So, you have had enough of tuk-tuks and long, hot minibus rides where you are crammed in the back like sardines? We understand. If you are adventurous and brave enough for it, a motorbike loop is just what your itinerary in Laos needs. There are two famous ones – the Thakhek Loop and the Bolaven Plateau Loop. We will be addressing the latter here.
What is the Bolaven Plateau?
The Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region in southern Laos known for its famous waterfalls, coffee plantations, and ethnic groups. This a terrific area for a motorbike loop, as it is cooler due to its elevation and the scenery is stunning. There are many scenic overlooks associated with hiking, plunging waterfalls, vibrant green forests, rivers for swimming, ethnic minorities, and, of course, coffee! A few days spent in this region allows you to slow down your itinerary in an interesting and different way.
How do I get there and where can I rent a motorbike?
The best way to approach this region is from the city of Pakse in southern Laos. You can rent a motorbike there from several places, but the most popular are Miss Noy and the Lankham Hotel. We rented a semi-automatic bike for four days from the hotel for 50,000 kip ($6.00 USD) a day. There are also several other smaller operators if the main two do not have a motorbike, but this was not an issue when we were in Pakse. In terms of direction, any of motorbike rental places will provide you with a map. Combine this with any GPS-based map system on your smart phone and it is difficult to get lost.
Should I do the “Big Loop” or the “Little Loop” on the Bolaven Plateau?
There are two options for the loop. There is the “Big Loop” and the “Little Loop.” They generally recommend the smaller loop if you have two or three days and the big if you have three or more. I am going to go ahead and state that if you have four or less days, I think you should do the “Little Loop.” We actually had four full days to do the loop, and my original plan was to do the “Big Loop.” I quickly changed my mind for several reasons; the motorbikes really are not that comfortable for two people, there are a lot of areas of the larger loop that are unpaved and loaded with potholes, with four days we would spend more time on the road and less time exploring, and we really wanted to stay in Tad Lo longer than we had planned as soon as we arrived. Doing the “Little Loop” over four days proved to be fun and relaxing. If we had added an additional 120 kilometers of two people on a single motorbike, often on unpaved roads and subtracted a night in Tad Lo, I cannot imagine that our experience would have been more enjoyable. Also, keep in mind that Tad Lo is a place for lazing around little restaurants, sunbathing on rocks, and then plunging into rivers and waterfalls. It is a relaxed, small town, without ever feeling touristy. This is why you travel. Take your time and spend at least two nights in Tad Lo. I would choose time in Tad Lo over time on a motorbike, without question. If we had a full five days, we probably would have done the “Big Loop.”
Safety and checking the motorbike before starting your journey…
Start the first day by of figuring out the basics of the motorbike and filling it up with gas, as they are often chugging along near empty when you assume care of them. One of the most important things you should do is do a thorough check of the motorbike before you sign the contract, documenting any issue present when assuming care of the bike on the contract and with pictures. Otherwise, you might blow your budget repairing something you did not break. I would also recommend test-driving it, making sure the gears are shifting well, the brakes work, there is air in the tires, there are no obvious imperfections, and that the engine is in working condition.
They all come with helmets for free; you would be a damn fool for not wearing one on Asian roads. I was in a terrible four-wheeler accident when I was a teenager and can say that I would not be here right now if I did not have a helmet on. If you have never been on a motorbike, I do not believe that Laos is the place to learn. There was no shortage during our entire stay in Laos of tourists with fractures, sprains, strains, and abrasions from taking a fall on a motorbike. Be careful.
Speaking of safety, we encountered tragedy on our bus ride from Pakse to Don Det, one day after finishing our motorbike loop. We were cruising in our minivan, close to our destination, when we saw a bus had driven off the road into a ditch, with a crowd of at least 80 people circling about. The driver stopped to see what happened. I looked and saw the familiar scene of someone performing CPR on a local man tangled under the front of the bus. Emergency nursing instinct kicked in and I ran over to help. It was apparent very quickly that this man could not be helped. I told the man to stop performing CPR and checked his pulse. There was none. He suffered massive head trauma, his left leg snapped in half, and his body was twisted unnaturally. There also is not a hospital anywhere near the location capable of performing the interventions necessary to save this man’s life, even if we could resuscitate him. I pronounced the man dead at the scene. His wife and child were also killed in the accident. Apparently, a bus hit their motorbike full speed, killing them all instantly. I tell you this not to scare you, but just to remind you that the feel-good, care-free attitude inherent in travel is great, just do not take it with you on the roads of Asia. They are, quite bluntly, fucking scary.
But I’m not your mother, so go for it! I would still do it again!
Our goal for the day was to drive from Pakse to Tad Lo, stopping at a few places along the way. Our first stop was Tad Pasuam, a site which includes two smaller waterfalls. These waterfalls are a little underwhelming and we would recommend you skip these unless you have extra time. We then continued and attempted to get to Tad Champee, which was supposed to be ten kilometers down a dirt road road. We got lost, rode about 15 kilometers in and another 15 kilometers back out on a road better suited for a tractor. We did get to drive through some cool little villages, greeted repeatedly by little children screaming “hello” and reaching out for high-fives, even while we were driving by on our motorbike. Even though we did not find the waterfall, we still appreciated the experience.
We continued another 30 minutes towards Tad Lo and stopped at the Katu Homestay, which is where Mr. Vieng Coffee is located. I started off by ordering one cup of black Arabica coffee. I must say, it was one of the strongest and best cups of coffee I have ever had. Coffee lovers, go to Mr. Vieng! We then booked a 30-minute tour of the coffee plantation, where Mr. Vieng explained in perfect English the process of growing, harvesting, drying, peeling, roasting, and packaging coffee for sale. He continued about farm life, showing us the different crops he grows and the different local uses for various crops. I also finally ate insects! He opened a leaf that was a cocoon for red ants. He then started eating them, offering me some. I obliged and ate insects for the first time in my life. They tasted like lemons! The tour is booked in person on arrival and costs only 15,000 kip.
We continued back on the road and finished our ride in the sunset to Tad Lo. It gets cold up in the Bolaven Plateau, especially at dusk. Bring long sleeves! We easily managed to find a guesthouse with private bedroom and bathroom for 150,000 kip. We ate some dinner and went to sleep.
This was our day to chill in Tad Lo. We visited Tad Huang, Tad Soung, and Tad Lo, the three large waterfalls surrounding the town. We explored Tad Huang in the morning, followed by swimming in the river under Tad Lo. We sunbathed here for a while and randomly caught up with the Austrian couple who were on our tour of Xe Bang Fai Cave; it is always strange to see people again in the oddest places! We swam in the river, surrounded by children. Naturally, I found a nice high rock formation and couldn’t resist jumping into the river a few times. This is also where the locals go to cool off. Local boys were around, terrorizing each other in the water. Later, we rode our motorbike a few kilometers to Tad Soung. Keep in mind that we visited in February, so it was dry season. The waterfall was barely even there, but the viewpoint was still stunning. We then went out for dinner. I had probably one of the best dishes of fish I have ever had. This massive fish came out, grilled to perfection, covered with salt, and tender as can be. You could pick it clean with chopsticks; it was that well-cooked!
On the third day, our goal was to ride from Tad Lo to Paksong. On the way, we wanted to visit Captain Hook and explore his village and surrounding coffee plantation. You will see a sign clearly marked on the right side of the road when going from Tad Lo towards Thateng that says “Captain Hook.” This village is of the Katu ethnic minority group. The tour started like the Mr. Vieng’s tour, explaining about coffee and farm life. This tour differed, though, as we explored the village. The first thing that struck us was the poverty level. There was no electricity and the water was pumped from a well. Families lived in one large bungalow each, with as many as 60 people to a house. The tour explores the village and explained many customs that Westerners would find strange. I would like to take the time to explain a few of them, just to illustrate that not everyone holds the same beliefs, beliefs that most people from the Western world would consider a given:
- Children start smoking at 2-4 years old to ward off evil spirits; the basis for this belief was back when they performed human sacrifices, there was a prisoner who asked to smoke a pipe before he died, which they allowed. The smoke from the pipe caused a sign to the spirits that this man should not be sacrificed. Therefore, everyone smokes to ward off evil.
- Women give birth in the jungle, as giving birth invites evil spirits. When they come back, they are asked if the baby is “good” or “bad.” If they say “bad,” the baby must be discarded. They also must walk over fire on their way back, as to not bring evil spirits with them.
- It is considered good luck to build your coffin and store it under the house. We noticed this when we asked why there were coffins under the houses!
- If you die of natural causes, you can be buried in the cemetery. If you die of unnatural causes, you must be buried in a dirt grave in the jungle, as you invite evil spirits otherwise. If a woman dies in childbirth, she is buried in the jungle standing up, to her knees for three days, to her waist for three days, and then finally to her head.
- Girls are married off at age 6-9. They usually give birth at 13. Men can trade wives permanently and can have multiple wives. If a woman has sisters, it is often expected that all the sisters marry the same man.
- When a new house is being built in the town, to prevent evil spirits and to hope for good luck, the entire village gathers and kicks a puppy to death. Yes. Seriously.
It was an interesting and eye-opening experience. The basis for these thought systems are interesting. Laos has modernized so much in the past 50 years and many of the smaller ethnic groups have been slow to be exposed to the modern and even slower to change. A few decades ago, most people lived in small villages, villages with their own history, philosophy, and beliefs. They were highly superstitious and afraid of change. They had to explain the world around them. As easy as it is to criticize, when you travel you are not there to judge or change beliefs, just to observe and experience.
We got out of there, cruised to Paksong, rented a room at the Savanna Guesthouse for 80,000 kip, ate dinner, and went to sleep. Paksong, by the way, is a dirty and uninteresting town. It is purely practical. I would stay here only for one night for some rest and then get out.
On the fourth and last day of the loop, we were chasing waterfalls. We visited Tad Yuang, Tad Champi, Tad Fane, and Tad Itou. All four waterfalls are beautiful and amazing in their own ways, but I was partial to Tad Fane due to it being two waterfalls plunging several hundred feet into a crater, while Michele really enjoyed Tad Champi, due to its privacy and beautiful seclusion. The reason for so many beautiful waterfalls in this region is due to the elevation of the Bolaven Plateau. There is a large amount of rain in this area, even in Laos’ dry season. There are many precipitous drops from rapid changes of elevations. So, there you have it…a waterfall chaser’s dream! We also of course stopped for another delicious cup of coffee as black as the night, grown on the Bolaven Plateau. We continued for the rest of the ride back to Pakse, which is a bit unpleasant, due to the traffic, psychotic Laotian men driving Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks, exhaust, and dusty road conditions. We returned the motorbike without any issues, happy to have had a great time without incident.
What if I Do Not Have Enough Time to Do a Motorbike Loop?
If you have less time and/or are not keen on motorbikes, we met several people who arrived in Tad Lo by bus and stayed for several nights. I think this would be a worthwhile alternative, as well. You also can day-trip from Pakse to see the waterfalls that line the route to Paksong, which also happen to be the best waterfalls of the shorter route. If you did both, taking public transportation to and from Tad Lo and booking a tour or driver from Pakse to do the best waterfalls over three days, you would have seen some of the best sites of the Small Loop without every having to sit on a motorbike.
Conclusion – Is the Bolaven Plateau Worth It?
The Bolaven Plateau Motorbike Loop is well worth the time and effort required to see the coffee plantations, rivers, waterfalls, and villages. It is a fulfilling experience and a pleasant change of pace for any itinerary in Laos. Our only warning is the safety issue mentioned earlier. Be careful out there. I think it is important to make the right decision regarding whether or not to do the Big or Small Loop. Just because you can do something, does not mean you will enjoy it more. Make sure you have enough time to do enjoy whichever route you take. Whatever route you choose, you are sure to not be disappointed by this curious and fantastic region of Laos.