Stray Laos: Pakse, Mr. Coffee, More Waterfalls, And Wat Phou
The provincial capital of Pakse is one of the most Thai-like towns in all of Laos, and one that, up until recently, most travellers and backpackers tended to use as a transit point and little else. The tourism infrastructure is less developed than the more popular north, making it a bit harder to explore, but Champasak Province has much to offer - and Pakse is an ideal base to explore much of it from.
The leg from Tad Lo to Pakse today was the shortest one of the trip with only about 50 kilometers to go. We had a chance to sleep in a bit and got on the road just after 9am. Even though it was a short drive, we were going to make a few stops on the way to tour a coffee plantation, swim at a waterfall before lunch, and check out the tallest waterfall in Laos.
Mr. Coffee Plantation Tour
Mr. Coffee is a Dutch who came to Laos backpacking a few years ago and liked it so much that he decided to stay here. Him and his wife are now growing coffee in Puaxay region and together with other 5,000 to 10,000 growers there they produce twenty percent of Lao coffee (with the remaining eighty percent made by the large plantations). With most people growing coffee doing so on lots of about one hectare each, everything is done manually and special attention is paid to doing it the 'right' way. I was surprised to learn that coffee trees are better grown in shaded areas so the coffee farms also double up as small fruit farms as fruit trees provide lots of shade for the coffee.
At altitude of about 1300 meters/4000 ft and rich with volcanic soil, the region is ideal for Arabica and that is what Mr. Coffee has been growing. We walked through a few farms (they differ from plantations because they had farm houses, just in case you were wondering), on the way we saw everything from one year old trees to fully grown five year old trees to a lot of one year old trees completely covered with weeds as their owner did not have the time to pluck them out during the harvest season. Once we were finished with the tour, Mr. Coffee roasted some freshly picked and dried coffee beans to make the espresso and it was very delicious. Unfortunately, it was already time to leave so I had to settle for just one shot.
Tad Gneuang And Tad Fane Waterfalls
The time flew by at the coffee plantation so it was already after 1pm and we were ready for some lunch. Our next stop was Tad Gneuang waterfall where we placed an order at the restaurant located at the entrance and walked down to the bottom of the falls to get a quick swim in before lunch. It was a bit of a hike down , but definitely worth it - the waterfall was really high and there was lots of water coming down. As a bonus, no matter where I looked, there seemed to be a rainbow.
After the swim and a delicious lunch, accompanied by some herb-infused shots of Lao-Lao, we made another quick stop to see Tad Fane - the highest waterfall in Laos. While it did look pretty tall, since we could not get close to it or to its bottom, it did not look nearly as impressive as Tad Gneuang so soon we were off to Pakse.
I did not actually get to explore Pakse much. After we checked into the Lankham Hotel, me and the Swedish guys went over to the Royal Pakse Hotel (former king's palace rebuilt as a hotel) to use the gym there. Unlike the hotel, the gym was very old with half of the machines simply not working, but we were still able to put together a decent workout. Later, we had some dinner at an Indian place across the road and while others headed out to the night market for some karaoke, I decided to stay back and catch up on a few things as this was the first time we had Internet in a week.
The only time I really got to see the town was on the walk to and from the gym. It did not look very impressive - dusty main road with a few street stalls and mostly forgettable buildings on either side. It did have a bit more modern feel to it compared to the places we have stayed in the last few days, mainly because it is a big city. I could see some western influence making inroads with a few posh looking cafes and mini markets on the main street.
The next morning we jumped on the bus for a leisurely hour and a half ride from Paske to Wat Phou - a Khmer area temple ruins - the local Angkor Wat. Located on the Phu Kao hill, the temple itself is pretty small and is still functional, but with Buddha relics inside instead of original Hindu artifacts. We walked the road from the lake to the bottom of the hill which was only used by the kings at that time. There are two separate palaces at the bottom of the hill - one for the king and one for the queen. Both are in ruins and there was some restoration work done on the queen's one.
Behind the palaces, we walked the stairs up to the Wat Phou and those by themselves were a great testament to the builders - a millenium later they are still in a very good shape. After spending some time at the top, we headed out to the museum that contained some of the pieces and sculptures removed from the temple and the palaces. Overall, it was quite and impressive site.