Motorbiking through breath-taking scenery formed by an ancient volcano was the highlight of our trip in Laos. Armed with a heavily notated map and two small bags, the Bolaven Motorbike Loop felt like a big adventure into the unknown and we finished the loop exhilarated.
There is the option of doing a two or three-day loop (for the two day loop you take the road down the centre of the map above and for the third you keep on going). We decided on three days and this included the most impressive scenery of the whole journey.
Once out of the main town, the Bolaven Motorbike loop begins with scenes of small houses where you can return the waves of local children and see goats, chickens, cows and dogs roaming around. This quickly turns into miles of flat agricultural land with deep red earth and bright green coffee plants, where locals ride the roads in small carts often bringing in what looks like mounds of sweet potatoes. The ride is easy going with flat roads and plenty of places to stop along the way:
- The Blacksmith Village: Heading out of town you fill up with petrol and soon find yourself biking past the first stop on the route, this is a row of stalls selling a variety of tools, knives and machetes and you can choose to stop and see some of these being made. As this was not long into the drive we chose not to stop as we could see most of it from the bike and decided we could always do this on the way back if we felt like it.
- Tad Passam: We were told it was very touristic and in April there would be not much to see, so we carried on as we were enjoying the ride and the scenery (we met a couple later on that had stopped and confirmed it was only worth a quick 10-minute stop if you needed a break and the waterfall was not much to look at due to the weather).
- Weaving shops: There are signs along the road advertising weaving wares and there is one place to stop where you can go in and learn more about the craft. Once again, we were more keen on the ride for day one so did not stop but it was a convenient place for a rest break.
- Mr Vieng’s Coffee and Homestay: This was the first place we pulled in to, drawn by the promise of coffee, organic peanuts, and a chance to stretch our legs on the tour of the plantation. However, when we got there it was closed due to a wedding in the village. We were disappointed, but rested a while and chatted with some guests who had stayed there the night before (this offers good accommodation for those who start the loop later on in the day). As we had set out early in the morning, there was no need to stay here overnight and we hopped back on our bike to get to ‘Tad Lo’ the town where we would be spending our first evening.
After a few wrong turns, we arrived at the pretty village and checked into Palamei Guesthouse (cheap comfortable rooms with a fan and a shared bathroom). Despite the rural settings, we saw several other small guesthouses, one larger guesthouse on the lake, and even a fancy resort near the waterfalls.
We had an explore in the afternoon, wandering around the village photographing horses and piglets before making our way to the nearby waterfalls ‘Tad Hang,’ where locals were fishing…
…and ‘Tad Lo’ reached via a wooden pathway over the water of Tad Hang (found by walking through the nearby resort).
We hiked a short incline to view the falls where a few brave teenagers were swimming (we decided to pass having seen the rickety ladders used to get down there). We then returned to the pools where local children were swimming after school and jumping of boulders, Carl had a great time joining in though couldn’t quite match the backflips and running jumps of the tiny boys! We whiled away an hour and were even joined by two elephants whose owners had brought them for a drink and a cool down.
We had been warned to leave by 4pm as the water levels and current becomes dangerous, so we headed back for dinner and an early night to prepare for day two.
We set off early to visit the third and final waterfall in the area ‘Tad Soung’ and a couple from our guesthouse had the same plan for the day so we joined up to do the rest of the route together. There was a small parking fee and you could take the path down to see the falls from below or another path to the right which took you to the top. As the water was low due to the time of year, we went for the view from the top.
There were two stops recommended to us not too far from Tad Lo, a Silk Farm and Captain Hook’s tour. We wanted to make it to Tad Tayicsua for our second night, so we opted to take the ethnic village and coffee tour and skip the silk farm – we really wish we had done this the other way around!
The remainder of the day was spent driving through the most spectacular scenery on the Bolaven Motorbike loop; we really could picture being in a volcanic crater. The air was cool and fresh as it rushed past us on the bike, the vegetation green and fragrant, and the soil a vibrant red. The children we passed were enthusiastically waving, calling out ‘Sabadee’ and high fiving us – it was an incredible experience.
As it became darker we left the main road, heading towards Tad Tayicsua and the waterfalls we would trek in the morning. We were struggling to find the recommended accommodation but stumbled across a large property that advertised tents, so with it getting dark we decided to settle in.
We began our hike of the waterfalls early the next day and the trail happened to start right next to our accommodation so we could leave the bikes for free.
The hike was challenging (it involved climbing up steep rocky inclines and lots of steps so you need to be fit enough to manage this), but the different falls were beautiful and well worth the effort.
It was then back on the bikes again for the final stretch of road where there were four more waterfalls to visit: Tad Fane, Tad Champi, Tad Yuang, Tad E-Tu.
We chose to go to ‘Tad Fane’ and it was the most impressive waterfall we have ever seen (there was a hike to get closer to the falls but due to the weather we had to skip this).
We didn’t have time to visit the others, but there was the option to spend one more night in this area and return to Pakse the next day (stopping at the Champasak ruins on the way back). However, we were exhausted from our night in a tent so decided to head back to Paske and hand in the bike before the shop closed at 8pm.
Hiring a bike:
We arrived at Pakse bus station at 7.00am having taken the sleeper bus from Vang Vieng ($24 per person, 12 hours.)
Bleary eyed we grabbed a coffee and pastry from a nearby café and walked 10 minutes to ‘Miss Noys,’ the rental shop we decided on as we had read so many good reviews and we wanted to make sure we had a high-quality bike and assistance if anything went wrong.
They were opening just as we arrived and they had one bike left for hire and it cost 100,000 kip per day (pre-booking is advised).
The owner tested the bike and replaced the front tyre, and explained that in the unlikely event of anything going wrong with the bike, that they would reimburse us for the repair costs (excluding tire punctures) and that we should tell the mechanic where we hired from so they could negotiate the price directly.
We were provided with a map and Miss Noy spent half an hour with us showing us distances between towns, points of interest, accommodation, paid parking, petrol stops and areas to avoid due to reports of theft (they do a group presentation at 6pm everyday also). She also said that if at any point we needed help to call them and they would do their best to help us.
We were able to leave our larger backpacks at their office and take a shower before starting our journey (if you have baby wipes give this a miss as the facilities are extremely basic and very spidery).
- ATMS were available each day of the Bolaven Motorbike loop.
- We only had to fill up the petrol tank twice (once at the start of the journey and once in the middle of the second day) and petrol stations were very frequent and cheap.
- Water and snacks are available all along the route.
- The main roads were in very good condition, though the roads to some of the waterfalls were dirt roads and could be a bit trickier for inexperienced riders.
- There were plenty of accommodation options.
- It is likely you will stay one night in Pakse at the start or the end of your journey dependent on your travel arrangements. We stayed at Oulayvanh Hotel for $12 a night which was luxury after 3 days on the road, and we treated ourselves to some amazing Italian food with the couple we met on the road at Dok Mai Lao Trattoria Italiana which was just across the road and had a nice garden.
What to take with you:
- We left our big packs behind and took one small day bag each with minimal toiletries and a change of clothes.
- Sun cream is essential as you do not feel the heat on the bike but the sun is very strong (we went in April). We ended up with one very right burnt knee each! A sarong was helpful for protecting our shoulders/chest where t-shirts did not fully cover them.
- Sunglasses kept the wind and dust from our eyes – these are vital if your helmet does not have a visor – embrace the tan lines!
- Some of the waterfalls involve a good amount of trekking so wear decent shoes (Tevas or trainers etc).
- A head torch is really important if you end up staying at more rural accommodation like we did. We would also suggest a battery pack for your phone for this reason.
- A good rain coat is a must as most days it rained several times and we did not have the time to pull over and sit it out – you soon dry off once it stops.
- It got cold at night so pack a jumper.
Where To Next?
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