The Bolaven Plateau near Pakse is a popular stop for tourists visiting southern Laos. It is well-known for the coffee plantation (here you get the freshest coffee in Laos) and for water falls. If you want to explore rural Laos the Bolaven is surely a place to visit.
In Pakse you will find many agencies offering day trips by car or bus to see the most popular waterfalls. However, the best way to explore the Bolaven Plateau is by motorbike. The main roads are in great condition, and I think seeing an area on a bike is more rewarding than sitting in a car.
Because of the popularity there are plenty of places renting motorbikes. Which seems is a good thing is also a potential risk as there are quite a few dodgy shops trying to rip off tourists. Some bikes are in terrible shape that makes them unsafe or will cause a break down. Also, some agencies have a section in the contract that if the bike has ANY damage that the person renting the bike has to pay a fee in value of a new bike – and not just the damaged part. Driving an old bike increases the risk to pay a high fee in the end. It is therefore important to check the bike properly. Also there are reports that some agencies rent bikes without any documents or licence plate, stolen from Thailand. The police is apparently checking more bikes, and if you are caught with a stolen bike it could happen that you can walk back to Pakse.
One reputable place to get a motorbike is Lankham hotel on the main Road of Pakse. They offer a range of automatic and semi-automatic bikes in decent conditions. This is probably the safest bet to get a motorbike. Prices range from 80.000 to 150.000 Kip.
The Bolaven plateau offers two loops, the original one and an extended one. The original is best done in 3 days to have enough time to see waterfalls, enjoying the scenery and not having a need to rush.
The extended on is heading to Attapeau near the Vietnamese border, and would be done best in 5 days.
This description will cover the original loop and is split into three section, one for each day. You could manage to do part 2 and 3 in one day if you do not stop too often.
Part 1: Pakse – Paksong (ca. 50 km)
The first section is rather short, but due to the amount of waterfalls a full day offers plenty of space to visit some, enjoying the route and getting to Paksong before it gets dark. The 50 km does not include the rides from the main road to the falls.
The condition of the main road is very nice, paved and wide. However, getting to the falls you need to get off that road and follow a dirt road to the falls. Careful on these stretches as you can easily fell down (I talk from own experience).
Getting out from Pakse is quite straightforward. From the Lankham hotel turn right onto the main road (13) and follow it all the way until you are out-of-town. Careful, it is a very busy road, often having two or three lanes. Don’t be surprised if you have to change into the opposite lane if there are road constructions. Outside of Pakse the Road 13 turns right, while the road straight ahead becomes Road 16 – and that is the one you follow. Without really realising you actually climb slowly to a higher altitude from the start, and the scenery turns greens.
On that stretch of the road you will see forests, coffee plantation, rivers and villages – and some factories as well. It is a nice road to ride on. After 20km you come to a bigger crossing – turn left to get to Tad Lo and the north, but stay on Road 16 as you will find quite a few waterfalls during the following 30 km.
The first one is the Tad Champee waterfall on 38 km mark. Turn left onto the dirt road and follow the road for 2km. It is not a large waterfall, but a great one to visit for a swim, or float on a little platform, or go behind the fall. Great place to relax – or to have a picnic. Here are more details about Tad Champee.
One of the more popular waterfalls is the area is at the same 38km mark, just turn right and you will reach Tad Fane waterfall. It is located in a jungle area, where from the twin falls water crashes down over 90m. From a viewing platform or the restaurant you have a great view of the falls. Here are more details about Tad Fane.
A few kilometres east you find signs for the Tad Yuang Waterfall. Unlike the previous two falls it has already a tourist set up with stalls to sell souvenirs after the entrance. It is a nice area, and you can either walk down to the pool, or go close to the edge to look down the falls. Here are more details about Tad Yuang.
There are few more waterfalls along that road, but I have not visited them. After Tad Yuang it is a round 10km more until you reach the town of Paksong. It is the main stop for people visiting the plateau for more than just one day. However, there are not too many guesthouses. There are few along the main road passing the big park on the left hand side. If you turn left before the park, passing the market, you will find two guesthouses. I stayed at the Savanna Guesthouse, which is quite nice, but a 10 minute walk back to the main road. Here is my review about Savanna Guesthouse.
Paksong has a few food places along the main road, some offering some nice Lao barbecue, where soup and vegetables is boiled on the side, and a grill on top of it taking care of the meat. It is a nice way to have dinner. There are also a few “bars” where you will most likely find locals enjoying a few drinks, including karaoke. Everything is very low-key though – it is just not a tourist hub. The only attractions are the local market you can visit in the morning, and at night there could be a fayre opposite the market with little rides for children, some food stalls. One other interesting place to visit is the Jhai coffee house. They serve a nice breakfast there, have some interesting information about coffee from the Plateau on display – and you can book a tour to a coffee plantation. I didn’t take one, but i heard some good things about it. Otherwise, Paksong is just a good option to spend the night there.
Part 2: Paksong – Tad Lo (ca. 65 km)
From Paksong you have a number of choices for the second part. A.) Return the same way back to Pakse. B.) Follow the road east towards the Vietnamese border to visit Attapeau or Sekong. C.) Continue with the little loop and head to Tat Lo north of Paksong.
If you decide to continue with the small loop it is not a long day – it is all about the scenery and arriving at the destination. From Paksong follow the main Road 16. At the end of Paksong make sure you follow the main road to your left and not follow the road ahead – that s the one towards Attapeau.
From here just follow the road all the way to the north. The scenery is different to day one. There are less forests but more open fields and plantations, and a lot of little villages and hamlets. It really is a lovely road to ride a bike.
When arriving in the village of Thateng you can turn right to head to Sekong – for Tat Lo stay on the road and continue north. The road is now flanked again by forests of two national parks. At the end of the road you will join road 20, turn left here. At the junction are a number of food places where you can get some nice noodle soup or other dishes. It is a nice place for a wee break.
Follow road 20 and turn right into a smaller road just before crossing the river, which will bring you to the village of Tad Lo, located along a river and to the Tad Lo waterfall.
The village itself is a lovely little place with a lovely atmosphere. You will easily find plenty of guesthouses for all kind of budgets. Just follow the main road to find a place you like. There are few located along the river, with the Saise resort and Tad Lo Lodge the two most luxurious places. Careful when checking rooms at the Saise resort, the path to the bungalows are a bit rough, and no lights along the path. I stayed at the Sipaserth Guesthouse along the river before the bridge. Here is my review of the accommodation.
One of the reason to come to the village is the waterfall that gave the village its name – the Tad Lo waterfall. it is a rather small, but still a very picturesque fall. You can walk along the fall, and from the bridge you get a nice view. Late afternoon you will see the locals turning up around the bridge to wash cloth, and for the kids to play. It is a lovely atmosphere, and interesting to see some of the daily activities in rural Laos.
Another highlight are the treks you can organise via guesthouses, most are a full day one. For more information speak to your guesthouse. As an alternative you can also take a little walk from the village to explore the beautiful surrounding area – and another waterfall nearby. A great way to experience some more of rural Laos. Here is the description of the little walk.
And a final reason to visit this place is the very laid back atmosphere. It is great to put up your feet, enjoy the view and just relax. This is maybe why Tad Lo village is more popular than Paksong. So if you need a place to re-charge your battery, this is the right place.
Most guesthouses also offer food. The dinner and breakfast at Sipaserth guesthouse was very nice.
Part 2: Tad Lo – Pakse (ca. 85 km)
The last section of the loop is the way back to Pakse. It is the longest drive, but one which can be done in 1/2 day to be able to return the bike in time. The main highlight for this part is the Pha Suam Waterfall.
From Tad Lo village return to road 20, turn left and head towards Pakse. Once again you will pass many open fields, coffee plantations, little villages and some wooden areas. It is a pleasant ride with some nice views, locals waving at you.
After 50km you will see a sign for the Pha Suam waterfall. Turn right and follow the dirt road to the falls. In a nice shady place is the parking lot for motorbikes. While it is not a tall waterfall, it is definitely a beautiful one – and the easiest one to get around. Definitely worth a stop. Here are more details about Pha Suam.
After the fall just follow the remaining part of road 20, heading back into the Dong Hua National Park, until you reach the Road 16 again. Turn left and follow the road back to Pakse – the same way you left Pakse a few days earlier.
Overall the Bolaven Plateau Loop is a lovely motorbike loop. Thanks to the good road condition and the light traffic it is easy to ride a bike here – just be careful with the roads leading to the falls. The waterfalls are definitely the highlights, and the lush green of the scenery is beautiful. And if you like coffee, you will be a happy person thanks to the very good coffee you can get here. And thanks to the higher altitude the climate is very nice – not too hot, which can be a blessing. While the area is lovely and nice, it does not have the impressive, breathtaking scenery other motorbike loops in SEA can offer – or even the Thakhek Loop further north. Maybe doing the extended Loop via Attapeau and Sekong could be more interesting. But if you are in Pakse, then doing the Loop is definitely worth it.
- For the loop try getting a bike from Lankham Hotel
- Before choosing the short or long loop get some information about the current road condition of the road to Attapeau
- Even though the distances sound quite short, do not rush and miss the waterfalls. They are the main highlight of the loop
- Do not forget your swimming gear – you can get a refreshing swim in some of the falls.
- If you need time to relax and re-charge your batteries, Tad Lo is a good place to do so.