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.