The Bolaven Plateau
The Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region in southern Laos. Most of the plateau is located within Champasak Province of Laos, though the edges of the plateau are also located in Sekong and Attapeu Provinces. It is located between the Annamite Mountain Range, along which runs Laos’ eastern border with Vietnam, and the Mekong River to the west, at about 15°N 106°E Coordinates: 15°N 106°E. The plateau’s elevation ranges approximately from 1,000 to 1,350 meters (3,280 to 4,430 ft) above sea level. The plateau is crossed by several rivers and has many scenic waterfalls. The name Bolaven makes reference to the Laven ethnic group which has historically dominated the region. Reference source: Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolaven_Plateau The elevation, above the surrounding low lying areas, is formed by the geological remnants of a long ago extinct volcano. The outer edges of the plateau are actually the broken down rim of the volcanic cone. The plateau covers a wide area. From its western extremity, bordering on the Mekong, to its eastern edges where it drops abruptly down to a valley squeezed in against another mountain range on the Vietnamese border, it is approximately a 120 kilometer traverse.
Due to its elevated nature, and therefore cooler climes when compared with the tropical temperatures on the surrounding lowlands, the plateau has developed a large coffee cultivating industry. As one travels across the plateau acres of cultivated coffee plantations are in abundance. Over recent years the Plateau has become increasingly popular as an adventure destination for the more independently minded traveller wanting to get off the beaten track of mainstream tourism and experience the beauty of the diverse terrain of the plateau; waterfalls and jungle being the predominant sightseeing experience. So much so that a tour or route, known as the “Bolaven Loop” has been developed by travel agencies in Pakse for those wanting to experience the beauty of the plateau from the seat of a motorbike. For those willing to commit to the 3 – 4 days required to complete either of the loops, you will be well rewarded for your efforts. The plateau has not as yet been developed for mainstream tourism and as such still has a feeling of getting out into the “wilds” about it.
The starting point for either of the loops is Pakse in Champasak Province. If you are already in Laos then it’s simply a matter of making your way along highway # 13 (the one which skirts the Mekong) and you will eventually arrive at Pakse. If you are coming from Thailand then you will need to make your way to the Thai provincial city of Ubon Ratchatani then catch a Laos’s bound bus from the main bus terminal. Due to the fact the trip across the border and onto the Pakse bus terminal takes 3.5 – 4 hours (this includes the time taken for exit and entry clearances) the busses only depart in the morning at 0700, 0810 & 0930. For more info on Thai – Lao border crossings please refer to this link: http://asiaforvisitors.com/general/border-crossings/ubon-pakse.php For those flying into Pakse the airport is quite close to Pakse Township. A taxi ride is approximately 80k Lao Kip (USD 10) and you will be in the main traveler’s area of town within a few minutes.
As mentioned there are two travel/tour agents in Pakse who have information, itineraries and motorbikes for rent for those wanting to do the loop. As luck would have it the two are situated right next to each other on road # 13 and just to the left of the Phi Dao Hotel. The choice of which one you prefer to use is purely personal and I would say one is not better than the other; they both have their merits. The travel operator to the left is a foreign owned and run outfit, known as “Miss Noy Motorbike Rental & Internet Café,” with an informative and friendly German guy being the front man. The travel operator to the right is a local Laotian tour company known as “Pakse Travel & Service Company.” Both have plenty of motorbikes for rent at approximately 50000 – 60000 Kip (USD 6 – 8) per day with the standard bike being a reasonably new 100 cc Honda Wave with step through gears. I hired a motorbike from Pakse Travel and my impression is their bikes are all in excellent condition due to regular servicing and maintenance.
Both operators will give you a good briefing and provide helpful tips and maps, with the key locations to visit, for the loop trip. The German fellow at Miss Noy’s seems to have taken it one step further by providing a daily 6 PM group briefing, at a table in front of his shop, for all those hiring bikes from him. Both shops will allow you to store your large back pack/travel bag with them for the duration of your loop trip. Most “loopers” are content to take a reduced amount of personal items with them in a small back pack for the trip. Be aware that the elevated nature (1300 meters above sea level at Paksong) of the plateau creates a significant difference in temperatures, particularly overnight and in the mornings, to that of the surrounding lowlands. In the dry season (December – February) the early mornings can be cold; take warm clothing.
Warning: If you rent a motorbike there is a high risk it could be stolen if left unattended or in an unsecure place in a remote area. Most points of interest on the loop have parking areas with security checkpoints; always leave your motorbike locked at these designated parking areas. For extra peace of mind use the chain and lock provided with your motorbike and thread it through the front wheel while you leave it unattended. The replacement cost for a lost or stolen 100 cc Honda wave is currently USD 1400.
As mentioned there are two options for doing the Bolaven Loop; the small loop and the big loop. Which one you choose to do will often come down to how much time you have or if you’re on a tight schedule. Most loopers seem to be content with doing the small loop simply because most of the major attraction points are on this route. The big loop will take you out into a more remote area, on the back side of the plateau, where the infrastructure for tourism is significantly less than the small loop. An example of this is Tad Katamtok – the biggest waterfall in Laos – which is approx. 50 km on the far (Eastern) side of Paksong. It is an impressive attraction but it’s in a completely remote area and there is no support infrastructure – guesthouses, restaurants, toilets, secure parking area – that one would find at Tad Fane or tad Lo. And even though the surrounding scenery is probably the most impressive on the plateau there is long stretches of empty road from one pit stop to another. Having ventured over that way I would say that if you have the time it’s still worth the effort to check it out. Just be prepared for long stretches on your bike before arriving at the next point of interest. You may find older reference material about the Bolaven Loop which talks about parts of the road, particularly on the big loop, being unsealed. That is now no longer the case. The highway has recently been fully sealed all the way from Paksong to the T-Junction at highway # 11.
To begin the loop tour head south on Highway # 13 out of Pakse. The road eventually veers to the left and heads away from the Mekong River, then begins a gradual ascent on to the plateau on Highway # 16. There is actually no T-Junction as one might expect when going from one highway to another. Highway # 13 just becomes Highway # 16. Just after you begin to veer to the east you’ll see a road angling off to the right. Ignore that as it is Highway # 13 heading south. At the km 21 marker you will come to another T-Junction known as the fruit market. This is where you decide which side of the plateau you want to see first. A left turn will take you onto Highway # 20 and around the northern edge of the plateau where you can check out the waterfalls of Tad Lo and the Thateng localities. This side of the plateau is the lower area and as such the waterfalls there are smaller and less spectacular than the Tad Fane area. Having said that, Tad Lo is still a major stop on the small loop and there are plenty of guesthouses, restaurants and scenic locations to enjoy for a night or two before pushing on. Personally I think the better option is to spend more time around the Tad Fane area where the waterfalls and scenery are more spectacular.
The Tad Fane area, which also comprises the nearby Tad Champee and Tad Yuang falls, is at the Km 38 marker on Highway # 16. From the fruit market simply go straight and you will begin a gradual but perceptible rise up towards the top of the Bolaven Plateau. As mentioned, coffee growing is a major industry on the plateau and as you make your way on towards Tad Fane it’s quite amazing to see acre after acre of neat rows of coffee trees along each side of the road. Eventually you’ll come to the Km 38 marker and the small locality of Tad Fane. The turn off to the waterfall and resort is to the right and is marked by a large picture of the Tad Fane falls. A dirt road, approx. 800 meters in length will take you directly to the secure parking area. Pay 8000 Kip (approx. USD 1) to the parking area attendant at the checkpoint and walk down to the restaurant and viewing point for the falls.
The best view point for the falls is a few meters below the restaurant. There is a cement pathway with solid hand rails which takes you down to a well-placed viewing platform. Alternatively take a Lao coffee, or some lunch, and enjoy the great view out across the canyon to the falls. The restaurant is part of the Tad Fane Resort and even though it’s a picturesque setting Tad Fane waterfall definitely is not the best waterfall attraction in the area. Its drop is impressive but the fact you can’t actually trek down to the bottom of the falls makes it a bit ho hum in comparison to the other falls nearby. If you want to swim then Tad Champee, back across the road, and Tad Yuang, just up the road at Km 40 marker, are much better options. If you’re in the mood for a bit of trekking, for USD 10 the half Vietnamese guy named Alex, who runs the restaurant at Tad Fane resort, will take you on a trek across to the head of the Falls, then up through the jungle and across to Tad Yuang. After a swim at Tad Yuang the hike back to the starting point, the Tad Fane Resort, is through a maze of coffee plantations where Alex will take some time to point out and explain the different types of coffee which are being grown in the area. The round trip takes approx. 4 hours. Take good footwear, insect repellent and a litre of drinking water. There is a tough hill climb getting over to Tad Yuang so a good level of fitness is advised.
My trip report on Tripadvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g3680578-d1508633-r335146853-Tad_Fane_Resort-Paksong_Champasak_Province.html#
Tad Fane is great as a lunch spot while you get some impressive shots but if you want to go for a swim then the best two options are Tad Champee and Tad Yuang. Tad Champee is probably the easier of the two to get to as the walk down to the falls from the parking area is reasonably sedate compared with Tad Yuang. The road down to Tad Champee is on Highway # 16 and directly opposite the track down to Tad Fane. The 2 km road is actually more of a pot holed dirt track so care should be taken with regards to the speed you travel on your motorbike. Park your bike at the small restaurant, pay the 8000 Kip and walk down to the falls. Due to the thick stand of trees surrounding Tad Champee there is a shadow across the swimming hole until midday. For this reason most of the sightseers don’t get down there until after lunch. If you’re not worried about the water being a bit cold then get there at 10 – 11 am to avoid the crowds of tour groups which come up from Pakse for the day. I got there at around 10 am and was the only one there for nearly an hour. The trail from the parking area descends gradually down to the river’s edge and you then need to cross the stream on a boarded walkway to get to the edge of the swimming hole. At 11 am the sun’s rays will still light up the seating area on the far side of the swimming hole so if you’re concerned about the water being a bit cold in the shadow, strip off and get a tan until it gets higher and the shadow disappears. A nice feature of Tad Champee and one worth spending a few minutes to check out is the cavern, or overhang, behind the curtain of water. There’s a small trail around the left side of the swimming hole which will take you to the cavern/overhang. Use good footwear and take your time negotiating the slippery rocks as you work your way in behind the curtain of water.
Tad Yuang, which is 2 km further on from Tad Fane, is perhaps the pick of the three waterfalls in this area. It is the most picturesque and has an easily accessible swimming hole at the bottom of a steep stairway from the restaurant/viewing area above. The turn off is on the right, at the km 40 marker, on Highway # 16. Follow the 800 meter dirt track down to the parking area and checkpoint, pay your 8000 Kip and then walk a further 200 – 300 meters to the head of the falls. The area is well set up with toilets, showers and a large open style restaurant which looks out over a picturesque stream coursed landscape at the top of the falls. Beyond the restaurant a wide stairway will take you down to the lower level viewing area. At the far corner is a steep stone and cement stairway leading all the way down to the swimming hole at the foot of the falls. Take care with the climb down and make use of the handrails provided at all times. Some of the stone steps are broken and at the lower half of the descent the track is wet and slippery in places. The falls and the swimming hole is an idyllic spot and the opportunity for an invigorating swim should not be missed, even though water is a bit on the chilly side. Once you arrive at the bottom there is a trail around the left side of the swimming hole which will take you all the way to the foot of the falls. Use good footwear and use due care when working your way around as the lava terrain is jagged and quite slippery in places. Be sure of your footing and hand holds otherwise a tumble into the swimming hole is highly likely.
The next major stop after spending a few hours at the Tad Fane/tad Yuang area is the small provincial town of Paksong which is just 10 km further on from Tad Yuang. Paksong has plenty of guesthouses to choose from if you’re intending an overnight stay there. It is also located at the highest point of the Plateau (1350 mtrs above sea level) and therefore can get cold during the night and in the early morning, particularly in the cooler months of December – February. Paksong is the key point in the decision to do either the big or small loop. Those doing the small loop will continue to follow Highway # 16 as it veers to the north and takes you on to Thateng, some 35 km on from Paksong. Those committing to the big loop need to continue heading due east on a sealed road which will eventually take you to a T-Junction on Highway # 11, at which point you turn right to go to Attepeu and left to head to Sekong. Be warned though this area of the plateau is much more remote than that to the western side of Paksong and there is very little in the way of tourist support infrastructure. It’s a very scenic drive and although the road is now fully sealed it’s a good 70 km from Paksong to Highway # 11.
Apart from a few basic restaurants and a couple of coffee shops there’s not really much to do in Paksong. It seems to be a place to rest up overnight before pushing on with the loop tour. Although I was told by the staff at the hotel I stayed at that Green Discovery Laos run a fantastic adventure tour, which includes zip lines across the face of some large waterfalls, in a nearby area (12 km from Paksong) called Nongluang. For more info: http://www.greendiscoverylaos.com/eco-excursions/champassak/champassak-zip-line-canopy-walk/item/360-tree-top-explorer-3-days
After an uncomfortable night’s sleep at the Phu Thevada Hotel in Paksong (note: if you stay at this hotel make sure you’ve got a good supply of insect repellent as the mosquitoes are en masse at the open restaurant area) I was back on the road early. I’d taken the option of the big loop and my objective was the big waterfall – Tad Katamtok – a few kilometres before the T-Junction on Highway # 11. The road, compared with that on the western side of Paksong, had far less habitation but in the early morning sunlight and clear blue skies the scenery was picture postcard perfect. The chill, even at a slow speed of 60 km an hour, was quite intense and as the road passed through shaded areas I was happy I’d bought a jacket and a pair of jeans for the trip. As mentioned, Paksong is the high point of the Bolaven Plateau so the road out to the eastern perimeter is a gradual descent across an open land punctuated by river valleys and craggy peaks off to the horizon. Being a temperate landscape some of the flora I observed along the roadside reminded me a lot of my home country New Zealand, with pine trees and lupins in abundance. The temperature difference between the top of the plateau and back down at the river plains is quite marked and didn’t hit me until I returned to Pakse the following day. Whereas the day time temperatures on the plateau are a pleasant 27 – 28 deg Celsius, the heat in Pakse is more intense in the low to mid 30’s range.
After approximately an hour of chilly riding I eventually found the turn off to Tad Katamtok. If you are coming from Paksong it’s on the right but be warned, it’s not very well sign-posted. There is a faded picture with an arrow indicating the direction down a pot-holed dirt track. It’s actually only a short distance, perhaps 100 meters, from the main road to the viewing point of the falls. Due to the large volume of water spilling over the 100 meter drop you’ll hear the falls before you actually see it. As Laos’ largest waterfall it’s quite spectacular and well worth the effort of going there but it is a remote location and therefore has no tourism infrastructure of any type to add to the experience.
This is perhaps not a bad thing as the isolation and remoteness gives the place a more serene feel. The only other people I saw there were a local couple and their child who’d stopped for a break on their road trip. There is a track which will take you down to the bottom of the falls – approx. a 300 meter trek – and as much as I wanted to get down there I wasn’t willing to take the risk of leaving the motorbike unattended for a couple of hours in such a remote location.
After getting a few good shots I was preparing to push onto Sekong when my mobile phone surprised me with a pip (the wonders of the modern age, even in a fairly remote location one is still able to pick up a connection). To my consternation I checked the screen only to see it was an email from a company in Singapore; I was getting a call to work much earlier than expected. As much as I didn’t want to I had to cut my trip short and return to civilisation. Instead of pushing on to Sekong I decided to retrace my steps and head back to Tad Yuang. I’d spend the day in chilling out there before heading back to Pakse in the cool of the early evening.