Bolaven Plateau: Waterfalls, Elephants and Animisim

Introducing the Bolaven Plateau

The Bolaven Plateau is situated in southern Laos between Pakse and the Vietnam border. Spectacularly, the landscape reveals magnificent waterfalls, mountain villages and fauna. Our motorbike trek took us through Paksong, Attapeu and Tad lo. However, the landscape on the western plateau is a stark contrast when compared to the eastern plateau in Attapeu Province.

Unfortunately for Laos the country was colonized by the French. After the French were finally defeated in both Laos and Vietnam, the US then invaded Vietnam. At first the US used proxies which eventually led to direct military occupation. 

Technically, the US never invaded Laos however in reality the Vietnam war had a tremendously devastating affect on Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  As a result of the blanket bombing conducted by the US military during the Vietnam war the entire region was devastated.

On the Bolaven Plateau, this devastation is heavily concentrated in the Attapeu Province due to its close proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Thus, this area still has not recovered and the landscape is mostly wiped out. Fortunately, the western plateau remains intact for the most part.

Paksong

The first day we drove from Pakse to Paksong where we would spend the night before continuing on. Paksong is well known for its coffee exports and there are a few local cafes where you can sample a few cups.

Tad Fane

Paksong is surrounded by pristine jungle and it is also the location of the spectacular Tad Fane waterfalls.

tad fane paksong laosTad Fane is in close proximity to Paksong.

The Tad Fane waterfalls descend 120 meters to the bottom of the valley.

Tad Gneuang

In this area of the Bolaven Plateau there is another beautiful waterfall named Tad Gneuang. Fortunately, it is possible to descend to the base of the falls for some photos. Simply follow the trail into the valley below.

tad gneuang bolaven plateau

tad gneuang bolaven plateau

Animism on the Bolaven Plateau

The villagers of the Bolaven Plateau mostly practice animism in contrast with the rest of Laos which is predominantly Buddhist. Animism is the belief that all things have spirits. Generally speaking, in animism there is no boundary between the spirit world and the physical world. In animism, all things have souls including, rocks, humans, animals, water, wind and even certain words. It is easy to envision how the villagers of the Bolaven Plateau could develop a belief that their waterfalls have spirits.

Tad Lo

Tad Lo is the name of a waterfall. We stayed at the Tad Lo Lodge which is located on the banks of the river. This place was spectacular because of several waterfalls in the area and also the resident elephants. The elephants are very friendly and they would come and take a bath in the morning in front of our bungalow.

tad lo bolaven plateau

bathing elephants bolaven plateau laos

bathing elephants bolaven plateau laos

bathing elephants bolaven plateau laos

After their bath is finished they have breakfast in front of the lodge before going to work in the jungle. 

 elephants bolaven plateau laos

Heading Up The River

From our lodge I could see that there was another waterfall a few hundred meters upstream. After hanging out with the elephants we took out the motorbike to do some exploring. Our first stop was this waterfall.

waterfalls bolaven province

This waterfall was pretty nice and we stopped off for some pictures above the falls.

waterfalls bolaven province

After enjoying the scenery we consulted with with some local experts and decided to head farther up the river.

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You Should Burn Your Guide Books

I generally never refer to guide books such as the lonely planet unless absolutely necessary. Simply stated, if you use those guide books what you are most likely to encounter is something banal with a bunch of Australian backpackers drooling all over it.

Most of the stuff we did was by chance and it was not planned out. Case in point would be the encounter with the elephants referenced above, we had no idea they stayed at the lodge. In fact, we didn’t even travel with a map or make any reservations before we left Pakse. We just went and felt our way around.

What happened next was also completely unplanned, we encountered this village totally by chance.

The Village

We arrived in the village and were quickly recruited by the local tour guide.

tour guide bolaven plateauOur tour guide is wearing the red t-shirt.  

We hung out in the village for a while and took a few photos. However, the village is very small and it didn’t take long to see the sights.

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Then at the behest of our guide we set out down the trail so he could show us something he felt was very significant.

bolaven plateau laos

We wandered for a couple kilometers through the village agricultural fields and then followed a mostly dried up riverbed.

bolaven plateau

The riverbed we encountered next was strewn with very large boulders. When the water flows this would be a more difficult area to pass through.

bolaven plateau laos

We wondered through the maze of boulders and then emerged at the end of the trail, we now had our final objective in sight.

bolaven plateau laos

bolaven plateau laos

Our guide was also an aspiring comedian.

It was also kind of funny watching my female friend try to navigate her way over the boulders, although she wasn’t trying to be funny. 

bolaven plateau laos

We were a little bit nerve racked after the harrowing boulder experience so we took a smoke break as soon as we arrived back at the village.

bolaven plateau laos

Fortunately our unplanned travel itinerary had once again paid some great dividends.

Lapp Chicken

They serve some great lapp chicken at the Tad Lo Lodge and we had that for dinner. I made it a point to avoid the backpacker food joints in town. The Tad Lo Lodge is a perfect alternative and I was fortunate to come across it.  

The Best Cafe in Town

My female friend had made a couple acquaintances whom she insisted that we visit on the way to Attapeu. This was a great idea and we stopped off there for a chat and some coffee.

This small cafe is run by an Austrian ex pat and his lovely Thai wife. We enjoyed some coffee and I also bought some locally grown coffee beans, a grinder and coffee plunger from them. This equipment would serve us well for the next several months. Unfortunately, the coffee plunger was tragically broken when we were in Sri Lanka.

austrian cafe tad lo laosI dubbed him the “mad scientist of coffee”.

Attapeu Province

The reason I wanted to go to Attapeu was because I wanted to observe the Ho Chi Minh trail. Portions of the trail do still exist, although I was unable to find them due to some navigational oversights.  However, I am certain that we must have crossed over it at some point because we nearly drove to the Vietnam border in search of it.

As mentioned earlier, this portion of the Bolaven Plateau is nothing like it western counterpart that we had just visited. It is very dusty, windy and overall a more arid landscape. Possibly because of natural factors? But we must take into consideration the fact that this entire area was flattened repeatedly by US blanket bombing over a period of several years.

Conclusion

A motorbike tour through the Bolaven Plateau is one of the world’s best adventures. Attapeu Province notwithstanding, it is an opportunity to see Laos in its natural state, both culturally and geographically. We were now going to return to Pakse and we would soon set out to visit Si Phan Don.

 

 

 

Additional resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolaven_Plateau