After our trip in North Laos between wonders and disappointment, we travelled down South to Pakse, the second largest city of Laos, sitting by the Mekong river. East of Pakse, a large high plateau is attracting us like a magnet : this is the Bolaven plateau!
Discovering the Bolaven plateau
Around 8:30, our little yellow scooter buzzes its way up on the dark bitumen of the old road going east. We are with a couple of friends, Marie and Bren. As we gain altitude the atmosphere becomes fresher, a nice change from the warm tropical air of Pakse. With a scooter, you can choose to travel the Bolaven plateau in two different ways, either picking the « small loop » which takes two days or choosing to see more by traveling the « big loop » in three days.
We are not in a hurry so of course we choose to go on with the « big loop ». But contrary to what’s usually recommended we decide to travel counterclockwise, feeling that we would probably encounter less people in the tourist spots we planned to visit. The Bolaven plateau is renowned for its « authentic » villages, its coffee plantations and its numerous waterfalls. Talking about that, here is our first stop : at kilometer 38 two giant waterfalls called Tad Fane jump from a 120m high cliff. Fairly impressive, but it’s a shame we can only watch it from a distance, from the platform of a quite ugly resort. To be honest, we are a little bit disappointed.
At kilometer 45, just before Paksong, rain starts pouring heavily on our head, and thunderstorms are cracking huge lightnings above us. We get undercover in a small restaurant just before god’s bathtub starts emptying on earth. A wall of water is falling from the sky! Using the restaurant’s wifi, we manage to check the forecast: it announces continuous rain and thunderstorms for the following days. We seriously ponder on going back to Pakse. It doesn’t look like a bad idea since we stupidly let all our jackets, jumpers and rain covers at the scooter rental place. Finally, nobody wants to give up and go back. So we just buy ugly cheap rain ponchos for the four of us and keep on driving east, drifting on a muddy dirt road.
20 minutes later, the sky is bright blue and we feel like lobsters slowly roasting in our funny ponchos. The forecast is a mean liar! We will enjoy a perfect clear weather for the rest of our trip! We stop near a small village to get rid of our ridiculous outfits and decide to visit the place while we are here. The village is very tiny and quite beautiful, with traditional stilt houses. Quentin asks a family sitting under their house if we are allowed to walk around and take a few pictures. They are okay with this it but they all look quite shy. Except a crazy?/high?/drunk? lady who is laughing compulsively as we get closer. She laughs even louder when she notices Quentin’s long hair. The whole scene is very funny. Then she gets around Quentin’s back when he is not watching and… Jabs her finger straight into his ass!! Yes you’ve read well!
– Heeyyy! Yapped Quentin.
A little bit nervous that the same thing should happen to us, but still crazily laughing from it, we wisely and quickly back away from that strange woman. Time to go everybody!
Now, we are facing an other problem: the rocky and bumpy dirt road we are following is getting rougher by the minute, and apparently not going anywhere. We have to get to the conclusion that we are probably not at all on the good way. Ok, no panic. We turn back and an hour later we are back on the road, zooming to catch up with the time we lost while the late afternoon light fades quickly, painting the hills and the jungle around in beautiful shades of light purple. We will finally set down for the night in a lonely, quiet, and cheap guesthouse, facing the beautiful waterfall Tad Faek. Perfect! Nice ending for a crazy day…
The Bolaven plateau: a rural life far from tourism
On this beautiful Sunday morning, we decide it should be nice to spend less time getting lost, if possible, and more time exploring the beautiful small villages of the area, hoping not to stumble onto a girl as crazy as the one from yesterday…
The first village we visit is very close from our guesthouse. No tourist seems to ever stop there, yet the place is utterly charming. Beautiful wooden stilt houses, dusty alleyways, children shooting marbles at every corners. The locals seem at bit taken aback to see us there. They greet us when we pass by but generally keep their distances. There is no hostility there, though, only a kind of quiet sweet shyness, that we will encounter in every rural villages in Laos.
An old woman is sitting under her house. As we get closer, we realize she is weaving a sinh, the traditional lao skirt, on a home made loom stretched tightly between her chest and feet. She welcomes us and lets us admire her beautiful work as much as we want. It’s fascinating! Her daughter shows us all her different creations. Mariette and Marie fall for two beautiful sinh. The old woman proposes to sell them for 50,000 kip (6$). It’s nothing for such a hand-made work! Yet we know that, as we are « falangs » (strangers), she probably sells them for three times the usual price. But later in the day, in a tourist shop, we will see some little scarves sold at 150,000kip! Hum… It looks like the « fair trade » sellers owning this shop (and others) are not so fair after all…
Further up the road, we make a little detour on a narrow dirt road we underlined on the map, hoping it will lead us to other places « off the beaten track ». Bingo! We find to beautiful villages and fall instantly in love as soon as we set eyes on them. Like this morning, people are quite shy but soon all the children, overcome by curiosity, start to follow us. At first, they hide in bushes or behind houses. We see intrigued pair of eyes shining through half closed doors. But as soon as we wave to them and say « sabaideee » they run away laughing. They are very cute! The more we stay in the village, though, the closer they get. They finally adopt us and start playing around, not afraid anymore, but still deeply staring and smiling at us. They are so many! It seems half the population of Laos are children! As soon as the kids start feeling comfortable with us, the adults relax and come more easily to talk with us. Wonderful time and shared smiles!
Moreover, they are now happy to pose in front of the camera, and overjoyed when we show them the pictures! It’s a shame we don’t have a little printer to offer them a photo. We spend nearly all day in this beautiful villages. Those people look like they are enjoying a perfect peaceful and beautiful life. Of course they don’t have as much money as we do, but we can read on their faces a deep serenity that we never encountered anywhere else.
In addition to that amazing people, the streets are full of all kind of animals (dogs, cats, chicken, ducks, goats, pigs…) living free, happy and well-fed, followed by their numerous offsprings. Adorable puppies and ducklings are running everywhere, playing and messing around. This place looks like a little paradise!
In the evening, we settle down at Tad Lo (an other waterfall, you probably guessed it) where a lot of guesthouses, shops and restaurants were set up for tourists. The waterfall is quite nice, but the surroundings are full of buildings, so it’s not so pretty. But, as tourism is quite recent in the Bolaven plateau, prices for accommodation are still quite cheap. The atmosphere is very different from what we saw this afternoon in the tiny villages, though! They are only a few kilometers away, but what a contrast! As always, you don’t have to travel far to go off the beaten tracks.
Coffee and waterfalls on the Bolaven plateau
In the morning, we head to Tad Suong, an other waterfall a bit off the main road where we hope the nature will be more « wild » than in Tad Lo. Well, we won’t be disappointed! From the lookout -which isn’t actually a lookout since we hardly see anything of the waterfall- we take a path going down presumably to the foot of the falls. Lost in the jungle, the narrow path becomes steeper and steeper, until it is replaced by… Home made ladders in thin wood branches!! Descending carefully along the cliff, holding firmly on the worm-eaten, slippery bars, bitten by voracious mosquitoes and sweating heavily in the thick tropical air, we feel like we could be in manVSwild or something. Then the track suddenly stops mid-cliff and we have to climb down the rest, them make our way carefully over steep enormous boulders before we reach the waterfall. Jeez that wasn’t an easy one! But well worth it: the waterfall is stupendous!
Back to the lookout, we take an other track (easier this time) leading to the top of the falls. The view is vertiginous… We are overlooking the whole Bolaven plateau, going as far as the horizon. And there is no fence or anything between us and the emptiness. Amazing!
Definitely our favorite waterfall on the plateau yet!
We planned on visiting another one, but not before stopping at Mr Vieng’s! This nice gentleman is owning the well known Katu Homestay and a small coffee plantation. His coffee is noted to be the best of the Bolaven plateau! Sitting comfortably under the shade of his stilt house, with a free plate of organic peanuts and bananas coming directly from his garden, we enjoy a delicious arabica, robusta and liberica (yes we tried them all!). The liberica we didn’t know, and it is actually a very interesting coffee, full of subtle flavors. Yum!
Last stop before going back to Pakse : Tad Pasuam. Well, to be honest, it would have been better not to stop there at all. This waterfall is sitting in the middle of a big tourist park, quite expensive too, where you can find an « ethnic » village. Okay, the waterfall might be kind of pretty, looking somewhat like a small (very small) version of Niagara, but the « ethnic » village is truly a shame! Built entirely for tourist purpose, under a false excuse of cultural conservation (dixit « to save that poor ethnic group from disappearing »), it’s « inhabited » (they are employees, they don’t really live their) by people wearing traditional costumes and selling pieces of very expensive handcrafted stuff (of course you don’t know what percentage of that prices will be paid to the craftsmen). Old women and young children, bored to death, wait motionlessly in front of their « houses » while fat tourists wearing socks in their sandals circle around them to take pictures, as if they were merely animals in a zoo. It just makes us sick! It’s light years away from what we witnessed in the beautiful country villages yesterday!
As a conclusion, it seems that we won’t forget about the Bolaven plateau anytime soon. Provided that you really choose what you want to see, the plateau is really worth the trip. We weren’t very prepared, so some of the things we visited we didn’t really enjoy, but we definitely got a whiff of adventure and adored most of the scenery and the amazing rural life and people living there!
M. & Mme Shoes
Faces of Asia
Another huge portrait gallery… Sorry about that, but we shoot so many nice people that it has been hard to choose 😉
Sleep / eat in Pakse :
- Sabaidy Guesthouse 2 propose a few rooms and dorms in a charming environment.
70 000kip for a twin/double whitout A/C, shared bathroom and free wifi.
No.24 Rd, Pakse, Laos
- At the crossroad of Th.24 Rd and Th.5 Rd, a little stand propose every evening some really good rotee with sweet condensed milk for 2000Kip, some bigger ones with an egg for 8000Kip and some mushrooms or coconut samosas for 1000Kip
- At Th.5 Rd and Th.10 Rd crossroad, you’ll find the Xuang Mai restaurant which propose a nice cuisine with correct prices. You can also do a cooking course here (but we haven’t tried it).
- Further on Th.10 you’ll find a little market where you can buy kebabs, fruits, noodles, shakes, … at local price.
- For a good restaurant, take the lift up to the roof top of Pakse Hotel. Up there is Le Panorama restaurant. The chef is french, and propose a delicious cuisine at a totally decent price, and with a view all over the city !
Around 40 000 and 50 000kip for a basic meal.
Sleep / eat on the Bolaven plateau :
- Tad Faek Guesthouse, doubles rooms in a old traditional wooden house, only 50m away from the waterfall !
50 000kip for a double with fan, mosquito net, private bathroom with hot shower.
They also have a terrace restaurant with a view on the river and the waterfall.
- In Tad Lo, you’ll find a lot of bungallows and guesthouses at very low price. It goes from 30 000kip to… Well in fact it can be quite high if you stay in the fancy hotels like the resort 🙂
- Just before Tad Lo, at the northern crossroad with the main north you’ll find a market with a lot of local food.
Louer un scooter à Pakse
- There is a lot of scooter location companies in Pakse. We recommand you to hire one at Wang Wang in Th.24. He’s a very nice guy, and he’s the cheapest ! He can also keep your stuff safe while you’re on your trip on the Bolaven plateau. And last, he can also to your laundry cheaper than most of the guys around…
40 000kip for a semi-automatic and 80 000 à 90 000kip for an automatic one.
- Do not hesitate to place a reservation on your scooter the day before ! Most of the time all the scooters of Pakse are hired everyday ! We’ve seen it at 8:30 AM all were booked for the day!
- We didn’t found any dirt bikes or 250…