Laos: the Bolaven Plateau
January 1, 1970
by Riley Grim
Anyone who has been to Laos can attest to its beauty and scenic wildlife. Its cities are minimalistic compared to some of the country’s neighbors like Siem Reapp and Ho Chi Minh. While this provides a nice change of pace from the rest of South East Asia, it also provides for some tough travel days on dirt roads. So why not take your mode of transportation into your own hands for a couple of days? Take a break from the bumpy bus rides and explore one of Laos’ most scenic areas by motorbike. The Bolaven Plateau is a 320 km loop departing and returning to Pakse. This 3-4 day adventure will give you the opportunity to explore beautiful waterfalls, charming towns, and some intriguing coffee plantations at your own pace.
Before you begin:
Get to Pakse the night before so that you can start your journey in the morning after a night of good sleep. Your hotel will most likely let you store your luggage there for the duration of your motor bike tour, so you can pack a smaller, bike-friendly bag. A motorbike in Pakse will generally run you $6-$10 a day depending on on the company and the style of bike you choose. Shop around a little and ask your hotel for recommendations on which company to rent from. Make sure you read through your contract with the bike company thoroughly and examine the bike for any pre-existing damage (you can even test drive the bike around the block to make sure everything feels alright) before taking off. Your bike company will give you a map that looks something like this: (except for the colored parts, which were added specifically for this article).
This map is not exactly to scale and has a few flaws, so I recommend following your google maps in addition to the paper map.
Day 1: Head to Tad Lo (underlined in red)
If you get a morning start you will have plenty of time to check out Tad Champee and Tad Pasuam along the way. When you arrive in Tad Lo there will be several bungalow-style guest houses to choose from for a reasonable price. If you are looking for something a little nicer then check out the Tad Lo Lodge. Even if you are not staying at the Lodge make sure you head up there in the evening to watch their resident elephants taking a bath below the waterfall (don’t worry, they are not one of the for-profit elephant parks you have read about and partaking in the elephant’s bath/dinner is completely free of cost). If you would like to make your time on the Bolaven Plateau a 4 day trip then Tad Lo is where you will want to spend 2 nights. There is no doubt that you will fall under the charming spell of this little community. Spend a day swimming with the local kids in the river and exploring near by hikes before hitting the road again.
Day 2 or 3: Head to Paksong (underlined in blue)
First you must decide whether you are doing the large loop or the small loop. The small loop is highlighted in yellow and the large loop is highlighted in pink, splitting off from the small loop soon after Tad Lo. The small loop is the most popular option and here is why: the large loop provides for an extremely long day on the bike without many stops. As it is a decently long stretch of road, you cannot afford to spend too much time at any one stop if you plan to get to Paksong before nightfall (you never know what time homestays will shut their doors in such remote areas). The smaller loop makes for a much more leisurely day, with more time to spare at stops along the way. If you do choose to take the long way, most locals will recommend you take the new road, which is highlighted in hot pink dots. Not only is it the quicker option thanks to the newly paved road, it also winds through a gorgeous valley. MAKE SURE YOU BEGIN THE NEW ROAD WITH A FULL TANK OF GAS. The valley’s hills will use a lot of fuel and it is a fairly long distance between gas stations. Paksong is definitely a different style of living than Tad Lo. You will find less options for restaurants and housing, but it is a great place to get a feel for the daily life of locals. If you are feeling uninspired to spend the night in Paksong you can push on to the collection of waterfall resorts around Tad Fan (underlined in Green). There are several charming resorts in the area where you can find rooms ranging from $30 USD and up.
Day 3 or 4: Coffee and Pakse
Besides a few more beautiful waterfalls, this section of the loop is most frequently visited by coffee lovers. Some of what is considered to be the world’s best coffee comes out of this area of Laos. In Paksong you can find many options to go on tours of coffee plantations. Even if you choose not to go on a tour, there are several great stops for cafe hopping and trying different types of local coffee. Before you leave Paksong make sure you stop by the Jhai coffee house. Not only do they have amazing local coffee, they have an amazing mission to provide clean water to rural communities in Laos.
Even though you may be sweating your booty off in Pakse, make sure you bring a jacket or jumper on your journey. The Plateau is a higher elevation than Pakse and can get a little chilly. Make sure to bring a bathing suit, a few of the waterfalls have great swimming holes. Finally, don’t forget your sunscreen and bug spray. Your arms and legs will get fried on the bike all day and the bug will eat you alive in the evenings!