Did you know that coffee is grown in Lao? If the answer is no, don’t worry, neither did we before arriving here. Yes, coffee is grown in Southern Lao, on the Bolaven plateau. It seems that, together with French baguettes and petanque, coffee plantations are another legacy of Indochina’s French colonial past.
We wanted to spend a couple of days exploring the plateau (which is not only known for its coffee but also for its beautiful scenery and waterfalls). We chose Pakse as our hub to visit the plateau. But before getting there, we stopped at Savannakhet for one night to break in two the long journey between Vientiane and Pakse. Savannakhet, or the Luang Prabang of the south as they call it for its calmed vibe, is very local, with barely no accommodation and with still a few signs of its colonial past. It is just another Lao town, but it is where we spent Valentines day so we will for sure remember it.
The temperatures were rising as we were heading south, and in Pakse we could really feel it! Five minutes after leaving our chilled hotel room we were sweeting like pigs… We don’t know if it was because of the heat or not, but Isma developed a nasty mouth ulcer that took a few days to heal. It wasn’t until he started taking some Chinese pills for cooling down his body (that is what the pharmacist said) that he felt any improvement. Natural Chinese medicines are not a myth, they do work!
Pakse is situated at the confluence of the Xedone and Mekong Rivers. This city is much more touristy than Savannakhet but still has a local touch. It’s a great place to use as hub when visiting the plateau, Champasak and Wat Phou (Khmer temple complex). Though we decided against going to the last two (to Champasak because we read it was a tourist trap and to Wat Phou because we were going to see Angkor temples in Cambodia soon). In Pakse, we rented a motorbike for a day so we could easily reach the plateau and stop at some of the waterfalls that are located along the so called Coffee Road (road between Pakse and Paksong, in the heart of the plateau).
The plateau, unlike the rest of the country which is probably too hot and too humid, has the right combination of factors, including perfect soil, high altitude and climate, to allow the coffee plants to grow and to produce an intense flavored coffee. Both Robusta and Arabica are grown in this area of Lao.
We thought we would find big coffee farms owned by big companies that employ locals, but what we saw driving around coffee road was different. The coffee business is driven by the local families. In the Paksong district there are around 5000 families involved with coffee farming. Each of them do the hard work of picking the berries, drying them, removing the flesh of the berries… and then sell the green coffee beans to coffee producers who will then roast, pack and finally sell the coffee worldwide.
We stopped in Paksong for lunch, and after a lovely foe we were lucky to find a small road side cafe where we tasted the just roasted local coffee. Rich, dark, strong and intense cup of coffee!
Little we knew about the coffee cultivation and coffee making processes, so we found the ride along coffee road very instructive and very enjoyable! And of course, we couldn’t find a better way to end the day than drinking once again an iced Lao coffee.
Savannakhet, Leena Guest House – Big guest house with many rooms, almost the only choice of accommodation in the city. They have different types of rooms but by the time we got there they only had the most expensive ones left. Clean, with attached bathroom, hot water and A/C. The room wasn’t very spacious and the bed wasn’t too comfortable. Free Wifi but the sign was poor in our room. We paid 90.000 Kips per room / night.
Pakse, Lao Chaleun Hotel – Average hotel in the center of city. Clean and, unlike what the guide said, decent sized room, with attached bathrooms, hot water and A/C. Every day they clean the room and leave fresh towels and two small bottles of water. Free wifi included. We paid 120.000 Kips per room / night.
Vientiane to Savannakhet by bus (8h) – Like most of the buses here in Lao, the bus was loaded to its limits, from truck tyres to mini tractors could be found on top of the bus. We kept ourselves busy during the long journey munching watermelon seeds.
Savannakhet to Pakse by bus (5h) – As people here don’t know what bus stops are, we stopped hundreds of times to pick up and drop people along the way. Who said that a motorbike doesn’t count as hand luggage?