Blown away by the Thakhek Loop, we wanted to continue biking around Laos. The Pakse Loop or Bolaven Plateau seemed our next natural step. It’s renowned for its coffee plantations, waterfalls and tribes that live in tiny villages completely shut off from the world. We chose the smaller loop with one overnight stay.
The first day was spent waterfall-hopping and hoping the overcast weather would hold out. Our first stop was Tad Yuang waterfall, about a 40-minute ride out of Pakse. By comparison to the Thakhek loop, the road felt almost all highway without much to look at. S had told us the best waterfalls to see, so we streamlined it down to four. Tad Champi (or Champee) was the first stop: it was a good place to cool off and swim beneath the falls.
Tad Yuang (or Gneuang) was the big one at a spectacular 40m high. The car park was lined with buses, so we readied ourselves to join the crowds. We peeked over the top of it and then trudged down the steps to the bottom of it. Oddly we were the only ones at the top and foot of the falls…
We reached Captain Hook’s Homestay by nightfall, disrupting the quiet of the village with revvs of our motorbike. That night we were staying in Ban Kok Phung Tai, a remote Katu village and coffee plantation, 90km east of Pakse. The Katuic people are animists, believing that all animals and plants have souls, and live closed from the rest of Laotian society – something we were soon to learn much more about. Our set-up was a bamboo hut behind Hook’s family house: basic with padded sleeping mats and a mosquito net. Ours had a light, next door weren’t so lucky. The shared shower consisted of a large vat of water and a small bucket to tip water over yourself. I passed on that.
Dinner was a sit-on-the-floor deal along with Hook’s family, while he excused himself for a meeting with all the men in the village regarding a communal celebration. Village life sees “700 people living in about 30 houses, averaging at 23 people per household,” reports Dare To Travel Alone. As you can see from my photo above, they’re not big houses!
Post dinner, Captain Hook and a couple of the men in his family took us out hunting for frogs and crickets. We walked by torchlight for half an hour as they taught us the techniques for catching insects. One of the younger guys blared out Celine Dion, My Heart Will Go On, from a small speaker. The frogs and crickets everyone caught were collected in an empty water bottle, except the big ones: they were reserved for the family and not to be eaten with tourists. We reached the end of the trail and Captain Hook set about making a fire and the others began deboning and cleaning the tiny frogs. Water and oil were heated in a wok then the catches were boiled before being fried with herbs and spices. We crunched on this snack and washed it down with Beer Lao, while Captain Hook told us some riddles. On the walk back to our hut, we were dared to try a red ant because ‘they taste like citrus’. It’s exactly right: they do.
The story of Hook is complicated. While we didn’t hear a first-hand retelling, many vistors’ recounts are condusive with Scribbling Explorers. SE’s summary: Captain Hook was well-educated. He was studying at a Buddhist university in Vietnam before his parents contacted him saying they had found him a wife and he needed to come home. Not wanting to leave his studies and the Western girl he was in love with, he convinced his brother to marry her. The next call he received was to inform him that his grandmother was ill and he needed to return to say goodbye. This turned out to be a trick by his parents when he came home to an arranged wedding to another girl. They married and he never returned to his studies. His village believes his return brought with it evil spirits and still to this day none of the villagers will talk to him more than necessary, even his parents.”
We tried some coffee in the morning, fresh off of Hook’s coffee plantation. You filter it through one bamboo cup into another. It takes a while. So, we set off for some more waterfalls and, ideally, a more satisfying cup of coffee. Then it was back to Pakse in the hope we would catch a bus south to the 4000 Islands.