So, the overnight VIP sleeper bus was not too bad! Essentially bunk beds, instead of seats, set-up on a large bus. We were relieved to find that loud Karaoke was not a feature on this trip (although we were prepared with our earplugs) so we were actually able to get some sleep on the 10+ hour trip from Vientiane before arriving ~6am in Pakse.
Found a new hotel in town for the bargain rate of $17 and enjoyed our three day stay. The town is set on the Mekong river and serves as a hub for travelers between Thailand and Vietnam, but most people don't seem to stay very long.
We spent three days here exploring the town, getting massages (best spa yet - still $5!), and relaxing. One of the days we rented a motorbike and headed out to the Bolaven plateau which is the premier coffee growing region in Laos and also known for waterfalls. Again, John did the driving and perfected a couple of scooter tricks involving changing into the wrong gear while trying to avoid animal traffic. It was a beautiful trip through scenic villages and coffee and tea plantations on a good road. We took a detour to the government-sponsored "coffee research station", where we expected to learn more about coffee-growing methods and industry. We did find the station, but all we saw were a handful of "workers" too busy playing petanque (French bowling - called Bocce in Italy) and drinking beer Lao to trouble with us - it was 10am and the new year after all! They indicated that we should walk around the coffee plantation if we wanted to have a look. Beautiful setting anyway, though we're none the wiser on coffee agriculture.
Spent New Year's eve in Pakse and witnessed some very robust partying by the many Thai tourists who seemed to suddenly flood the place.