Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau


An expanse of highland formed from an ancient volcano, the Bolaven Plateau is one of southern Laos’ most attractive destinations. Rich with waterfalls, lush jungles, farmland, ethnic diversity and miles of excellent roads, one of the best ways to cover it all is by two-wheels. When I embarked on this solo journey I promised myself I’d seek off-the-beaten path adventures and take myself out of my comfort zone.  One of the biggest challenges I knew I’d face was becoming comfortable on a motorbike.  Five years earlier in Taiwan, I had dubbed them “chariots of doom” and refused to get on one for the entire eight months I lived there.  I had other options, such as the MRT, taxis, and my feet. In Southeast Asia, however, sometimes there is no other option to get where you want to go.  The Bolaven Plateau, famous for amazing landscape and waterfalls, is one of those destinations.  I knew the day was coming and after a little over a month into my trip, sure enough, it had arrived.

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What I expected

The Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos is often skipped on the typical backpacker trail in favor of the more popular northern destinations of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng (famous for the tubing).  Since I was heading north from 4000 Islands, I knew I wanted to confront my fears and give the Bolaven Plateau loop a try.

I arrived in Pakse the night prior.  The city doesn’t have much to offer, but that didn’t stop my group of friends from hanging out with a local guest house owner who later took us to an all-Lao nightclub until the wee hours of the morning.  It was a flashback to my good times in Siem Reap.

Waterfall in Bolaven Plateau via Youtube

Our adventure

The next morning, my heart pounding, we rented 3 motorbikes for 6 bikers from our guest house.  Score! I wasn’t going to have to drive! But I was going to have to put my life in Morten’s hands – a Danish guy I had run into on the islands in Cambodia, and then Otres Beach, and then 4000 Islands.

Luckily the roads are mostly paved and, despite the occasional pig, cow, goat, dog, or chicken running into the road, are mostly traversable without issue.

The main reason why people bike out to this region is to check out the  beautiful waterfalls.  Typically, tourists take the afternoon to head to this waterfall, and then head back to Pakse.

But we, ever the ambitious backpackers, decided to do the 4-day loop in 3 days.

The highlights for me included the happy children who waved hello, (which reminded me of the enthusiastic kids in Kratie), the locals in the back of a truck who handed us bananas as we drove by (it was a hilarious exchange – props to Morten for engineering it by getting just close enough to the truck without crashing), and of course, feeling the mist on my face at my favorite waterfall, Tad Gneuang.

I was in complete awe of the scenery in Laos.  I had thought Cambodia was beautiful, but honestly, Laos’ scenery blows it away.  I kept singing Welcome to the Jungle to myself in my head while taking in all of the different plants, giant butterflies, and ample waterfalls. Each one seemed more spectacular and remote than the last.

We saw 5 waterfalls during our trip, and, can you imagine, we didn’t even see all there were to see!

On our final day, in the remote outskirts of Sekong (where nobody spoke English and I never saw another Westerner – successfully offbeat indeed!) Morten swerved for this photo before we blasted back off to Pakse, me trying not to think about the possibility of crashing into a pig and Morten trying to sneak up another 10k or so when he thought perhaps I wasn’t paying attention to our speed

For anyone looking for a unique travel experience punctuated by beautiful scenery, I’d highly suggest the Bolaven Plateau loop.

Jungle in Bolaven Plateau via trover

Do it yourself:

  • Catch a bus to Pakse where you’ll probably arrive in the afternoon.  Get some rest and wake up early the next day
  • Pack a smaller bag for the trip and leave your pack at your guest house.  Langkham Guest House (where I stayed) did not charge for this service
  • Hire a motorbike from your guest house. The cost as of Nov 2012 was roughtly $6/day for a semi-automatic.  Make sure it is in good condition and take photos of it before you leave. Some would suggest taking the bike to a mechanic to take care of any problems before taking off.  I didn’t do this, and I was fine.
  • Get a good helmet that fits well. Get a decent map
  • Fill up with petrol and get on your way!
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