Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau

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First published 14th January, 2007

One of the most rewarding experiences on offer in Southern Laos is a motorcycle trip through the Bolaven Plateau. It's home to numerous waterfalls, great scenery, tribal villages, and unexplored corners galore. So while everyone else is blasting straight down to Si Phan Don, swerve off the beaten tourist trail, get yourself a motorbike, a map and do some travelling!


Pakse in Champasak province makes a great base of operations for a Plateau excursion. Street bikes can handle all the roads you'll need to tackle and can be rented throughout Pakse for US$7 or 8 per day. Dirt bikes costs US$20 a day -- bigger, heavier and much more powerful, but are only recommended if you know what you're doing.

When you get your bike, don't be afraid to give it the once over and make sure everything works. If you want to be particularly cautious, after you've settled on a bike, take it to a mechanic for a check-up and oil-change before you set out. Most basic problems can be fixed quite cheaply. Lastly, just because you're in Laos doesn't mean you're out of "Mum range" -- be sure to get a good helmet with the bike.

Accurate, useful maps of the Plateau are widely available in Pakse: the best ones are at the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse. You'll probably want to leave most of your stuff in Pakse -- the Lan Kham Hotel currently accepts left baggage free of charge, though other guesthouses and hotels may charge a small fee. Be sure to pack some warm clothes even if Pakse if boiling -- the Plateau is high up and can get chilly -- especially at night.

All the following trip-lengths assume you'll be riding every day, but if time allows use these outlines as a base and stick in extra days as you see fit -- Tad Lo in particular deserves an extra day or so of chill out time, while Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu offer trekking and day-trip opportunities, so the more time you can scratch together, the better.



Exploring the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos

Day Trip

Tad Fan, Tad Nguing (Yuang), Tad Pasuam: 106 to 128 km
Map of the Bolaven Plateau These places are 38 and 40 km from Pakse respectively and make for a great day trip. Head out of Pakse east on Road 13 towards Pak Song. There isn't much to do at Tad Fane but take a peak at the falls and if you're suitably enchanted, there's a nice resort where you can stay the night. Tad Nguing 2km further on is a better day-trip destination: the waterfalls are absolutely gorgeous, and you can swim at the base of the falls. Definitely pack a nice chardonnay, a slab of brie and a baguette or three.

If you have time, you can also swing by Tad Pasuam on the way up or the way back, which has another very pretty set of falls. Just take the turning at the 21km marker on the Pak Song road heading north towards Salavan and it's an additional 11km up on the left. You can swim in the water and there are some places to jump in from the rocks. There's also a rather unusual resort and restaurant here if you'd like to spend the night.



Exploring the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos

Two-day trip

Tad Pasuam, Tad Lo (170 km) plus Tha Teng and Pak Song (174 km)
Tad Lo is a perfect destination for an overnight from Pakse, though you may find yourself lazing away here for longer than a night. The easiest route from Pakse is to take the road to Pak Song to kilometre 21, where there's a left-hand turn. You'll pass by Tad Pasuam on the way (well worth a visit) and then, 64km further on, you'll find the turn-off to Tad Lo on the right.

Having a motorbike while you're in Tad Lo makes it much easier to visit Tad Suong, which is the most striking of the three Tad Lo waterfalls. Then laze away the evening at one of the guesthouses along the river near Tad Hang.

For the return trip, the easy option is to retrace your route back to Pakse, but for a bit more fun and adventure, head a few kilometres north of Tad Lo to the town of Ban Beng -- there's a turn off that leads to a 30km dirt road -- a little tricky, but navigable -- that passes through small, rural villages on the way to Tha Teng, where the road is sealed again. You can stop in Tha Teng to get some great local food and coffee at the central market -- there's also a few places to stay if need be. Then proceed down to Pak Song.

At Pak Song, stop again and you'll notice the sun-dried coffee along the road side, and on the far side of the football field on your right, there are food stalls selling some interesting local food -- mmm, pigs ears! There's also a beautiful little creek you can swim in. Make sure you leave yourself at least an hour of sunlight before you head back to Pakse -- the road is not well-lit and it's hard to navigate at night. There are also two guesthouses in Pak Song if you want to spend the night.



Exploring the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos

Three-Day Trip

Pak Song, Tha Teng, Sekong, Attapeu (395 km)
There are sealed roads all the way from Pakse to Sekong -- 140 km away. From Pakse, head out of town east on Road 13, and take a left at Pak Song where the road forks heading to Tha Teng. Check out Pak Song and Tha Teng along the way.

At Tha Teng there's a roundabout where you'll bear right. Sekong is hardly the tourist centre that Tad Lo is becoming, but there are treks available, and you can't beat that frontier-town feeling.

Second day, head south, and along the way visit the waterfalls Tad Faek (25km, Tad Hua Khon (28km) and, for the more adventurous, Tad Katamtok -- some 17km up the dirt road leading to Pak Song.

After all those waterfalls, continue on south to Attapeu. There's a bit more going on there than Sekong, and a growing variety of day trips and overnights out of Attapeu that are well-worth exploring. There's a road on the map that links Attapeu to Ban Kiet Ngong, but it's not easily navigable due to the lack of bridges over the rivers it crosses -- we've done it, but the trip took 11 hours and involved reassembling the motorbike twice -- this is not a trip for motorcycle novices.



Exploring the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos

So on day three, wake up early and back-track north 48km to the village of Ban Beng (it has the same name as the town outside Tad Lo, but it's a different town) and take a left. It's 90km of rough road from here to Pak Song, so budget as much time as you can. The dirt road here is rough and a bit tricky, but it can be managed on a street bike. It winds up the rim of the Bolaven Plateau 1,000 metres higher up, which amounts to an interesting geography lesson combined with absolutely fantastic scenery -- it'll be the highlight of your trip. You can stop off at the breathtaking Katamtok waterfall along the way, and if you find the turnoff a kilometre south of it, you can go swimming at a smaller set of falls there.

Once on top of the Bolaven Plateau, the road is dirt but well-packed. You'll eventually hit a patch of sealed road which is, ironically, much rougher, featuring some major potholes. All that clears up when you get to Pak Song and from there it's an easy ride into Pakse. If night is falling, you might want to stay overnight in Pak Song at one of the two guesthouses there.

Longer Excursions

(473 km plus!)
If you have more 4 days or more on your hands, everything on the Bolaven Plateau can be visited in one big loop. Pakse to Tad Pasuam, from there to Tad Lo, Tad Lo to Salavan with an optional stay there, or backtrack the same day to Tha Teng, (where there are some sleepy guesthouses) or even Sekong, time-permitting. Sekong to Attapeu can easily be done in a day, and then the last day, return to Pakse via the Ban Beng - Pak Song road, with an optional overnight in Pak Song before returning to Pakse the next day.



Exploring the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos

But if you've got the time, the money, and the inclination, we'd recommend allowing from 10 days to two weeks to properly explore the entire region. Salavan and Sekong each offer about two-days worth of excursions, and properly exploring the region around Attapeu could easily take a week. You'll come back with dirt in your hair and bugs in your teeth and -- we guarantee you -- some of your best, most lasting memories of your trip to Southern Laos.



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Read 18 comment(s)

  • The right spelled name from Pak Song is: Paksong

    ( Pak song means 2 vegetables )


    http://www.travelfish.org/feature/83

    Day Trip

    Tad Fan, Tad Nguing (Yuang), Tad Pasuam: 106 to 128 km
    Map of the Bolaven Plateau These places are 48 and 50 km from Pakse respectively and make for a great day trip. Head out of Pakse east on Road 13 towards Pak Song.

    ...These places are 38 and 40 km from Pakse....

    ...east on Road 13 / 16 towards Paksong...
    (road #13 heads south after 8 km, the name from the road to the Bolaven Plateau is road 16



    Two-day trip

    Tad Pasuam, Tad Lo (170 km) plus Tha Teng and Pak Song (174 km)
    ...Paksong (174 km...


    At Pak Song, stop again

    NEW TEXT: Since 2008 there is a hands-on coffee workshop in Paksong organized by a Dutch guy, it brings you to organic coffee farms and in the afternoon there is a wok roasting tutorial.

    There are also two guesthouses in Pak Song if you want to spend the night.
    ...4 guesthouses and a hotel...

    Posted by Dick Obee on 7th November, 2008

  • I'd love to visit this area but am traveling on my own and dont like the idea of venturing out on a motorbike, having never driven one. Are there any tour groups that organize treks here?

    Posted by Intrepid82 on 28th July, 2009

  • Perfect! You have just laid down the groundwork for a trip that has been jinging in my brain. Do they mind if you dont have a full lisence?? I have a proisional, would that suffice? Obviously I don't want to take the mick. Thankyou. GREAT info, by the way mate. Keep up th good work.

    Posted by Richard on 6th August, 2009

  • Thanks for the great info. The dilema now is 'which bicycle of mine to use/ride' on the Bolaven.

    Posted by Chris on 23rd January, 2010

  • Thank you for your wonderful knowledge and sharing of same.
    Is it possible to hire a car to do the entire journey and if so, where would I enquire. Are there any specific guest houses you would highly recommend? I have read some very poor ratings for some in this area on Trip advisor.
    Also, I am interested in meeting local coffee growers to see how feasible it would be to export their coffee. Can you give me any guidance as to how I would do this.
    I have been to different parts of Laos and so love the amazing people and their attitude to life.
    Thank you

    Posted by Emilie on 15th February, 2010

  • following youre advise, I went with a scooter from tad lo to attapeu (pronounce attape), I must recommend a day trip on scooter. take the bridge over the sexong river east and drive long way through the vast plain with the rice fields stretching to infinity...after 1.5 hours you'll reach a village. carry on on the same road until the road going up to the forest covered hills. I was there in august 2009 and the paved road stopped after a while and the B grade ubpaved road took me for a while with moderate steepness up and down the beautifull scenery, going toward a minority village. I was alone so eventually I came back after an hour but if you well equipped for an overnight, its should be amazing.

    Posted by oded on 19th May, 2010

  • That is a very good idea. Only I've driven a scooter once (actually, that was in northern Laos) and would therefore better join a tour.

    Anyone know where to book this? (Preferably in advance, I wouldn't want to risk turning up unanounced and there not be an insufficient number of participants.)

    Posted by Chocgirl on 13th July, 2010

  • its a good idea, chocgirl, to ask around in Vientiane or Pakse. it is also possible to take the buses there.
    about scooters, In Pakse there are many tourists who organize on there own to do the roundtrip, and you can squeeze in with some other people.
    another option is to hire Bicycles. its slower...but could be very exiting. try to find more people who up to it in Pakse.
    (to tad lo it will be hard work cycling, cause there are some steep ascends...

    Posted by oded on 13th July, 2010

  • Its possible to do this loop with public transportation.

    Go with a regular bus or song-tow from Pakse to Paksong. Check in in 1 of the 5 guesthouses or the hotel (they have special rooms for travelers)

    Find some good coffee in the morning and do the coffee tour (there is only 1 coffee place in Paksong AND they have free WiFi)

    Take a Song Tow or bus around 12 am, go to the waterfalls, they are only 10 minutes away from Paksong. Tat Champee is what I can recommend, its on the same junction as Tat Fane but then on the opposite side from the road.
    It takes only 30 mins. to walk to Tat Fane or Tat Champee.

    Last bus back to Paksong is between 5 and 6 pm.
    The other day you can start very early with a song-tow or bus to Tatheng, take the song-tow to Ban Beng and you are almost in Tat Lo. Backtracking is also possible (and faster/more flexible), take a bus from Paksong back to Pakse, but drive only to 'km21' from there you can take the bus to Tat Lo/Saravan.

    You can find Maps from the Bolaven Plateau at www.bolaven.com

    Posted by Dick Obee on 6th September, 2010

  • The 8 days (Sept 8-15, 2010) I spent touring the Bolaven was not nearly enough. The trip was unquestionably the highlight of my 7 weeks in Laos. Here's a brief trip report.

    If you're an inexperienced biker traveling alone, I'd bet you could find fellow travelers if you hang around/leave word at Sabaydee 2 guest house in Pakse. Also try leaving word at a few of the places in town (there aren't many) that rent motorbikes.

    I stayed at the Sabaydee. The vibe from other travelers is great and you can't beat the 25,000-kip dorm bed price, but the staff was the worst that I experienced in Laos. If you did manage to drag them away from the TV to ask them for something, they were invariably rude and exceedingly lazy.

    My two travel mates and I rented 100cc street motorbikes for 50,000 kip/day - the normal price is around 100,000 kip/day, but if you rent for longer you can negotiate down.

    First leg: Pakse/Tadlo. Easy riding on paved roads. To get to Tadlo from the main road, follow the signs to Tadlo Lodge. We stayed at the Siphaseth guest house for 60,000 kip/night. There are cheaper options (25,000) in town, but the Siphaseth has bamboo bungalows with balconies overlooking the river, bridge and waterfalls.

    Second leg: Tadlo/Paksong. We meant to go to Sekong, but neglected to take a right in Thateng. Oops. Still, easy ride and interesting to observe the changing flora as you ascend the plateau. Stayed at the Green View guest house for 60,000 kip/night. Decent ensuite fan rooms, disinterested staff. Also, there's a very loud karaoke bar next door (though they shut down at the 11:30 pm curfew time). Better to stay at the friendly Paksong Guest House (50,000 kip).

    A 2-minute walk across the bridge from the Paksong guest house is a lovely restaurant with great views, right on the small lake. It's perfect for a cold Beerlao and spicy tom yam after a hard day's riding. To get there take a left out of the guest house, pass the (overpriced!) Savannah guest house on your left. Take a left at the junction and cross the bridge. You'll see the restaurant on your left.

    Day trip from Paksong: On the main road through town you'll see a sign advertising a a few waterfalls and an "ancient rock." Heh heh. It's a tough ride, especially in rainy season, down a dirt track that gets steep at times, but it's worth it. The track passes through a few friendly villages. At the end of the road there's a Buddha under a rock overhang (the ancient rock), a few steep jungle trails to different waterfalls, and lovely views over the valley. In rainy season, expect to spend the day wet and/or covered in mud...which only adds to the fun.

    Third leg: Paksong/Attepeu. This stretch is the most challenging riding (unpaved), has the fewest (read: no) road signs, and features the most waterfalls, the most children gleefully shouting "sabaydee!" as you pass, and the most chickens, cows, water buffalo, ducks, goats, etc. crossing the road out of nowhere. In other words, it's the highlight of the highlight. We did it twice (out and back). Tip: coming from Paksong, when you come to a fork in the road take the *left* track.

    At what I think is the Katamtok waterfall, which is marked by a rough hand-painted sign for "Senajam Wather Fall," there is a homestay (50,000 kip/night - we didn't stay). The chatty owner, who when we visited had been drinking Laolao since 8 am, says there are 10 waterfalls in the area.

    Attepeu is definitely worth more than the two days we spent there. The road to see the Russian SAM in Pa-am is now sealed, and there's now a bridge over the river, so it's an easy half-day trip...though I'm not sure it's worth it. The SAM is...a rusting missile. The town itself is unremarkable. What's the point? Better to visit some of the minority villages in the area.

    Back in Attepeu, have a sundown dinner of terrific Korean-style BBQ in a restaurant overlooking Se Don: from Rte 13 find the sign to Attepeu Palace. Turn there. Follow that road until you hit the Sabaydee Restaurant. Bring a large appetite. We had the fish and prawns, but you can order meat if you want. The friendly, giggly staff will show you how to cook and eat it. For 50,000 kip total (plus beer), all three of us were *stuffed* with the one of the best meals I ate in SE Asia.

    When you're back from the plateau you'll need a few days of R&R (again, esp. if you've done it in rainy season). After returning your motorbikes, take the first saangtaw or tuk-tuk out of Pakse and check in to the Souchitra guest house in Champasak (50,000 kip). Other than one sweaty but lovely bike ride to Wat Phu (absolutely worth it), we lazed at the restaurant sipping Beerlao and watching the Mekong slide by. For six days. Perfect.

    Posted by ckoukkos on 22nd September, 2010

  • I recently did the trip, and used this page for some advice. But I would like to give advice to anybody planning on the trip. The road from Sekong to Paksong doesn't seem to exist in the rainy season. At least it didn't this year. It was a horrible struggle through mud, rocks and construction sites. I didn't see anybody else trying to use the road when I was there.

    But it is an awesome ride around South Laos, very much recommend doing it!

    I wrote about it on my blog at http://www.arcticnomad.com/2011/10/20/stupic-or-lucky-making-it-through-the-bolaven-plateau-on-a-motorbike/

    Posted by Jarmo on 4th November, 2011

  • Thanks very much, a great help! Time to get on the road...

    Posted by Sam Parker on 3rd May, 2012

  • hello,

    I'm looking into making this trip in October, either at the beginning or the end of the month. Do you know if the roads will be passable, as it will have been raining for a while by then. Thanks a lot.

    Alex

    Posted by Alex on 7th September, 2012

  • Hi Alex
    its is a big unknown in Laos... its changed every season and the least you can do is ask in Pakse or tad lo or even in paksong. when I took the peksong-sexong route, in august 2009. the road was unpaved but definably passable. it was beautiful! from sexong, the begining was not easy, with plenty of mud, but after 2-3 Km, it gor better. the last stretch was paved but with many many holes in the asfalt I needed to slalom my way around them.

    Posted by oded on 7th September, 2012

  • The small loop is completely paved, (Pakse-Paksong-Tatheng-Ban Beng-Tat Lo-KM 21-Pakse or v.v.)

    In the big loop is at the moment a very big obstacle and that is the shortcut from Paksong to Attapeu, they are making from this nice dirt road a 4 lane highway, now in the rainy season its muddy.
    Expect that they finish construction work somewhere in 2013/2014

    Posted by Dirk Obee on 7th September, 2012

  • As mentioned by Dirk, the 2-day small loop is completely paved.

    We traveled on a rented motorcycle (60000 kip for first day, and 50000 kip for the second day) from Pakse to Tad Lo. We visited the three waterfalls there, and stayed at Samly Guesthouse. It cost 25000 kip a night for a basic room on stilts, and shared bathroom outside. We found the place to be comfortable, and the owner friendly.

    There is no need for fan or any man-made air circulation devices, because it's so cold there during the night and morning!

    There is one restaurant that offers big bottle of Beer Lao for 8000 kip, and food at reasonable price too. However we found the portion to be a bit on the smaller side, though the taste is alright.

    The next day we traveled on to Ban Beng, and just turned right at the junction that leads to Saravan on the left, and Sekong on the right. Along the way you will see milestones marking the various destinations that road leads to, including Sekong, Tha Teng and Paksong. This road is now sealed and very easy to travel on.

    At Tha Teng, there will be a roundabout. After the roundabout, if the market is on your left, then you are on your way to Paksong. If the market is on your right, then the road will lead you to Sekong. The market sells some delicious food. We had rice and three dishes on the rice for just 10000 kip each.

    Also, there is a BCEL branch on the right hand side of the road leading to Paksong, where you can exchange money if you need to.

    Upon reaching Paksong, there will be another junction, where the left road leads to Attapeu and the right road leads to Pakse. There are signs available showing the way, so shouldn't be too much of a challenge to be on the right path.

    We had a very enjoyable trip, and wish you will try it too.

    Posted by Abel Lim on 13th January, 2013

  • We did the Big Loop in March 2013, including the shortcut from Attapeu to Paksong. The construction work was nowhere near being completed. Although it was the dry season, the construction work has torn the road up, meaning there is a lot of loose sand and rock - combined with steep hills it was not easy going.

    We still had a great time, but make sure you have a good bike and a bit of grit if you are attempting it now!

    Posted by Jennifer on 12th October, 2013

  • Just rode the loop (May 28-31, 2014). That "shortcut" between Paksong and Attapeu is mostly done now! I was expecting shitty, muddy roads with potholes, but there were none! The road was definitely steep, but it was mostly packed gravel and wasn't really a problem. There was just one small area (maybe 20 meters or so?) that was muddy, steep, and had a lot of loose dirt, but because it was so short, it was easily forgotten.

    Posted by Jean on 31st May, 2014

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