Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau

Feb 24, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Laos, Uncategorized, Where we've been

Our initial days in Laos were spent in a few small cities in the Central and Southern parts of the country respectively, where we welcomed the sunny days and the relaxed pace of life.

Pakse doesn’t have many attractions in the town itself, but is a good base for nearby trips and also is a common bus stop on the Rte 13 North-South main road through the country.  We took a bus there from Savannakhet, a trip we thought would take 4 hours but instead took 6. Ugh.  It was a local bus that we boarded about an hour before it left, and it was a good thing we did since it soon filled up and then little plastic stools were placed in the aisle for additional people to sit on. There was not an inch of space left in that bus. We started off and soon realized that this was going to be a long trip. The bus literally stopped every 5 minutes (I was keeping track on my watch). Each time it stopped on the side of the road it was to cram more people on (as well as stow their big bags of rice or whatever on top of the bus), or to let people off. The thing about letting people off was that if someone was in the back of the bus they needed to make their way to the front by crawling and stepping over all of the people on the stools in the aisle which was a painfully slow and awkward process since there was no floor space to step on at all. No one seemed to mind at all though, this was totally typical. Occasionally the bus would stop to let people off to pee by the side of the road…no bushes really to hide behind, just out in the open, but most of the women had sarongs on so could be discreet. Since I was in my normal t-shirt and pants going to the bathroom was not an option for me.  In a few towns when we stopped the bus was instantly surrounded by women food vendors selling the ubiquitous grilled chicken on a stick which looks like the entire chicken splayed out. Also little sacks of sticky rice and sliced mangos and hardboiled eggs. All of which were enthusiastically waved in front of the windows or shoved inside for the passengers to buy. The bus soon smelled like a big barbeque.  It was brutally hot and the constant sweating combined with the constant stopping was making me cranky. After 6 hours the novelty of riding a local bus had long since worn off.

Upon our arrival in Pakse, we settled ourselves into a decent hotel in the center of town and strolled along the Mekong River getting our bearings, eating (yummy papaya salad and sticky rice), people watching, and bowling.

We debated how to spend the next few days and decided that we wanted to visit the Bolaven Plateau which is a nearby elevated area that has a cooler climate, is home to several small village and is known for its coffee plantations and waterfalls. It seemed like a very scenic and interesting place to explore and the best way would be by motorbike. There is a common route known as “the southern swing” which you can follow around the Bolaven Plateau, taking as little as 2 days or as much as 2 weeks to complete, depending on your side trips. I, of course, being someone of a square and a scaredy cat was hesitant. I wasn’t sure how safe it would be on the motorbike or what the conditions of the roads were like. I didn’t want to rent my own motorbike, and though Brandyn wasn’t overjoyed to lug me around on the back of his, he ultimately was okay with it. Having never ridden one before I didn’t think a 4 day trip was the best initial training ground…plus renting a motorbike in places like this is like renting a bicycle. No explanation, no safety instructions, just here are the motorbike keys – BYE! Not for me.

So we ended up with a cute red Honda Wave 100cc (no idea what that means) with Brandyn up front and me in the back wearing the daypack crammed with our stuff for 4 days. On January 31 at 8am we were off!


Day One: We rode from Pakse to Tat Lo which was about 85/90 km or so on a paved road, and traffic thinned considerably once we were out of town which was great. My views (except for the back of Brandyn’s helmet) were of the Bolaven Plateau in the distance, occasional cows by the side of the road, houses on stilts, and just nice greenery in general. We stopped at Phasoume Waterfall along the way and had some baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese (our go-to snack in Southeast Asia). We reached Tat Lo around 1pm and checked into a riverside room with a lovely view off the deck of some waterfalls and other nearby wooden bungalows. Explored the area for a bit by traipsing through the woods and enjoyed dinner on the deck while watching little kids playing/bathing in the river. Very peaceful.


Day Two: We got up early and walked about 20 minutes along a path up to the big waterfall – also named Tat Lo – and spent some time sitting at the top taking pictures. The whole scene reminded me of upstate New York, particularly the Finger Lakes region.  We got back on the motorbike and continued along the loop, this time with Sekong as our destination, about 75 km away on paved roads again. We passed by rice paddies, more houses on stilts, many of which were drying coffee beans spread out on large tarps in the front yard. Saw several big pigs snuffling along the ground or crossing the road (my absolute favorite), and then ended up in Sekong which was a small and empty town. We found a nice hotel to stay in and a nearby restaurant that had an English translation on the menu so we ate and then just settled in to read and relax. We had a TV in our room but the only English language station was ESPN so we watched the world bowling championship for a few hours – riveting.


Day Three: This was going to be a long day of riding but we were mentally prepared for it. We bought breakfast at some food stalls in town which consisted of a huge bunch of mini bananas (they wouldn’t sell us individual ones) and about 6 mini Chinese doughnut-like pastries, all accomplished through pantomiming and pointing and laughing. The Chinese buns turned out to be amazing…doughy and fresh and some of them were stuffed with what looked like mushrooms and tiny glass noodles but we weren’t sure. Sounds gross but was awesome. Best breakfast ever. After stowing the banana bunch in our bike basket we set off again, this time heading south. We turned at a waterfall sign down a long dirt road hoping it would result in something cool. Success! A beautiful waterfall and some nice rocks to sit on and eat more doughnuts. Back on our way, we were looking for a turnoff onto a dirt road which we needed to take for another 71 km west to the town of Paksong. We had heard it was a really rough road and I was a little nervous since we’d been spoiled by perfect paved roads and low traffic the past 2 days. We found the turnoff, filled up our tank and headed off.  The road was pretty bumpy, all packed down red dirt with quite a few bulldozers and tractors since the road is currently under construction. But once you looked away from the red dirt road you realized you were in what felt like a jungle. It was absolutely beautiful and so quiet. We were slowly ascending and whenever we stopped to stretch our legs we could just hear tons of birds chirping and then silence. Our first goal was to spot Nam Tok Katamtok, which we had read was super difficult to find and we had to look for landmarks by crossing 3 bridges and then heading slightly uphill. Turns out the waterfall was super simple to find – it was right off the main road and it was huge and quite beautiful. We tried to walk a bit into the woods to get near the top of it and then sat for a while just enjoying the atmosphere. Back on the road we continued navigating over our bumpy dirt trail and our backs and butts were starting to hurt from all the jostling. Brandyn did an excellent job of keeping us upright though and managed to avoid most of the potholes.  The last 20 km were the worst because the road turned to gravel and it was incredibly hard to stay steady on and in general it was super jarring and uncomfortable. We were thrilled to finally reach Paksong, which seemed just like a small one street town, but at least it had paved roads! It was also much cooler now that we were at a higher altitude and I realized I needed a jacket! We had lunch (amazing noodles and fresh veggies) and then visited a coffee shop we had read about in our guidebook that is run by a Dutch ex-pat and his wife who is from a nearby village.  We had hoped to go the next morning on a coffee plantation tour but they didn’t leave until 10am which we thought was a bit late, and also the Dutch guy turned out to be quite arrogant and unfriendly and we weren’t in the mood to give him our business. Our silent protest! So we spent the rest of the day reading and hanging out.


Day Four: Instead of having breakfast in Paksong we thought we’d get on the road early and have breakfast at Tad Fane Resort about 20 minutes away.  This turned out to be a great idea! The road there was paved and easy and the resort itself was rustic and beautiful. We had a second floor view from the restaurant out into the valley which overlooked the Tat Fan waterfalls, twin cascades about 120 m high. Breakfast was delicious and the service was absolutely fantastic. We met a few Germans who were watching us playing cards while we waited for our food so we taught them our game (Shithead) and chatted with them for a while. By then it was 9am so we started to explore the grounds. We left our helmets and bag with the restaurant staff and started off on a nearby trail, not knowing exactly where it would lead but since it was a well-worn path we figured we were safe. Turns out the path went first through a coffee plantation and then down down down through the dense forest we had been looking at during breakfast, and then up up up again to the waterfall we had been admiring. It was a hot and challenging walk because of the steepness, but worth it. We sat for a while on the rocks of the waterfalls, enjoying the serenity and then headed back. Oddly, climbing back up the steep hill turned out to be much easier than going down because we were able to just pull ourselves up by tree roots and not worry about slipping so much. All in all it was a great hike, Tat Fan was definitely the highlight of our day and probably the whole motorbike trip.

We left the resort, sweaty and hungry and pushed on to the final 50 km or so back to Pakse.  It felt weird to see all the traffic increasing as we approached town as we had gotten used to being the only people on the road. But we made it back safely and were happy to check into our hotel again and reward ourselves with a hot shower and the first change of clothing in 3 days.

For my first ever motorbike trip I think I did pretty well. After the first hour or so on the bike I was much more comfortable and less of a backseat driver (even Brandyn agrees). Riding a motorbike definitely gives you a different perspective on the areas you’re passing through too…in part because you’re moving through at slower speeds and have more time to look around but also because you’re out in the open air sort of feeling what’s around you in addition to seeing it. Every bump in the road, passing dust cloud, mooing cow crossing in front of us, smells of foliage, just felt more real than I think it would’ve felt had we been speeding along in an A/C vehicle. Arriving at a destination dusty and sweaty with a sore backside also makes you feel like you earned whatever it is you’re about to treat yourself to, whether it is an ice-cold Beer Lao or a beautiful waterfall.

Maybe next time I’ll even try to drive.

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