A Chronicle of Amy and Sean's World Travels
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An Afternoon by the Sea in Kep

I was going to lump Kep in with Kampot, but we adored Kep just as much so I thought it rightfully deserved its own post.  Kep is only 15 miles away from Kampot and unlike Kampot, actually sits right on the sea.  We set off under sunny skies on our favorite Asian transport – our own two wheels – and headed down a paved road past cows, green fields, and mountains.  We knew we arrived when we could smell the sea in the air.  After a scoot around town and some time lounging on the seaside promenade watching the locals swim in the sea, we concluded that it doesn’t get much sleepier than Kep.  It’s the type of place that makes you want to sit still, to slow time down and linger.

So we did. Kep has a collection of seaside cafes all serving one thing: crabs caught by local fisherwomen in the waters right out front. We found one with cushy seats by the water and plopped ourselves down for a leisurely lunch. While waiting for our crabs, we watched women in floppy hats wade out into the waters in front of us and trap more of the day’s catch. Before we left, Sean never ate seafood. But it is hard to resist seafood as fresh as this, and somewhere between the red snapper in Essaouira and the tiger prawns in Fort Cochin, he’s become a convert. When the crabs arrive, we devour them. They’re fried whole with fresh green peppercorns from Kampot, and dressed with a black Kampot pepper and lime marinade. I think it goes without saying that they are sublime.

There was talk of staying for sunset and having more crabs for dinner. There was more talk of spending the next night in Kep. In the end, we did neither and left Kep behind in its sleepy solitude.

I don’t think Kep will stay this way.  As Cambodia distances itself from its turbulent past, somebody’s going to want to come in and make money from Kep’s seaside location.  As it stands now, though, Kep is quiet.  Unlike so many other places in Southeast Asia, you can hear yourself think there.  The main sound in Kep is simply the waves rolling into shore.  The quietness is peaceful, but there’s sad undertones.  Back in its heyday, Kep was the coastal stomping grounds of French colonists and Cambodian elites.  The grand mansions and villas that are left are mostly charred shells.  Some say the Khmer Rouge burned them down as part of their genocidal crusade and particular hatred of the elite.  Others say it wasn’t the Khmer Rouge directly, that the locals looted the mansions and villas to survive.  Either way, it seems odd that there’s hardly anyone around to appreciate Kep’s beauty. I’d like to keep Kep for myself, but I know sometimes it’s better for places to move on.

Hog Tales – Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau, Days Three and Four: Born to Run (Provided We Have Cushier Seats)

Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run

- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

We awoke early on Day 3 and set off from Paksong towards Tad Lo, determined to put our previous day’s mishaps behind us. I’m not going to lie – we both were still a little gun shy – but cruising along on the paved roads seemed like a cinch after navigating the soft dirt of the day before.

Once again, the sun was shining and the fluffy clouds were out in full force. Mountains dotted the backdrop of the landscape. As we headed away from Paksong, the chill in the air disappeared. Before long, smiles reappeared on our faces and the only sign of our spills was the dirt caked into our clothes. (Oh, didn’t I mention were were wearing the same clothes for the third day in the row? It is not like we had a lot of options for chilly weather anyhow, and we’d left most of our stuff behind in locked storage at the Pakse Hotel to lighten the load for the bike. Months later, there’s still traces of the orangeish brown dirt on our daybag, our trail runners, and Sean’s pants where he hit the hardest).

Considering our current state of dishevelment, we hesitated when, out of the blue, we came across a fancy resort and coffee plantation advertising tours of their gardens and cups of coffee. The resort seemed out of place in the middle of very rural Laos, but the colorful flowers we could see from the road looked so inviting and we welcomed any excuse to hop off our bike. We soaked up the sunshine as we drank coffee from the plantation and watched women weave Lao silk into scarves. Afterwards, we strolled through the grounds and checked out the coffee trees, ponds, and gardens. Groups of butterflies danced around the garden. If it sounds like a little oasis, a little Eden, it was.

But we still had a ways to Tad Lo, so we continued down the road, passing through villages with roaming pigs and cows with real cowbells, schoolgirls walking to school in their traditional skirts, and roadside stands selling steaming bowls of noodle soup and Beer Lao.

We arrived in Tad Lo in mid-afternoon. Tad Lo, which is not too far from Pakse and home to several gushing waterfalls, is one of the more popular spots on the Bolaven Plateau. Whereas in Paksong, supply far outweighed demand (as a result of people being just a little too hopeful about the somewhat increased tourism), in Tad Lo, we had trouble finding a place to stay. Most everything in town was booked, leaving our choices as a primitive $4.50 hut with a neighbor in the other half and a shared bathroom with cold water, or a $19.75 cabin up on the hill next to a big waterfall. The $19.75 place left a lot to be desired, and the $4.50 price was tempting, but in the end, we value privacy and hot water.

After traversing the town’s rickety bridge more times that I would have liked and checking out the waterfalls, we ended the day with Beer Laos next to the waterfall gushing to the right and monks frolicking in the river to our left. Day three? Not too shabby.

Day four, on the other hand, was rather uneventful. In the morning, we stopped by a road stall for some noodle soup on our way out of town. Like most roadside stalls, the restaurant doubles as the family’s home, meaning you are eating at plastic tables steps from the family’s television (everyone’s got a television, even in the Lao boonies!) and beds. As we waited for the preteen girl to serve us our breakfast, I did a double take. Were those? Are those? Staring me right in the face were not one, but two large posters of a completely topless girl. The posters looked like something that might have been hung illicitly in a warehouse of one of my former clients’ places and later made an exhibit in a sexual harassment case. I looked around. The only people I saw were the preteen girl preparing our soup, and her mother nearby. It was very bizarre, very bizarre indeed, especially considering we were in one of the more traditional, conservative countries in Southeast Asia where locals sometimes can be offended by the shorts and tank tops worn by Western tourists.

Other than some surprise breakfast boobs, there’s not too much noteworthy about our return to Pakse. The day was mostly characterized by extreme discomfort in the rear end. Sure, maybe a motorbike could hold two people and a small bag for four days, but should it? I must have made Sean pull over at least every ten minutes during the last hour. But we finally made it, pulling into Pakse rather dirtier than we had been four days ago, with all feeling in our butts lost forever, but glad we saw a side of Laos we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Hog Tales: The End (until we get to Vietnam, that is).

Hog Tales – Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau, Day Two: Welcome to the Jungle.

You know where you are
You’re in the jungle, baby
You’re going to die

- Welcome to the Jungle, Guns’n'Roses

Day two of motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau started off innocently enough.  For breakfast, we did as the Laotians do and had a bowl of steaming Lao noodle soup. After stopping by for a quick cup of coffee at Koffie’s place, we set off under blue skies and white fluffy clouds.  We intended to head to Sekong, a town on the outer edge of the plateau, and had to head down a dirt road to get there.  Koffie and an American expat living in Lao cautioned us before we left that the dirt road to Sekong and Attapeu, another town, wasn’t great.  We figured we would be okay if we took it slow; we had heard of troubles during the rainy season, but there were no rain clouds in sight this time of year.

Shortly after we left Paksong proper, we spotted a dirt road to the right, where our map indicated the road to Sekong and Attapeu should be.  There were no signs that we could see.  We paused briefly, but ultimately shrugged and forged ahead.  The dirt road seemed to be in good condition, and we sailed along past coffee plantations on either side.  If it wasn’t for the large trucks flying by, spraying clouds of dirt, life would have been good, right up until we hit the road work.  Who knew dirt roads have road work?  The first segment of the dirt road was wide but completely torn apart.  I felt like we were back home in Pennsylvania, where the road work never ends.   Because the Laotians didn’t actually feel the need to close the road while they were working on it, everyone drove their scooters and trucks where ever the large steamrollers working on the road weren’t, which might be the flat, dusty parts on the sides, or might be the rubble in the middle.  Hmmmm…maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

To top it off, we still weren’t really sure we were on the right road.  No one mentioned road work.  Efforts to ascertain that we were indeed headed in the right direction produced less than certainty.  Anytime we saw a person, we pulled over to ask if this was the road to Attapeu.  Many times, the person smiled and looked confused, giving us our first indication that no one around spoke English, and we were probably once again butchering the only word they might have otherwise recognized in our complete inability to pronounce names of towns.  A few seemed to nod yes and point where we were pointing, but you never can really be sure.  Hmmmm…hope we are on the right road.

One thing was for sure, however.  The tourists we kept seeing the day before on the way to Paksong were nowhere to be found today.  Kids playing alongside piles of coffee beans drying in the sun stopped in their tracks to give us big, huge smiles and loud, happy sabaidees.  Their mothers, donned in traditional Laotian skirts, looked up to see what all of the fuss was about.  Even though we were covered almost from head to toe to ward off the chill in the air and the dirt sprays, everyone knew we were foreigners from a mile away.

The roadwork finally ended, but then the potholes began.  After dodging the craters, we thought we were home free when we came upon the village that was supposed to be the halfway point between Paksong and the end of the dirt road.  We stopped at a roadside stall and had – you guessed it – Lao noodle soup for lunch.  If you’re counting, that makes our third soup meal in a row.  Delicious.  Before we ate, I wiped my face and hands with a wet wipe.  The wipe came away an opaque orangish-brown.  I mentioned something about being dirty to our host, while Sean kicked me and whispered, they’re covered in this dust all of the time! It was true.  With their houses, restaurants and workplaces mere feet away, getting dirty was unavoidable.  Our meal was accompanied by the lovely screech of Lao music.  Sharing with us the pineapple being passed around the family, the one guy in town who spoke some English explained everyone else in town was at the wedding ceremony.  I wish we could have solved the eternal mystery of why Asians only enjoy music blaring out of loudspeakers at top volume, but I couldn’t figure out a polite way to inquire about this.  Alas, another time.

Unfortunately, the semi-English speaker disappeared after lunch, making it quite difficult to inquire whether there was a toilet we might use before setting off.  After exhausting every possible word I could think of to convey bathroom and only getting blank stares, I cursed myself for not learning more Lao.  Who ever thinks they’ll actually need the suggested phrases in guidebooks and translators like where is the bathroom or those drugs are not mine, officer? I was racking my brain trying to figure out how one would convey going to the bathroom in Charades without being culturally offensive, when someone finally figured out what we needed and showed us to the shed out back where the hole in the ground was located.

Waving good-bye, we set off again.  A ways from town, the road turned soft, made of fine, rusty terra cotta dirt.  We passed a local couple on a motorbike, and I noticed Sean noticing them right before we toppled over.  We hit a divot in the road and landed with a big thud.  Even though I landed intertwined with Sean and the bike, I only had a small scrape on my knee.  Sean, on the other hand, was a bit more scraped up, but nothing a few band-aids couldn’t fix.  I gave thanks to our foresight in wearing long pants and sleeves.  Even though the soft dirt was our nemesis, it also broke our fall.  As we wiped everything down in vain, two women came around the bend and toppled in the spot where we just fell.  Great; now we’re going to cause a scooter pile-up.  Luckily, they drove away unharmed.

We took off again, rather shakily.  I had to turn away from the road; I was certain we were going to fall again at every hole and every rut, Sean was certain I was going to make us fall again at every hole and every rut with my squirmings.  I tried to concentrate on anything else but the road: the fluffy clouds, the dense greenery, the occasional house.  But then we both saw the worst thing we could have seen in the entire world at that moment: a fork in the road.  Hmmm…that’s funny.  There are no turns on this map.  I thought it was supposed to be a straight shot?

We crossed our fingers and picked left, since the dirt on the road to the right seemed different than the road we were on.  I’ll spare you the suspense; we picked wrong.  Or maybe it didn’t even matter at that point, because it was quite possible that any number of slight diversions from the dirt road we ignored in blissful ignorance (lalalalala, I don’t see you!) could have a road we were supposed to take.  As we figured out much, much later when we ran into a group of travelers at dinner who traversed the dirt road in the opposite direction, it DID appear to be a straight shot coming from Attapeu.  From Paksong, not so much.  Going in the opposite direction, everything appeared to be in a straight line for hours, with an occasional road joining the way, whereas in our direction, there were ever-so-slight options.

At the time, we decided we were too far from town to turn around.  We kept driving onward, deeper into the what was increasingly looking like a jungle.  There were no kids calling sabaidee now, just an occasional scooter whipping by and thick tropical greenery on all sides.  I entertained the possibility this was where we’d meet our demise when we came to the end of the road.  We’d probably been driving for two hours since we left the village where we ate lunch.  At the end of the road, we were greeted by two Lao men in military uniforms.  Their knowledge of English was only good enough to point over the hills and far away towards Attapeu.  Turning away, we came to the realization that we had no idea where we where, and we had no other choice other than to turn around and retrace our steps back to Paksong if we didn’t want to be enveloped by nightfall in the jungle.  So for two very long hours, we headed back, dejected, to the village at the half-way point, itself over two hours from Paksong.

Naturally, as a fait accompli, we wiped out again, this time trying to avoid a ridge in the soft dirt.  We had spectators this time around; a family of 12 or so came out to the road to see what was going on.  What was going on wasn’t pretty.  Sean’s arm and the bike’s kickstand got the brunt of the fall.  The arm was bleeding; the kickstand was wedged in such a way that the gears could not be shifted.  I was resigning myself to having to walk miles and miles or moving in with this Laotian family when the husband and father came over to help us.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but he knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.  He laid down in the dirt and tried kicking at the kickstand, but couldn’t get enough force with his short legs and bare feet.  Sean gave it a whack and we all smiled when the bike actually started.  Considering there hardly was anyone around in these parts, we are eternally thankful that this kind man happened to live near by.

The four or five hours back were some of the longest of my life.  We both were frustrated, fearful and occasionally blinded for minutes at a time thanks to the dust kicked up by the larger vehicles on the road.  Pulling into Paksong, caked in the rusty dirt, we both breathed sighs of relief when we saw the paved road.

And just think: we had at least two more days of driving ahead of us.  Whose idea was this, anyway?

Lao noodle soup: the breakfast of champions. And lunch. And dinner.

Roadwork, even in Laos.

Faced with two by fours and views of the creek below, Sean goes it alone. We've never met a Lao bridge we've trusted with the weight of two, even though the Laotians have no qualms about driving huge construction vehicles and zipping scooters over them.

On the way to the bathroom at lunch, I had to step over these little guys.

Laotian nuptials.

When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.

Shortly after crash two.

Next on Hog Tales: I’ve got the fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!

Forty Before Forty (with a Wanderlist too)

I never been on a railroad, as many times as they pass me by
I never crashed in the desert or seen a rodeo
I don’t know much about the world wars or Vietnam
I’ve yet to read about Uncle Tom
Never climbed a real rock or seen Colorado
Am I the son I think I am
Am I the friend I think I am
Am I the man I think I wanna be – hey
I never had a day where money didn’t get in my way
I never listened to much Elvis
I can’t remember a warm December
Am I the son I think I am
Am I the friend I think I am
Am I the man I think I wanna be – hey
Cause I’m here for my sanity sanity
I am here for you
I’m here for your fantasy sanity, I am here
I am
Am I the son I think I am
Am I the friend I think I am
Am I the man I think I wanna be
Cause I’m here for my sanity sanity I am here for you
Whether or not I’m walkin in
Whether or not I’m walkin out
I’m always here for you

- I Am, Train

The other day, I was sitting on a train making its way north in Vietnam, and this song came on my Ipod.  Something about this song always gets me.  I think all of us want to be a certain type of person, and at some point in your life, you have to either be that person or realize that person just isn’t you.

The irony was not lost on me that now, I do know something about Vietnam.  And the only thing passing me by was the scenery, not railroads.  Not to mention that I can remember a warm December.

I turn 32 today.  And I’m not getting any younger.  If it is one thing taking this trip made me realize, it’s that if there’s something I want in life, it’s up to me to do something about it.

So, I’ve created a list.  A list of dreams, you could say.  I’ve been thinking about creating a list of dreams for a long time.  I think I first read about the concept from Chris, over at Notes from the Trenches (one of the first blogs I ever read and one of my favorites to this day).  Karen at Chookooloonks calls hers a Mighty Life List.  I’m a visual person; I like seeing things spelled out in front of me.  Having it all there in black and white appeals to me.  I don’t view this as a to-do list; I’m sure I will look at some of these things at 40 and laugh.  Many won’t get crossed off.  Maybe some will take me more than eight years.  Half the things on this list are contradictory or just a small seed of thought in the back of my mind.  I’ll probably change my mind a million times, anyway.  But I think it will be interesting, at 40, to see who the 32-year-old me thought she wanted to be.  And writing down your dreams is the first little step to taking that giant one.

Without further adieu, here’s my Forty Before Forty:

1. Figure out what I want to be when I grow up. (Might as well just start with the big one).
2. Find a job that doesn’t make me miserable.
3. Take the plunge and stop being DINKS (or more accurately as of late, NINKS) and have some rugrats.
4. Learn how to drive a stick shift.
5. Live in a house, with original character, that is finished. (Might as well dream big!)
6. Eat smaller portions and less meat.
7. Compost.
8. Grow a flower and vegetable garden.
9. Write a novel.
10. Live in a foreign country for a year.
11. Become fluent in Spanish, preferably by spending some time in a Spanish-speaking country.
12. Make yogurt, mozzarella cheese, and bread from scratch.
13. Make pierogies from scratch with my cousin Karen.
14. Take a photography class.
15. Become scuba certified.
16. Start shooting my camera in manual mode.
17. Can fresh local vegetables for use in winter.
18. Decorate with fresh flowers for Chinese/Vietnamese New Year.
19. Live by the ocean.
20. Own a shop/cafe with fair trade products and tasty treats.
21. Open a bed & breakfast.
22. Celebrate New Year’s Eve with Sean, Danielle, Matt and Tony in a different locale each year.
23. Bake apple pie just like my mom’s.
24. Ride a bike to work.
25. Be a tourist in my own city.
26. Become friends with someone who owns a boat.
27. Bind together a book of my blog posts.
28. Create a photo album of our trip.
29. Get caught up and resume making photo albums of everyday life. (I think I’m somewhere in 2008? Who knows).
30. Finish the photo album of our house renovations. (Probably should have done this before we sold the house last year!)
31. Keep blogging after we return home.
32. Join the library again.
33. Stop talking about volunteering and do it.
34. Learn from the Europeans and spend more time appreciating beauty, lingering at cafes, and taking more vacation time.
35. Go on a girls’ trip, finally.
36. See Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band play in Idaho.
37. Live in a walkable community and walk whenever I can.
38. Perfect a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
39. Keep on experiencing my Wanderlist!
40. Be a person who creates happiness instead of a person who complains about not being happy.

And, because all of my travel related dreams often take on a life of their own, I created a sure to be never ending Wanderlist:

1. Stop neglecting Canada. (Because it is true that all I know about Canada I know from HIMYM. And the South Park movie).
2. Take a road trip from Vancouver to LA.
3. Visit “our” bakery in France again.
4. Try all different types of Belgian waffles in Belgium (and eat Pierre Marcolini chocolate again. And since I’m over there, drink lots of beer).
5. Eat my way through Italy.
6. Eat real Mexican in Mexico.
7. Go to Madagascar and see cool animals.
8. See the Great Migration before it disappears.
9. Visit an island in the South Pacific.
10. Go to the Caribbean without being on an all-inclusive trip.
11. Enjoy life in small villages in Spain.
12. Go to Cork, Ireland. (We missed it this time around).
13. Go to Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic. (Ditto).
14. Drink beers at breweries throughout the Czech Republic.
15. Return to the Andaman Islands in 10 years.
16. Get the courage and strength to visit India again.
17. Go on a microbrewery tour in the United States.
18. Take a cooking class in Italy, Germany, China, and Mexico.
19. Board the next plane or train going anywhere.
20. Drink malbec in Argentina or Peru; sauvigon blanc in New Zealand; and shiraz in Australia.
21. Drive a VW Beetle throughout Southeast Asia. Or South America. Or Central America. Where ever. I’m not picky.
22. Take a cross-country road trip.
23. Take a trip entirely based on food.
24. Visit all 50 states.
25. Travel in South America, especially Argentina.
26. Learn how to make pastries in France.
27. Explore the Deep South.
28. See koalas and kangaroos in Australia.
29. Go to Thailand during mango season.
30. Explore other boroughs in NYC besides Manhatten.
31. Trace our roots in Germany.
32. Go where the live music is.
33. Go white water rafting at Ohiopyle.

To be continued…

Hog Tales – Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau, Day One: Born to be Wild.

Get your motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way

- Born to Be Wild, Steppenwolf

After moving along with the masses between Laos’ popular cities, we were itching to set off on our own to explore parts of Laos with more Laotians than foreigners. A motorbike road trip around Southern Laos seemed to be just the ticket. Similar, but each unique, trips had been taken by Shanna and Derek at One Year on Earth, Theresa and Jeff at Lives of Wander, and Wes at Johnny Vagabond, inspiring us to get out on the open road. One small problem. Our entire repertoire of motorbike riding consisted of a brief scoot around Lastovo Island on a severely underpowered scooter and a couple of rides around Havelock Island on an automatic scooter. Given our motorbike experience, it makes perfect sense for us to set off on a Honda Wave 100 cc manual motorbike on a four day, three night motorbiking trip on a loop in the Bolaven Plateau, a remote rural area of southern Laos, right? Right. Glad you agree.

The motorbike trip, which, spoiler alert, was one of our best experiences of our whole trip so far, almost didn’t get off the ground. We had reserved a motorbike at our hotel the night before we planned to set off from Pakse. Or, at least, so we thought. When we went to pick up the bikes, they were mysteriously all in need of repair, even though they were sitting out the night before for rent. Well, not sure what that was all about, but whatever, we didn’t want some defective bike anyway. We then tried to find another bike to rent. Contrary to what Lonely Planet/Travelfish/Wikitravel told us, Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse does not rent out bikes (or have maps, for that matter). Okay, we’ll try again. We found a shop that had bikes for rent sitting out front, but when we inquired about, you know, actually renting them, the girl in the shop just shook her head no. Hmmm…is someone trying to tell us something? We then checked in with the shop by the Langham Hotel noodle shop, which seemed to be the most popular place for bikes. The guy working there tried to tell us the bikes he had were too small for two people. Now, I know we’re bigger than the Laotians by a long shot, but I know what these motorbikes can handle: families of six (spotted by Sean, true story); televisions, enough cases of Beer Lao for a small village, bags of rice, you name it. There was talk of giving up and just heading straight to the 4,000 Islands. But then we saw two full-sized Western adults drive by on the same motorbike the guy told us was too small for us. Screw it, we said. Everyone else is doing it!

Soon thereafter we were zooming down the highway, making our way towards Paksong, a small village high up on the Bolaven Plateau. It turns out that Laos is a good place for a beginner to ride. The further we got away from Pakse, the less traffic there was. Other than the occasional truck or bus barreling past with its horn blaring, or some piece of primitive farm equipment loaded to the gills with hay with Laotians perched precariously on top, there aren’t that many vehicles on the road that are bigger than you. It’s a good feeling to be cruising down the road, wind whipping past, and sunshine on your face. After months of noisy, overcrowded buses, the feeling felt the closest to freedom we’d encountered in a long time.

The drive on the first day was short; only 50 kilometers. (That’s 31 miles to you Americans. Avery: Well how far is the border? Maybe we could run! Jack: I don’t know. When I asked the lady at the desk she told me in kilometers!) Paksong is coffee country in Laos, and the further we got away from Pakse and the closer we got to Paksong, it seemed that out front of every wooden house was a pile of coffee beans drying in the sun on a tarp.

Even after a late start, we were in Paksong by lunch time and made our way over to Koffie’s coffee shop. Koffie is a rather quirky Dutchman who married a local Lao woman and now lives with her family in the village surrounded by coffee plantations. Apparently Koffie loved coffee long before he ended up in the coffee heartland of Laos, so it was a perfect match. At Koffie’s coffee shop, you’ll find the only wi-fi in Paksong and coffee that was grown practically in the back yard. Koffee roasts the coffee in small batches in a wok, giving each batch a different flavor. I’m not really a coffee fan, unless it’s spiked with sugar, milk and chocolate and blended into a million calorie Frappachino, but Koffie’s coffee? It could make me reconsider. The flavor was so nuanced and the different notes lingered on your tongue. It reminded me of single-origin cocoa beans I tasted in the bars of Pierre Marcolini I sampled in Brussels.

Sean always regretted missing out on a tour of a Kona coffee plantation on our honeymoon, so we decided to go on Koffie’s coffee tour, which appeared to be offered once or twice a day whenever people wander by. Traipsing past coffee trees, Koffie explained to us the growing, picking, drying, and roasting process. Even better than learning about coffee, for me, was getting a little peek into rural Lao life that we weren’t able to see from the roadside. Up close, we could see laundry strung on lines underneath the simple wooden houses we saw from the road earlier. In the late day sun, women climbed into trees to retrieve low-hanging fruits. We watched kids playing volleyball in a field while their younger brothers and sisters yelled Sabaidee! and giggled every time we walked by. The giggle of the Lao children is infectious – although the adults do not smile much until you draw them out, the children don’t yet have reservations. While Koffie was explaining the benefits of shade-grown coffee to us, we kept hearing giggles from behind the trees where two little girls were playing a paddy-cake game.

For dinner, we headed to the Borlaven Restaurant on the outskirts of town, per Koffie’s recommendation. Shivering from the chilly temperatures in Paksong’s higher elevation, we ordered steamy bowls of Lao noodle soup and through in some laap for good measure. Laap is a Laotian dish made from minced meat, herbs and lime juice. We watched through the screen as the family prepared our order, each member having a role. The youngest daughter was in charge of peeling garlic; guess your family rank determines your job. Upon receiving our order, I recalled what I had previously read about laap: that traditionally it is served raw, but in most tourist restaurants, the chicken will be cooked. Well, this was no tourist restaurant. Despite its aromatic smells, there was no way I was eating raw chicken coming off of two weeks of a stomach bug up north. Good thing the noodle soup was extra tasty.

There wasn’t much of anything going on in Paksong (must not have noticed the brothel down the road) so we headed back to our hotel, Phuthevada Hotel. Sitting high on the hill overlooking the town, and easily the most expensive option in town even though it was only $13 for a double for the rooms in the building in the back, we felt a little pretentious. But the room was nice and clean, and most importantly, there was a television. We specifically got a room with a television in the hope that in some crazy random off chance that we would pick up the Steelers’ first playoff game on our favorite channel, the Asian Sports Network, but as we suspected as we set off into a very rural part of one of the most rural countries in the world, no such luck. Unfortunately, what the hotel also did not have was heat, so we hunkered down to watch the one English speaking channel, a movie channel devoted to showing the random collection of movies ever assembled. First, there’d be an obscure movie, such as the Bill Murray film Broken Flowers that we actually had seen before, or Falling Angels, a rather intriguing movie about three sisters coming of age in the sixties in a dysfunctional family in Canada (the Canadian location never occurring to us until we looked up the movie when we got back to the interwebs). Immediately after the obscure movie, the channel would show a second-rate, made-for-tv movies that probably never saw the light of day elsewhere. Highlights included a horror movie with a severed head that gave me nightmares and a super cheesy Western/Vietnam War movie. Who knew watching movies from bed could be important cultural lessons in of themselves. Apparently the communists believe that the actual placing of a smoking device to one’s lips that corrupts the public, but dangling cigarettes from the character’s hands and rampant swearing are no problem. What really cracked me up was a scene in Falling Angels. The actual smoking of the bowl? Not okay to show. But the lighting of the bowl, the exhaling of the smoke, and the passing of the bowl, all okay. I’m so glad I wasn’t corrupted by the placing of lips to bowl. I could rest easy now, save for severed head nightmares.

This is coffee country.

A typical Lao house around Paksong.

Everyone's favorite lawn ornament: coffee beans drying in the sun.

Exploring the coffee plantations.

Not quite ready to drink.

Koffie, wok-roasting the beans.

Just about grinding time.

A little Lao boy, mugging it up for the camera after his big catch.

One of the girls on the coffee tour handed out pens to the children in the village. As you can see, this girl was quite excited to receive hers. (If you are thinking about heading into the Lao countryside, consider buying some books from the NGO Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang to distribute to kids in the villages. I am kicking myself for not doing this).

Next time on Hog Tales: Karma gets its revenge for our nicknaming a couple who took a spill on the scooter in the Andamans “Roadkill.” Stay tuned.

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