There is a second loop in Laos that makes for a nice motorbike tour that can last for anywhere from 4-5 days. It’s not as popular as “The Loop” but it is certainly worth the ride if you have extra time and enjoy the freedom of riding your own motorbike. It begins in Pakse and heads east into the Bolevan Plateau, an area of Laos known for coffee plantations. If caves were the main feature of “The Loop” then waterfalls would be the main draw of this ride.
We set out from the city center of Pakse after renting our motorbikes from Pakse Tours and Travel. They were great running bikes but the helmet selection was a little lacking. Get there early was the advise the guy behind the counter gave me after the fact. We strapped our bags to the back of the bikes and took on the traffic getting out of town. The road was dusty and under construction which made for a very strenuous departure. The road was two lanes wide but once the construction is done it looks like it might be eight. We’ll see.
We took highway 16 east for about 14 miles before turning north on highway 20. At that point the road got quiet as we made our way to Utayan Bambang Champasak waterfall. The waterfall wasn’t all that spectacular and seemed to get quite a few Thai tourists passing through to take selfies. One thing I noticed about the falls were the rocks on both sides which were columnar basalt, a rock formed by volcanos. It’s the same rock I saw when I worked in Hawaii and is also what the Giants Causeway is made out of in Northern Ireland.
We continued down highway 20 until we reached Tad Lo waterfalls. We got a room at Sipaserth Guesthouse on the river looking right at the waterfall. It was incredibly basic and cheap but the view was worth more than the 60,000K we paid. From what I could tell we were one of the first people in town for the night which is why we got a great room with a view. Most of the other guesthouses were blocks away from the falls with no view of even a puddle.
Before we started the ride we met a few travelers who said they didn’t really care for Tad Lo and thought it was touristy. I can only imagine they stayed in one of the guesthouses with no view. In fact, we were so happy with our room we decided to stay one extra night. We walked around the upper falls, saw one of the resident elephants, and watched the sunset behind the waterfall. I tried to get Rachel to kiss the elephant but she wouldn’t even get close enough to touch it. I was shocked. After traveling in Southeast Asia for a while I was convinced foreign women want to do nothing more than kiss an elephant. Every time we would see an advertisement for elephant rides there would always be a picture of a white girl kissing one. White girls were kissing them on the brochures, the posters, and even the billboards. Over the past month or so I was thinking Rachel wanted to do the same but didn’t confess her love of elephants. I was wrong.
The next morning we rode up highway 23 to Prince Souvanaphong’s Bridge, or what’s left of it for that matter. The bridge was built in 1942 by the “Red Prince” Souvanaphong and then bombed in 1968. It was never rebuilt and now the only way to cross the river is by ferry. One section of it remains on the northern river banks and it’s easy to imagine what the whole thing would have looked like in 1942. It certainly would have been a marvel to those people when it was completed. We also rode into Salavan for lunch but there wasn’t much going on despite being the provincial capital. It seems the only purpose of staying here would be to use it as jumping off point to explore the more remote parts of the countryside. If someone wanted to do this I might recommend a bigger and better bike than a Honda Wave. I’ve ridden them off road several times now and though they never manage to die, the suspension is what’s really lacking and it’s more likely to rattle apart before one of those bikes.
After our second night in Tad Lo we connected to highway 16 and headed for Attapeu. Xekong was our halfway point but we only stopped for fuel since it didn’t seem like there was much going on. We did one ride through and couldn’t even find a place to get food. There are guesthouses here but I can’t see why anyone would want to stay. Shortly after Xekong are two waterfalls, Tad Faek and Tad Houa Khong. Tad Houa Khong was the site of a massacre during World War II where Japanese soldiers beheaded Lao soldiers and threw their heads over the falls. Today there’s a nice guesthouse there. Tad Faek has pools to swim in but according to the guide book, which I am increasingly losing my faith in, a local legend says a fish lurks below the surface that eats penises. It’s supposedly called the pa pao but when I asked the locals about it they had no idea what I was talking about. I think it might be a hoax.
We reached Attapeu with enough daylight left to walk around. There are plenty of nice places to stay here particularly along the south end of town by the river. The main road through town is rather busy but it’s quiet on virtually every other street. Like every other city we’ve been to off of the main tourist route, things close down shortly after the sun goes down. Attapeu also makes another good launch site for exploring the surrounding countryside but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time.
After a night in Attapeu we had to retrace our steps north and turn west onto highway 16A. We heard that Tad Tayicseua waterfalls were suppose to be some of the best in the area and that there was a home stay available. When we got there it didn’t take us long to realize they were not quite what we expected. The falls were quite a long hike away and down some trails that were pretty steep and hilly. The home stay was a thatched bamboo hut with a mattress and no mosquito net for 60,000K per person! Not only was it twice as expensive than our room at Tad Lo, it was twice as basic with no view of any waterfalls. I know many people rave about these waterfalls but maybe our old skin is getting a little too thin and our standards a little too high. Sadly we left with never having seen the waterfalls but paying the 20,000K parking and entrance fee. Looking back on it now, it was probably our biggest regret of the ride.
We carried on to Paksong at the top of the Bolevan Plateau. After arriving in Paksong we realized that perhaps the bamboo huts were a better option but we made the best of the situation and found a nice room at the Green View Guesthouse. Paksong is more or less a place to sleep while traveling between waterfalls or borders. Coffee is grown on the Bolevan Plateau and it’s possible to see it being dried along the highway during the dry season or growing in the plantations during the rainy season. It is cooler on the plateau and seems to get a little rain even in the dry season.
Our last day of the ride involved visiting a total of three waterfalls just east of Paksong. The first waterfall we saw was Tad Fane. This was by far the most popular waterfall in the area and has a steady flow of tourists taking selfies by it all day. Though it is a nice waterfall and, at 120 meters, the tallest in Laos, it can only be viewed from an overlook several hundred meters away. There’s no way to get to the pool or any other way to get a different perspective of it. After our brief stay at Tad Fane we rode over to Tad Yuang. This one is about 40 meters tall and is surrounded with dense green jungle. There is a path to the pool and a nice oriental gazebo to rest in. The last one we stopped at, and by far our favorite, was Tad Champee. There are three streams pouring over the edge into a beautiful pool for swimming. The Thai tour buses don’t seem to bother with this one and there are two restaurants at the top which border a coffee plantation. For 10,000K it’s also possible to rent tubes or the homemade raft to jump off. If there was a place to stay we probably would have spent a night or two there. Unfortunately we had to mount our bikes for what was quite possibly the worst stretch of road we encountered in Laos.
The way back to Pakse was dusty, crowded, and under construction. Trucks in the oncoming lane didn’t yield to motorbikes, or anyone else with fewer than 18 wheels for that matter, which made our ride intense and stressful. Clouds of dust from passing trucks and cars had us coughing and blinded. Several times we were almost run completely off the road and in one instance I was inches away from the side view mirror of a passing car. Once in Pakse things slowed down a bit and we were able to catch our breath and get the blood flowing through our hands again. We returned our motorbikes unscathed and for the first time ever I am proud to say I returned mine with less fuel in it than when I got it. I just hope the next backpacker to use it has enough gas to get to the petrol station.