Pakse, in southern Laos, is beginning to make a name for itself on the tourist route between the 4000 islands and the infamous ‘loop’ near Thakhek, but is it worth the hype?
For the timebeing, at least, both Pakse and Thakhek are a little ‘solo backpacker unfriendly’. For those of us who promised our parents we wouldn’t hire a motorbike, transport options are limited and, because a lot of travellers still skip these destinations in favour of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, it can sometimes be difficult to meet other people to travel with.
The alternative is to take a tour, for which you’ll pay the price, and then some. In Thakhek, a day trip to see the famous Kong Lor cave will set you back a staggering 1200,000 kip if you can’t find travellers to share the cost. When a night’s accommodation is usually between 30,000 and 50,000 it’s hard to justify.
Pakse isn’t quite so bad, but a day trip to the Bolaven Plateau still sets you back 150,000 kip, and that only covers your driver. You have to buy your own lunch, find your own way around the sights, and, in some cases, form your own ideas of why you even stopped there.
WHERE DO YOU STOP?
TAD FANE FALLS
At over 120 metres, this double waterfall is actually pretty impressive. Elsewhere in the world it’s not uncommon to be promised breathtaking views and to be greeted with a pathetic trickle. Laos has a habit of downplaying its own natural beauty so you’re almost always pleasantly surprised. You’ll have around 40 minutes to walk down a short path to the viewpoint, take photos and relax in the on-site guesthouse’s restaurant.
COFFEE AND TEA PLANTATION
Next, you’ll stop at a coffee and tea plantation where you have the chance to learn a bit about the harvesting process. Your hosts are part of the ‘cps’, or ‘Bolaven Plateau Coffee Producers Cooperative’, whose members are over 1800 smallholder families in over 50 rural communities across Laos. The cpc helps them to establish strong working relationships with roasters and international sellers, which enables them to add value to their product. At the end of the tour, you have the chance to try their tea and browse their gift shop.
TRIBES OF KOKPHOUNG
Continuing around the Bolaven Plateau circuit, the village of Kokphoung offers a glimpse into the lives of the minority tribes of Alak, Nge and Ka Tu. There was apparently a sacrificial alter here, but we never found it. This community has an interesting tradition of people building their own coffins, which can sometimes be seen sitting underneath their heavily populated houses. Sadly, many of the residents – including young children are addicted to smoking opium.
TAD LOR WATERFALL
The hype around Tad Lor is greater than that of Tad Fane, which I think is unjustified. This waterfall is pleasant enough, but it doesn’t take your breath away. Some really keen ‘off the beaten path’ travellers navigate public transport or bring a scooter here and stay a few nights, but there’s really not much to do apart from short walks and riverside lunches. The tour gives you a couple of hours here to explore and find some food. Watch out for the huge spiders among the trees on the far side of the bridge.
BAN HUY HOUN WEAVING VILLAGE
While the tour description promises an interactive learning opportunity, this is little more than a shed full of table runners, which you’re highly encouraged to purchase. Although the experience is a little disappointing, purchasing fabrics here helps to support the local community and empowers the women who live and work here. For a really fantastic workshop in weaving and dying, textiles enthusiasts should save themselves for Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang.
There’s quite a lot to explore at this final stop. Paths weave through the grounds of an interestingly designed resort filled with treehouses and bungalows built from natural materials. The waterfall itself is reasonably nice, and the walk there over chopped log stepping stones and a thin wooden bridge is quite pretty. There’s an ethnic village here too, and plenty of farmyard animals running amok.
❗ Tours pick you up from your accommodation at around 8 am and drop you back between 5 and 6 pm.
❗You can book at various tourism offices throughout town. Pakse is very small and you will spot the vendors easily from the boards advertising bus tickets and day trips.
❗For 180,000 kip per person it may be possible to include an English-speaking guide, subject to availability.