Itinerary for Biking the Bolaven Loop
One of the best experiences we had in Laos was biking the Bolaven Loop in the southern part of the country, where quiet roads lead to charming traditional villages scattered alongside a multitude of spectacular Bolaven Plateau waterfalls in rural countryside.
This region is also well-known for its coffee plantations which can be visited whilst biking the Bolaven Loop. Indeed, the cool (climate-wise) plateau is a major coffee-growing region in Laos due to ideal climatic conditions for growing coffee plants.
The town of Pakse is the gateway to the Bolaven Plateau and the place you need to go to for organising your trip. The town proper isn’t particularly remarkable, and one can assume that almost all the tourists in Pakse are there to bike the Bolaven Loop or to visit the Bolaven Plateau waterfalls.
There are two route options to choose from, usually referred to as the ‘short’ and the ‘long’ loop. Unless you have more than four days to spare, we do not recommend you attempt the long loop. With only two nights to spare ourselves, we chose to tackle only the Bolaven Plateau short loop, in a clockwise direction.
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Getting to Pakse
Pakse is very well-connected to other places in Laos and a combination of minivan + buses run there from many major tourist towns in the country. We were in Vang Vieng, so we booked a combo ticket to Pakse for 170,000 LAK each (about € 17) from our hotel in Vang Vieng (Malany Villa 2). This included a tuktuk ride to the bus station in Vang Vieng, a 3-4 hour minibus to Vientiane and an overnight sleeper bus to Pakse. Many agents lining the roads in Vang Vieng sell this same trip at different prices, so be sure to shop around before booking!
Where to stay in Pakse
We stayed at two different hotels in Pakse before and after biking the Bolaven Loop – Alisa Guesthouse and Lankham Hotel. We preferred Alisa (which was also a tad pricier at around €16/night), but unfortunately there was no room there when we came back from the biking trip.
What to do in Pakse
Besides being the gateway to biking the Bolaven Loop and the Bolaven Plateau waterfalls, Pakse is home to some nearby attractions which are worth checking out (if you happen to be there).
This well-preserved Khmer temple complex is an hour’s bike ride away from Pakse and definitely worth including on your itinerary! It looks a lot like a mini-version of the more famous Angkor Wat with less people around, making our visit here far more enjoyable than that to the Angkor Wat complex, although the latter is of course more majestic.
We hired a semi-automatic bike for half a day from Alisa Guesthouse on our day of arrival in Pakse, to visit the complex for 50,000 LAK (about €5).
Entrance Fee – 50,000 LAK (about €5).
Although not particularly dramatic, this little complex housing a massive Golden Buddha, is interesting enough, especially for its location in a little village where stone Buddha sculptures are made. Indeed during your commute to the complex, you will observe Buddha statues of all sizes at different stages of manufacture, patiently being sculpted by local artisans from scratch.
Golden Buddha Statue and Temple
Not far from Pakse, the Golden Buddha sits on a hill with breath-taking views over Pakse and the Mekong River. You can hike to the top after taking a tuktuk from Pakse. The stairs up are pretty steep so wear good shoes!
The main temple in Pakse, this is well-maintained and clean, but probably similar to others you might have already visited, unless this is your first stop in Laos of course.
Where to eat in Pakse
We ate at Sabaidee Pakse Restaurant a few times during our stay in Pakse, pretty much for lack of a better option. Because we were there over the New Year’s period, most places seemed to be closed. Sabaidee serves affordable and generous portions of everything, but service was immensely slow! The service at nearby Daolin Restaurant nearby was a little better, although we only dined there one time.
Renting a motorbike in Pakse
Although many of the guesthouses rent bikes too, we highly recommend Miss Noy Motorbike for helping you with the logistics of biking around the Bolaven Loop. Run by Yves, a Belgian man and his wife, the shop has plenty of bikes for rent, many of which are in great condition. You should totally book your bike the day before though, because they get rented out very easily.
Every evening at around 6pm, Yves holds an informal briefing where he explains the route and dishes out tips, including recommendations for food and accommodation on the Bolaven loop, the best Bolaven Plateau waterfalls to visit, as well as providing an emergency number for breakdowns. We thought this was great service! We noticed that Yves has a habit of being sarcastic which we didn’t mind at all, but I suppose he could come across as arrogant to some people, so best be prepared for that!
Our semi-automatic bike cost 165,000 LAK (about €16.50) for three days – the rate per day can be negotiated for longer leases. The agency also offers a left luggage service so that we could keep our large backpacks at the shop during our biking trip, at no extra cost.
Miss Noy Motorbike also organise onward transport to many places in Laos and neighbouring countries.
Itinerary for Biking the Bolaven Loop (the Short Loop) with tips and tricks
Biking the Bolaven Loop turned out to be way easier than we thought it would be, with much of the road being in very good condition. Yves’s tips helped a lot too! You can refer to our route map here, but the map provided by Yves and road directions are better.
Day One of Biking the Bolaven Loop
We set off from Miss Noy Motorbike shop, happy to discover that the first stretch of road was a very easy ride. Complimentary to our GPS, the map Yves gave us came in very handy. He had warned us not to follow the main route out of Pakse (which takes an intuitive slow right turn onto a better surfaced road), but to ride along straight and turn left. The road right would have taken us to the Laos-Cambodia border!
We followed the map indications and then turned left again and drove along a little town with roadside stalls selling machetes. This was the start of the loop.
The first stop on Day One, and the first of many Bolaven Plateau waterfalls was Tad Pha Saum, a very popular attraction it seemed, since the paths leading to the waterfall were packed, not only with tourists biking the Bolaven Plateau Loop like we were, but also local people spending their day here.
A secondary foot-path soon led us to another fall in the vicinity of the main one, which was completely deserted. We were happy to spend some time here under the shade of trees, allowing Nikki some well-deserved rest from driving the bike.
Entrance to Tad Pha Saum: 10,000 Lak each (about €1) plus 2,000 LAK (about €0.20) for parking the bike.
We had been advised not to make the detour to Tad Champee (not to be confused with Tad Champi which we visited on Day Three) since the scenery there was not worth risking a flat tyre on a deserted 10km stretch of road.
Our second stop on Day One was Mr Vieng’s Organic Plantation where we hoped to be in time for a visit around his coffee plantations. Alas, Mr. Vieng was away during our visit but a hostess provided some excellent local coffee as we wandered around the premises undisturbed, and later relaxed in the hammocks provided for this purpose.
We had already planned on staying at Tad Lo for the night. As recommended to us, we wanted to stay at Palamei Guesthouse but there were no available rooms left when we arrived. Yves had mentioned a guesthouse serving French cheese and wines and we soon found out that a cabin with private bathroom at Fandee Guesthouse cost 60,000 LAK (about €6). Some guesthouses are just too inviting! We were told there would be no running water until 16.30 at which point the dam would be released and there would be enough pressure to bring running water to the village.
After some coffee, we headed out to visit the mighty Bolaven Plateau waterfalls of Tad Hang and Tad Lo (about a kilometre’s walk apart). Access to the wooden bridge leading to Tad Lo cost 3,000 LAK each (about €0.30).
We also took a walk round the village before watching an elephant bathing ritual in the river. We were upset to see that one of the elephant had a chain tied around his ankle so we asked the owner (who also owned the nearby lodge) about it.
He explained that the elephants need to be kept chained at night because if they escaped they would cause havoc and wreck the locals’ fields, which would probably lead to retaliation, i.e. them being poisoned (it has apparently happened in the past). We didn’t feel great about the situation, but both elephants seemed to be having a great time playing in the water!
Tad Hang and the very powerful Tad Lo are both worth visiting. Another waterfall, Tad Soung is located about 10km away and can be visited by bike. We wondered whether or not we should wake up early the next day to make the detour before starting off the journey on Day Two, but lazily decided to sleep in instead. The other guests who did go said it was really not worth the drive so we were glad about our decision!
The village itself consists mainly of simple structures and the people living there looked poor, although there were plenty of smiles going around!
Dinner and breakfast at Fandee were lovely, although the dishes on the menu are not cheap! Quality was superb though!
Day Two of Biking the Bolaven Loop
Day Two of Biking the Bolaven Loop was very likely our favourite part of the trip. We made our way through the roads cutting across the deep red soils of the plateau until we arrived to Captain Hook’s village, one of the poorest areas in all of Laos.
Ban Kok Pung Tai village is a typical Katu ethnic village where locals adhere to deeply rooted animist beliefs, some of which may sound shocking to westerners. By this time though, we had already visited several animist villages in West Timor, Sumba and Papua, Indonesia, so our previous insight into the animist world helped us assimilate the information provided without much difficulty.
We had heard great things about the village tour provided by the fascinating Captain Hook so we were rather disappointed when a flat tyre resulted in our arriving late for the tour. The villagers pointed out the path taken by Captain Hook and we rushed quickly to join a few other curious travelers who, like us, wanted to hear all about the Katu way of life.
Captain Hook turned out to be a young lad who spoke English rather well, having been educated outside the village.
First up was a very thorough explanation of the different types of coffee grown in Laos and its wide range of possible uses. The different uses of coffee beans and their ability to cure various illnesses had dubious scientific backing, but hey, it was certainly interesting! We learnt about the existence of the male and the female coffee bean and how to distinguish between them and the various stages of the coffee bean life cycle.
Later we were taken on a tour of the plantations and the rest of the village where Captain Hook explained all about the medicinal and practical properties of various plants and trees and offered us live ants to taste, which supposedly are a cure for diarrhoea and impart a lemony flavour. As usual Michelle couldn’t resist the opportunity to try them; Nikki had no interest in joining her.
He then proceeded to give us a very thorough and interesting insight into the lives and beliefs of the villagers. We listened attentively as some of these beliefs were somewhat alien to a western culture. Amongst others, the villagers believe that white people drink a lot of milk to stay white (those with red hair are thought to drink a lot of red wine). They also believe that the Earth is flat because when they climb up the ‘High Trees’ in the village, it still looks flat, and they refuse to speak or think about the future (beyond a period of 3 days) because of the belief that evil spirits will hear of their plans and ruin them.
Babies are named according to dreams had during the full moon, and a baby can spend a few months without a name if the dream is not sufficiently inspiring. Birth takes place in a forest outside the village, since it is bad luck to give birth within. Women are married when they are about 8 years old.
Green snakes also bring bad luck, dreams dictate much of what goes on in the village. Time is measured by the type and duration of harvest so locals refer to certain times of the year as the ‘last coffee season’, ‘rice season when there was the big rain’ and ‘dog-having-baby season’ for example. The conversion of a date of birth to the Gregorian equivalent is, excuse the pun, pretty time consuming!
Families of an accident victim are forced to live in the nearby forest outside of the village for a period of 5 years, so as not to force a bad omen on the rest of the villagers… and since families can easily consist of around 50 members, that is no small mission. Coffins are only used for people who die of natural causes, whilst women who die giving birth are buried upright.
Captain Hook himself offers the possibility of an overnight homestay in the same village, though he clearly explained that some of the elders are not too happy with his business venture. Some of the villagers are very wary of tourists since they believe them to be related to the same ‘white people who bombed their village’ many years back. According to Captain Hook, they do not really understand the size and diversity of the world. Many villagers believe that white people do not work, since they come to visit their village. The concept of vacations is totally alien in this part of the world.
If you do decide to stay, do so with an open mind, and acknowledge some basic rules. Knocking on doors is not allowed because the ‘good’ house spirits might be driven out – if you knock on the door of someone’s huts, you will need to pay your dues of one water buffalo. Villagers start smoking tobacco in bongs as soon as they are around 3 years old so as to drive evil spirits away, so do not be shocked at the sight of young children smoking. Captain Hook’s Homestay will set you back 50,000 Lak each per night (about €5), including breakfast and dinner.
The brilliant tour around the Katu village which lasted for a few hours provided a welcome break from riding the bike, as well as a fascinating exposure into such a different way of life in this remote Laos village. Days such as these are what we travel for, and a visit to Captian Hook’s village is the one thing you shouldn’t miss! After the tour we were served coffee out of a bamboo filter and fresh lemon juice.
We paid 5,000 LAK each (€0.50) for entrance to the village and 15,000 LAK each (€1.50) for Captain Hook’s tour.
After leaving the village, we stopped for lunch in Thateng and kept driving to Paksong, a town mostly consisting of one dusty main road which however can be used as a base for visiting the next set of waterfalls on the loop. If you can afford to stretch you budget a bit, or would like to treat yourself, consider stopping for a night at the Sinouk Coffee Resort.
As the weather was favourable, we decided to cover further distance and not to stay in Paksong itself, but decided to treat ourselves to one night in a resort further along the loop. Our bungalow at Falls View Resort Tad E-Tu was certainly a lot more comfortable (and pricier) than the type of accommodation we had become used to, and provided some relief from the dust and trucks of Paksong.
Dinner at the resort was good although more expensive than what we would usually pay for similar dishes, and we felt that it wasn’t an accommodation with the best value for money either. We did have a great night’s sleep though and we were just a few metres away from the lovely E-Tu waterfall (owned privately by the same resort).
Day Three of Biking the Bolaven Loop
After indulging in the complimentary breakfast at the resort, we walked to Tad E-Tu, the closest waterfall, accessible via a very steep staircase. The waterfall surroundings are very pretty and we feel that we could have spent a couple of hours relaxing there, but alas, we were running late.
The next of the Bolaven Plateau waterfalls was Tad Yuang, after which we drove to the nearby Tad Fane. This waterfall can be only viewed from a viewpoint at a distance, and is the more developed of the lot, complete with a zipline if you care to be adventurous. Tad Champi is one of the prettiest of the Bolaven Plateau waterfalls, though the condition of the road leading to it (on the other side of the Tad Fane access road) can be a bit tiring.
Access to Tad Yuang: 10,000 LAK (€1) each with 5,000 LAK (€0.50) parking fee.
Access to Tad Fane: 10,000 LAK (€1) each with 5,000 LAK (€0.50) parking fee, free if you stay at the Tad Fane Resort.
Access to Tad Champi: 5,000 LAK (€0.50) each with 3,000 LAK (€0.30) parking fee.
Access to Tad E-Tu: 10,000 LAK (€1) each with 5,000 LAK (€0.50) parking fee, free if you stay at the Falls View Resort.
Due to ongoing roadworks, the way back to Pakse was dusty but not as long as we expected, so we handed in our bikes in the afternoon and spent the evening relaxing and trying to wipe off the dust from our packs and accessories.
If you’re in southern Laos, be sure to include biking the Bolaven Loop in your activities. It was easily one of our favourite experiences in Laos!