One of the most popular areas of Southern Laos is the Bolaven Plateau, home to beautiful waterfalls, fertile soil that hosts many different types of produce including high grade tea and coffee, vast variety of fruits, tapioca, cardamom and rattan, as well as a nice range of tribal communities that still live a simple lifestyle. We did not need to go far to arrange our tour. We had the luck to stay in one of the best accommodation in Pakse. The Hotel Pakse: central, clean and with a colonial touch, managed by a team of Europeans and local people. Wat Phou Travels, with a desk right inside the hotel, advertised the Bolaven Plateau Discovery Tour.
Upon enquiring, a smiling Miss Nang made us relax on comfortable chairs while she explained, in perfect English, what we would be visiting, the price and the duration of the tour. Miss Nang was so thorough in her explanation, and despite being late afternoon, she made a couple of phone calls and voila’, the tour was booked. The morning after was going to be an early rise…
We woke at 6,30 and went to have breakfast at the well-supplied buffet from the Pakse Hotel, which is spectacular indeed. At 8am we headed to the reception to meet with our guide for the day, Mr Wat, and off were were in the comfort of his flashy minivan. It was going to be a good 30 minutes trip to the first destination, so we had time to familiarize with our surroundings and to chat wit affable Wat. 40 years of age, and a life spent in the travel industry, with a 5 years spell in an NGO, make Wat a very knowledgeable traveling companion (guide will be the wrong word to describe him). His English is more than perfect, and he is up to date with politics, economics, and he is a lover of history, which suited all our questions about this amazing land and its wonderful people. Wat was a great choice from Wat Phou Travels, which we are told always uses local experienced guides for their exclusive tours of the area.
We were heading east. Out of the minivan’s windows, a world of small rivers and streams, of banana groves, of villages with stilted shacks and smiling faces waiving at our passage. The views over the mountains and the rice paddies and the coffee plantations were incredible. Piles and piles of coffee berries and tapioca were left drying in the sun. It was like being watching a documentary.
These were the highlights of our day:
1- Blacksmith village – Our first stop was at a blacksmith village along Route 13, where Wat explained the production process. This village comprises various, small family-run factories that produce anything from a jungle knife to a machete. The various road-side stalls expose lots of knives from different shapes and prices, which are for sale starting at 30000 kip.
The men made the knives’ blades, hammering the steal and putting it into the heat to get the right form. Meanwhile, women were producing the shafts and handles for the machetes with a combination of wood and bamboo. We were shown how these people recycle iron from old explosives left over from the Silent War to do the blades.
What followed was a sad conversation with Wat, who made us aware of the statistics of the Vietnam war, and the fact that USA dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions. These were part of a plan to block traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
2- Visit to Phasuam – We then continued to reach Phasuam ethnic museum and Tad Phasuam waterfall, located 33 kilometres north of Pakse. This is basically a mock village where a Thai investor and philantroper has managed to bind different tribal communities together to form a living museum where they present their way of living and their handicrafts. All workers and collaborators in the village are from tribes. Wat was able to explain the different style of houses and helped us meet some of the southern minority people, amongst which Katu, Alak and Ngo. At this ethnic village you also have the chance to stay overnight at a family home-stay.
The majestic and beautiful Tad Phasuam waterfall gets its name from its rectangular room-like shape, as ‘suam’ literally means ‘room’ in Lao. Tad Phasuam waterfall flows all year round, descending across the Bolaven Plateau from the Houai Champi River. This is a great relaxing spot where you can also spend the night at one of the unique tree-top bungalows of nearby Uttayan Bachieng Resort.
3- Mr Vieng – The Bolaven Plateau is home to many tea and coffee plantations, and one of the best places to get to know more about this delicacy is Mr Vieng coffe and homestay. The business is advertised by signs on the main road that read FRESH GROUND COFFEE.
It was such a pleasant break, and we arrived right when Mr Vieng and his wife finished removing the fine skin from coffee beans on a heavy and huge wooden pestle and mortar, and were about to start roasting them. We observed carefully as they took out a trusty coffee roasting wok and placed it on the hot coals. The aromatic smell filled the air. This has become a meeting point for visitors to the Bolaven Plateau; several foreigners were sitting on long tables, tasting coffee and chatting.
Mr Vieng then took some time to serve us a delicious Robusta coffee straight from his lush plantation of Robusta trees, before taking us to see his collection of moka pot coffee makers. Several of these machines fill long stands inside Mr Vieng kitchen, and were donated to him by clients and friends.
Mr Vieng and his wife also runs a homestay, a Katu ethnic style wooden house on stilts with 4 rooms with window and mosquito nets, and a terrace that boasts tables and hammocks. The perfect place for those who wish to relax in the nature in contact with the coffee farmers and surrounded by coffee trees. It is so quiet and can be cool at night, a great respite from the Laos persistent heat. Mr Vieng can also arrange a coffee trail trek in the village.
4- Tad Lo waterfall – Next was the very popular Tad Lo waterfall. Located in Salavan province, this is a popular trekking stopover for travelers. Tad Lo has three waterfalls: one beside Tad Lo village, one a kilometer away upstream, and one further upstream about eight kilometres away. Most of the local community is built up around this area, which has a lake, a village and a few wooden bungalows on the lakeside. Tad Lo waterfall is not that majestic, but it is wide and quite impressive, a nice place to spend some time. We had lunch in the unassuming local restaurant by the waterfall, where all tour minivans seem to converge, before making our way to the next destination.
5- Nge community village – A visit to an authentic village of the minority Nge group included some time at ease to explore the village. A group of kids of different ages formed right after we entered the village square, and followed me throughout the whole visit. Some where shy, while others asked for money and pens. We were strongly advised by the guide not to give money to kids, who would easily learn a begging attitude. Instead, it is always better to find out who the village chief is, and make a collective donation that can benefit the whole village. If you plan this trip, it is also a good idea to take small soaps, toothbrushes, shampoo etc for the villagers, who seemed very poor and filthy.
Bolaven people produce fabrics, and work mainly on the agricultural sector. There were traditional houses, the meeting pavilion and spirit house that as per tradition was in the center of the square, hand carved caskets being produced and coffee left to dry in the scorching sun. Adults carried on their daily life without much concern about us passing by their houses, where there were derelict bicycles, satellite dishes used as clothes hangers and old household appliances left to rot and rust. After the full round of the village, I bough a packed of chips for each kid at the local shop and distributed to them for their immense happiness.
This was not the only stop in a ethnic village. During the day, we visited similar communities of Alak and Katu people, where Wat told us a bit about their culture and traditions. Most are animistic, while some follow the Christian religion, introduced by the French over 100 years ago.
6- Coffee and tea plantation – this was a quick stop, since we had already visited Mr Vieng early in the day; still, the farm was great, with lots of different fruit and herbal plants, including the famous green tea plant, introduced to Laos back in 1973 by the Vietnamese. We learned that the Bolaven Plateau is an ideal place also for growing tea, since it is a fertile plain and the tea plants grow best at altitudes between 600m to 1200m above sea level.
7 Tad Fane waterfall – The impressive Tad Fane twin falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls of Laos and it falls like a thunder about 120 meters down a steep cliff and into a gorge. The idyllic surrounding is spectacular and the jump is so high we could hardly see the gorge from the viewpoint, but we could make out the powerful streams that forms and flows away towards the south. Tad Fane surrounding scenic rainforest is part of Dong Hua Sao National Biodiversity Conservation Area (NBCA), where wild animals like leopards, tigers, elephants and monkeys, as well as 300 species of birds including the hornbill, live.
The sun light was weakening and Wat was now ready to start the trip back to Pakse along a brand new highway, which we reached at 5pm. Bolaven and the Pakse surrounding is an area where development is indeed visible: huge roads are being constructed, which will eventually link Laos to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
On that day we covered a total distance of around 220 kilometers and spent 9 fantastic hours with Wat, who together with Wat Phou Travels gave us the opportunity to see all of what Bolaven Plateau is famous for.
Wat Phou Travels is specialized in programs and excursions in the South of Laos. It has fixed programs and also offers private and customized tours, only using the service of qualified local guides to give customers the best experience possible.
Read about a tour of Bolaven Plateau by scooter HERE
Asian Itinerary was kindly accommodated by Pakse Hotel during their whole stay in Pakse.