Coffee picking in Paksong and on to Tat Lo (72/10,788 ks)

(written by Dave)

Today was about us becoming coffee pickers – broadly speaking, it was a success. We hooked up first thing in the morning with our cycling friends Lieneke and Hans, at “Koffie Dick’s” coffee stall. Koffie is the Dutch guy who has married a Laos woman and is now working with her and her family on their small plantation. Dick works the shop and business side. His wife is the lead picker and organises the local resources. Even though their beans are ready to pick, they only had two pickers today (Dick’s wife and her sister). The rice crop is really late this year and the local workers don’t switch to coffee until they finish with the rice. So having us 4 helpers, even though we were not very proficient, was probably a good thing.

So what can I say about coffee picking? Well, it’s hard work and progress is slow. If you try to pick one berry at a time like they show on the TV commercials, forget it, you’ll be out there all day and get nothing. The most efficient way of picking is to find a tree that is mostly ripe, cup your hands around the base of a full branch and pull to the end of the branch, stripping off all the fruit in the process. You end up with some green fruit but the later stages of refinement take care of these anyway.

The four of us picked for about an hour and almost filled a 30kg bag. It takes 5 kg of fruit to make 1 kg of green beans. Pickers get paid 50 cents for each kg of green beans. They can earn 10-12 USD per day if they are fast pickers. I’m not sure if pickers have to help turn the fruit into green beans but I suspect so as this step is pretty labour intensive as well. The four of us would have been paid 3.00 USD had we been paid. Rather than money, we got free coffees from Koffie. Believe me, this was a much better deal as we noted yesterday, he roasts beans fresh everyday and makes a mean cup of coffee.

We didn’t participate in any of the post-picking steps but Koffie gave us a tour of his backyard facilities. Typically at the end of a hard day picking, he and his wife spend the evening running the fruit through a machine that removes the fruit. This creates bags of wet green beans and a massive pile of fruit. The fruit pile has a nice smell due to sitting and fermenting through the 3 month picking season. The beans are left in the bags for a few days before being washed in a large tub. In the washing step the unripe beans float to the top, fixing all the mistakes made by rookie pickers.

Next up, clean green beans are spread out on large tarps and dried for 7 days. The tarps have to be wrapped up every night and any time it rains. Surprisingly, the beans get pretty hot sitting in the sun and it is easy to get the husk off by rubbing the bean. Of course, they don’t remove husks by hand, there is another machine for this. The net result of de-husking is bags of green beans that are now ready for the roaster. Koffie roasts his daily beans the traditional way, in a wok on a gas cooker. There are of course larger and more commercial roasters as well. As noted above, if you can roast closer to brewing time, them the resulting coffee is better.

If you are not tired after reading that passage, perhaps you’ve read it after you consumed your morning coffee. We both certainly do enjoy a nice coffee, but after today, we’ll probably look a little different at finished product. To think that most coffee grows in the tropics and involves roughly the same steps noted above, plus a massive transport effort, it makes you wonder how Seattle became America’s coffee home.

We were done picking just before 10:00 (you can pick as long as you like). I managed to collect a leech on each foot while in the fields but I am happy to report no unexploded ordinances. The leeches only left small marks and I think I’ll live. The violent recent history of the plateau was certainly on our minds as we picked. It is such a beautiful area and it is good to see it recovering. And yes, our nature breaks were taken very close to the path leading into the field.

We were finally riding around 11:00. It was mostly downhill, making up for yesterday’s uphill. We only stopped once, at a roadside stall for pho (noodle soup) lunch. There were lots of coffee beans out in the sun at the higher villages, this turned into red chillies in the lower villages. By 1:30 we had reached Tad Lo and were looking for a guesthouse. It is almost 1,000 metres lower in elevation here and quite a bit warmer. The waterfalls are nice and we’ve ended up at a way too expensive resort that has a deck looking right out on the falls. We checked out a couple other places but they had limited rooms available for the two nights that we want to stay.

While I was checking in, Nancy fed the three local elephants. Two of them are available for riding and they looked pretty well taken after. None of them had leg irons and from what I could tell, they didn’t even have a gate blocking their exit from the holding area. Later in the day their handlers took all three of them out for a swim in the river just in front of the lodge.

When were riding in we ran into our cycling friend Rene. He’d been here since before 11:00 today. We are meeting him for a happy hour beer in a bit and will probably grab something to eat with him. Rene is also taking a day off here tomorrow. It is possible to do some jungle trekking and to visit “minority villages” (the name minority village is how local folks here refer to indigenous villages. There are a number of local groups that are not Laotian). We are not sure how much we’ll get up to, it could be hard getting off the deck here at the lodge especially as they serve good coffee. They are reputed to serve good brekkie as well and the view is great. Tomorrow night we may have one last cycling group dinner as Lieneke and Hans are also planning to be in Tat Lo.

For now we will go to bed listening to the waterfall – should make for a good night’s sleep.

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9 thoughts on “Coffee picking in Paksong and on to Tat Lo (72/10,788 ks)

  1. I think washing elephants would be fun, you should ask if you can do that tomorrow…..thanks for making my appreciate my coffee a bit more today 🙂

    Stay safe!

    • Watched it again today. It would seem that the elephants really enjoy it. When they go completely under, the guides get pretty wet as well. Falling off would be common if they let amateurs play!

      Dave Ertel


    • Waterfall photos today. UXO are really bad, even worse when you consider: – Estimates of 30% did not explode – 260 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos alone – 2.5 million tons of munitions were dropped on Laos alone What incredible people who live here in Laos. By all accounts, talking mostly to foreigners who live here,the Laotiansare the most forgiving people on earth. They hold no outward grudge. To think in the US, some folks are still figuratively fighting the civil war… Ok – off my soapbox now…


  2. Every morning I get my Coffee and read my hiistory lesson – sure makes me appreciate coffee after this lesson. You guys are awesome..

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