Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cycling the Bolaven Plateau--Laos


We arrived nearly on time to the Ubonrathchathani train station after a night on the train and met up with the pickup truck that we had pre-booked to take us to the Laos border. A passport size photo and cash was all we needed to get our visa on demand, and by noon we were on our bikes heading for Pakse. After about 10 kilometers of a gentle downhill slope, the road leveled off, and we found ourselves traveling past the familiar checkerboard pattern of dry-season rice fields. The minor annoyance of being splashed with water as we headed toward the Mekong River was balanced out by our need to cool off in the 40 degree temperatures.

Our Itinerary

Day One: From Chong Mek to Pakse (50 kms.)

Laos Fo Noodles
Entering Pakse from the west, we passed under a mountain temple and over the Mekong River. The city itself was somewhat less impressive than the approach. Normally, Pakse would be the perfect place to begin a journey up the plateau. In our case, however, we happened to arrive in the middle of the Laos new year. Many of the restaurants and businesses were either not open or not fully stocked. Besides noodles, it was hard to find much else to eat until we came across some small hot pot restaurants perched on a bluff over the Mekong River.

Day Two: From Pakse to Paksong (50 kms., 1100 m. ascent)

As soon as we turned east on highway 16E, the ascent began. It was not steep, but it was relentless. On most rides, climbs are rewarded with downhills. This climb only went up. As we pedaled past the villages creatively named after the mile marker where they had grown up, the climate slowly improved. At somewhere around 500 meters up the plateau, coffee plants took over as the dominate cash crop. We continued up the plateau along with hundreds of new year revelers on motor bikes and in the backs of pickup trucks slashing us and throwing small plastic bags filled with water as they made their pilgrimage to one of the many falls in the area. Each village we passed was a similar scene of men and women drinking beer Laos, smoking cigarettes and dancing to music blaring from a central location.

Salawen Guest House
We arrived at Paksong just as the daily afternoon thunderstorm blew through. In its wake, Paksong took on the look of the classic muddy frontier town. Scattered around town were several small guest houses and restaurants. There was also a large market in the center of town, closed for the holiday. We found the Salawen Guest House tucked into a small road on the north side of town. It was immaculate and very comfortable, run by a friendly gentleman who had spent a fair amount of time overseas. Across the street was one of the few open restaurants in town where we were again limited to noodles or simple fried rice since the market was closed and the restaurant couldn't stock up on supplies. The owners had moved down from Luang Prabang, lured by the chance to get in on the travel and tourism trade that is beginning to find the area.

Day Three: From Paksong to Sekong (99 kms., 1100 m. descent) 

Road to the East
No need for coffee on a day like this. The ride was downhill all the way to highway 11, parts of it pure adrenaline. The first several kilometers out of Paksong were paved, followed by about 65 kilometers of mostly packed dirt. The real fun started around 30 kilometers into the ride when the descent got steeper as it ran down into the bottom of the river valley cut into the eastern side of the plateau. I sometimes felt more like I was mountain biking than road cycling as we flew down over the packed dirt at up to 50 kms. per hour.

The government is in the process of paving the road out to highway 11. The entire stretch has been cut and graded. It's a long road and looks like it could take 1 to 2 years to complete. According to locals, it is going to be part of a highway into Vietnam, the modern version of the Ho Chi Min Trail.
Sekatam Falls

About half way down into the valley, we spotted a water fall sign along the road and veered off to take a look. The reward was a view across the valley of the Sekatam Falls, beautiful even at the end of the dry season.

Eventually, the descent ended, and we had a smallish climb up and over a ridge and out toward the highway. Highway 11 between Atapeu and Sekong turned out to be a well-paved road with little traffic. Unlike the bone dry rice fields on the Pakse side, we found ourselves riding through lush rice fields with the plateau ridge towering over the valley on our left side as we made our way to Sekong.

Guide books don't have much good to say about Sekong, but as with many experiences, it's all in the timing. We found a clean, quiet courtyard style guest house with aircon on the approach into Sekong. While the others showered and washed some laundry, I ventured off to find snacks and beer Laos. I didn't need to wander far. 30 meters and I found myself sitting in a small shop with several people offering to share their beer with me. In towns like Sekong, it is easy to get by speaking Thai. Laotians generally understand Thai quite well from watching Thai soap operas and listening to Thai pop music, and after a few days in Laos, any Thai speaker can work out enough Laotian to understand everyday conversations. The connection with the shop keeper turned into an invitation to join a new years party when we bumped into her and her husband after having dinner at a nearby hotel. Apparently it was neighborhood party. We were given dance instructions on how to dance in the traditional Loas manner, and handed free beers till we thought it best to head back to the guest house.

Day Four: From Sekong to the Sinouk Coffee Resort (60 kms., 600 m. ascent} 

Sinouk Coffee Resort
On the fourth day, we had to pay the price for our exciting descent the day before--a very hot,  steady ascent back up to the plateau. Turned out to be the hottest day of the trip, and the new year revelers had stopped splashing us with water, so we had no way to cool down. The beer consumed the night before didn't help, and food was hard to find along this stretch. We weren't able to find lunch until we arrived in Tha Teng, less than 10 kms. from the end of the day's ride.

The road forks at Tha Teng. To the right, would have taken us to Beng and on to Tat Lo Falls, to the right, back to Paksong and, more importantly, up to the Sinouk Coffee Resort. Tat Lo Falls would have to wait for another trip.

Sinouk Coffee Resort was the perfect oasis at this stage in the trip. Sitting on the veranda of the bungalow watching the late afternoon thunderstorm come in over the plateau while sipping freshly brewed iced coffee was nothing short of Bolaven heaven. The Resort also had a well-stocked kitchen and feasted on fried chicken and other western treats.

Day Five: From Sinouk Coffee Resort to Tad Fan Resort (50 kms., 500 m. ascent)

Tad Fan Falls
Unlike the day before, we finished the final 30 kms. climb to the top of the plateau quickly, drawn on by several promises, the promise of internet in Paksong, the promise of a 20 kilometer downhill ride to Tad Fan, the promise of more delicious food at the Tad Fan Resort, and the promise of our first rest day. Only one promise turned out to be empty. Our second stop at a certain coffee shop in Paksong well-known for having the only wi-fi in the area was again not open, so we left out dreams of emails and facebook updates behind, grabbed a bit of lunch and took off down hill to the Tad Fan Resort. The resort has a restaurant perched on edge of a deep ravine with a clear view of the Tad Fan Falls on the other side. Good food, hammocks and a constant breeze made it the perfect place to relax, read and chill out.

Day Six: Exploring the Tad Fan Area 

We took our off-day to heart and did very little for most of the day. When originally planning the trip, we thought we might go on a trek into the jungle. Didn't happen. Reading, eating, sleeping on the hammocks and watching the stream of tourists come look at the falls was entertaining enough. Around mid-afternoon, we felt ready to jump on our bikes and explore some of the nearby falls. We made it to three different falls before sunset, include Tad E Tu.

Day Seven: From Tad Fan back to Chong Mek (99 kms., 1100 m. descent)

The trip was nearly over. We knew that by 5 p.m. we would be back over the border in Thailand. We procrastinated, took our time at breakfast and packing up. We jumped on our bikes at 10:00, flew back downhill to Pakse, and by 11:30 a.m. we were sitting in the air-conditioned Bolaven Cafe drinking iced coffees and eating cheese cake. The easy part was done. Getting back on the bikes in the heat of the day and riding back up to the border took a little will power. On the way, we met a Thai couple who had riden to Pakse the day before. They joined us for the final push to the border, suprised when we lingered at a shop 10 kms. from the border and drank beer Laos. One last toast to a pleasant journey in a beautiful place.

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