There are generally 2 routes backpackers take when travelling through Laos. The first is to stay in the Northern part of the country, crossing the border to Vietnam via a 24 hour bus ride. The second (what we did) is to carry on south through Laos, eventually crossing the border to Cambodia. Not only does this avoid the horrendous bus journey but it means you get to witness the beauty of the Mekong and the Bolaven Plateau.
Pakse is the base town for people wishing to explore the Bolaven Plateau; a 3 or 4 day motorbike loop to the East. We stayed at Sanga Hostel which I would argue is the swankiest hostel we have stayed in this whole trip. Super comfy beds, delicious food and the hotel manager is the friendliest woman you’ll ever meet. Miss Noy’s is a motorbike rental shop run by a local woman and a french man. They hold very helpful information talks each night at 6pm, which we attended and were given a map. There are 2 loops to choose from on the plateau, it was here that we were informed that the bigger loop was no longer safe for tourists. Apparently 4 days earlier a man had been held up by locals with knives and had his motorbike stolen!
With this in mind we decided to go ahead with this itinerary:
1. Head to Champasak for the first night (South of Pakse).
2. Spend 3 nights on the smaller loop, then head back to Pakse.
The road down to Champasak was a delight. Considering I had never ridden a moped/motorbike before and I was now on a semi-automatic Honda, I needed some practice to build my confidence up. Miss Noy had told us this was the ‘best road in Laos’ and I’m inclined to agree with them!
On the trip down we stopped at Wopakok Hotel for a drink, the terrace overlooks the Mekong and the hotel is owned by a lovely Irish man – a good place to refuel! The journey down was uneventful but beautiful. Champasak is only a small town and we were eager to get to Don Daeng, so after a bite to eat we tried to flag down the ‘ferry’. This contraption, to be precise, was formed of 2 small row boats with planks of wood tied across them forming a sort of catamaran. On this small, fragile boat we squeezed 4 motorbikes and 4 adults, plus the driver! He got us across safe and sound though, welcoming us onto the stunning island of Don Daeng.
Don Daeng is very much a locals only Island with only one restaurant and one swanky resort (plus a few home stays). There are no roads, only sand filled tracks, but it is basically paradise. We stayed in one of the homestays which was literally a mattress, on the floor, with a mosquito net, in one of the locals house. We weren’t sure if actually we had taken one of the children’s beds since the girl was slept on the floor in the next room… For £6 it was amazing value though.
That evening we wandered to part of the 14km long beach and played in the Mekong as the sun set behind the mountains.
The Plateau: Day 1
Practice time over we started on a 120km journey from Champasak to Tad Lo village. There was only one planned stop on the route, otherwise we only stopped for water/food breaks.
The Plateau is a haven for farmers and a favourite crop if theirs is coffee. We stopped at Mr Viengs Coffee Homestay where we enjoyed a delicious iced coffee, made from his very own arabica beans. He showed us around his couple of acres and was a fantastic host. Probably the most interesting thing he told us was about how more and more of the land in Laos is being bought out by Chinese farmers. The Chinese use pesticides and chemicals for their crops which can stay in the soil for up to 10 years. Laotian farmers, although poor, have a respect for the environment and understand the need to care for the soil. He told us that all the Laotian farmers are organic and it saddens them to see this happen in their country. I can sympathise with how they feel and how hard it must be to say no to joining the Chinese considering the poor wages for most farmers.
Arriving in Tad Lo, a small peaceful town, we reflected on the day. I had read that the drive on the small loop could be a little boring, but despite the dry time of year we all felt it had been quite an interesting ride!
The Plateau: Day 2
Deciding to give the bikes (and our bums) a rest for the day we explored the area around Tad Lo.
We were staying in Fan Dee, a charitable organisation that employs and trains locals and their children in hospitality. With the help of tourists donations they are building a guesthouse in Tad Lo which will eventually be owned and run by the children under their care. It’s a fantastic way to ensure a better quality of life to families who would normally be limited to agriculture.
There are a couple of waterfalls in the area, just walking distance away. The first, Tad Lo, is great for swimming and you can climb up and sit behind the falls which is pretty cool! The second, Tad Hang, was unfortunately having a hotel built in front of it so we decided not to go for a swim. Tad Lo is a sleepy little village so some R&R is a great way to finish off a day here.
The Plateau: Day 3
The final marathon day takes you up to the highest point of the plateau and then all the way back down to Pakse, stopping at some waterfalls along the way. All in all it’s around 65km of road but you still have time to enjoy each stop.
Firstly, as is ritual, we stopped at another coffee plantation for some fuel. Sinouk Coffee Resort provided exactly what we needed, very good coffee (when most of the coffee you’re given is undrinkable you learn to appreciate the good cups).
Moving on we headed to the first waterfall Tad Yuang. Pretty impressive and large, you can walk down to the very bottom and take a swim or stand right at the top and peer over. We stopped here for a while but noticing some ominous looking clouds decided to make a dash for it. We did make it to Tad Fane, the second waterfall, with only a few drizzles of rain. Though, as we heard a distant rumble, we knew the proper rain was headed our way. Getting to watch the storm clouds approach you over a waterfall as impressive as Tad Fane is pretty epic. The heavens opened as we predicted so we sat out the brief, but heavy, shower over lunch!
With the plateau well and truly soaked we made a group decision not to go to the other waterfalls. The paths are mostly dirt tracks off the main road and could potentially be slippy/dangerous in wet conditions.
The plateau was my first motorbike experience and probably one of my last! It was definitely an adventure and the Bolaven Plateau provided a pleasant and scenic route to keep you occupied on the road. Tad Fane is the undoubted highlight of the route though, adding to the list of magnificent waterfalls we have visited during our travels.
We finished off Laos with a few relaxing days on the ‘4000 islands’ before flying to Cambodia!
More to come!