There’s no doubt that for the independent traveller in Laos, any more than two wheels are a waste. Buses, minivans or cars are a safe but boring and isolating option. Hiring a motorbike for a few days is definitely the way to make the most of your time in this beautiful country. With the dramatic improvement in road quality in recent years due to Chinese investment but minimal traffic, riding is a pleasure – even for people like me without much experience. The ubiquitous 100cc scooters are powerful enough to take you anywhere on paved roads, and even some of the dirt roads would be fine in the dry season. Nobody drives particularly fast, and there’s plenty of time to soak up the views, avoid wandering cattle and call out sabadee (hello) to the kids waving madly from the side of the road. With all that in mind, it was time to explore the Bolaven Plateau.
Near the Cambodian border in the far south of Laos, the plateau rises from the surrounding countryside to a height of over 1300m. It is famous for fantastic coffee and stunning waterfalls amongst other things, and when combined with lower temperatures than the sweltering heat of the lowlands seemed the perfect place to spend a couple of days. The biggest town in the south, Pakse, is about 30km from the start of the plateau and despite having little to recommend it other than some surprisingly good Indian restaurants, is the best spot to rent a bike and stock up on supplies. My basic, Chinese-made scooter cost 50,000 kip (around $5 USD) per day and other than a worn front brake seemed to be sound enough.
I had been travelling with new friends Alex and Katia for a few days and we all headed out of town by mid-morning in an attempt to beat the worst of the heat. The small amount of traffic in Pakse quickly disappeared and we were left with just the occasional small truck, other scooters and numerous cows to look out for. There are a variety of different routes around the plateau that range from a daytrip to a week or more. We’d decided to go for a two day loop option with a night in Tat Lo, for no particular reason except it seemed to fit the amount of distance we wanted to cover. As it happened the road was a lot better than we had expected so there’s no reason we couldn’t have gone further on the first day. No reason, that is, other than the sudden downpour that showed up as we rode into town – being hammered by torrential rain at 50km/h+ was about as much fun as it sounds.
The road from Pakse towards Paksong is nice enough without being too exciting, but once we turned left towards Saravan and started climbing uphill, things took a dramatic turn for the better. Stunning views over the fields and forests, giggling children running out of their houses to wave to us, old women smoking pipes as they walked slowly along the side of the road. While it was obvious that many of the local hill tribe villagers were living in poverty, smiles and laughter were never far away whether we were stopping for a drink or to check directions, or simply riding slowly past. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how friendly and good-natured most people are in Laos – the villagers in the Bolaven Plateau are no exception.
After stopping at Phasoume Resort to admire a picturesque waterfall, ignore the elephant ride and be mildly disheartened by the contrived ‘tribal village’ that was obviously built entirely for tourists, we arrived in pretty Tat Lo just in time to avoid the worst of the rain. There were a surprising number of basic guesthouse options dotted along the main road, all offering rooms with a fan and cold water shower for a few dollars. Not sure why we bothered with the shower option, mind you – we should have taken a leaf out of the locals’ book and utilised the waterfall that tumbles down in the middle of the village. It was a great place for a swim and to just sit on the rocks admiring the view for a while once the sun returned later in the afternoon.
Nightlife in Tat Lo isn’t going to rival Koh Phangan or Vang Vieng any time soon, so after finding the one place in town with a happy (well, mildly cheerful) hour it was a relatively early night, to ensure that we all woke up bright and happy in the morning ready to face the … rain. Damn. Still, a great excuse for a leisurely breakfast and sampling some of that spectacular coffee. The weather cleared as quickly as it had arrived and we were back on the road. Not the right road, of course, but it was indeed a road, complete with misty mountains, colourful coffee plantations and farmers hauling their produce to the local markets.
After being cheerfully pointed in opposite directions by everyone we asked, we eventually found ourselves back on the main road, albeit via a somewhat longer route than was perhaps required. Two more waterfalls (Et Tu, which isn’t on the maps that you’re given in town but is highly worth checking out) and Tad Fan (one of the biggest in the country) and a leisurely ride back to Pakse mid-afternoon completed an excellent couple of days. Shortish distances, easy riding, beautiful scenery, great coffee and friendly people. Is there anything more you could ask for from a road trip? Somehow, I doubt it.
Tips for riding around the Bolaven Plateau
1. There is plenty of competition for scooter and dirt bike hire in Pakse, so don’t be afraid to bargain a little. Go for a test ride and make sure everything works as it should – if you aren’t happy, find another rental place. Point out any obvious damage or scratches before you leave the shop so that there’s no debate when you return the bike a few days later.
2. Wear long sleeves or plenty of sunscreen. The breeze while you’re riding means that you won’t feel the strength of the sun until you stop – and notice that you could now fry an egg on your glowing arms.
3. Keep an eye on your fuel gauge and fill up regularly – the distance between open petrol stations is unpredictable.
4. The roads are generally very good, so there’s no need to rush. Spend as much time as you need exploring the forests and waterfalls and chatting to the residents of the tiny villages along the road. Having said that, as in much of Southeast Asia it’s a good idea to be settled into your accommodation by nightfall – lack of streetlights, bugs, wildlife and potholes make riding in the dark less safe than it could be.