Coffee & Culture in Southern Laos

Coffee & Culture in Southern Laos

Bernie Rosenbloom

 

By Bianca Caruana

I was sitting in the Kinyei Café in Cambodia’s Battambang Town, 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, as did my ability to recognise when a restaurant is serving anything fair trade, organic, or socially responsible.

I started talking to the waiter, and he told me the coffee they sold comes from the hills of southern Laos, a place known for its rich volcanic soil and excellent coffee. Intrigued, I asked if it was possible for me to visit the farm, he gave me the contact of a farmer, and I continued my journey.

When I reached Laos, I contacted Mr Khamsone, the owner of Mystic Mountain Coffee, home of the “Feel Good Coffee”. I discovered he offers tours of his plantation and the surrounding area. He also provides a homestay in his traditional Lao home on hectares of coffee plantations somewhere in the middle of the Bolaven Plateau.

Unfamiliar with the coffee production process, and eager to venture into a remote area of Laos, I accepted his invitation and decided to spend three days on one of his Bolaven Plateau tours.

It was a decision I would not regret, and I recommend this adventure to those interested in both coffee and true culture…take a visit to Mr Khamsone’s plantation and meet some of the people behind famous Laos coffee.

I hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed to a local bus station in Pakse, where I was rushed on to the bus to for the hour-long ride to Paksong. The bus was full of locals and goods that I assumed were for delivery. I was the only foreigner on the bus, but the locals only took a short look of curiosity at me and then continued with their own thoughts.

Paksong in Champasak Province is 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 a necessity. I walked along the dusty highway for an arranged meeting with Mr. Khamsone at the popular Jhai Coffee House.

He arrived in the one of the most peculiar modes of transportation I had ever seen, a 1945 army Jeep, in which he takes pride and conducts his tours.

The Jeep was rugged, dusty, and vintage, but seemingly the perfect transport for the cratered, uneven dirt road we were about to embark on. It took a two-hour drive to his homestay in the plateau, prolonged by the state of the road and changing of gears at 10-15 kilometres per hour.

I felt as though I had stepped back in time. Stilted, wooden houses lined the streets, and a wall of dust covered those close to the road. Children walked or rode bicycles, undisturbed by the dusty atmosphere. Many waved and curiously stared at the foreigner in the jeep. I waved back, but the mask over my face hid my smile and curiosity, while protecting me from the cloud of dirt and dust.

Bumping around on that two-hour journey was the first time in two weeks that I felt like I was off the tourist path. I knew I would experience something that I could not in Vang Vieng or 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 his coffee plantation. No other homes could be seen, only serene views of mountains and endless coffee plants.

The rattan walls on Mr Khamsone’s house are weaved to perfection. His home has two bedrooms, one for guests and one for his family. They have a kitchen, a large garden, and a small enclosure with chickens and pigs.

The family is almost completely self-sustaining, and after staying a 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, and the squat toilet is the fancy type and not just a hole in the ground. This didn’t bother me too much, as I was now in Paksong and had left my Western comforts behind.

Mr Khamsone’s wife cooked us a generous serving of Lao food that night, and again the next morning. This would be the trend for my stay. We sat around talking about our lives, exchanging stories, and planning the next few days.

Mr. Khamsone told me about the day he bought his first hectare of land many years ago, and how he worked hard to build his plantation into what it is today: 16 hectares of coffee, two full-time workers, 20-100 part time workers - depending on the season - and customers from many different countries. I could tell from his stories that he is a hard-working man and proud of what he has achieved.

For him, the most important part of the coffee is not the profits; it is the chance to share his coffee with the world and share the story of the Paksong community who have worked these lands for many years. The next day, 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 Lao 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. After breakfast we ventured out on a full day’s tour of the surrounding area. Firstly, Mr Khamsone took me to the villages, where he met with his workers, many of them women, who are seeking coffee beans.

I was invited into one of the homes to watch the woman sorting through the beans, and I learned about the relationship between perfect coffee beans and the end result of the coffee’s quality. 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 essentials. 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 eat. Rice is readily available and cheap, so much of what they need is within a short radius.

I watched as the women came from their homes and spoke with Mr Khamsone. He handed them money for their work and arranged to collect coffee beans from them the next day.

The sale of coffee supports many families, from the farmers to the sorters. It’s hard to imagine that behind every cup of coffee are people that work in conditions like this. People plough the farms, and pick, sort, and dry the beans. 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 plantation tours as a way to increase the volume of coffee he produces, and thereby increase the opportunities for the people in his village. As in many other situations, tourism can be a great way to bring awareness and income to marginalized communities, which is why I found it important to share this story.

That afternoon we visited other plantations on the Bolaven Plateau, a seemingly endless plain of coffee. We stopped at two of the plateau’s waterfalls and had lunch by one. We also visited an unused airstrip, where Mr Khamsone told me its history, and how the Americans used it during the Indochina War. The journey was a full day of bumpy roads, history lessons, and the chance to understand more about the livelihoods of the people.

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. “In the future I want to share my high quality coffee with the world and share the story of my people.”

So, if you’re looking for something interesting, exciting and meaningful to do that is really off the beaten path 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 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 believe 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 Laos.

Click here to visit Mystic Mountain Coffee.

Contact Mr. Khamsone at mysticmountaincoffee@hotmail.com.

 

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