Stupid or Lucky, Making It Through the Bolaven Plateau on a Motorbike
I was despairing, the road was just a mud field with rocks, it was raining and the last 5km had taken me almost two hours. And now I had reached an uphill that my motorbike just couldn’t handle. It was like ice with the mud and the rain, my rear wheel just kept spinning and the bike kept sliding backwards. I hadn’t seen another vehicle for ages; I was out of water and food. And at this rate I wouldn’t make it to the next town before sunset.
I couldn’t get any grip on the bike from the road, so I was forced to push it up the hill while revving the engine constantly. It was exhausting and by the time I got to the top I was completely soaked with sweat under my rain coat. I really should had turned back hours ago. So why was I still going on?
And what was I doing here, on this road that wasn’t a road at all? A road that none of the locals were using.
The good road at the Bolaven Plateau
Two days ago it had been a cloudy morning in Pakse, where I had already stayed for a few days. I had arrived to Pakse without any actual plan of what to do or see here, but to be honest, there isn’t that much to do or see there. Then I had heard that the area was actually great for exploring with a motorbike. So I had acquired myself a very basic map of the surrounding area and then had waited for the weather to improve. It hadn’t. This morning it was only cloudy, so I decided to make a run for it.
I left most of my things back to the guesthouse and only loaded a few t-shirts and my DSLR onto my 110cc motorcycle that is the de-facto method of transport in this neck of the woods.
I decided not to try to find the waterfall that was supposed to be somewhere there
The first waterfall I found
My first target was Tad Lo, a village so small that it wasn’t even on Google maps, but which still was supposed to have a guest houses. It was only 60km from Pakse, which was good as I missed one intersection by 15km, still leaving me amble time to check some of the waterfalls along the way.
I finally reached Tad Lo, well on time and found myself a small bungalow in the centre of the town; the centre being basically about three guesthouses and restaurants with a few other buildings around them. I then set off to the Tad Soong waterfall.
Coffee beans being dried, tricky in the rainy season
Elephants at Tad Lo
Lots of the bombshells remain from the secret war of Laos, courtesy of the Americans
I found a village that was the starting point of the trail leading to the waterfall, after parking my bike, few of the local boys enlisted themselves to work as my tour guides through the jungle to the waterfall.
The village near Tad Soong waterfall
They showed me where I could cross to the middle of the river to get a good view of the waterfall. Balancing on the slippery rocks in the water with my DSLR, the thought came to me, that this might have been a very stupid idea. But of course my ego wouldn’t let me back down, these six year old kids were managing to do it, so I would also. Thankfully I didn’t fall and got to the middle where I got a nice view of the waterfall.
Tad Soong waterfall
Next we hiked all the way up to the waterfall. The air was misty and I was angry at myself that I hadn’t switched to my wide angle lens on my DSLR, no way I could do it any more at this point.
The local kids who enlisted themselves as my tour guides
Way back to the shore
Up close to Tad Soong
I gave the kids few Kips after tough negotiations and bought them two cans of coke as we got back to the village. Without them I wouldn’t had walked to the middle of the river.
Next day I set off late, cruising through the villages and towns along the way; stopping occasionally for a coke or some food. I am starting to understand this whole thing about motorbikes and freedom.
The village of Thateng, or maybe it's a town
Then I finally reached Sekong, which might not be the most interesting of towns. It actually said that on a menu in a restaurant, the menu was produced by some UN project fifteen years ago.
Tips for tourists - at least it is trutful, but UN should never be allowed to do marketing
I decided to stay in a place called “Woman Fever Kosment Center Guest House”, just because it had an awesome name and it was cheap, well, for reason, they didn’t even have showers, just water and a scoop. There were no westerners there. Well, there were no westerners in Sekong, period.
I ate in a restaurant across the road from the guesthouse, and got talking with some Vietnamese migrant workers who were also staying in the same guesthouse. One of them could talk a little English, so I learned that the guesthouse was mostly used by migrant workers, coming from the neighboring areas. The only other foreigner I ran into in Sekong was a French guy working for one of the NGOs in the area, he said that there weren’t many tourists here, and it was easy to believe him.
Next morning I headed off early as I had a long ride a head of me. Heading south, I finally I noticed a sign to Paksong pointing to the right, this is what my map also said, so I turned right. Quite quickly I cursed in my mind as I noticed that it was a dirt road, not a paved road like I was expecting. And it was in pretty rough condition with the constant rain. At best I could do 40km/h and the sign had said it was 71 km. So it would take me at least 2 hours.
The views were stunning constantly with mountains and forests
How wrong was I, soon the road got worse and I was going only 30km/h. Still I could do it 3 hours. And then it got a lot worse. I hit what was basically just mud and rocks. This can’t be right, I thought myself, as I was struggling to get to 20km/h.
Then I found the first of the mechanical diggers, which should had been warning sign for me. I asked him if this was the way to Paksong, he smiled and pointed to the way I was going. At least I was on the right road, previously I hadn’t been so sure, as I hadn’t seen other traffic.
Hoping that it was only this one part of the road they were fixing, I kept going. It wasn’t, one by one I passed what was probably ten mechanical diggers working on the road. Each was polite, allowing me to pass through by getting out of the way and then flattening a little bit of surface for me, if it was required. They all probably thought I was insane.
Still, when a mechanical digger creates you some road from mud and rocks, it is, well, to put it lightly, rough. I wouldn’t exactly call it road, so I was moving really slowly, getting constantly stuck with the rough mud and the big rocks, often having to get up and pull out my motorbike from the mud, which was getting tiring.
This was a street bike, it wasn’t meant for this kind of job. As the kilometers continued to snail past, I got worried. Something was going to give sooner or later, either the bike, which wouldn’t had been surprising, or me. Or if it started raining heavily, I would be completely f**ked. The drizzle was bad enough, but a proper storm rain would render the this mud field into something completely impassable, I wouldn’t stand a chance.
The mechanical diggers ended, but the road didn’t get any better, I was struggling forward, I had already spent close to two hours on that last 5km, this wasn’t good. Paksong was still at least 60 km away, and at this rate I wouldn’t make it before dark. Shit. And I definitely didn’t want to get stuck here after dark. The other thing that was worrying me, was the lack of traffic, I hadn’t seen anybody else besides the the mechanical diggers, and they seemed to have huts in the other direction. If I got stuck or in trouble here, I wasn’t sure if I could expect help anytime soon.
The rain got a little worse, I seriously started to think turning back, at least I knew what was there, I could make it back to Sekong in time. But somehow going back past all those diggers who had given me way, seemed like too much of a defeat. So I thundered forward.
The Bolaven Plateau map, note that the road from Sekong to Paksong via Houaykhong does not exist! I don't even want to know how the
And suddenly, the road got a lot better. First I was cruising at 30km/h and soon at 40km/h. Thank Buddha, I would make it. I was again able to truly appreciate the magnificent views I was driving through. There were thick cotton clouds at the bottom of the jungle valleys from which peaks of mountains suddenly appeared. I was driving above the clouds. I have never driven trough anything quite like this. And I was pretty much the only person around, and for sure I was the only crazy westerner driving thru here. I almost felt like Indiana Jones.
Then, everything changed again. There was a big steep hill up, and suddenly my motorbike just didn’t go forward, it just slided to the side. Shit. I stopped and tried again, nothing, the tire just kept spinning, but there was no grip whatsoever. I hopped off from my bike and pushed it forward, I got it over the slippery part eventually and tried again, but with the same result. The water running down the hill was turning this mud into something my bike just couldn’t deal with. In the end I was forced to push the bike up all the way, while constantly revving the engine. Few times I had to pull it up from a particularly slippery hole from which it just wouldn’t move from.
The mud however did seem to stick to my sandals in huge lumps even if it didn’t give any grip to my tires. And I was unable to shake these massive extra lumps off, because they would just stick again when I lowered my feet to the ground, I was getting exhausted.
What I was worried was that the hill would continue from the corner beyond which I couldn’t see. And that would be bad, because I was starting to tire. It took a lot of effort to push my bike up the hill in these conditions, I was wet not with the rain but with sweat, I finally gave up on my helmet and just hung it from the mirror. At these speeds I wasn’t too worried about my head.
Thankfully after the corner, the hill didn’t go up anymore. It went down, but as I soon discovered the mud on this side of the mountains was as slippery as on the other side, so I still couldn’t go much above 10km/h, because I was constantly using my feet to balance the bike, because either the front or the back tire was slipping every which way.
After few kilometres of this, things improved thankfully, I managed to get back to 30km/h and few houses appeared. Then I saw what was best news for a long time. I saw a car. Let me explain, the car meant that there wouldn’t be anymore of those construction sites I saw earlier, because you couldn’t get thru that with a car. Then I hit the first village and I stopped at the local store to celebrate. I bought a Pepsi and six small bars of chocolate, I needed to recover my energy levels. I wasn’t sure it would be easy sailing from here on.
I have rarely been so happy to find a shop
My bike after the whole ordeal
And I was right, while for some 15 km everything went fine, the road turned worse again, not as bad as before, but still. I was going at 20km/h constantly avoiding potholes and rocks.
But then finally I made it, Paksong, I had done it. I had survived.
Exhausted I pulled over at a coffee shop I had heard about. It was run by a Dutch guy who had moved here some years ago. It has to be some of the freshest coffee I have had, it had still been in trees four days ago. It was just simply good, I stayed there drinking coffee and talking with the owner for few hours.
If you are ever in Paksong, you have to stop here for a coffee
When he learned that I had come from Sekong, he said that I was either very stupid or very lucky, or more likely both to had made it. And I could only agree with him.
One of the best coffees I've ever had, could had also been because of the experience
I definitely recommend motorcycling through the Bolivian Plataeu, it is a great way to see the real Laos. And after I had made it, it felt awesome. On that dirt road I had driven through some of the most amazing views I’ve ever driven through. Lush jungles and high mountains just appearing from the clouds below me. I wish I had some photos from that part of the road, but it was raining, I was muddy and exhausted so my DSLR stayed safe in the waterproof bag the whole time, as I really was only focused on survival, it was one of those times, when photos didn’t matter, only going forward mattered.
Had I known how difficult to the road was, I would had never tried it. So if you go driving there in the rainy season, do ask beforehand which roads are in ok condition, it’s the sensible thing to do, unless you want to try to be lucky and stupid!
Have you ever kept going, knowing you should had turned back a long time ago?