Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chasing Waterfalls, Ethnic Tribes & Nature at the Bolaven Plateau, South Laos - Travel Log 112111

Bolaven Plateau was always an idea that never drifted far from my consciousness. I was drawn to the name, and the idea of “scaling” mountains even more so. What’s not to like when you have lush vegetation, cooler temperature, awe-inspiring scenery. With an elevation of 3,000 to 4,500 feet above sea level, this plateau is home to several ethnic tribes, but more predominantly, the Laven. Other tribes include the Alak, Katu, Taoy and Suay. In the early 1900’s, the French, who colonized Laos, began agricultural experimentation. Coffee, tea, rubber, and bananas were planted as crops. But the coffee industry thrived, and this association stuck to the present day!

But aside from the aforementioned, Bolaven became a magnet of attraction because of the stark beauty of its forests and waterfalls and the uniquely preserved authenticity of the tribes people, making tourism a considerable asset in the economy of the region. Their culture is distinctive. The Alak and Katu people, for example, carve caskets way in advance of their demise. The Suays (or Kui) practice animism. These beliefs render the people a degree of character.

With all that in mind, I was gearing up for this tour of the plateau, one that would take me further east (parts of the plateau belong to Paksong; others are of Saravan).

On my second day in Pakse, I was up even before 6AM, but I couldn’t get out of my guesthouse because the gate was locked and I had to wake Por to get out. The idea wasn’t very palatable. So I waited for 30 minutes until I noticed the gate already open. Por had gone to the market, I was told later.


Mornings in Pakse are cold. I started walking towards the new market. Surely, there’s a restaurant for early creatures. All the bars and restaurants at the riverside were closed. At 7:15, I was comfortably seated at Xuan Mai Restaurant which, last night, was packed with customers. I had to try a popular place, didn’t I? But it must have been the wrong time of day because service was almost non-existent! In fact, many early customers – six, count that! – eventually left with utter disgust. I had to carry my menu to the lady who looked dazed. Though not hungry, I knew I had to eat for the energy that I'd need later in the day: fried rice with chicken at 15,000 kip and 2 fried eggs at 10,000 kip ($3). Food came 45 minutes later; a plodding wait that tempted me to cancel my order.

Once back in Imoun, my ride to the Bolaven had arrived. This personalized tour on a motorbike was a last minute arrangement because yesterday’s tuktuk suddenly decided to hike the rate to unbelievable proportions - $80! Did I look like I was growing gold? I asked Por to contact a motorcycle, and she did! This time, it was an acceptable $35 or 280,000 kip. I think I’ll live riding a motorcycle again.

This road in Pakse was almost deserted at 6AM. This was in front of Imoun Homestay.

Life starts stirring at the vegetable market in the center of the village.

Xuan Mai Restaurant is usually packed with mostly foreigners, but in the morning, service is a plodding snail paced, 6 other customers walked away, even those who already ordered.

Breakfast was Chicken Fried Rice at 15,000 kip; 2 fried eggs cost 10,000 kip.

A roadside stop on our way to Bolaven Plateau before we got off the highway en route to Utaing Bajiang Nature resort.


I was also curious if this will be a rough ride considering the expected ascending road (Bolaven Plateau is 3,000 feet above sea level, at least), but I eventually forgot this. The road, like yesterday’s, was good. The first turn of the road took us to Utaing Bajiang Nature Resort (aka Uttayan Bajiang) which is a more modest version of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah in Jakarta. Instead of the architectural styles of the region, it showcased the different ethnic tribes that populate the plateau. I paid 5,000 kip for the entrance and another 2,000 kip for the motorcycle. I haven’t really read about this so I was curious what it was offering. The road leading to the park was particularly dreamy – a narrow road with abundant foliage from each side, with yellow flowers sprouting away in wild abandon! It was just so beautiful; it almost took my breath away. Unfortunately, there are surreal scenes in life that are hard to capture on camera. This was one of it.


There was elephant riding to be had here but I politely begged off. How many times do I have to ride an elephant? I’ve done this several times in the past it felt daft doing it again. Though not necessary, my driver walked with me as we got further inward. The place was dotted with replicas of tribal houses. In each “hut”, you’d find a representative of the tribe’s man. They’re selling handicrafts, weaving stuff, or simply waiting for visitors. I took note of the ethnic names: Talieng, Alak, Lawae, Yahern, La Ngae, Katoo. Everyone seemed to be here but the Laven, the biggest ethnic group in the region. Did I miss something? Maybe they have a different name? I shall post a lengthier feature on this ethnic village – with lots more photos, but for now, I’d have to move on.

Entrance Fee is as follows: Laos citizen - 2,000 kip (others write it as "kib"); Foreigners - 5,000 kip; Motorcycles pay 2,000 kip; cars pay 5,000 kip. I am not exactly sure why cars and motorcycles needed to pay entrance fees almost similar to the human visitors since these vehicles aren't exactly taking the tour, but are parked instead. I am not complaining. It's just odd. Then you get to read their notice: "We do not charge parking and are not looking after your car or motorcycle. Look after your own possessions and find your own parking lot." I paid! I was asked to.

Yellow flowers on a tree.

Uttayan Bajiang Nature Resort

Elephant Riding Booth

The way to the Ethnic Tribe area

The “resort” has tree lodgings. I saw a sign that read “steam lodging” as well but I wasn’t sure what it meant exactly. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that resembled this. The other point of interest in Utaing Bajiang is the Maak Ngaew Waterfall and the Great Naga Cave, a Tree Pole House, and the ethnic Tribal Handicraft Museum. This place alone was worth my $35 transport service. Who cared if motorcycling was uncomfortable or windy or dangerous? Walking around the place was absolutely "chill" - and crossing the suspension bridge just to get to the short but crescent-shaped waterfall was a thrill.

Talieng House and their colorful products (above).

The Alak House and their products (above).

Lawae lady: she was working on some "reed", thinning them with a knife.

Yahern House

La Ngae House

Katoo House

Lanae Village where children gather around. Every time a guest comes over, they start singing.

Some of the displays at the Handicraft Museum. We shall post an in-dept coverage of this museum and the resort in the future.

A magnificent tree house that took my attention.

Huge wooden carvings of elephants in a solitary corner of the compound.

Waters from the Maak Ngaew River

A "dancing" but very safe suspension bridge.

Maak Ngaew Waterfalls

We drove back along the highway as we went deeper into Paksong territory, 38 kilometers from Pakse. We further went northeast until we reached another village – Ban Phakkoudkeo. We were heading to Tad Fane Resort, one kilometer from Ban Lak 38 (roadside marker).

The resort is perched on a cliff opposite Tad Fan. With ecotourism as its major attraction, you could hear birds chirping; the rustling of the leaves; the hush of the wind. The resort has 7 bungalows, each with 2 separate rooms. Tall trees surround the whole resort. But the main point of interest here is Tad Fan, Bolaven’s highest waterfalls. These are twin falls that plummet 200 meters down a rocky floor bed. The crowning glory of Tad Fane Resort is the amazing view of Tad Fan that it provides.

If you head to the jungle to your right, there is a rugged and slippery trail that leads down. I initially – and foolishly – tried to walk this path, but realized it will be a rough trek down, not to mention the fact that I didn’t have all afternoon to scale down this mountain which has an elevation of 1100 meters. Rolling down this rugged terrain was so dangerous I composed myself and gathered my wit. It was fine not to “stand” beside Tad Fan! Seeing it from the resort’s viewpoint would suffice.

Coffee beans were being sun dried along the path to Tad Fane's entrance.

A walk to the entrance of the resort where I paid 5,000 kip for my entrance and 1,000 kip for our motorbike parking at Ban Phakkoudkeo.

The twin falls of Tad Fan from the viewpoint of Tad Fane Resort. There's a craggy uneven path that goes down the mountain on the way to the falls but it was so slippery just 20 minutes into a hike. Needless to say, it was dangerous, especially when the trail was that slippery.

I met a German couple on my way back. “Is there a path?” the guy asked. “Yes, but it doesn’t look safe,” I replied. "That's alright," he said, implying they were savvy where dangerous treks are concerned. :) And I walked away. I mentally thought, “Break a leg.” I laughed in spite of myself. The implications could be limb-breaking. I was perspiring from my hike back to the viewpoint. This was anything but boring, with every change of location stirring electric current through my spine. Wandering in strange new places is nothing short of magical, and I wasn't even too far away from my guest house. Tad Fane is 45 minutes away from Pakse, but if you’re taking the commuter bus, I was told it would take 1 hour, even longer.

Just when I thought I’ve seen what’s there to see, it gets better. But that’s until next post.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


NRIGirl said...

Absolutely wonderful experience. Thank you for your time and efforts to capture it in such detail. Now I can travel with you without spending a dime :)

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Thanks. I enjoy documenting them too. :)

NRIGirl said...

Hi! Just to let you know I have written briefly about you on my recent post. Please check it out when you get a minute.

Here's the link:
Where were we?

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Thank you very much. I'm so flattered. Coming from someone who writes so beautifully, your generous words are a "high". :)

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Freedom said...

Laos is sooo amazing, I loved it. Seeing your posts I know I need to return with more time to explore the mountains. Keep up the work, I am still following you with envy :)

eye in the sky said...

Hi Nat:

I know. Loved Laos and I'm planning on going back before the year ends - if that pans out. We should form an "I Love Laos Club" haha. Just that it's so blissfully laid back there; the whole system is so relaxed.

Was reading your Sihanoukville post - a place I have always wanted to visit but just never had the chance to.

Safe travels! :)

Trotter said...

Hi Eye! Sorry for the absence, but time has been at a premium here... ;)

This looks a fascinating place! And your post is superb!!

Blogtrotter Two has reached April 2011; no trips, and posting delay is shortening... ;). Enjoy and have a great weekend!!!

seema gupta said...

worth reading and watching. waterfall captures are so eye catching

eye in the sky said...

@ Trotter:

Thanks. This side of Laos is such a beauty. :)

eye in the sky said...

@ Seema Gupta:

Thank you. Nature at its best in Laos. :)

Ramakrishnan said...

I am back after a break.I now need to catch up on your travelogues. You seem to be having a great time in Laos. Magnificent photographs of tribal s & their products. You appear to be spending enormous amount of kips on conveyance/parking/entrance fees. The waterfalls are awesome. Nice to be in forests largely untouched by modernization.
Warm Regards Ram
ps.You need to do something immediately to disable word verification :)

eye in the sky said...

@ Ram:

I love Laos and I guess this much is evident in my post. The entrance fees and parking spaces are very inexpensive in Laos so I really didn't mind.

Ok, will disable word verification. :)