I was sitting in the Kinyei Café in Cambodia’s Battambang indulging on some peanut butter and banana toast, feeling the nostalgia of a seven-year-old girl, when I saw the notice ‘We Sell Feel Good Coffee’. The responsible traveller in me took an instant interest, along with my ability to recognise when a restaurant is serving anything fair trade, organic or socially responsible. I got talking to the waiter and he advised me that the coffee they sold comes from the hills of southern Laos, a place known for it’s rich soil and excellent coffee. Intrigued, I asked if it was possible for me to visit the farm and so he gave me the contacts of the farmer and off I continued on my journey.
Months later as I headed into Laos I contacted Mr Khamsone, the owner of ‘Feel Good Coffee’ or as the trade name reads, Mystic Mountain Coffee. I found out that he offers tours of his plantation and the surrounding areas, as well as a homestay in his traditional Laos home on hectares of coffee plantations somewhere in the middle of the Bolaven Plateau. Unfamiliar with any of the processes of coffee production, and eager to venture into a remote area of Laos, I took his offer of invitation and decided to spend three days on one of his tours of the Bolaven Plateau. It was a decision I would not regret, and I recommend to others who are interested in both coffee, and true culture, to take a visit to Mr Khamsone’s plantation and meet some of the people behind the famous Laos coffee.
The tour started after a one-hour local bus ride from Pakse to Paksong. I hopped in a Tuk-Tuk and was driven to a local bus station in Pakse, where I was rushed on to the bus to Paksong along with a bus full of locals, and goods that I assumed were for delivery at the arrival destination. I was the only foreigner on the bus but the local people only took a short look of curiosity at me and then continued on with their own thoughts and disinterest.
Paksong was a dusty town and when we arrived I already had a layer of dust forming over my skin. It gave me the sensation that I was no longer on the tourist route, no longer in a place where tarmac was an affordable necessity. I walked along the dusty highway to the meeting place I had arranged with Mr. Khamsone, the Jhai Coffee House. He arrived to greet me in the one of the most peculiar modes of transportation I had ever seen, and one that he prides himself and his tours by, a 1945 army patterned Jeep. The Jeep was rugged, dusty and ancient but seemingly the perfect transport for the cratered, uneven dirt road we were about to embark on. It was a two-hour drive to his homestay in the Plateau, prolonged by the state of the road and the changing of the gears at 10-15 kilometres per hour. It was surely an adventure, I felt as though I had stepped back in time. The houses that lined the streets were wooden, stilted houses, with many of those close to the road covered in a wall of dust. Children walked or rode along on bicycles undisturbed by the dusty atmosphere surrounding them. Many waved and started curiously at the foreigner in the jeep. I waved back, mask over my face hiding my smile and my curiosity, and protecting me from the cloud of dirt and dust.
Whilst bumping around on that two-hour journey it was the first time in the two weeks prior to that I felt like I was off the tourist path in Laos. I knew I was going to experience something that I couldn’t experience in Vang Vieng or in Luang Prabang. I was about to see what life is really like for the people of this province, share their daily routines, feel their hardships, and acknowledge their achievements.
We got to the homestay for my first night in the Bolaven Plateau. Mr. Khamsone lives with his wife and daughter in a beautifully erected, traditional bamboo home located in the middle of coffee plantation without a surrounding house to be seen, only serene views of mountains and endless coffee plantations. The walls are weaved to perfection; they have two bedrooms, one for guests and one for themselves. They have a kitchen, a large garden and a small enclosure with chickens and pigs. The family is almost completely self sustainable and after staying with them for one day and night I admired their ability to live that way. The bathroom is traditional, the shower is a large tub filled with water and a small bucket for washing, the toilet is a squatting one, but the fancy type, not just a hole in the ground. It didn’t bother me too much though, I was in Paksong now and I had left all my western comforts behind me long ago.
Mr. Khamsone’s wife cooked us a generous serving of Laos’ food that night, and a generous serving the next morning as well. This would be the trend for my stay here. We sat around talking about our lives, exchanging stories and planning the next few days. Mr. Khamsone told me about when he bought his first hectare of land many years ago and how he has worked so hard to build it into what it is today, 16 hectares of coffee plantations, two full time workers, twenty to one-hundred part time workers depending on the season, and customers from many different countries. I can tell from his stories that he is a hard working man and that he is proud of what he has achieved. For him the most important part of the coffee however is not the profits, it is the chance to share his coffee with the world and share the story of his people, the community of Paksong who have worked these lands for many years. Tomorrow I would get to meet some of those people, but for tonight I would sleep in my extremely comfortable mattress, on the floor of a traditional Laos’ home in the Bolaven Plateau.
I woke to the sounds of roosters and chicks in the garden. I would surely get a taste of farm life during my stay here. After breakfast we ventured out on a full day’s tour of the surrounding areas. Firstly Mr. Khamsone took me to the villages where he meets with his workers who sought the coffee, many of them women. I get invited into one of the homes to watch the woman sorting through the coffee and I learn about the relationship between perfect coffee beans and the outcome of the quality of coffee. The sorting seems like a tedious job, but one that also comes with advantages for the women including the ability to maintain work while also caring for their children and their homes.
Witnessing the lives of the village people was eye opening; although the people don’t live in poverty they live very basic lives with the bare minimal. Each home has two rooms, one for sleeping and one for cooking. Each compound shares a communal garden where they grow most of the vegetables they need, and many people own poultry, which they use for food. Rice is readily available and cheap so much of what they need is within a short radius. I watch as the women come out from their homes and speak with Mr. Khamsone. He hands them money for their work and arranges to collect the coffee from them tomorrow.
Many families are supported through the sale of coffee, not only the sorters but also the farmers. It’s hard to imagine that behind every cup of coffee are people that work in conditions like this. People plough the farms, pick the fruit, sort the beans, dry the fruit. Visiting this plantation gave me a better understanding of where coffee comes from, and reminded me of the importance of ethically sourced and fair trade coffee.
Mr. Khamsone prides himself in providing fair opportunities for his workers. He started the tours of the plantations and surrounding areas as a way to increase the volume of coffee he produces and, in turn, increase the opportunities for the people of his village. As with many other circumstances, tourism can be a great way to bring awareness and income to marginalised communities, which is why I found it important to share this story.
That afternoon we visit the other plantations of the Bolaven Plateau, a seemingly endless plain of coffee plantations. We visit two of the famous waterfalls and have lunch by one of them. We also visit an unused airstrip and Mr. Khamsone tells me about its history, and about how the Americans used this space during the Vietnam War. It’s a full day of bumpy roads, history lessons, and the chance to understand more about the livelihoods of the people here.
At night I was presented with another delicious meal cooked by Mr. Khamsone’s wife. We reflected on my time here and spoke a little more about Mr. Khamsone’s aspirations for the future, “In the future I want to share my high quality coffee with the world and share the story of my people,” he tells me.
So if you’re looking for something interesting, exciting, meaningful and really off the beaten path to do in Laos, I recommend a tour with Mystic Mountain Coffee. Mr. Khamsone runs a number of tours including a one-week workshop where you can actually learn to harvest, roast, dry and produce your own perfect cup of coffee. Ironically, I’m not the biggest coffee drinker, but for those who are I feel you would enjoy the tour even more. For the rest of the responsible travellers out there, this is a great way to support a small community and have a real authentic experience while you are here is Laos.