Biking around the Bolaven Plateau

The ‘city’ of Pakse was our first stop in Laos. I use inverted commas because it’s always quite difficult to think of somewhere smaller than your home town as a city. Nevertheless, it’s the capital of Champasak Province, and apparently an important city in IndoChina back in the day, would you believe. It’s quite a sweet little place but there wasn’t a lot to do on our first day there, so we mostly meandered about and spent far too much time in coffee shops.  

 
  Bears in a cage??

Pakse is the hub for a few places in Southern Laos and we had planned to stop there before taking a trip around the Bolaven Plateau. There’s a loop road around the area and it’s known for its tea and coffee plantations, as well as being visually stunning with a vast array of waterfalls. We like tea, coffee, waterfalls and pretty places so that settled that.

So, we knew we wanted to tour around the plateau and discovered that hiring motorbikes was one option. I was super keen to do this, as I have missed my bike in Hanoi and fancied the freedom of going at our own pace. The drawback, however, was that we had nowhere to leave our luggage which we thought would mean taking a tuk tuk. We turned up to a bike rental place, ‘Miss Noy’, co-run with a Belgian guy, to investigate. We were in luck; they had storage for our rucksacks and decent bikes. If we took an automatic it would be just $10 a day between the the three of us. Excellent. 

  
  Testing out the semi-automatics

We returned in the evening to pick up a map and the Belgian man talked through the routes to a group of us. We then had a chance to test out some Honda Waves, a standard semi-automatic model, to see if we could take the cheaper option. I was a teensy bit anxious about it, but it was actually just like a car: break and gas with the right side, change gear with left. Not a problem. To be honest, I don’t think anything could be as difficult as navigating a bike around Hanoi. Laos is the same size as the UK with a population of less than seven million so even busier areas aren’t congested. Trip sorted!

We returned to the hotel and had a pretty early night so we could hit the road at a decent hour, although we got very little sleep. For a good while we could hear what sounded like fireworks nearby. Within the hour they were getting increasingly closer until it reached the point that we could hear fireworks hitting the building. It was actually quite nerve wracking and if I hadn’t known that it was Tet holiday I honestly would have thought there was a gun raid going on. Well, we think it was fireworks but were too scared to open the window or balcony door as our heads might have gotten blown off. By 1 am we managed go get some peace and quiet.

It might not have been the best night’s sleep, but we were up early and ready to go the next day with a change of clothes, water and basic toiletries packed into our bike seats. Lindsay was a passenger on Sarah’s bike so had the honour of map reading for us. It took a good forty minutes or so to get out of the city (still a breeze by Vietnam standards) and then we were on the country road, free to enjoy the clean air and views of greenery and myriad villages, all constructed from wooden stilt houses. We hadn’t been sure whether we were going to do the two-day short route or three-day long route, but I think we made our decision very quickly. It was just too pretty to miss. We’d leave out our planned stop-over in Savannahket and go directly to Vientiane after we’d finished in the Bolaven Plateau, so we could spend three days on the road.

  
  The coolest of the cool

We made a stop at a waterfall which had the best bridge design I’ve ever seen. I’d love to know how it was constructed. The waterfall was very pretty, but I have to say that toilets might have been even more impressive. People always think it’s bizarre to take pictures of toilets but I think they say a lot about a place. Come on, you have to agree that this sink is well designed.

  
  
We took another stop around lunchtime to sample some local coffee for the first time. It was very good indeed and pretty strong, I could feel the caffeine getting to work very quickly. …asked if we’d like to take a tour around his plantation with some others, which we declined as we had plans to go somewhere else. In the end we ran out of time to visit other plantations so I wish we’d taken him up on his offer. Nevermind.

The rest of the drive is a blur of brilliant scenery, burning sun and cool breeze. Oh, and having a little singsong on my bike (you can be as loud and terrible as you want because no one can hear). Once we reached the village of Tad Lo we stopped to find somewhere for the night and met none other than our old housemate, Louise. She’s a keen biker so it’s no surprise really, but it was a nice coincidence. It made picking accommodation very straightforward in any case.

The place where we stayed was something between a hostel and a home stay. It was a family home so it did feel a tiny bit invasive as we were walking through their front room, kitchen and only bathroom very freely. As were pigs and dogs for that matter. No need for doors in this climate. An older woman who was always holding a baby on her hip greeted us and showed us to the beds up stairs. There were rows of double mattresses covered with make-do curtains. Very basic, but it did the trick.

  All welcome, including animals.

  

I was in need of the toilet after a long drive and waited outside the bathroom for a good five minutes listening to someone having a shower, i.e. pouring water over their heads from a bucket. A younger girl, presumably the daughter of the family, took me to her mate’s house for the toilet instead. Tis the problem with having just one loo. The loo in our home stay was pretty dirty and basic so there was no shower to rinse off the dust we had accumulated over the trip, so we just had to make do that night. The lock on the loo was also a bit dodgy so I managed to open the door on a poor bloke squatting over the hole in the ground. Woops.

We had a very peaceful evening in Tad Lo as we took a walk to see their stunning waterfalls. The most impressive was huge, and village elephants often bathe in it. We enjoyed a couple of Lao beers outside before settling down for the night. Whilst it’s toasty in the day, the Bolaven Plateau is the one place on our trip where it actually gets quite chilly at night so we were sleeping in our clothes. Not the most hygienic trip, but such is life.

  Beautiful!

We were up a bit later the next day so we didn’t make as many stops throughout the day. We had a coffee break in another village with some seriously cute piglets on the loose. The family who ran the coffee plantation sat outside their stilt hour sharing a pipe together, even with a prepubescent boy which was quite a surprise. We then continued towards our main destination, the Silk Tea Farm.

  Coffee in bamboo cups and filters

  

The place is part of an NGO farm and a Swiss woman took us on a tour around the fields with a group of French tourists who we kept bumping into along the way. We were shown pepper plants and learned that both types of pepper come from the same plant. It begins green (and we tasted the flesh – very yum), before turning red. Then it’s picked and dried to make black pepper and the stone inside makes white pepper. Ta da!

  Pepper on the plant. 

  

We were shown burned rice bran, used as a fertiliser, hibiscus, sacha inchi nuts, mulberries, lemon grass (smells soooo good) and a pineapple tree, all new to me and all grey tasty. Finally, we were taken to see rows and rows of tea bushes. As with pepper, all the tea types come from the same plant depending one what variety you want to make; they just go through different processes. Pretty interesting stuff to be fair. It’s amazing how detached we can be from food, to the point that we don’t know how some things are grown. How as a British person did I not know anything about tea!?

  Tea, tea, would you like some tea?

After our tour we took a break and sampled some delicious mulberry tea whilst our guide explained how the NGO was set up. The company’s other major output is silk which isn’t really my thing, but it was interesting to hear about the silk-making process, nonetheless. Sericulture has been practiced for a good for 5000 years so most worms are domesticated and require humans to help with breeding. They are fed mulberry leaves and grow, shedding their skins a few times in the process. Once the worms have matured they create a cocoon, and these are then boiled to make the silk easy to unravel. Not a nice ending for the worm really, although apparently Indian silkworms leave the cocoon before it’s boiled. ‘An option for vegetarians and vegans,’ the woman said, ‘although in Laos they eat insects so they’d probably eat the worms anyway.’ 

We had to step on it a bit afterwards, as Sekong town was our best bet for getting accommodation and we wanted to get their before nightfall. Initially we drove through the town because it looked so insubstantial we didn’t think it was anything important. Sounds terrible, I know. I think part of the reason that we missed it is because virtually nothing was in English, and you do get used to hostels and restaurants being in English to draw in the likes of us. We found a bog standard hotel run by a Vietnamese guy which would set us up for the night, and then went to find somewhere for dinner. Our search for food was unsuccessful as there didn’t seem to be anything around and no one seemed to speak English, including staff in the poshest hotel with an English sign. We couldn’t even find snacks in a little stall either, so we returned to the hotel where there was a ‘com’ sign outside. Well, we know enough Vietnamese to order something from here at least, we thought. We consumed a basic rice dinner and then had a much-needed shower and early night.

We left early on our final day as there was still quite a long drive to get us back to Pakse and ready for the night bus to Vientiane. Breakfast was served a few hours later when we managed to find someone selling oranges. We took a detour through some hills to reach Tad Tayicsua where there was supposed to be some particularly beautiful waterfalls. The drive around the hills was nice but not the easiest roads for riding motorbikes. As the earth got drier and dustier there were huge cracks in the road and up hills were trickier, as Sarah and Lindsay found out when their bike came to a standstill and fell over. Luckily they both managed to jump off before it collapsed. To be honest I was in stitches as it was hilarious to watch, and then I then went and did the same thing myself. I also drove into a ditch thanks to another enormous crack in the road. 

Once we reached Tad Tayicsua we parked our bikes at a home stay owned by an older woman with amazing, long salt-and-pepper hair elaborately braided. It must take some serious effort to maintain. She recommended all the waterfalls in the area as they all represent different animals, but with our time constraints she recommended 1 and 2.

  All this for a waterfall

Getting to 1, or the ‘Bee’ proved to be pretty darn difficult. We had to descend a very steep hill and, with the earth being so dry, the ‘steps’ dug into the earth were crumbling underneath our feet. On top of this there were also ledges to climb down making it quite an expedition. But, as the lady had promised, it was worth it. It was enormous with a shallow pool at the bottom, perfect for quick paddle to cool off.

  
Getting back up was an ordeal; easier to balance and find bamboos to grab onto but more sweat production. We had no choice but to collapse back at the home stay with soda, water, fried rice and papaya salad, which, for the record, where delicious. The view off the balcony of her home stay was simply magnificent and we wished we’d known about it before so we could have left enough time to drive there for the night before, rather than staying in bizarre Sekong. Never mind, a reason to go back I suppose,

  

Orange as an Oompa Loompa! That dust got everywhere!

We put our foot down for the rest of the trip, stopping for just one more coffee, and took the opportunity to wash the layers of dust off our face (my jumper is still orange!) before getting back to Pakse. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip and a cracking start to our time in beautiful Laos.

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