should be some activity.
After brekkie today, Nancy came back to the room and I went to the Pakse market in search of oatmeal (our back-up brekkie). The Pakse market is huge and quite a hub of activity. It is probably bigger than a couple football pitches all up but I am sorry to report that it does not have oatmeal. They don’t grow much in the way of wheat here in SE Asia. I eventually found a larger super market that had 4 cans of oatmeal. Regular old instant oatmeal but in a tin can. I guess customer demand for oatmeal is pretty low as well.
This afternoon I ducked out to look at a wat near the river. Laos wats are nowhere near as ornate as those in Thailand, perhaps another sign of the state of the economy here in Laos. I probably would have ended up with very few photos had it not been “paint the outside wall” day for the monks. Monks were busy with paint cans and brushes making the wall sort of new looking again. Classic do-it-yourself project. Just because one is a monk does not make one a good painter. All the novice monks were painting. Many of the full monks were supervising. There many more supervisors than there was painters. Classic Tom Sawyer stuff by monks in Laos.
We had a nice pho (noodle soup) for dinner and are now busy packing up everything. It is amazing how much stuff gets spread everywhere when we take more than a night off. (I should say that I am typing and Nancy’s organising – so I better close this post off if I want to live to see the Plateau).
Check in the next few days to read about coffee and what we learn about it. I’m sure that it will be educational for us. Also, we’ll probably have to dig out our long pants for the first time in 5 months. It is over 1200 metres on the Plateau – burr.