Swinging by the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

Next to travelling by river to explore the lesser trodden backdrops of the more remote regions of Laos, venturing out on a motorbike is an excellent way to discover the rural countryside. Besides the scenic multi-day motorbike loop through surreal landscapes leading to the Kong Lor cave in Central Laos, the cooler Bolaven Plateau in the south of the country can be explored similarly. Hop on!

Pakse is as sleepy as we are, when we arrive at one of its deserted bus terminals at 4 am. As the city wakes up, it appears that its vibe is very different from the tough still welcoming North or the colonial town of Thakhek in Central Laos, lazily spreading along the Mekong River. Clearly lacking charm, Pakse is still the perfect hub to visit the stunning Wat Phu Champasak Khmer temple or hop on a Honda Wave 110 cc motorbike to explore the swing, a 300-kilometre loop on the cooler Bolaven plateau amongst coffee plantations and waterfalls.

Heading eastwards out of Pakse, we are braving the intense rush-hour traffic with its heavily loaded pick-up trucks, uncountable tuk-tuks and mopeds, and cranky old buses. Facing the sun, about 30 kilometres in, we cross the Houai Champi River that we will soon follow upstream to arrive at the first of many waterfalls. The very popular six-metre-high Pha Suam waterfall is the main landmark of an artificial park with its model Lao village that feels more like an ethnic zoo. The contrast with the authentic and remote  Akha villages of northern Laos is striking, and, uncomfortable, we are fast to hop back on our bikes.

 

 

Slaloming around many potholes with the constant humming of our engines, occasionally interrupted by our honking horns to discourage the many dogs and chickens from crossing the road, we slowly gain altitude. Houses make place for bamboo shacks on stilts and manioc plantations. An alternative to rice, corn or potato, manioc or yucca is an easy-to-grow crop, and many coffee farmers diversify by planting some. The root is part of the locals’ daily food and can be boiled, baked or roasted, although most of the production is used to feed cattle or is exported to neighbouring China, explains the energetic Mr. Vieng on his coffee farm.

 

 

We follow the young man on his farm: “This is an Arabica tree from which the beans can be harvested in November and December. Those Robusta trees over there are harvested in January and February. In April, I can harvest the beans of the Liberica trees. This way, the coffee season lasts from November until April. In May and June, we cut the grass; in July and August we harvest peanuts; and in September and October we harvest rice in the lower areas”, Mr. Vieng explains. Walking through the plantation, majestic durian, mango and jackfruit trees provide shade and delicious snacks. An ant falls down on Mr. Vieng’s shoulder while he is standing underneath a Robusta tree. He looks up and points out to the leafs of the tree that are almost entirely covered by lemon ants. Without much hesitation, he tears a big leaf full of ants, folds it, and rubs it between his hands, killing the insects. Opening up the leaf, he picks some ants and with a big smile brings them to his mouth to eat them: “They taste like lemon and are very crunchy!” he says, offering them to us very naturally. They do taste like lemon! Chewing on some crunchy ants, we listen to how the Vieng family dries the coffee beans in the sun, peels off the skin, washes and dries the beans again, and manually gets rid of the second layer of skin before selling the 400 to 500 kilograms of beans per year to the factory.

 

 

To make ends meet, his wife weaves traditional scarfs and pieces of cloth with Laotian patterns, and welcomes visitors warmly in their homestay.

We sip the coffee that Mr. Vieng has just roasted and brewed for us. It is by far the best coffee we have tasted in Laos, very different from what is called Lao coffee, a brew of cheap coffee mixed with condensed milk, served either warm or on ice cubes.

Another natural halt for the night is Tadlo, a backpackers’ paradise with many options to sleep and eat, and three waterfalls within a 10-kilometre radius. Perfect for a morning bath, we enjoy the serenity of the Tadlo waterfall shortly after sunrise.

 

 

Past Tadlo, the long stretch on the Honda Wave through the remote province of Sekong leads to the 100-metre high waterfall Nam Tok Katamtok viewpoint in the Dong Hua Sao National Protected Area. This forested park leads all the way down to the Mekong River. To protect it from the extensive logging in order to grow coffee, the 1,100 square kilometre area was declared a National Park in 1993.  Many endangered species live in this remote region such as the yellow-cheeked gibbon, the Siamese crocodile, the hog deer, and hornbills.

Our bikes keep rolling down the warm asphalt as the sun sets on the Mekong behind busy Pakse that we approach slowly, merging with the local commuters. Crossing the town, we extend our motorbi

 

 

Our bikes keep rolling down the warm asphalt as the sun sets on the Mekong behind busy Pakse that we approach slowly, merging with the local commuters. Crossing the town, we extend our motorbike adventure to one of the most impressive Khmer temples of Laos: Wat Phu Champasak. Formerly connected to the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, Wat Phu Champasak used to be dedicated to Shiva. Detailed carvings of other Hindu deities such as Indra and Vishnu can be seen on these serene ruins amongst frangipani trees. Converted into a Buddhist temple in the 13th century, the site is till sacred today and offers stunning views on the lowlands and highlands that we have just explored. This very Khmer temple, just a hint to what is awaiting us in Cambodia

Claire & Marcella

 

 

Travel tips:

  • To rent a reliable motorbike, please refer to Pakse Travel, pinned on the following interactive map.
  • For a similar adventure in central Laos, read about The Loop.
  • To book a homestay at Mr. Vieng’s, email him. 
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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