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Southern Laos: Pakse - Bolevan Plateau - Champasak - Si Phan Don in 7 days

Posted by guyedwin on 13/5/2014 at 08:26

Hi all.

I will be arriving in Bangkok on 28th May and will be taking an overnight sleeper bus to Pakse. The journey costs about 900 baht and will take approximately 13 hours.

From there, my itinerary gets hazy and this is where I require assistance from fellow travelers who are experienced with the area.

Based out of Pakse, I will be renting a motorbike for 1 day around the Bolevan Plateau and 1 day to Champasak (and back). I am not really into slow traveling. Riding for hours on long, winding, scenic routes are by all means fine. More than a day of lazing around will render me a restless worm. No offense to the many backpackers that take their time traveling through SEA.

Upon completion of the 2 loops, I will then move on to Si Phan Don, spend 1-2 days there and make my way back to Ubon Rachathani for an overnight sleeper train back to BKK.


1. With the onset of the rainy season in May, should I expect to have to pull my bike out of mud filled tracks in any of the 2 loops? That will be a real dampener. I've had experience riding in Thailand, Vietnam and most extensively in Myanmar. The Pyin Oo Lwin to Lashio route was my most dangerous attempt with its steep declines and hair pin bends. I was doing fine until I skidded over a shiny rock and fell while negotiating one of those bends. I guess one of the perks of holding up an entire line of sand trucks was that the locals had no choice but to help me up while I was pinned under the bike. If it had rained, I'm not sure I would have the resolve to continue on.

Long story short, are the roads sealed in the loops that I'm planning to do? Will the rain be as bad as it sounds? I intend to ride with my girlfriend as pillion and I don't want to put her in a situation where both of us are knee deep in mud pushing the bike instead of riding on it. With that said, I don't mind traveling through rain - as long as it's safe.

2. I know that this piece of advice will inadvertently creep in - why not ditch one of the loops and focus on the other? If so, which should I opt for? Which of it has better scenery and roads? If both are that good, I am even open to ditching Si Phan Don - I've read an entry describing the place as a backpacker ghetto. Personally, I'm not into mad partying. Some happy or magic food in a tranquil and relaxed setting is as far as my limit goes.

3. This is out of place, but is Ubon Rachathani worth a night's stay?

Much appreciation and many thanks for the replies to come!

#1 guyedwin has been a member since 10/2/2009. Posts: 4

Posted by billytheliar on 13/5/2014 at 12:18

Champasak is not really a loop, I think. Relatively short distance from Pakse, the road is very good. The road from Champasak to Wat Phou (the main attraction), about 8km, is also sealed and in good condition. Champasak itself has very slow rythmes. I found it great but reading your post I think you could find it boring.
The main roads in Bolaven shouldn't be problematic (all sealed). In and around Tad Lo there is enough to keep you busy for a couple of days (good accommodation options, too). In Paksong I think the main thing to do is a coffe tour/workshop. Organizing something in Attapeu or Salavan could be a little tricky (how is your lao?).
Si Phan Don, I don't know.
By the way : I think Tad Lo would be your best chance in organizing some tranquility.

#2 billytheliar has been a member since 3/4/2012. Posts: 48

Posted by caseyprich on 15/5/2014 at 01:21

I'd agree with Billy, your best bet is to ride up to Tad Lo and spend the night there, then you can mount up and head to Paksong via the northern road that is now sealed and an easy ride, spending one night in Paksong if you like it, or if you get on the road early you could probably move through Paksong and head back to Pakse in a day. I'd really recommend you do that loop in 2 nights just because Tad Lo and Paksong have very unique vibes. You can bike down to Champasak in very short time and then wake up early the next day to ride down to Wat Phu on your motorbike, this will take 10-15 minutes really and with a moto you'll pass most bikes and get there before everyone else, a nice feel. Champasak has a tranquil feel, but again, unique to the one Tad Lo offers while Paksong feels more like a western cross-rodes town in the foothills of the Rockies, but totally different - tough to describe, bring a fleece.

At that point, you could ride your bike back up to Pakse and then transport back town to 4,000 Islands if you are considering going into Cambodia. However, it is probably possible to ride the motorbike down to 4,000 Islands, I only think there aren't really motorbikes on the islands as they are mostly for bicycles . . . I don't recall motorbikes there. It is also a bit of a ghetto and you'd be better off just skipping it and cruising around the plateau more. You'll get a lot more time on the bike if you stretch it out and cruise out toward Attapeu.

#3 caseyprich has been a member since 3/3/2010. Location: China. Posts: 1,281

Posted by Naklao on 30/5/2014 at 05:44

Hi, hope this reply doesn't come too late for you, just saw the post!

About the different possible loops in and around Bolaven, until last year the only one with completely sealed roads was Pakse - Tad Lo -Thataeng-Paksong-Pakse. There is a longer version of this loop if from Thataeng you go to Sekong (instead of going straight to Paksong) and take the road south on the way to Attapeu. At a certain point you'll find a dirt track heading west to Paksong... Nice thing there is you have the really nice Tad Katamtok waterfall on the way... but maybe not the best idea, cause if raining or muddy you could end up having an experience similar to the one you described before, and the waterfall's difficult to find and maybe not that great in the beginning of the rainy season.

The third possible loop I can think of is ignoring this dirt track and going all the way until Attapeu, a town with a very unique vibe, strong vietnamese influence, though not much happening there. From there you have a road heading straight to the west, but again, as far as I know, it remains unsealed (can anyone confirm that?), so you'd have to go back on your tracks up to Thataeng, and then finish the small loop with the Paksong-Pakse stretch.

I agree as well that Tad Lo is the perfect place to spend at least one night. In Tad Lo many new lodgings have opened in the last couple of years, the Sabay Sabay, managed by a catalan-lao couple is the best for me, for atmosphere, chilling area, price, etc. Don't miss a visit to the first village you'll find upriver on the right side riverbank.

Don't miss Tad Nyeuang, easy to reach and impressive waterfall, both for the sight and super nice swimming-picnic area on the upper part. And don't miss having a beer in the evening in one of the really lively bars next to the mekong river in Pakse town.

And about Ubon Rachathani, I've only been there a couple of times, spending some hours in town while making time before the night train to BKK left. Nice in the way provincial towns are in Thailand, nice atmosphere, but it covers a big extension, and if there's something really special to it I missed it.

#4 Naklao has been a member since 29/5/2014. Location: Spain. Posts: 1

Posted by guyedwin on 7/8/2014 at 11:24

Dear All,

Sincere thanks for your replies. I've since returned home from the trip.

I did go on the bolevan plateau but I did not complete it as much as I wanted to.

Unfortunately, along with my girlfriend, we met into an accident shortly into our planned 2 day long riding trip.

For the sake of those that are researching on the route / riding, I am writing this in the hope that it will provide useful advice and serve as a timely reminder of the inherent dangers of rural motorcycling.

Here goes.

Upon reaching Pakse , my girlfriend and I wasted no time in seeking out a motorbike from Ms Noy's, which was just a few units away from my guesthouse. We agreed on a Honda wave. There were only 4-5 bikes in the shop. at a price of about 250,000 kip each, manned by a tall / slim Caucasian man. Passport was collected with payment to be settled after our journey for easier billing.

Later on that day, we returned to the shop for a short briefing about waterfalls / danger points along the route and were given a map for navigation. We spent the night in Pakse.

Early next morning, we collected the bike from Ms Noy's and started making our way slowly towards Tad Lo . We wanted to be there as soon as possible as we were planning to stay over in Tad Lo and were trying to reach before the rooms were booked up.

It was extremely hot, almost unbearable at times but everything started out pretty fine. For the next 3 hours, scenery was nothing to shout about - I've had better experiences in Vietnam and Taiwan but it was still considerably enjoyable.

Not much traffic, surrounded by greenery and away from civilization; that's about heaven to most backpackers.

I don't recall stopping at any waterfalls along the way although I am certain that there were some that was marked out on my map. My first, and only stop, turned out to be at a coffee plantation owned by a local that spoke almost perfect English. We chatted for an hour, over coffee, about life, work out in the fields, his family and our own home countries before my girlfriend and I decided to leave, as rain clouds were rolling in.

It was almost 12 pm by then and we were at most 45 mins away from Tad Lo.

With the excellent road conditions and minimal traffic, I decided to ride just a little bit faster within the range of 50-60 km/hr.

After about half an hour battling fatigue from the afternoon heat, I finally saw civilization. I started slowing down to 40 km/hr so that I could take in the sights and figure out if we were in the correct place.

We were traveling along a very slight bend when out of nowhere, a truck appeared and stopped right across, in the middle of the road. It was only about 20 meters away when I saw it.

It was too late.

From what I remember, my subconscious reflex wasn't even to brake but to prepare myself for collision.

The next few minutes were a blur.

I opened my eyes to find myself lying on the side of the road.

Someone rushed over and made me drink up a cup of salt water(?). Another person was shouting and holding onto the driver of the truck. Yet another person was trying to get me up, but to no avail. I was half concussed and couldn't muster the strength to even seat up.

Eventually, I was half hauled into the back of another truck, presumably by a kind soul, who brought the perpetrator of the accident, my girlfriend and I to the nearest 'hospital'.

It was more like a village clinic.

I was given (I suppose) a tetanus shot and 6 sutures on the toes of my left foot; 4 on one with the remaining 2 on the other. I was also given medicine but I didn't know what was the dosage and what were they for. Nobody spoke a word of English.

The perpetrator paid for my medical fees.

After receiving treatment, all of us were brought to a 'police station'. Again, I'm not exactly clear what purpose the place served; the men inside were playing some form of a ball game when we arrived / no one was in uniform. What was apparent was that the perpetrator didn't want to be there, he was voicing out in protest but had no other choice but to follow us in.

Before the Samaritan left, I tried to offer him a small tip for the massive amount of help that he had rendered but he politely declined and left with nothing but a deeply sincere thank you from me.

Over the next few hours, there were discussions, followed by waiting, followed by more discussions. I had no idea what transpired. More people came in, which thankfully spoke a few words of English. I asked for a pen and paper so that I could illustrate what happened from my point of view. I also made the decision to switch on data roaming on my phone so that I could called Ms Noy's for help.

At about 5 pm, I was asked 2 questions-

Do you have a license? - Yes, but i didn't bring it along overseas.
Were you wearing a helmet? - Yes.

From what I could gather, I was fined about 200000 kip for not having my riding license. The perpetrator was fined about 3 million kip that included bike repairs payable to the rental shop. The 'police' took a 'consultation fee' of about 500000 kip equally split among both sides for their judgement on the accident. I didn't have to pay a single cent but I wasn't going to receive a single cent either.

Shortly after, transport from Pakse was arranged all the way over to bring me back. I decided to spend the entire week there to assess my injuries and make a decision on my traveling plans. It was only after settling down in my new found accommodation that night, that I realised I couldn't lift my right arm more than 45 degrees in any direction.

I made a trip to Champasak hospital the next day, took an x-ray and confirmed my suspicions - my collarbone was broken.

Again, there wasn't anyone that could speak English and as such I couldn't obtain any useful medical advice. I was given a sling to rest my arm in, and even that was done with me standing at the door of an operating theater(?) with the doctor performing some kind of surgery(?) on someone. The only thing I could do was to conduct my own research from the almost non-existent wifi in my hostel room.

I went over to Bangkok by bus a week later and finally returned back to Singapore on the 9th of June, happy to be alive.


1. I was extremely, extremely lucky to have crashed in one of the very few spots habituated by people along my 5 hour journey. If the accident had happened anywhere else, I would have been on my own and could have bled to death waiting for help / attempting to find help.

2. I was extremely, extremely lucky to have met the kind soul that brought me to the village clinic, then to the police station. Otherwise, I would have had to pay hundreds of dollars more to the rental shop, etc

3. I was extremely, extremely lucky to be wearing a helmet. Just 10-20 mins before the accident, I actually asked my girlfriend if I could take it off due to the heat. If I had done so, only god knows what would have happened to me.

4. I was extremely, extremely lucky that my girlfriend escaped with minor injuries; road rash and bump, and that she was there to take care of me throughout my ordeal. I couldn't use my right arm and I could hardly walk with my left foot swelling to twice its size.

5. Until today, I am still perplexed as to how my toes were almost cut in two even though I was wearing shoes. If you're planning to ride, never, ever, wear slippers.

6. No matter how experience you are, never allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security. I was lucky to have been traveling at a considerably slow speed. If I had met into the accident just 10 mins earlier, my injuries would have been far more serious.

7. I bear no grudge with the perpetrator of the accident. Traffic rules do not apply in such places. He was probably filtering into the bending road, with me in his blind spot and made a turning angle that was too large, resulting in the truck coming to a complete stop. It was all unfortunate and there was no way he could have prevented the collision once he decided to make a turn into my path.

8. If you have a clavicle (collarbone) fracture, do not attempt to raise your arm. Keep it still and by your side (in a sling) as much as possible. Trying to move your arm does absolutely nothing to help healing. As much as possible, do not smoke / drink.

With that, all the best to my fellow travelers.

#5 guyedwin has been a member since 10/2/2009. Posts: 4

Posted by caseyprich on 7/8/2014 at 22:31

Guyedwin, it is great to hear back from you - though I'm really sorry your trip went the way it did - gives you a pub story at least. I'm glad you posted for two reasons, (1) it reminds everyone that just because we are on vacation doesn't mean it isn't real life with safety concerns and things that could go wrong and (2) because it is always good to see what someone chose to do on a trip and how it turned out. Now, sadly your trip did not go well, and that is an understatement, but I really appreciate you posting. I hope that in the end what you remember most about your experience is the local person who helped you along the way.

#6 caseyprich has been a member since 3/3/2010. Location: China. Posts: 1,281

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