The Hells Angels of Pakse

The city of Pakse located in the south of Laos, serves most tourists as a bus interchange only. From here, transport runs further south to the Cambodian border or the region of the 4000 islands – or north to Vientiane. Before arriving here, a drunk Dutch guy insisted that “there is nothing to see in Pakse“. Readers of my blog already know, that I consider this to be a sure indicator that – in fact – there *is* most probably something worth exploring.

Scenic stop along the road

Therefore, Rene – the Frenchman I encountered back in Stung Treng – and I decided to stay and discover the city of Pakse. Again, the Lonely Planet (and the French Guide du Routard) are almost silent about this area. However, my Nelles road map shows an extensive area with a lot of scenic spots surrounding Pakse. This area is called the Bolaven Plateau.

Upon arrival, we checked in to the “Sabaydee 2” guesthouse, which is the de-facto hub for backpackers in town. Here, we found information about tours in the area and motobikes for rent. Actually, the documentation (both in French and English) for most tours is excellent and we quickly decided to start a five day motobike tour through the Bolaven Plateau.

For parts of the trip, we were joining a Spanish couple who are also on a round the world trip, as well as a French couple who are on their way home after a two year stay in Australia and New Zealand. The six of us did set off – like a gang of “Hells Angels” (well, sort of – because our motos were far from being that impressive).

Nevertheless, locals along the road were turning their heads, waving and greeting whenever they spotted us passing through their villages. In fact, the Bolevan Plateau is an area not yet spoiled by tourism and passing tourists are the main attraction everywhere. School kids would abandon their play and run towards the street cheering “Sabaydee” (“Hello” in Lao) – a reaction that simply made everyone of us smile.

Our tour took us from Pakse to the waterfalls of “Tad Fane” and “Tad Gniang”, then we stayed overnight at the city of “Pakxong”. For the last part of this day, we had to drive in the rain and the weather was quite chilly. Although most of us were freezing while eating dinner in the windy overnight lodge, we enjoyed the storytelling until late at night. “Late at night” actually means about 10pm. Since it is very hot during the day, life in Laos begins around 5am for the locals – before the heat of the day sets in. And the Lao folks go to bed at around 10pm – a time when almost all the places shut down and the silence sets in. As tourists, we did adjust to this schedule, and these days I tend to wake up with the first sun rays.

Country side salesman

On the next day, we were heading through the city of “Thateng” to visit a settlement of animists further along the way in “Ban Kokphung Tai”. Nevertheless, they do have electricity and the ubiquitous satellite dish next to their home. We were advised not to give any gifts, medicine or money to the tribe – especially not the children. The six of us arrived like conquerors, joining a group of other people on a bus tour. This made me feel uncomfortable, since it did seem to me like a visit to the zoo, disrespectfully taking pictures of private lives – and leaving after half an hour or so. Helena, the Spanish girl did feel the same. But I guess this is the kind of pictures some tourists show off back home, stating that they were visiting some local tribes in a very remote area. But we were only some 100km outside of Pakse and the place is very accessible.

Nevertheless, I made most out of the stay by driving one of the local boys about 200m to school. He was totally enjoying this short motobike ride, waving at his friends as we passed by. Upon arrival he did jump from the seat and was running towards his classmates cheering several times “Kop Chai” (Thank You” in Lao). We continued to the area of “Tad Lo”, which is a tourist retreat, featuring two small waterfalls and several activities to spend the day. As it is rain season, there were not a lot of tourists in this area and the place felt quite “authentic” – but with all the comfort for Western Tourist (food variety, cheap accommodation). We found a place next to the river in which we had a swim to see a spectacular sunset.

The French couple, Rene and I did an Elephant ride the next day, right after breakfast. Although this wasn’t really one of the things to do on my agenda, I ended up enjoying this excursion on the animals’ back quite much. After that, we had to split, since Rene and I were planning on driving a couple of days more than the other four. But the six of us had a lot of fun so far.

René juggling bottles

Travelling with Rene is truly fun. He can juggle about anything he can get hold of. He also knows a few tricks of magic. Needless to say that our trip to the various villages was like driving a circus through the country side. Each time we stopped at a small local street side food stall, we would be surrounded by kids and adults. First, they just would be curious to see white people – then Rene started his act and the watching crowd would grow per minute. These are the kind of encounters that really made our days and every time we left, we spotted some local kids trying to imitate tricks they just had seen. The best compliments you can get as a performing artist.

Next, we were driving through the town of Sekong, to watch the waterfalls of “Tad Feak” and “Tad Hua Khon”. Then we went onto a dirt track – about 75km long – to watch the “Katamok” waterfalls. This dirt track is absolutely awesome, although muddy. And most of the villages there are very remote and Rene’s performance act was much appreciated by the locals. The last day, we went to visit the “Phaxouam Cliff”, a touristic site that disappointed us a lot: About five tourist coach cars were parking there, with heeps of Thai tourists wandering around an area that looked like Disneyland, with village people ready to smile at any camera pointing at them. After having been through so many real and authentic villages in the region, this last stop was quite an insult for those who look for true Lao lifestyle.