A humdinger of a stinger

144km Champasak to Tadlo

We are happily plodding our way through a 50 kilometer climb to the coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau when a scream from Andrew signals that all is not well. More of a shriek actually, followed by wild swerving and bike acrobatics while a whole village looks on with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. It’s some seconds and a few choice words later before Friedel realises what is going on: a head-on collision between a bee and a knee has resulted in one wounded cyclist and, somewhere in the sky, one insect with a severe headache. After an initial check, we limp over to a roadside stand and order a cool drink to help us collect our thoughts. Soon Andrew’s knee is a red, swollen ball but he bravely decides to continue on. Like most bee stings, we expect this one will fade away by the evening.

As we go up the hill we wave to countless children and try to ignore the common but confusing shouts of “where you go?” from passing adults. “Ummmm, that way?” we answer befuddled and pointing in a vague direction. Half the time we have no idea where we are going and the rest of the time we wonder why they need to know or if there’s some disaster on the road ahead that will prevent us from going further. Later in the evening a local man will tell us that this is a perfectly normal thing for people to ask one another, although he can’t quite explain why. It just is.

The climb isn’t quite enough of a challenge so we throw in diversions to two waterfalls and it’s late afternoon as we arrive in Paksong, coffee capital of Lao and a refreshing 1,300 meters above sea level. Andrew’s knee has had enough. Friedel isn’t quite tuned into the same frequency though and insists on doing a tour of the town before picking out a guesthouse. It doesn’t take long. There’s one main street with about ten motorbike shops and not much else. A bright white sign reading “Daily Fresh Roasted Coffee” stands out from the otherwise dreary town. This is our stop, the whole reason we’ve come to Paksong and as we roll up, a Dutch man comes running out to greet us.

Coffee (he has a real name but we don’t know it because Coffee is the only name he goes by) greets us with a hearty handshake and runs off to make the first of many cups of dark brew from local beans. Andrew is only too happy to put his leg up for a rest and even happier when Coffee invites us to stay in his home with his Lao wife and extended family. No need to bounce back and forth between guesthouse and coffee shop. Perfect. And with such good company it’s a joy. Coffee is a fantastic host and another very interesting woman, Dominique, is sitting across the table. After a few minutes we learn she’s been on an adventure of her own, trekking 50km through a forest just west of Paksong. There was a road marked on the map but when she found out it didn’t exist she bravely hiked through the forest on a small, sometimes indistinguishable trail, fording rivers and cutting through brush where the road should have been to get back to civilisation. “Which road was it?” we enquire. The answer comes back: the same road we’d been planning to cycle. Ah ha. Good to know then. That’s those plans out the window and it looks like it’ll be back to the Mekong for us before long.

During the evening we quiz Coffee on the options for exploring the area and he suggests a coffee trek through a bit of jungle to get to a plantation, followed by wok roasting our own beans later in the afternoon. Sounds good and Andrew thinks his leg will be up to the task by morning. After an evening of chatter, dawn soon follows, broken by at least two roosters around 4:30am and then the neighbours, who decide to put on some gentle but loud music about an hour later. The first cup of coffee around 7am is very welcome.

The early mist burns off and after a trip round the market to pick up pastries and fruit for breakfast we’re off on the trek. It’s a vigorous walk, up and down hills, some of them slippery and muddy, and over a few rivers and it isn’t long before Andrew’s leg is protesting. Too late now. He has to grit his teeth and see it through. Our chipper guide, Tao, distracts us and we enjoy seeing the beans growing on the bushes but then our mood deteriorates considerably when we discover that while we’ve been having fun in the jungle, the jungle has been having fun with us. Leeches have found their way into our rubber boots and onto our skin and all of us are disgusted to discover that we’ve made a nice meal for the bloodsuckers, not only on our legs and feet but also on our bellies. How did they get up there?! Only Tao escapes unscathed. Those are the risks of trekking in the rainy season.

Soon it’s back to the coffee shop where we spend a few hours learning how to turn green beans into dark nuggets, ready to make the perfect cup. We roast over gas, then on a wood fire when the gas runs out and by the evening we’re feeling very pleased with ourselves. Andrew’s leg is still not quite right though so he takes care to go easy and the next morning we are confident enough to set off for the next part of our journey. It’s an easy run, all downhill to a popular resort called Tadlo, set around several waterfalls.

Even though we barely have to pedal between Paksong and Tadlo, by the time we get there Andrew’s leg is swollen again so as soon as we find a cheap bungalow he spends the rest of the afternoon with it propped up on pillows. We’ve never known a bee sting to still be causing problems two days later so we decide to sit tight for at least a couple nights and hope things improve. Accommodation is cheap here and food isn’t too bad either so the only thing on our mind is our visa. At just one month, it seems like it will run out long before we see everything we want to in Lao and we may well have to extend it in Vientiane. Even on such a long trip, we always seem to find ourselves short of time to do the amount of exploring we’d like to.