Southern Laos (The Bolaven Plateau)

Maps in Southeast Asia are only useful for travelers since the majority of locals cannot even read a map. Their sense of direction depends on memory and landmarks; the concept of cardinal points is nonexistent. Fortunately, motorbike rental companies provide hand-written maps for their customers. I grabbed an extra map for Eric, and we depended on this route and major attractions for the next few days ahead. IMG_4694


Day 1 (May 28): Pakse to Tad Lo

Eric and Dina had to renew their Lao visas for an expedited fee since their visas had expired, so we had a slightly late start to our ride ahead. After Eric struggled with the government workers and paid extra random fees without explanation, we were off at around 11am! IMG_4567

Our first stop was Tad Pasuam (Tad means waterfall), about 35 km northeast of Pakse. The greatest thing about off-the-beaten-path attractions is that they are not overrun with tourists, and sure enough, we had the entire waterfall to ourselves! We grabbed lunch and swam in the waterfall to escape the heat.DCIM104GOPRO

After that, we rode the next 45 km into Tad Lo. DCIM104GOPRO

Tad Lo has a quaint little village with a number of backpackers and super cheap bungalows. In Laos, the bungalow owners typically live in the same type of bungalow they offer as accommodation, so it’s more or less a home-stay. I call it “luxury camping.”

We arrived by late afternoon, just in time to catch the fleeting hours of sunlight. We decided to stay in the riverfront bungalows for 40,000 kip ($5 USD) per night , owned by a sweet woman we were told to call, “Mama.” IMG_4608

Mama’s bungalows were truly a great place to wind down after a day of riding in the heat. If we had stayed longer in Laos, I would have liked to stay here another day. IMG_4573 IMG_4575

Rooms offered basic amenities: bed, mosquito net, fan, and hammock. There was a shared toilet (only a non-flushing squat toilet!) and shower (that pumped water from the river!). I wasn’t surprised that it was river water. In the evening from our balcony I watched locals bathe and brush their teeth in the river. IMG_4609

Even the locks for our doors were simple padlocks. At least a cute, stuffed animal was attached to each key. IMG_4610

We went to Tad Lo for an evening soak: DCIM104GOPRO

Tad Heng (another waterfall right by Tad Lo): IMG_4612

That evening we had dinner at the home of a French mid-30s couple who loved Laos so much that they decided to move there. It was the Lao people and their way of life that lured them into this country. The French couple built a wooden house and several bungalows and created a business to feed and house travelers. Every night they charged each guest 30,000 kip ($3.75 USD) to eat at their large outdoor dining table. You were given a plate, and it was family-style dining with a surplus of sticky rice, chicken coconut curry, pumpkin curry, and pickled vegetables.  They fed several local children for free. The four of us spent the last several hours of our day hanging out on their porch, eating and hanging out with other travelers, and playing card games.
Day 2 (May 29): Tad Lo to Attapeau

From here, Eric and Dina spent their next few days at Sinouk Garden, a nearby garden resort and organic farm. Chris and I wanted to continue the Bolaven Plateau onwards to Attapeau, which meant a long day of riding ahead of us (150+ km).

We split up with Dina and Eric and rode to Attapeau, making several rest stops along the way.

Snack break along the road: WP_20140529_11_01_15_Pro

A small excursion to Tad Faek: IMG_4614

We arrived at Attapeau at the heat of day, exhausted and butt-sore. To my surprise, Attapeau felt more like Vietnam. Signs were in Vietnamese and most people spoke Vietnamese. It was nice to be able to communicate with locals again, but interacting with the Vietnamese requires a tolerance for discourtesy.

Apparently the Attapeau region was the most bombed region in Laos during the war. It truly was a shit-town (Attapeau literally means buffalo shit — no joke!), and all the cool excursions to villages and sites were hours beyond Attapeau. Along the highway were countless dirt paths criss-crossing into the jungles. I remembered that motorbikes were a luxury and most villagers continue to travel by foot through dusty dirt paths swarmed by mosquitos and scratchy shrubs to get from the market to their shanty homes. Had I known an extra day or two would be necessary to properly explore the area, I would have just skipped it.

The long stretch between Tad Lo and Attapeau was strewed with country life. Occasionally we would slow down for cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and dogs. Naked toddlers would run barefoot through muddy fields, and slightly older children would cycle by in their school uniforms, waving and shouting, “Sabaydee!” We would periodically pass up exhausted, weather-beaten locals gathered in wooden motorized carts, which we assumed were their version of local buses. Houses ranged from mostly 1.5 meter-high wooden shacks with thatched roofs to large, more Western-style concrete houses with glass windows and wooden doors. It wasn’t uncommon to see children and their mothers sitting at the edge of a dilapidated shack that leaned far to one side making its support questionable. Families swung lazily on their hammocks beneath their elevated homes, shielding themselves in the shade. To me, this was the true Laos, away from the big cities, with no hesitation or shame to hide the simplest yet poorest way of life.

Day 3 (May 30): Attapeau to Paksong

In preparation for the most gruesome day of riding, we got up early and set out for our ~120 km ride. Blogs prepared me for the worst – a mix of steep dirt trails with major potholes for 20 km. This road had been under construction for years and apparently continued to be undergoing construction for however long it takes for them to get their shit together.

But we were lucky! We readied ourselves for the treacherous road between Ban Beng and Paksong, but we were gratefully surprised to find a new, almost complete, perfectly rideable, gravel-packed road! It wasn’t gruesome after all. Yay!DCIM104GOPRO

The Bolaven Plateau is known for its refreshingly cool temperatures (~10ºc cooler than Pakse) since its roads take travelers up 1,000 meters, promising spectacular scenery and waterfalls!IMG_4631

We kept our eyes on the odometer as we knew Tad Katamtok, the highest waterfall, was about 18 km from Ban Beng. And sure enough, we found it! It involved a short but steep hike down a path through a jungle. We emerged out of the jungle to find ourselves right on top of the falls: DCIM104GOPRO

After Tad Katomtok, we continued to the town of Paksong, perhaps the biggest “town” in the Bolaven Plateau. We scarfed down lunch and continued our journey to Tad Yuang, where even locals go to hang out! IMG_4634

We even ran into Eric and Dina at this beautiful waterfall. IMG_4642 IMG_4640

Dina asked us to stay with them at their hotel in the Sinouk Gardens to celebrate Eric’s 31st birthday. We loved their company and decided to stay with them instead of Paksong. Chris and I were waterfall-ed out, decided to skip Tad Fan, and rode to Sinouk Gardens where we spent the remainder of the day.

Day 4 (May 31): Sinouk Garden (near Thateng) back to Pakse

On our final day in the Bolaven Plateau, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast, celebrating Eric’s birthday. For lunch, the owner even hooked it up with some cookies and free Beerlao as a birthday gift. IMG_4646

After breakfast we toured the organic farm and garden and got a close look at their coffee farm. Look at these adorable coffee bean sprouts!IMG_4647

These giant leaves are used for smoking: IMG_4649

And we played with a giant beetle that we found!IMG_4655 IMG_4662

Right before lunch, a storm rolled through, and we enjoyed listening to the downpour and thunder. When blue skies reappeared around 3pm, we knew it was our chance to head back to Pakse. We rode back to Paksong, west toward Pakse, and made it back just before 5pm after dodging all the farm animals again in the road.

After wearing the same sweaty clothes for the past 4 days, we were glad to be back at a guesthouse with air conditioning and wifi. We accumulated more bug bites on our feet and toes than we could ever imagine, and we had more sweat and dirt accumulated in our hair and clothes than we expected. The 4 day, 3 night motorbike adventure in the Bolaven Plateau was more than we had hoped for and was perhaps our biggest highlight in Laos.

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