As gradual as Route 23’s eastwardly climb out of Pakse is, there’s no mistaking when you’ve reached the Bolaven Plateau, roughly 30km from Pakse. The suffocating heat of the Mekong Valley yields to a refreshingly cool breeze, and coffee and tea plantations, exulting in the rich soil, begin cropping up along either side of the highway. Hilly, roughly circular in shape, and with an average altitude of 600m, the high plateau has rivers running off in all directions and then plunging out of lush forests along the Bolaven’s edges in a series of spectacular waterfalls, some more than 100m high, before eventually finding their way to the Mekong. Four provincial capitals – Pakse, Salavan, Xekong and Attapeu – surround the Bolaven, while the main settlement on the plateau itself is the town of Paksong.
The French, recognizing the fertility of the terrain, cleared wide swathes of forests and planted strawberries, coffee, tea and cardamom. Although it was cardamom that provided the south’s chief export during colonial times, coffee is the crop that dominates the plateau these days, earning the well-paved highway that links Pakse with Paksong the moniker the Coffee Road.
Long before the French planted their first coffee crop, midland hill tribes were practising swidden agriculture on the plateau. Today, twelve ethnic groups, including lowland Lao, Laven, Alak, Suay and Taoy, live in the area. Given that ethnic minorities are in the majority here, it’s only fitting that the plateau takes its name from one of these groups, the Laven.
One of the easiest waterfalls to access here is Tad Lo on the forested northern edge of the plateau, a popular spot with travellers looking for somewhere pleasant to relax for a few days and enjoy the plateau’s cool climate. You can lounge in the pools of the Xe Set River below the waterfall and do some elephant trekking to nearby tribal villages. South of Route 23 between Pakse and Paksong is the Dong Hua Sao NBCA, containing the Tad Fan Waterfall. Paksong was levelled in bombing raids during the war and has not been able to rekindle the charm it once possessed.
Lak Sao-et, the tiny village 21km from Pakse along Route 23, is an important junction for bus transfers – there are connections here for Tad Lo and Salavan in the northeast, and for Paksong and beyond.Read More
The Bolaven revolt
The Bolaven revolt
A chanting mob, two thousand-strong, descended on Savannakhet in April 1902, convinced by a holy man that any bullets fired at them would be miraculously transformed into frangipani flowers. Three times they attacked, and each time they were mown down by troops from France’s “Garde Indigène”. The rout, which left 150 dead, marked the climax of the so-called Holy Man’s Revolt, which had its origins with the arrival of the French in 1893 and simmered on for many years afterwards in the highlands of the south.
The French brought with them administrative changes, increased taxation and reshuffled the traditional relationships that had guided life in Laos for generations. At first, resistance was textbook Lao. Villagers avoided direct confrontation, preferring to make their displeasure about the new order known through passive means: villages undercounted their populations, adapted a generally uncooperative attitude, or simply left. The first serious opposition didn’t arise until eight years after the French employed gunboat diplomacy to wrest control of Lao territory from Siam.
When Ong Kaew, an Alak tribesman believed to possess supernatural powers, prophesied that “the end of the world as we know it” was nigh, he found willing listeners among midland tribes living along the plateau, chafing under increased taxes and corvée labour demands instituted by the French commissioner of Salavan. Sensing that Ong Kaew was gaining too much influence, the commissioner ordered the burning of a pagoda erected in the holy man’s honour. This only served to increase support for Ong Kaew, and in April 1901, he and a band of rebels attacked the commissioner and his guard. Soon after, nearly all of the Bolaven region was in revolt.
By 1902, the revolt had spilled across the Mekong and briefly gained the support of older lowland Lao families, who felt threatened by the collapse of the social and economic order to which they were accustomed. After the disastrous march on Savannakhet, Ong Kaew and another Lao Theung leader, Ong Kommadam, whose son would later continue to resist the French and ultimately become a Pathet Lao leader, retreated across the Xe Kong as villages were burned and less fortunate leaders rounded up and executed. But the defeat at Savannakhet and renewed attempts by France to pacify the Bolaven region did little to dispel the holy man’s popularity, and it took a new commissioner at Salavan, Jean Dauplay, to force Ong Kaew to surrender in 1907. Three years later, with the holy man’s influence over the Bolaven inhabitants as strong as ever, Dauplay arrested Ong Kaew, who died “during a jail break” the next day. The revolt was effectively over.
Not all was lost during the insurrection. French authorities were careful to place more of the burden on lowland Lao when they raised taxes in 1914, and Ong Kaew had unwittingly sown the seeds for what the Pathet Lao would later claim to be the stirrings of Lao nationalism.