Southern Laos by scooter
What we say:
During our recent trip through Southern Laos we hired one of those Chinese Honda Dream rip-offs from Mr Vong at Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse in Pakse and did a bit of a loop through what all the guidebooks seem to refer to as Laos' "Remote South" -- if you've got the time, some language skills (not essential but they do help!) and a bit of spare cash, this loop is a great diversion for those who want to see a bit of real southern Laos before they stray down to Si Phan Don.
Pakse to Tad Lo
This is the easiest part of the whole trip - the road is fine, sealed the entire way, lots of interesting crops in the ground -- the crop diversity in the south is pretty interesting -- sticky rice, coffee, corn, papaya and trees, all intermingled. Depending on what time you leave Pakse, you can easily reach Tad Lo in time for lunch, then spend the afternoon swimming (if you enjoy swimming in seemingly refrigerated waters) and doing some walks through the surroundings. Tim Guesthouse and restaurant has bucket-loads of info on the area and although his local info is great, some of his info on farther-away spots turned out to be a bit sketchy, nevertheless still well worth a stop.
Tad Lo to Salavan
Salavan has a great all-day market -- if you want to see unusual food eg red ant eggs, frogs,eels and other slimey stuff then this is a great one for a wander through. Aside from that, there is the nearby river where you can wander around aimlessly and that is about it! Welcome to remote Southern Laos! The area around Salavan though is well worth exploring - we biked out to Prince Souphanouvong Bridge (a large bridge bombed by the Americans during the war) which was worth it as much for the flat tire in the middle of nowhere experience as much as seeing the bridge. You can also head from Salavan north to Ta Oy, but we were advised we'd need a bigger bike, monumental patience or a 4WD to get there -- once there you need to arrange homestay accommodation (code for crashing on someone's floor). While in Salavan be sure to swing by Denuxa restaurant where the English and German speaking host Xayadeth is a great guy and good source of info on the area.
Salavan to Sekong
First a little bit of backtracking to Ban Beng where you take a left down a dirt road (reasonable, but in wet season parts would be a mess) to Tha Teng, from where it is sealed all the way to Sekong. From Sekong you can take a boat down to Attapeu, but with the rising costs of petrol, the asking price is now US$65 for the boat and you can't take a bike. The Sekong River is fast and at times dangerous -- two Malaysians drowned some time ago and are rumoured to haunt the Sekong Hotel. Another option from Sekong is heading to the Keng Luang rapids where you can charter a small boat upriver to Kalim. The trip takes about seven hours, but should not be attempted before December due to the danger of flash floods -- Kalim can also be reached by road (hint).
Sekong to Attapeu
Before you leave Sekong, pop over to the Prathip restaurant opposite the Sekong Hotel. It has information and maps on waterfalls in the area. The first three are pretty passable, but the last one (and of course the most difficult to reach), Tad Katamtok, is spectacular -- a 100m vertical fall in pristine jungle scenery -- awesome, but you will need your own transport to reach it.
Attapeu to Pathoumphon
Not so much a destination in its own right, but rather a handy point for exploring the region. There is a great little sunset spot on the river -- note the goats staked out the front are for eating, not petting -- pay too much attention to one and it will be slaughtered on the spot and bbq'd for you ($25 for a small goat or $2 for just a plate or a few chunks - you get to drink the blood for free if you order it...)
Your map may well mark a road through to Pathoumphon from Attapeu - it really isn't a road - at times no more than a goat-track and is impassable to anything bigger than a motorbike due to fallen trees. You will need to ford numerous rivers and in wet season we would guess it to be totally impassable. The trip took us 11 hours, including two incidents fording rivers, where the engine was flooded and we had to dismantle the motorbike -- this should not be undertaken by novice motorcyclists. We did it once, would not even consider doing it again -- ever. A motorcycle reconstruction should cost around $10 not including oil and petrol.
Pathoumphon to Pakse
Plain sailing, perfectly sealed road, though if you want to get to Pakse before nightfall, you will need to leave Attapeu very early.
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