Cruising The Bolaven Plateau
The Bolaven Plateau Loop is a wild contrasting combination of long boring roads, stunning waterfalls, and genuinely kind locals; and is without a doubt one of the best adventures you can have on a motorbike in southern Laos.
After a month spent in Cambodia consistently trying and failing to find any adventure, my lust, and excitement for Southeast Asia and travel; in general; was beginning to fade. I needed to find a way to pick my spirits back up; and fast.
Luckily I’d booked my bus ticket across the border to Laos earlier that morning. I had also read about an adventure that involved renting a motorbike and hitting the open road on a journey through an area known as the Bolaven Plateau.
The Bolaven Plateau
Located within the Champasak Province in southern Laos; the Bolaven Plateau has an elevation ranging from approximately 3,000 – 4,500 feet above sea level resulting in a much milder climate than the rest of the Mekong Delta.
Lying directly between the mighty Mekong River to the West and the Vietnamese border to the East; it is a wild variation of landscapes and culture making it the ideal place for an open road adventure known as the Bolaven Plateau Loop.
Travelers looking to set out on this journey will have to decide whether they want to experience only a taste of local Laotian life on the two-day “small loop,” or attempt to venture out past the daily tour bus route on the three-day “Big Loop.”
Planning Info: For a complete overview of both Bolaven Plateau Loops check out this guide to help you decide which one best fits your travel plans.
The Big Loop
After some exhaustive research, I figured that in order to get the most out of this adventure I would have to attempt the three-day, two-night “Big Loop.” That decision would ultimately lead me to have one of the best motorbike adventures I’ve ever had in Southeast Asia.
My journey began in the city of Pakse, located on the banks of the Mekong River.
The City Of Pakse
Renting A Motorbike
Motorbike rental shops are easy to come by in Pakse and all for about the same price. Just make sure to inspect the bike before you ride. A Semi-automatic goes for ₭50,000 or $5.95 and fully automatic for ₭80,000 or $9.50 per day.
If driving a semi-automatic makes you nervous because you’ve never done it before; you’re not alone; I hadn’t either. Check out this video that makes it super easy to understand, and you’ll end up saving almost $4 a day. That’s enough to cover the cost of petrol or even a few meals.
Day 1 – Pakse To Tad Faek
Day one started off just past 9 AM after some hearty eggs, bacon, and toast at the Downtown Pakse Hostel. The semi-automatic motorbike that I had rented from Lao Adventure Travel just around the corner was loaded down and ready to go.
During my research, I’d read that the northern road on day one was going to be long, hot, and boring. That information was undoubtedly correct.
Long Stretches Of Nothing
The only break from the long road leading nowhere was a few small villages and some rickety bridges with poorly painted load limit signs that inspired lots of confidence as I crossed alongside a truck filled with heavy building materials.
Bridge Don’t Fail Me Now
After a few hours of cruising the open road, I finally made it to the first stop of the Bolaven Plateau Loop; Tad Lo and Tad Hang.
Travel App: If you want to make sure to never miss a turn or wind up on some backroad in the middle of nowhere; make sure to download an offline map app and pre-plot all the stops you want to make.
Tad Lo + Tad Hang
Located in a village with the same name; Tad Lo is the perfect waterfall to start off your Bolaven Plateau adventure. The volume of water flowing over the cliff is pretty amazing, especially during the rainy season.
The Mighty Tad Lo
You can’t see him in the picture, but there was a man fishing from the top, and I have no idea how he got past the rapids to his comfy spot on the edge of the cliff.
After some time spent enjoying the cool mist coming off the falls, I hopped back on the bike and headed to Tad Hang.
The Underwhelming Tad Hang
Although not nearly as spectacular as Tad Lo or worth the ₭5,000 or $0.60 cover charge; Tad Hang was still a nice way to hide from the midday sun.
A few moments resting in the shade and I was off into town for some grub. Meals on the Bolaven Plateau Loop usually go for around ₭20,000 or $2.50 for some rice/noodles and your choice of meat.
With my belly full and still a few more hours to ride; I hit the dusty road; which had thankfully changed from red covered asphalt to a tightly packed grey gravel.
Signs Of Change
Many travelers decide to make Tad Lo their rest point for the end of day one, however with it only being midday and the possibility of the occasional tour bus showing up; I opted to head further down the road and officially off-the-beaten-path, to Tad Faek where I had heard there was some camping.
Tad Faek + Tad Houa Khon
So now you’re wondering why it’s even worth it to go that far out of the way to visit some lackluster waterfalls; right? Well, the reason I chose to stay in the area was for the remote camping; or at least that was my initial plan.
The campsite at Tad Faek was pretty gnarly looking, and the woman preparing the food had a mystery fish-head stew brewing; which is what gave me nightmarish food poisoning less than the week before. So naturally, I opted for the much more upscale P & S Garden Guesthouse just up the road.
P & S Garden
Heading back towards the main road you will notice a fenced in area with a big white sign on your left. P & S Garden is a small compound consisting of a restaurant, coffee shop, bungalows, and camping area.
P & S Garden Guesthouse
I couldn’t believe how nice this place was compared to the other guesthouses around. It felt like a resort but at a fraction of the price. Don’t let the picture fool you; those tents were already set up, and I was the only one there. A tent went for ₭60,000 or $7 per night and included a mattress and blankets.
The best part about P & S Garden is that it is surrounded by nature. The camping site hovers above the slow-moving river on a small island and just behind the hedgerow are some kayaks you can take to explore Tad Houa Khon.
Tad Houa Khon
Day 2 – Tad Faek To Paksong
Day two started off with a poorly timed rooster call and some tasty french fries before hopping back on the bike and heading down the road towards what I hoped would be a drastic change in scenery. I would not be disappointed.
The Xe Namnoy River
After the turn-off to the southern side of the loop in Beng Phou Kham, the road became steep and winding as I made my way down through the valley past roaring rivers and some breathtaking waterfalls just off the side of the road.
The Xe Katarm Waterfall
I found the Xe Katarm Waterfall hiding behind a power plant and still can’t figure out why it isn’t on the top list of attractions in the area.
After a few more miles of stunning landscapes, I finally climbed up out of the valley and turned off on a red dirt road leading to my third official stop on the Bolaven Plateau Loop; Tad Jarou Halang.
On That Red Dirt Road
Tad Jarou Halang + Tad Couple
My initial research had shown pictures of Tad Jarou Halang labeled as Tad Tayicsua, which is why Tad Jarou Halang wasn’t even on my radar until I arrived.
They both happen to be in the same area. However, the viewpoint for Tad Tayicsua was overgrown, making it impossible to see the falls. Tad Jarou Halang, however, ended up being my favorite waterfall on the loop.
Tad Jarou Halang
There are apparently seven waterfalls on a jungle trek through this part of the Bolaven Plateau. I was originally going to stay the night and attempt to see them all, but when I arrived there were venomous snake signs posted everywhere and the Tad Tayicsua Guesthouse area was completely empty.
So, the risk of dying a slow painful death via snakebite on this particular jungle trek in Southeast Asia wasn’t sounding worth it at the time. So I decided to hop back on my bike and head to the next stop; Tad Couple.
Located only a few minutes West down the same red dirt road is Tad Couple. If you haven’t caught on by now the word “tad” is Laotian for waterfall, and that’s just what Tad Couple was; another short shady stop on the way to better waterfalls.
Having had my initial plans dashed, the next available place to sleep was going to be the town of Paksong. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but what I didn’t foresee is who I would meet along the way.
Howdy Partner! Need A Ride?
Barreling westward, I came across a man on the side of the road. Normally I don’t pick up strangers, but after recalling all the times I’ve stood under the midday sun with my thumb out; there was no way I was going to leave him hanging. So I gave a big “Sabaidi/Hello,” and we set off down the road.
An Unspoken Friendship
Once we arrived in Paksong, I didn’t expect any compensation for the ride; I was just happy to help a brother out. But just as I was about to pull away, I heard someone yell “friend…hey friend!”
I turned around to see the man holding up three big bottles of beer. If you’re unaware, three beers cost ₭30,000, which is about a days wage in Laos.
So after an hour of using hand signs to communicate, we stood up, shook hands, and said farewell. But not before taking a picture and sneakily slipping a few rolled up bills into his cigarette pack.
Day 3 – Paksong To Pakse
The final day began on the second floor of the Vanchai Guesthouse overlooking a town covered in fog. Overnight the sunny and warm town that I’d rolled into changed into a cold and dreary one.
After a few hours of waiting the mist finally cleared, and I head out towards the last two stops of my Bolaven Plateau adventure.
Tad Yuang + Tad Fane
Unquestionably the two most popular destinations on the Bolaven Plateau; Tad Yuang and Tad Fane are easily reachable by day trip from Pakse. That’s why I decided to save them for last so that I could ease my way back into the hustle and bustle of regular travel in Southeast Asia.
Tad Yuang (Gneuang)
I can see why these two waterfalls are the most talked about. Their raw power and scale are truly astounding. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but while I was visiting Tad Huay and Tad Fane, there wasn’t another soul around.
Tad Fane holds the record as the tallest waterfall in Southeast Asia, although I think that might just be a local belief. Either way, it’s still pretty impressive.
Entry Fees: There is a ₭5,000 or $0.60 parking fee and a ₭10,000 or $1.20 entry fee for both Tad Huay and Tad Fane.
The Final Stretch
The final stretch back to Pakse was down the same road that I came out on the first day so you can imagine how excited I was about that. It did, however, mean that I would soon have a hot shower, some good wifi and that I would make it back just in time for happy hour on the Pakse Hotels rooftop overlooking the city.
A Drink With A View
From the outside looking in, traveling can often times seem like a world of excitement with each moment building up to the next. But anyone who has traveled for an extended period knows that after a while things begin to stagnate.
All of a sudden that incredible view or stunning waterfall is now compared with the one you saw the week before. Somewhere along the line you just quit giving a shit about anything.
That’s where I’d found myself after a few months spent among the masses in Indonesia and slumming it up in Cambodia. I was seriously questioning if I should keep traveling and blogging all together.
After my grand adventure on the Bolaven Plateau with just me, a motorbike and the open road, that feeling has now passed. My inspiration for travel has been completely renewed, and I’m looking forward to what comes next.
So if you’re on the fence about attempting the loop, just follow Shia Labeouf’s advice and “DO IT!”