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A three-day motorbike tour of the Bolaven Plateau: elephant rides and spectacular coffee

Posted by on July 17, 2012
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The last part of our southern tour of Laos was a three-day motorbike trip around the Bolaven Plateau, a higher elevated chunk of land with cool temps, dramatic waterfalls, coffee plantations and friendly villagers. Touring the region by motorbike is no longer a secret, but it definitely hasn’t reached epic tourist proportions. It’s easy to feel alone on the road, and at times, like when your bike has a minor failure — like when we failed to realize our spark plug ignition wire tube thingy was disconnected — it can feel frighteningly isolated. (A car connoisseur I am not.)

On Day 1, we headed out from Pakse on a rented motorbike (60,000 Kip/day) to Tad Lo, a village-town with three waterfalls. We stayed in a gorgeous bungalow in a jungle facing Tad (means waterfall) Hang. (The staff, who I’d like to think were more lazy than unfriendly, were less lovely to contend with.)

The bungalow was beautiful but not sure how I felt about the guesthouse’s caged monkeys.

Rainy season makes for brown water.

OK, I know we’re a little jaded, but it’s hard to be truly amazed by a waterfall after seeing Iguazu Falls in Argentina. But we found a new way to have some fun: elephants!

The luxury resort Tad Lo Lodge is home to three elephants, who can take visitors on a 60-90-minute rides. Interacting with elephants has been high on my Asia-goal list, but I’ve been particular about giving my money only to an establishment with good practices. I was happy to see the elephants unchained and unenclosed. (Crazy how they won’t up and leave the premises.) And considering this was a less-touristed elephant-riding site than those in Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang — we had to practically wake up the receptionist to ask her about riding — at least these elephants aren’t worked 24/7. Most of all, I didn’t see the mahouts (elephant trainers) use any sort of sticks or prods.

With that in mind, Eaman and I hopped on a relatively young, gentle elephant for a 70-minute ride through jungle, forest and village, where the kids would come out to wave at us and shriek at the sight of the pachyderm. Though, I did feel a little guilty parading through the village on a fancy elephant ride I splashed out on.

After we dismounted, the mahouts could see the stupid grin on my face and my love for these elephants, so, since it was the end of the day, they let us feed the elephants mini bananas — for free! One of the elephants was too impatient for my one-by-one banana-peeling method, so he took the entire bunch right out of my hands and ate the whole thing.

Such a wonderful experience because it felt so natural. No official tour, no other tourists. Just the mahouts letting me take part in their daily routine.

The mahout gave ample time for snacking.

Elephant head.

Elephant butt.


Day 2 involved relaxing in Tad Lo, making friends with the cheery Lao guy in the tourist information office, and high-tailing it to Paksong. (A more scenic route through the Bolaven jungle was unfortunately too dangerous in this rainy season.) And it’s a good thing Eaman went a little speed-crazy; we found a hotel just as the sun set. Dark roads and inexperienced motorbikers are interesting bed fellows.

Our “rustic” guesthouse in Paksong, where Eaman tried in vain find one channel in English.

Day 3 had us en route back to Pakse, stopping in between at the famous Tat (waterfall) Fan. It was a helluva ride to get there thanks to a muddy path, so I got off and walked, while Eaman pushed the bike. (It was then that we got our only injury: a minor, but bloody cut on Eaman’s leg.) Well, mist completely shrouded the waterfall. We saw one big cloud and heard some impressive roaring. That was just great.

But as it turns out, we had a reason to be there after all. On our way out of the waterfall area, a group of little girls ambushed Eaman, asking him to buy some of their famous Lao arabica coffee. We had no way of saying no, so we drank coffee from one booth and bought ground coffee to-go from another to spread our money.

I have no idea why Lao coffee hasn’t made a bigger splash abroad, because that stuff is good. Like, best-coffee-I-ever-had good. Our cup was bold but sweet with the condensed milk mixed in, and I’d like to think the flavor was enhanced by the beautiful setting, sitting on stools as we watched the rain and were served by a few adorable local girls.

In the end, we had to get some assistance from an old Lao man.

We arrived back in Pakse, cleaned up in a hotel bathroom as best we could and hopped on a 10-hour bus to Thakhek, Laos to start our exploration of central Laos…

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3 Responses to A three-day motorbike tour of the Bolaven Plateau: elephant rides and spectacular coffee

  1. Afsoon

    this is soooo great!!!

  2. shilpa

    this may be my favorite post thus far simply because of the number of excellent animal photos. also arch i am really digging this shorts-tights ensemble you have going on. hope your next journey is amazing!

    • Archana

      Thanks, Shil! I loved those elephants. One got so scared of a car passing by and ran away. It was, maybe, the cutest thing in the world. You would’ve appreciated. And glad you’re on board with my haphazard fashion choices on the road!

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