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.
Tad Fan, Tad Nguing (Yuang), Tad Pasuam: 106 to 128 km
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
By Don Morgan.