Pakse and The Bolaven Plateau

June 29 – July 1, 2009

From Kong Lor Cave we headed back to the regular backpacker route.  We continued south to Pakse.

Just as we started heading south we ran into a minor traffic jam.  A double-length fuel truck was half flipped over on the side of the road.  To get it back on its wheels the service workers brought out a crane.

Attempting to hoist the back end of a fuel truck to put it back on its wheels:

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Pakse seemed like a decent town but we didn’t end up spending much time there.  We just used it as a hub as we explored southern Laos, and in that respect it was very convenient — there were hostels were we could leave our extra bags and arrange transportation, plus a few restaurants for good cheap food.

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East of Pakse there’s a region called the Bolaven Plateau.  It rises about 1000 meters above the Mekong lowlands, and it’s home to lots of waterfalls, some tribal groups, and the best Lao coffee.  There are a few ways to explore this area.  Pnina and I decided to go by motorcycle.  We rented our motorcycle at the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse, which is the standard guesthouse recommended by Lonely Planet.  The price was 60,000 kip (about $30) per day, which is probably a little high compared to the other shops in town, but in this case we opted to pay a little more and save our time.  Technically, this was my first time riding a motorcycle (as opposed to a scooter), but it was actually easier than the scooter we rote in Zanzibar because this motorcycle was an automatic (there was no clutch to manage).

Me on the motorcycle as we head out of Pakse into the Bolaven Plateau:

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There were lots of stands on the side of the road selling fruit, mostly Durian.  We’d never actually tried Durian before, so we picked one up along the way and we tried it a couple days later when we got back to Pakse.  The interesting thing is that for such a big fruit, there’s not much to actually eat.  Deep inside the spiky exterior there are three large’ish seeds covered by a thin layer of flesh – you eat that flesh and nothing else.  Yes, it really does stink, and I don’t understand how people can like it (but I don’t like many fruit anyhow).  Pnina found that if she held her nose while eating it then it “isn’t that bad.”  But that sounds dumb to me.  If you have to hold your nose while eating something, you shouldn’t eat it.

Durians for sale on the side of the road:

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Our first stop, about 33 km east of Pakse, was at the Paxuam Cliff Waterfall.  This was one of the more developed tourist stops along the way.  It wasn’t just the waterfall itself.  They also had some nature walks, a restaurant, a hotel with “jungle guestrooms”, and a small village where you can see a bit of the culture of the Mon-Khmer tribal group that lives here.  It sounds a little over-developed, but we didn’t think it was so bad.  In particular, the restaurant and hotel seemed very eco-centric.

Crossing a natural suspension bridge:

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Pnina on the bridge:

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The waterfall:

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Pnina scaring the shit out of me by walking a little too close to the edge of the waterfall:

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One of the jungle guestrooms operated by the hotel in this park:

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Butterflies mating?

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Just a tropical plant:

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Pnina with a local tribesman playing music on traditional instruments:

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After a couple of hours at the falls, we continued along the open road.

We’re not sure what this was all about – a large group of people (mostly monks) were pulling this truck by rope along the road, and the truck had some kind of shrine on board.  We tried to ask them but they spoke no English:

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Pnina taking a break along the way to have a bowl of noodle soup (very similar to Vietnamese pho):

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Our next destination was the village called Tad Lo, which has a few waterfalls of its own.  We got there as the sun was setting, so this was our stop for the night.  The next day we woke up and took a short ride to the waterfall.  This one was not very tall, but it was pretty wide.  The best thing about it was that, when we arrived, there were a few kids playing in the waterfall, using a net to fish.  One of them climbed right up the falls, against some pretty strong current, walking on stones that must have been slippery.  It was impressive.

The Tad Lo waterfall:

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One of the kids watching his friend climbing up the falls:

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The other kid walking up against a strong current:

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And then it was back to the road…

Following the ice cream man:

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Our next stop was the village called Ban Kok Phung Tai (the “animist” village).  The tribe here used to have a custom of preparing wooden caskets for each village member well in advance of their death.  But they don’t do this anymore – these days they have mortuary people come and take the dead away.  It’s a very poor village and it’s obviously very desperate for tourist money.  Their new shtick is highlighting the fact that village kids smoke cigarettes using a large bong from a very young age.  As soon as Pnina and I rolled into town a few of the kids came around and started smoking in front of us.  It was a very sad thing to see.  They were probably hoping that we would take photos right away and give them money for that privilege, but we didn’t want to play that game.  Instead, we walked over to a village lady who was selling pineapples at the side of the road, and we bought a couple – that seemed like a better business to encourage.  And then we took a photo of the fruit lady with a couple of the kids standing next to her (and cropped her out 🙂

Young kids smoking from a large bong at the Ban Kok Phung Tai village:

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We didn’t spend much time in this village.  We got a bad vibe from the way tourism has upturned their culture.

Several kilometers later we found this road-side temple.  This was actually the only temple we stopped at along the way.  We thought it was interesting how the stairs lead up to the temple straight from the road (which was a pretty fast road, pretty much the local highway).  Even more interesting was the fact that this was a new temple, still under construction.  This isn’t fair or logical to say, but I generally expect temples to be very old, and it was slightly jarring to see such an old-style structure under construction.

Pnina heading up to the temple from the road:

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Look at that – it’s a new temple under construction!

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Our next stop was another waterfall: Tad Gniang.  The nice thing here is that there’s a hill facing the waterfall, and the falls generate a thick mist that make the hill very lush (and slippery).  It’s a really beautiful place, but it’s impossible to take a photo head-on – it’s just too wet.

Tad Gniang waterfalls as seen from the side – this was the best angle we could get without exposing our cameras to too much mist:

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Pnina’s hair covered in droplets:

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Me descending from the lush green hill facing the falls:

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Tad Gniang is also the site of a small coffee plantation.  You can walk around among the small coffee trees, and you can order a totally fresh cup of coffee to enjoy at a table near the river.  Fantastic!

Coffee beans growing on a branch:

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Enjoying a fresh cup of coffee by the river:

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And our final stop was (you guessed it)…a waterfall!  🙂

This one was called Tad Fane and, as you can see, it’s actually a pair of waterfalls.  They are significantly taller than any of the other falls we’d seen up to this point.  But, unlike the other falls, it’s challenging to get a decent view of these falls.  We found some trails that descended into the canyon in front of the falls, but after heading down for 30 minutes we decided to abandon and head back.  The trail was pretty steep and muddy, and my sandals gave me no grip at all.

The pair of waterfalls called Tad Fane – this was as close as we got:

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From there we finished the loop and headed back to Pakse.

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