Bolaven Plateau: Home to Hidden Wonders & Evergreen LandscapesThe Bolaven Plateau is located east of Pakse, trapped between the Annamite Mountain Ranges and the Mekong River. At an altitude of around 800m-1500m above sea level, the climate is significantly cooler than the rest of the country. Consequently, the Bolaven Plateau boasts an evergreen landscape with hundreds of hidden wonders. From waterfalls to coffee plantations, the small village towns are onto a good thing!
We spent two days exploring the small Bolaven Plateau loop on a scooter. After missing out on the Tha Khek loop, we were pretty excited to have the opportunity to cruise around the Bolaven Plateau. In reality, this loop probably suited us better. While the Tha Khek loop is a whopping 450km around central Laos to visit the caves, the more manageable 220km loop around the Bolaven Plateau took us to some incredible waterfalls hidden in the dense jungle.
With the Ho Chi Minh trail passing close to the edge of the Bolaven Plateau, this area was one of the most heavily bombed regions throughout the Vietnam War. Many of the minority groups still suffer the lasting consequences of the war, with unexploded ordnance reported to be located throughout the more remote areas. I have read there are areas that, understandably, are not welcoming of western tourists. We didn’t experience this at all, with the only subtle things indicating the secret war, such as bomb shells used as planter boxes.
From Pakse, we travelled to Tad Lo where we spent the night before continuing to Paksong and back to Pakse. As this is a major network linking Thailand and Vietnam, the roads are the best I have seen through Laos. We initially planned to complete the loop over three days, but after arriving in Paksong at 10am we decided we had plenty of time to explore the remaining Plateau and complete the 50km drive to Pakse.
ACCOMMODATIONAs we were leaving Pakse we met a traveller returning from the Bolaven Plateau. She told us about these incredible Bungalows pitched out over the river in Tad Lo. We sought out Sailomyen, a guesthouse on the edge of the river just below the Tad Hang waterfall. While it was a bit rough around the edges, the price and location made it well worth it! The guesthouse is run by a family and has a bit of a homey feel. Most entertaining were the hoards of animals roaming around. Chickens, piglets, cows and goats all seemed to roam freely throughout the tiny township of Tad Lo and would often wander through the grounds of the guesthouse!
FOODWhile the town is tiny, there are multiple guesthouses, all of which have small restaurants. The food served is mainly Laotian and very enjoyable. Fandee guesthouse serves an incredible western breakfast with an obvious french influence. All meals are served with warm, fresh baguettes, and there are several different types of cheese served. They also had an organic Bolaven coffee, and it was the best cup of coffee I have had in Laos to date!
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONSWhile touring the Bolaven Plateau via scooter is an activity in itself, we stopped at a few other attractions along the way. We chose a select few waterfalls, mainly as there were entrance and parking fees making it quite costly to visit all of the falls.
Tad HangThis set of falls is located just downstream from Tad Lo but, confusingly, is visible from the Tad Lo township. The river tumbles down this wide set of falls, providing a picturesque backdrop and thundering soundtrack for the township.
Tad LoThis concave cliff is quite impressive. We naively thought we could easily walk upstream from Tad Hang without concern, especially as it is only 200m. A local dog lead the way, zig-zagging up the extremely slippery rocks that form the river bank. It was well worth it and we really enjoyed the view underneath the falls. The river has been damned further upstream from Tad Lo, with water released daily in the afternoon. This made the return trip that wee bit harder as the water level had increased notably!
Tad YuangOne of the first waterfalls we stumbled upon travelling from Paksong to Pakse, I thought these falls were spectacular. Surrounded by dense jungle, the cliff and basin below were quite unlike the other falls we’ve seen in Laos. Even a group of monks found it impressive, taking selfies at the bottom!
Tea and coffee plantationWe found this tiny shack with a small sign offering coffee tours and couldn’t resist stopping. A man, who I assume owns the plantation, fixed us both a tea and coffee. Both were lovely and I enjoyed the novelty of having the product from the plantation we were sitting at.
I find the whole coffee production process fascinating, and was surprised to find the coffee berries have a bright red skin and a clear, lychee type fruit covering the seed inside. I’m not sure what I expected, but maybe something more obvious, perhaps a brown seed attached to the tree branches or something similar. Instead, these red berries are hand picked, skinned by machine and dried in the sun. The beans then have a dry skin which needs to be removed (by machine) and a green been is left. These are then roasted which gives the rich brown colour.
The man’s wife gave me a tour around the plantation, showing me the two types of coffee they grow (both Lao style or Robusta, and Arabica) and other various fruits, including pineapple and something I have never seen before which she called mackaii (which I haven’t been able to find online, or figure out the proper spelling). We also had a look at the green tea plantation, where they pick the young leaves before drying them to make tea. While the ladies picking the tea were older, there were 30-40 young children who arrived while we were there to help pick the coffee berries. The woman giving the tour told me she is a school teacher and I’m guessing the children come in their lunch break (11.30am-1.30pm) to help collect the berries. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, which was nice to see.
PEOPLE & CULTUREThe people of the Bolaven Plateau were incredibly inviting and friendly. I saw the best form of a school bus, a motorbike with a sidecar full of tiny children with ‘smile taxi’ written along the side. The children were all smiling and laughing, excited to be heading to school. Driving along on the scooter the children would often run alongside the road waving and yelling “sabaidee” which is ‘hello’ in Laotian. It was pretty cool to see how genuinely friendly and excited they were to see us. On the other end of the spectrum, I continue to be amazed by the older Lao population, majority of whom are just as happy as the children yet must have seen and experienced true horrors in their lives. To have the personal strength to live a positive life after that is truly amazing.
It was also fascinating to see a bit more of rural Laos. The houses are still often built of bamboo with thatched roofs, but they have massive satellite dishes outside so they can get TV reception! Many of these houses don’t have indoor plumbing, and people often use buckets and bathe outdoors. In Tad Lo the river is an obvious lifeline, utilised for far greater means than I would have expected. From the main water supply to the place most people bathe, it is a very central focus of everyday life. I was also fascinated that most people cook over an open fire outdoors and still produce a high quality of food. Such a contrast to western society where so many people struggle to cook but have all the modern facilities.
WHAT WE LEARNTI loved learning about the process that goes into making coffee. It makes me wonder who came up with the idea to take the berries, dry and roast them before grinding them to brew a drink. They must have had an inquisitive mind!
As I have said in previous Laos posts, I continue to be amazed by the gentle nature and strength of the Lao people. Our trip through the beautiful countryside has been a true eye-opener and I am learning a lot just from observing the culture.