We arrived with empty stomachs in Thakhek and stopped for Laos BBQ, one of the best traditional dishes of Laos and a slight variation on the Vietnamese hot pots we had become accustomed to.
In Laos – instead of a full pot of boiling water as in the Vietnamese hot pot above – a small, circular grill (resembling a bunt pan) is brought to the table and placed on top of an open coal clay pot. Boiling water is poured into the base of the grill, which is used to cook the wide variety of raw greens that come with the dish, including cabbage, lettuce, basil, Lao mints, and enochi mushrooms. Many restaurants also provide glass noodles and an egg for cooking. The menu had a variety of meats to choose from, including our beloved chicken hearts. Since we just had our fill, we chose beef instead, a safe choice when we were spending the next few days living out of our car. The meat is brought to the table raw, and the conical, “bunt” part of the grill is used for cooking it. After basting with the cubes of fat provided, you stick the thinly sliced meat on the grill. Both the greens and the meat cook quickly, and a good variety goes in your bowl. Each Lao BBQ restaurant makes their own special sauce to top the dish off, which can be doctored with extra chillies, lime, and garlic. Of course, a few Beer Laos were also necessary after a long day on the road.
We slept in our car that night, as finding a decently clean place to stay came at too much of a price. The rising sun woke me from my surprisingly good sleep, and we continued our journey south in the early morning. I drove for many hours through mountainous terrain, open rice fields, and tiny, one road villages. Following our not so trusty map, we took a route of dirt, muddy roads that even Ginger had trouble getting down. It would have been hard to navigate regardless of the map, since there were no road signs or highway markers.
Searching for the Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo), we hit a road made exclusively of rocks and realized, an hour later, that it had not yet been completed. We stared at the broken bridge, while a group of locals stared after us, amused. Further down the river, there was a running ferry for motorbikes, supported merely by three canoes. Pointing to our car, we asked if there was any way to get it across. The ferry operators laughed, pointing across the river to a car dock that was still being built. Turning around became the only option, but it meant we would not get to Tad Lor before sundown. Instead, we drove straight on to Paksong, a town a bit south of the waterfalls and high in the mountains. With the altitude change, I had my first taste of cold weather in nearly five months, such a shock to my system that I wore a sweatshirt and pants at the open air restaurant of our guesthouse. We stayed at a haunted house on a hill with a steep winding driveway, which turned out to actually be a nice hotel called Phuthaveda. Though we did not plan any accommodation ahead of time, the entire south was so empty that this was never a problem. Paksong was a charming mountain town compared to the filth of Thakhek, and having a taste of fall was a pleasant surprise.
Before bed, I went to ask the owner about the roads on our map to ensure we would not get stuck again the following day. He could not speak English, but called to a man staying there who, I found out, was to become a monk in the morning. He was born and raised in Laos, but had spent many years studying in Chicago. From him, I heard of the terrible Pakse plane crash that had flown right over our heads without us realizing – we had been out of wifi for many days and so were completely disconnected from the world outside of our car. The monk also helped me understand our map, pointing out which roads we could actually drive down, and I felt confident in reaching the waterfalls in the morning. We went to bed in sweatshirts and socks, ready for another early morning drive.