Bolaven Loop by Motorbike: How to explore the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

The Bolaven Plateau Laos has a huge concentration of waterfalls.

The Bolaven Plateau in Laos is a rare thing in Southeast Asia — a spectacular destination that hardly anyone seems to know about. This region is dotted with small-scale coffee farms, epic waterfalls, dense jungles, and the friendliest villages you’ll ever encounter. A series of good roads forms the so-called “Bolaven Loop” — a common motorbiking route taking in all the major waterfalls.

The plateau is over 1,000 meters above sea level. So while you motorbike around, you’ll bask in wonderfully cool temperatures. And the landscape is incredibly green, but it’s not too rainy, even in wet season. The area also produces the best coffee in Laos.

If you’re an experienced motorbike rider, you’ll appreciate the solitude of the Bolaven Plateau. But even if you’re a newbie, you can take on the Bolaven Loop by motorbike. In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know.

I’m going to cover the “Big Loop” in this post. That’s the route I took, and I’d highly recommend it, since the best waterfall is on the third day. You need a minimum of four days for this trip. If you’re crunched for time, it’s still worth doing the “Small Loop” — simply skip from Day 1 to Day 4 of this Bolaven Plateau tour.

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Pakse: The gateway city for the Bolaven Loop

Pakse is the gateway to the Bolaven Plateau Loop roads.
Pakse has a lively market and a lot of good restaurants and cafes.

Before you set off to cover the Bolaven Plateau by motorbike, you’ll need to spend a day in Pakse preparing.

Pakse is one of the largest cities in Laos, and the only major city in the far south. It’s only 150 km from the border with Cambodia. It doesn’t have a lot in the way of sights, but it has tons of great amenities — including a half-dozen coffee shops where you can sample beans from the Plateau.

But you’re not really here to sight-see. Instead, your priorities are renting a motorbike for the next few days and finding some travel buddies to join you on the Bolaven Plateau Loop.

Miss Noy’s Motorbike Shop is a reliable place for both. She rents motorbikes for 60,000 kip per day, and her husband hosts a nightly planning meeting where you can join forces with other backpackers for the trip.

Another good option is Sabaidee 2 Guesthouse. This hostel has free maps and binders full of information about the routes. The manager is a treasure trove of knowledge about off-the-beaten-path stops along the way. You’ll almost certainly meet others interested in doing the trip here. Check prices and book here.

If you don’t rent a motorbike from Miss Noy, try any of the shops on the road to Sabaidee 2 Guesthouse. I rented mine for $10 a day from a copy and print shop.

If you’re coming all the way from Vientiane, it’s a 10-hour bus trip to Pakse. Most people do this overnight. Alternatively, do the trip in stages — Vientiane to Kong Lo Cave, then on to Tha Khaek, Savannakhet, and finally to Pakse.

Day One: Pakse – Tad Champee – Tad Lo

You can walk from your Tadlo lodge to a view of the waterfalls.
Tad Lo is the first stop. It doesn’t have the most impressive Lao waterfalls, but lots of the nearby falls have safe pools for swimming.

Get an early start on your first day so that you can get out of Pakse quickly and spend more time out in nature.

Grab a quick breakfast of Roti Canai at Hasan Indian Restaurant. Then, start by driving east on the main road (which becomes Route 13) out of town. This is the only part of the drive that is genuinely unpleasant. The road is not in the best shape, and it sees heavy truck traffic. Bring a handkerchief to avoid inhaling all the fumes.

After 8 km, you’ll come to a roundabout at the junction with Route 16. Continue straight (on 16). This is where things start to get good.

Almost immediately, the road narrows and starts to wind up the plateau and through the forest. You’ll see great views across the lowlands to your left, and dense jungle on the right.

At Km 38, you’ll see a smaller road branch off to your left. Take this turn to reach Tad Champee (Champee Waterfall). The waterfall is small, but it makes for a very pleasant swimming stop. The jungle all around is gorgeous, and you can visit a traditional village (check out the bachelor house on stilts in the trees!). Locals put on traditional music performances as well. This is also a good lunch break, as you’ll find a handful of noodle stands and baguette vendors in the area.

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Get back on the road by 2 pm to continue on to Tad Lo. You’ll first back-track the 10 km on the side road. Then, you have a couple options: continue along Route 16 through Paksong (the shorter but heavily trafficked version). Or, backtrack 17 km and turn onto Route 20. I did the latter option, and I really enjoyed how remote and traffic-free this road was.

You can’t miss the turnoff to Tad Lo Village. The final 5 km into the town are on dirt/gravel, but the road is well-maintained and easy to drive even after it rains.

Overnight in Tad Lo

Tad Lo is the best stopping point for your first night on the Bolaven Loop. This village has made a name for itself as the  “backpacker hangout without any backpackers”. This is ideal because the roads are good.

Tad Lo has a large range of guesthouses at all price points. You could splurge for a luxurious riverside bungalow, or go for one of the more basic rooms in town. I split a clean and reasonably comfortable en-suite bungalow at Sailomyen Guesthouse with a couple other backpackers for $3 each.

The village has viewpoints for a few of my favorite Lao waterfalls, which are all clustered under the same name of “Tad Lo.” You can see some from the main road running through town. But the best view is a short, very rocky hike away — cross the river and follow the path south. You can swim at the base of the falls here.

The waterfalls may be beautiful, but by far the best part of Tad Lo is Mama Pap’s Restaurant. Look for the sign that says “Big Food – Small Kips.” Mama Pap has been serving classic Lao dishes to hungry, broke backpackers for decades at a communal table under her open-air, thatched roof. You’ll feel like family as she prepares her specialty laap and chats with you about your ride there.

Day Two: Tad Lo – Sekong – Attepeu

Attepeu is a sleepy riverside town with great sunsets.
The sunsets from Attepeu on the Bolaven Plateau Motorbike Loop are stunning.

Today is mostly a transport day — there aren’t as many beautiful waterfalls to stop at. Still, you’ll get to enjoy completely open roads with no other tourists. And the villages along the way offer opportunities for cultural immersion that you can’t get anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

Get an early start — you have to drive over 150 km today — and head south on Route 16. After about an hour, you’ll reach the village of Ban Tateng. The community here welcomes tourists, and for a small fee, the locals will show you around and teach you about traditional agricultural methods and crafts. The whole experience takes about an hour and is very worthwhile.

Continuing on the Bolaven Plateau motorbike route, it’s another two hours to Sekong. This is the largest town in the area, but it sees virtually no tourists. It’s an ideal lunch stop — KhamTing Restaurant serves delicious Thai food and good locally grown coffee.

Sekong is a friendly place if you want to hang around for a bit. The large market is interesting, and when I passed through I was invited to watch a local wedding procession.

You need to be on the road again by 2 pm if you want to make it through to Attepeu today. It’s another 100 km down the most gorgeous stretch of open road in the entire country. You’ll have the road almost completely to yourself, save the occasional more-confident-Lao-motorbike-driver. The views of the mountains off to your right are simply stunning.

Overnight in Attepeu

You’ll reach Attepeu around 5 pm. The first thing you’ll notice is how big the city feels — and how Vietnamese. You’re only about 50 km from the border here. Grab a room at Duc Loc Motel (it’s not great but it’s the best cheapie in town).

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By far the best thing to do in Attepeu is to head to one of the riverside bars and watch the sunset with a cold Beer Lao. Keep an eye out for the tiny motorbike ferry that shuttles people and their bikes back and forth across the river!

A word of warning: Attepeu shuts down very early. If you want to have dinner, don’t dawdle over happy hour drinks too long — by 8 pm everything in the city center is closed.

If you want to take a more leisurely pace, you could split this day into two. Hang out for the morning in Tad Lo and stay overnight in Sekong, then continue to Attepeu the next day. I was short on time, so I went all the way through to Attepeu.

Day Three: Attepeu – jungle waterfalls – Paksong

Day 3 takes you past the best Bolaven Plateau waterfalls.
The waterfalls you’ll see on Day 3 are truly epic.

The third day of the Bolaven Plateau by motorbike is the one you’ve been waiting for. This is where you get to go way out into the jungle and see the best Bolaven Plateau waterfalls.

Start out from Attepeu after breakfast in the market. Pick up some extra snacks and water in town as well — there is nowhere else to stop until almost the end of the day. Then, head 60 km back the way you rode yesterday until you reach the village called Ban Lak 51. This is the last place to fuel up before you reach Paksong.

The entire back road to Paksong is now paved thanks to dam construction along the river. So it won’t take you long to reach the first epic waterfall, at km 18. Take a look off to your right and you’ll see the top of Tad Katamtok. You can hike down to additional viewpoints from here.

Another two kilometers will bring you to the star of the show — Tad Tayiksua. This 60-meter-high waterfall comes out of nowhere and drops into a jungle pool that you can barely even see through the trees. The whole experience screams “undiscovered jungle adventure.” It’s magical.

Snap your photos, hike around to a couple of viewpoints, and hop back on the bike for the last 50 km to Paksong. After half an hour or so you’ll reach a small village with some noodle soup shops if you want to stop for lunch.

Overnight in Paksong

Paksong is a medium-sized city that feels far more urban after you’ve been out in the middle of nowhere for three days. It has a small tourism industry (largely thanks to the Bolaven Plateau coffee plantations), good restaurants, and easy access to lots of great waterfalls.

You’ll arrive too late in the day to do much exploring tonight, but don’t miss Koffie’s Coffee. Run by a Dutch-Lao couple, they roast the best beans in the region and give delightful coffee tours of both their workshop and the plantation.

Phu Thevada Hotel is a decent option in a quiet location just outside of town. The owner is also a master motorbike repairman, if, you know, something doesn’t quite sound right on your bike and you don’t want to pay through the nose for repairs when you return it. (Not that I almost broke my motorbike riding down a dirt road on the way to Paksong or anything…) Check prices and book here.

PTT Food Court is the best dining option in the evenings. The stalls sell the typical Lao/Thai cuisine for affordable prices — and they have English menus!

Day Four: Paksong – Tad Fane – Pakse

The ride down the plateau at the end of the Bolaven Loop is a bit hair-raising.
After visiting Tad Fane Waterfall, make your way back down the plateau to Pakse.

Your last day of your Bolaven Plateau motorbike tour is also the shortest. You can take your time this morning. Have breakfast at Paksong’s large market. Soak up the cool mountain air. Chat with the locals about their coffee farms.

When you’re ready to hit the road, it’s a short drive to the main waterfall today — Tad Fane. You’ll reach the turnoff after about 10 km. The last 3 km to the falls themselves are on a somewhat rough gravel track with lots of potholes — go very, very slowly if it has rained recently.

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Tad Fane is a stunner. It’s actually two falls, and they may be the most beautiful of all Laos waterfalls. They plunge 120 meters over a sheer cliff into a pool below. They’re part of Dong Hua Sao National Park, so the jungle all around is incredible as well.

Tad Fane Resort is the best photo stop. You can hang out in their super-comfy hammocks while you gaze at the falls, or stop in their fancy restaurant for a juice or a coffee.

Finally, the last step of the Bolaven Loop is to ride the remaining 30 km back to Pakse. Unfortunately, this is not the most fun ride in the world. You’re back in the world of traffic and big trucks. Take it slow and try to be off the road well before dark.

One important note about bike rental before you visit the Bolaven Plateau by motorbike

Motorbike rental in Pakse is cheap, but make sure you follow the rules of your travel insurance or an accident could get very expensive!
Some folks in Laos really load up their motorbikes. This can make the roads slightly dangerous if they can’t control their bikes and you’re behind them.

The Bolaven Plateau of was my favorite part of Laos, and I’m so glad I did it on a motorbike. Compared to Vietnam and Thailand, and even Cambodia, the roads in Laos feel extremely safe. There is almost no traffic and the pavement is in good shape. Plus, for Americans, Laos has the advantage of being a right-drive country (so no figuring out how to turn left while driving on the left).

But it’s not entirely without risk. Every year a handful of tourists get into serious motorbike accidents in Laos.

While your odds of being in an accident are extremely low, the consequences of crashing could be high — especially if you don’t know the rules of your travel insurance policy. Some policies will only cover you if you have a motorcycle license in your home country. Others may cover you, but only if you have a driver’s license from home (i.e. not just a passport). Still others will deny coverage if you weren’t wearing a helmet. And having alcohol in your system pretty much guarantees that you won’t be covered.

In other words, read the fine print of your insurance policy and make sure you know exactly what kind of risk you’re willing to take before you set out. Again, chances are, nothing will happen — but you want to be protected in the rare event of an accident.

A few other tips for motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau:

The villages you'll pass while motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau are charming and friendly.
Stop in the villages. Say hi to everyone. It’s worth it.
  • Test-ride your motorbike the night before you leave. Make sure the folks renting it to you didn’t remove any parts as part of a scam.
  • If something goes wrong with your bike along the way, locals will fix it. Buy them a shot of lao-lao in the nearest bar to say “thanks.”
  • Bananas make the best road snacks. You’ll find so many banana shacks along the way to stock up at.
  • Never miss an opportunity to fill up with petrol. The longest stretch without a fuel station is Ban Lak 51-Paksong.
  • You’ll have to eat at a lot of noodle stalls along the way, so learn a few food names in Lao so you can order. Laap, foe, and som tam are widely available.
  • Try to fit all your belongings for the trip into a day-pack. It’s much easier than struggling to strap your big back onto the back of your motorbike three times a day (although you get pretty quick at it after a few tries).
  • Stock up on cash in Pakse. You won’t see another ATM for four days.
  • Pack loads of sunscreen and rain gear. The roads have little shade or tree cover.
  • Brace yourself for very low accommodation standards all along the route. You might find less-than-clean bathrooms, dodgy mattresses, and doors to your room that don’t lock.
  • Take every opportunity to meet the local people. They’re so friendly and welcoming and not completely jaded by tourism. A smile and “sabaidee” goes a long way toward keeping attitudes toward tourists positive, even if you can’t communicate beyond that.

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Renting a motorbike in Southeast Asia is one of the greatest adventures you can have. The Bolaven Plateau in Laos is the best place to try it. You can see epic waterfalls, untouched jungle, and friendly little villages on this four-day loop. #laos #travel

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Nick Barry
Nick Barry
4 years ago

Great write up, thank you so much! We are about to head off on our tour and this was very helpful 🙂

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