Hiring a motorbike and exploring the Asian countryside – that was a dream both of us always had. We had read about and talked to many people about exploring parts of South East Asia by bike. Therefore, both of us were intrigued to go on such an adventure ourselves. Fortunately, Laos offers two very frequented “loops” in the South, i.e. the Thakhek Loop (450 km) and the Bolaven Plateau Loop (150 km or 300 km). Since we were short of time, we decided to do the smaller Bolaven Plateau Loop. Unfortunately, we did not get the chance to do something similar during our time in Sri Lanka. Hence, the Bolaven loop represented the perfect opportunity.
Beginning our journey in Vientiane, we took a sleeper bus to Pakse. Going by recommendations we headed to Ms Noy Motorbike Rental to get our vehicle for the next few days. There we were faced with the very first challenge of the trip because the shop was out of automatic scooters. So Svea had to learn how to drive a semi-automatic one in a crash course from a very friendly and supportive French assistant working at the motorbike shop. Having mastered the craft, we headed out on the street with all our belongings stuffed between us.
Equipped with a rough map of the loop which we got from the motorbike rental shop, we made our way out of the city and into the wild. In fact, the loop is characterised by its many waterfalls, which is Tad [tʌd] in Lao, along the way. The first one on our route was Tad Itou after around 40 km. After making our way down the hill we were rewarded with a beautiful view. Unfortunately, it was rather cold that day so we were not able to go for a dive in the beautiful pool.
Not far from here we nearly missed the entrance to Tad Fan because there was only one inconspicuous sign board. Tad Fan was another amazing highlight on the route. Then we had to make our way down a rocky and unsteady road. The locals there did not seem bothered by the street conditions at all. While we were struggling to move forward steadily they were speeding over the stones and rocks as if this was nothing to worry about. The waterfall itself you can only see from a distance from across the gorge. For the brave and adventurous among us ziplining and abseiling is offered there.
We quickly jumped back on the bike since we still wanted to see two more waterfalls and therefore had quite some more kilometers to cover that day. Since breakfast had been a while ago, we were longing for some food. Luckily, at our next destination there was a small restaurant with a beautiful view over avocado trees and rice paddies. After enjoying some fried rice and (Lao!) milk tea1 we strolled down the mountain to Tad Champi with a seemingly unpassable watercave – believe us, we tried. Again, the pool was definitely beckoning us to have a quick dip, which we sadly had to give a miss once more due to the low temperatures. The area around the loop – the Bolaven Plateau, the Lao coffee- and tea-growing region – is subject to vast and sudden weather and temperature changes. Therefore, we were very happy to be equipped with jackets and leggings for the colder weather.
The final waterfall for the first day was Tad Yuan. That one was definitely our favourite with its three streams down the cliff plunging into a beautiful pool in a green valley. One should watch out there when looking for the way down – we accidentally (and a little bit stupidly) took a stroll into the jungle – and ended up in a dead end.
After sightseeing we still had about 60km to drive to Tad Lo town, which takes around two hours due to the street conditions. The motorbike rental shop recommended staying at Mama Pap, a very simple but comfortable and friendly place. Mama Pap has hosted guests for a long time, as the many photos on her walls show. From all the stories she told us about the people she has met and hosted over the years we got the strong impression that she has found her passion in being a host in this place. The sleeping dorm was upstairs in the attic with a lot of mattresses lying next to each other on the floor. Additionally, over here we had the best breakfast ever!!
The next day, we visited the local waterfall Tad Lo, where you have to keep an eye on your scooter because there is no invigilated parking and scooters are unfortunately constantly subject to theft. As we had already visited most of the sights of the loop on the first day, we headed to our second and last accomodation of the trip. Nearly missing the entrance again for aforesaid reasons we finally arrived at Katu Homestay shortly before nightfall. The owners’ hospitality was amazing – they were very friendly. The two of us and another French couple were the only guests for the night, and Mr Vieng, our host, told us we were travelling during the low season. The place radiated a special atmosphere. The owners had put up many hammocks and seats to relax in in the area. Mr Vieng will also happily give you a tour of their own plantation if you are interested in coffee or the local culture and will visit there one fine day.
On our last day we decided to leave the loop and head to Wat Phou. This is a very famous ancient temple and a smaller version of Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia, which is just across the border from here. It is one of the oldest archeological sites in Laos. Most of its monuments date back to the 11th to 13th century, and it features Khmer architecture. In 2002 it was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Originally, it was a Hindu temple, but it was then transformed into a sacred Buddhist place when Laos became Buddhist in the 13th century.
The temple was created to celebrate and combine nature and humanity. The spring behind the temple is considered sacred.2 Furthermore, the water repositories in front are not only important as a religious symbol, but also have a very practical use, which is considered the main reason for the temple’s location.3 To get there we had to cross the Mekong river – with our motorbike and no bridge – so boat it was. It was truly an unusual experience to cross the river in a rather unstable-looking wooden longboat whilst clinging to our scooter.
Overall, this was an amazing experience that we can highly recommend to anyone wishing to see special sights in Lao PDR. It is an easy endeavour since you do not really need to plan ahead. There are plenty of blogs and travellers’ websites such as Travelfish or 101places (the latter being in German, though), which provide sufficient information on how to navigate this trip and what to see on the loop. Wat Phou is one of the two UNESCO world heritage sites in Lao PDR, besides Luang Prabang. Travellers can find further information on the area’s history and its former relevance to the Angkor kingdom on the UNESCO website.
However, when riding a scooter through Laos travellers should be aware of extraordinary street conditions that change constantly and surprisingly. Also, one needs to be prepared to dodge many “obstacles” on the road such as dogs, pigs, chickens – and children. Most importantly one should slow down on bridges, as they tend to be rickety. Western tourists on scooters are accident-prone because they underestimate the challenge. (In town, one can see the grazes on their knees, elbows, and shoulders.)4
At all times, one should not forget the intense sun. It is very strong, and locals cover themselves appropriately when riding scooters. Only the tourists get fooled by the cooling airstream and collect sunburns along the way.
Text and photos by T. Wedemeyer & S. Röhm
1 Lao milk tea is very different from the milk tea we got to know in India/Sri Lanka.
2 http://www.visit-laos.com/champasak/wat-phu.htm 24th June 2016 8:55 pm
3 https://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/laos/southern_laos/champasak/champasak/107 24th June 2016 9:05 pm
4 Note from the editor: The World Health Organization summarizes its findings from 180 countries in the third Global status report on road safety 2015 as follows: “[W]orldwide the total number of road traffic deaths has plateaued at 1.25 million per year, with the highest road traffic fatality rates in low-income countries. In the last three years, 17 countries have aligned at least one of their laws with best practice on seat-belts, drink-driving, speed, motorcycle helmets or child restraints. While there has been progress towards improving road safety legislation and in making vehicles safer, the report shows that the pace of change is too slow” (http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2015/en/ , last accessed on 6 August 2018).
Information on traffic statistics from Laos can be found on p. 162, e.g. riders motorized 2- or 3-wheelers make up 67% of the casualties.