Just do it!
Published/Last edited or updated: 19th March, 2017
An expanse of highland formed from an ancient volcano, the Bolaven Plateau is one of southern Laos’ most attractive destinations. Rich with waterfalls, lush jungles, farmland, ethnic diversity and miles of excellent roads, one of the best ways to cover it all is by two-wheels.
It’s increasingly popular to rent a motorbike in Pakse and embark on either the “short loop” or “long loop” through the plateau, which lies east of the city. The cool air on the skin, the thunderous sound of the water tumbling over a cliff, the visual feast of verdant hills, the sickly sweet smell of ripe coffee cherries and the bitter taste of Robusta—on your journey all senses will experience how the plateau’s topography yields several unique features.
While the rest of Laos can feel like an inferno between March and June, the plateau’s altitude of 1000 to 1350 metres creates a microclimate, with most months of the year enjoying daytime temperatures in the mid-20s. This, along with the rich volcanic soil, make it ideal for growing coffee. Lao coffee beans are sensational and whether a casual drinker or an aficionado, by the end you’ll appreciate just how good it is.
It’s not all coffee. Other crops benefit from the fertile land and cassava, tea, rattan, cardamom and various fruit are grown. Rivers, spectacular waterfalls and ethnic villages round out the experience. Here’s how to tackle the Bolaven Plateau, with a section at the end on sorting out a motorbike and important tips for the road.
The vast majority do the loop clockwise. This is recommended if doing the short loop in the absolute minimum of two days—this way, on the first day you’ll arrive at Tad Lo around midday leaving you the afternoon to see the waterfalls. On the second day, the way is packed with possible stops and so you are better able to manage the time as you try to return to Pakse before nightfall.
Note: Locations are often marked “km-8” for example, indicating the distance to/from the biggest city in the area. Tad Yuang is at km-40, meaning 40 km from Pakse. Red and white distance markers can be found intermittently along major roads.
Pakse to Tad Lo waterfall (85 km)
Depart Pakse city centre heading east on Route 13. At approximately km-8 there is a confusing junction that is actually a roundabout. The road veers right and the urge is to follow it (this will take you south to the Cambodia border); instead go into the roundabout and continue straight on the busy narrow highway which will pass through a village of bamboo handicraft and knife makers; stop if you want to see baskets or machetes being made. At km-20 is the enormous can’t-miss-it Dao Coffee Factory and shortly after is the junction to the Bolaven Plateau. Turn left to head northward on Road 20 to Tad Lo.
The first possible stop of interest is Tad Pasaum waterfall (km-35; 2 km off main road along sealed way; admission 10,000 kip, motorbike parking 2,000 kip). It’s a bizarre mix of waterfall, “cultural ethnic park” and spooky accommodation. An easy diversion, Tad Pasuam can be as brief as 15 minutes for photos of the falls and trippy restaurant. If pressed for time, skip it in favour of more time spent at Tad Lo.
At km-36 is Tad Champee (not to be confused with Tad Champi near Paksong), reached via a 10 km unfrequented dirt road. The falls are mediocre to look at, simply tumbling over a few rocks and continuing on as a river; swimming is possible. Before committing to the drive, weigh the risk and consider the distance you would need to push the bike back to civilisation if you get a flat. This logic applies to all attractions that are far off the main road.
Soon after crossing the borderline from Champasak to Salavan province, Ban Huai Houn (km-60) is a highly recommended stop to visit an ethnic Katu village, made accessible by Mr Vieng’s cafe, homestay and tour. Rest in a hammock, enjoy a leisurely coffee, stay for the night or take the guided tour of his organic plantation for 15,000 kip. The Katu are famous for their colourful handwoven textiles with beads painstakingly incorporated into the piece as it is being woven. It’s an exquisite, one-of-a-kind handicraft that can be bought here or across the road where a stand cooperatively sells pieces from the village.
The scenery transitions, becoming lush and open, the road flanked by farms and cassava plantations. A short diversion: at km-75, a dirt road branches off east—travel one kilometre to see gigantic trees. Otherwise it’s 10 km to reach the turnoff to Tad Lo. Two successive roads off of Route 20 lead 1.3 km to the village. Whether on the short or large loop, Tad Lo is a popular place to spend the first night.
The village is a pleasant pitstop as there’s a number of cheap, relaxed places to stay and three waterfalls. Aim to arrive by midday or early afternoon, giving you enough time to see Tad Lo, Tad Hang and enjoy some downtime. Treks can also be organised through the local tourism office and this is your best bet for explorations of Salavan province.
Tad Lo to Paksong (63 km) or Pakse (110 km)
This leg can be covered in a rushed day or a leisurely two. Continuing north on Road 20, it’s only 6 km until the junction at Ban Beng. Those with time and a fondness for dusty provincial backwaters may want to continue straight, descending to the lowlands for a side trip to the town of Salavan. Otherwise, those on the short loop will want to turn right, heading back south towards Paksong.
It’s here that short-loopers will see 13 km of Sekong, getting a fraction of the smallest, poorest and least accessible provinces of Laos. It’s also one of the most ethnically diverse and luckily travellers can get a glimpse of what this means by stopping at Ban Kok Phung Tai, hopefully meeting Mr Hook aka Captain Hook. His tour of the village is an eye-opening experience as he explains the Katu way of life and shares his tremendous knowledge of herbal medicine. Those pressed for time can simply take a break with a bamboo cup of homegrown coffee or tea. An ultra-basic homestay is available, and with more time there’s the chance to do a jungle trek. A village fee of 5,000 kip is collected at the entrance. If the entrance is blocked by a tree branch, this indicates a special ceremony is taking place and the village is closed to outsiders.
There’s no shortage of places to stop for a coffee and after crossing back into Champasak province, Sinouk Coffee Resort is another great one. The resort is an option to rest for the night (a larger budget required), whether you choose it as the first night accommodation over Tad Lo or are taking the journey at a leisurely pace. Otherwise, stop and stretch your legs in their extensive flower filled gardens and some of the coffee plantations where it all started: After 30 years living in France, in 1994 Sinouk returned to Laos and started with plantations here; today it is one of Laos’ largest coffee brands.
From Sinouk it’s 30 km to reach Paksong, the main hub of the Bolaven Plateau and the coffee capital of Laos. This sounds more romantic than it actually is. In reality the town is a bustling hub of Route 16 and it’s function over fashion here, though it has a few welcome surprises. Jhai Coffee House is one of those surprises, a backpacker hipster cafe serving up artisanal roasts, beans sourced from a cooperative of farmers across 68 villages. Profits are used to build drinking water and sanitation projects. Find it on Road 16, open daily 08:30-17:30;
Paksong has some good inexpensive guesthouses and it’s not a bad town to rest road-weary bones. It’s one of the highest points of the plateau. The sun is strong in the day time and it’s chilly at night (downright frigid in December and January) catching a lot of travellers off guard. A great way to warm up is with sindad, Lao hot pot that combines cooking with both a grill and soup. Try it at Kittavanh on the main road, just 50,000 kip for a tasty set with your choice of meat, vegetables, noodles and all the sauces.
Paksong to Pakse: the waterfall way (50 km)
From Paksong to Pakse there are four magnificent waterfalls. Count on needing half a day to manage the lot. If venturing from Tad Lo back to Pakse in a day, that means an early departure from Tad Lo and keeping track of time.
The first falls, Tad Yuang, is a doozy and our personal favourite. Located 10 km west of Paksong at km-40, this dramatic waterfall drops 40 metres over a cliff surrounded by jungle. In the rainy season it’s thundering, huge volumes spilling over. In dry season it’s possible to swim at the base. The constant mist means there’s a good chance of a rainbow, as well as slippery conditions so take care on the stairs. In contrast to the natural beauty of the falls, its entrance is developed with accommodation, vendors and a restaurant where the friendly, chatty owner of the falls likes to give out shot after shot of rice whiskey to visitors, another slippery slope to be mindful of.
A few shops down from the turn off to Tad Yuang is a cafe run by the CPC (Coffee Producers Cooperative) of the Bolaven Plateau. The cafe backs onto a plantation and if you haven’t already, get a close look at coffee cherries here. Have a drink and buy some beans—the CPC coffee is truly excellent stuff—though you may find better selection at their Pakse office near Nang Noi Guesthouse.
Tad Champi (38-km) is the least developed of the waterfalls along Road 16E. It’s low-key and lovely for a cooling dip, though we’d caution against going too close to the cascade as we heard there is a strong whirlpool. Adventurous folk can walk behind the curtain of water. On the opposite side of the road from Tad Champi, the towering twin cascades of Tad Fane are viewed from across the gorge. It is an impressive sight, good for a few snaps except when mist and fog obscure it completely. Finally, travellers should fight any waterfall fatigue they may have because Tad E-Tu (km-35), while not the largest, is pretty and atmospheric. Walk down to the base for a full view, and in the dry season, take a dip.
Around 500 metres past Tad E-Tu is Ning’s Homestay, run by a local English teacher offering dorm beds for 20,000 kip. Some motorbike rental shops won’t charge another day if the bike is returned when they open, check their policy. Travellers on a shoestring can save a few dollars by staying here rather than Pakse, returning the motorbike to the shop first thing in the morning.
Finally, 5 km west of Tad E-Tu is Sabaidee Valley, a tourist rest stop good for a toilet break. It has a cafe, gift shop and mid-range accommodation.
By extending the loop there’s far less people and miles more scenic sealed road including the most spectacular stretch leading from Ban Beng Phou Kham to Ban Nong Oy.
Tad Lo to Sekong (73 km), Tad Faek or Tad Houa Khon
Follow the first day of the short loop itinerary to Mr Vieng’s Homestay, Tad Lo or Captain Hook’s Homestay. On the second day, instead of scooting south to Paksong then west back to Pakse, at the Thateng junction (20 km south of Ban Beng), turn left/head east on the road to Sekong and Attapeu.
Just 10 km east of the junction, look for the SFE Laos agriculture development project and Mai Savanh Lao, an organic farm where visitors can learn about the silk making process and the many different plants that can be used for tea. The farm is open to visitors Mon-Sat 08:00-11:30 & 13:30-17:00 and people are welcome to visit the farm by themselves during the lunch break. Guided tours are possible. Faded signs say it is available in English, French, German for 15,000 kip, though Miss Noy’s motorbike shop said it was lately only available in French. It’s 1400 m from the main road.
Road 16 leaves the Bolaven Plateau, descending from the highlands down to the most accessible, developed corner of Sekong, a province that is largely wild and inaccessible. The provincial capital is little more than a refuel station and a decent overnight for those who prefer bricks and mortar accommodation. Otherwise, escape to nature by carrying on 14 km to rustic bungalows at Tad Faek or 17 km for camping at Tad Houa Khon. Wherever you choose to stay, both waterfalls are worth the visit for photos, relaxation time and a swim (though Tad Faek’s rumoured penis-eating fish may put off some).
Sekong to Ban Nong Oy (55 km) or Paksong (90 km)
Travelling south of Sekong, Road 11 snakes along the eastern edge of the Bolaven Plateau following the Sekong River valley, one of the most important tributaries of the Mekong. The road is paved and virtually empty.
The junction of Ban Beng Phou Kham is 25 km south of Sekong. Those who want to see a frontier town, a Vietnam War-era SAM missile and horrific deforestation at the hands of Vietnamese companies can continue straight 50 km to Attapeu—the road there is terrific but when it comes to attractions, there’s little a tourist on a regular motorbike can see. Most people will want to continue the loop: at the junction turn right/head west back up onto the Bolaven Plateau. This section is the most striking drive of the entire loop.
Up the road goes, from the sunbaked lowlands of Sekong and Attapeu province to the refreshing, teeth chattering highlands. There are a few pause-a-while vistas, the jaw-dropping scenery continuing for 32 km until Ban Nong Oy.
Along the way a small sign for Tad Xekatarm can be found 18 km west of the junction and Miss Noy’s motorbike shop forbids its renters to visit as there is no secure paid parking and we were warned there have been several motorbike thefts, including one violent attack. We received a report from a reader that her motorbike was stolen from here March 2017. Until admission and formal parking is introduced, AVOID. Ask your motorbike rental shop for the latest info.
The first of two access roads to Tad Tayicsua waterfall is 22 km west of the Ban Beng Phou Kham junction. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign pointing down a dirt track running southwest and this way is just 5 km to the falls, however, this road is difficult. The longer but more sane option is going to Ban Nong Oy and approaching Tad Tayicsua from the west. Tayicsua is a series of waterfalls in a steep river valley that requires serious hiking through the jungle. It will likely require staying overnight at the falls’ basic guesthouse.
Ban Nong Oy is a village seemingly in the middle of nowhere 32 km west of the junction. It has sprung up to support the workers of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Hydroelectric Power Project (in other words, a dam) 15 km to the south. As such, there are places to eat, refuel and two guesthouses including Platinum Guesthouse which is perfectly good for a night and has plenty of rooms. The rooms in the modern motel style building have tile floor, solid walls, fan, windows and ensuite bathroom with hot water shower. Beds have a top sheet and towels are provided. It’s 80,000 kip, first come first serve.
Ban Nong Oy may be a necessary pitstop if you can’t make the 30 km to Paksong or you wish to tackle Tad Tayicsua or Tad Alone waterfall—at the central fork, take the road to the dam. You’ll pass Tad Alone first, then at another fork, turn left to reach Tad Tayicsua (10 km). With Ban Nong Oy, just be aware that at night, the eateries/karaoke bars are spots where sex workers try to pick up clients. Anything unsavoury can easily be avoided and at most, you as a foreigner (male or female) in town will bring curious stares. It’s prudent to keep your wits and not go overboard with the Beerlao.
It’s 30 kilometres on to Paksong. Read the description of Paksong to Pakse above to complete the large loop.
Whether you are spending two days or two weeks on the road, preparation and smarts can help ensure a smooth trip.
Sorting out a bike for the Bolaven Plateau
The Bolaven Plateau’s excellent paved roads that unfurl through remote pastoral scenery make it an ideal for motorbike. That said, if you’ve never driven a motorbike, this is not the place to learn. Laos lacks advanced medical facilities. Consider that once on the loop, it can be more than a day’s journey to a proper hospital in Thailand. Review the risks.
Have the appropriate insurance coverage, wear a helmet and drive at a sensible speed. All the main roads of the small and big loop are sealed and in good condition. The roads leading off to the waterfalls and other attractions are not paved and can be challenging, especially after the rain. Before venturing down an unsealed road, consider the distance you would have to push the bike to help if you suffer a flat or breakdown.
The universal symbol for motorbike repair shop is an old tire in front. To patch a tire it is usually 5,000 to 7,000 kip, 25,000 kip for a new air tube. A fancier automatic may have a tubeless tire, in which case the plug and fix costs around 50,000 kip.
Fill up gasoline when you can, best done at formal stations found in larger towns. Show the amount in kip you want put in the tank (example, hold up a 20,000 kip note) rather than asking to fill up the tank where they will charge an arbitrary amount. Ensure the attendant first resets the pump meter.
Paid parking is a good thing: when visiting attractions, don’t try to skip out on paying as the small amount (usually 2,000-5,000 kip) provides some guarantee that the motorbike will be there when you return. If at a waterfall and there’s no concession or security, it’s high risk for theft.
The rental shop will provide an extra wheel lock: use it. Guesthouses will show you the secure place inside to park it overnight.
It goes without saying, the less bike malfunctions the happier you will be. Try to get one with low mileage, don’t rent a Chinese-brand bike and do, to the best of your ability, check that it’s in good working order before departing. Check lights, signals and brakes, listen for strange noises, photograph any existing damage and your contract. Read the contract.
There are several motorbike rental shops in Pakse, most found on Road 24, the tourist street with the concentration of travel agencies. We can recommend Miss Noy’s Motorbikes on Route 13 beside Lankham Hotel. Though not the cheapest or the most organised—the shop is chaos—they have cornered the backpacker market through word of mouth as the motorbikes are well maintained and checked before being sent out again, fixed by a mechanic if needed. Those who rent from the shop have the benefit of attending the orientation session held every evening at 18:00; the route map is covered step by step, with helpful tips and stern reminders of how to prevent the bike from getting stolen or wrecked. Another benefit: English, French and Lao are spoken so you can phone them if you encounter any issue on the road or need translation help with the mechanic. If there are engine issues on trip, they will reimburse you for the repairs. A motorbike is 55,000 kip per day, an automatic 90,000 kip. Luggage storage is available and those arriving to Pakse and catching a night bus the same day can use their shower. Open daily around 08:00-20:00 with a break in the midday. T: (020) 2227 2278; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://missnoymotorbike.com/index.php/en/
What to bring
A rain jacket or poncho and rain cover for your pack, even in dry season—the Bolaven Plateau is its own climate. Waterproof important items within the pack.
Bring warm clothes. The Bolaven Plateau has a steady climate year round. Day time temperatures hover in the mid-20’s while nights are cool, especially in Paksong. It can feel frigid when it rains or during the winter months of December-January. On the flip side, the sun is fierce at higher altitudes and sun protection is recommended.
Get a sim card with phone and 3G, an inexpensive investment. Save the telephone number of your motorbike rental company.
Exercise good judgement in whether or not to swim in a river or waterfall. Rainy season brings huge volumes, debris, mud and flash flooding.
Women: Laos is a conservative country, especially in rural Laos. Wearing a bikini is a no-no. Wear a t-shirt and shorts or sarong overtop.
Hiking solo is not recommended.
It’s best to be off the roads after dark, especially in the countryside.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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