Cambodia/Lao Border to the Bolaven Plateau and Savannakhet: A Bike Touring Route
Southern Laos isn’t as visited as in the north but it still has its fair share of attractions.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten track, sip some fantastic coffee and swing in a hammock with palm trees swaying overhead, this is the route for you.
Although much of your riding is through rural villages, you’ll never be alone because there are always plenty of kids ready to wave and give you a ‘sabaydee’ as you pass. Most of this route is on paved roads but even the dirt stretches should be passable in the rainy season, if a bit messy. For information on getting to the Lao border from Cambodia, click here.
For city maps of destinations on this route, check out Travelfish. They have such good maps we didn’t bother making our own!
Duration: Eight days riding plus at least another couple thrown in for lounging. Two weeks will let you take it really easy and do some trekking around the waterfalls.
Terrain: A bit of everything. Route 13 starts out flat but rolling hills start to appear around Champasak. There’s a solid 50km climb to Paksong, with the glory of the descent the next day to the waterfalls at Tadlo. Aside from around Paxse and Savannakhet, traffic is very light.
Accommodation: Plenty of budget hotels and a couple chances to splurge as well. Only the stretch before Savannakhet might require camping.
Highlights: Hammock lounging on Don Det, laid back Champasak, coffee tasting in Paksong and the waterfalls at Tadlo.
Lowlights: Sometimes monotonous scenery and hot riding on Route 13. Double pricing is also starting to appear, even in small towns, so come prepared to ask the price before you buy and bargain where necessary.
Tips: Leave lots of time to hang out in beautiful places. Change lots of money at banks when you see them because the rate in hotels isn’t good. Unless you enter Pakse, there are no ATMs until you reach Savannakhet.
Section 1 – Lao-Cambodia Border to Si Phan Don (Don Det and Don Khon) (21km)
Getting into Lao from Cambodia is a reasonably straight-forward affair, provided you have your Lao visa in your passport. They aren’t issued at the border. Have dollar bills ready for the annoying but inevitable bribe. One dollar per passport should secure an entry stamp. The Lao officers won’t leave their hammock unless you pay. A sign advertises unspecified overtime charges for arriving outside of the 08:00-16:00 working hours and on Saturday and Sunday. It’s anyone’s guess how much overtime will cost you.
Once through Lao immigration, Highway 7 becomes Highway 13. It’s the same deal: a wide, flat and sealed road with hardly any traffic and little shade. There are plenty of kids to practice your ‘sabaydee’ greeting on. You’ll pass through a few villages and signs for waterfalls before the turnoff for Nakasang at the 18km mark. There’s also a sign for a ferry to Don Det at the turnoff. (Another sign just before the Nakasang road also advertises a ferry to Don Det. We didn’t check it out.)
It’s 3km to Nakasang village and the pier, where you’ll see a booth selling tickets over to Don Det Island for 20,000 kip. You can pay in baht or dollars if you don’t have kip yet. Loading your precious bicycle onto a narrow boat can be quite the experience but try not to panic. You’ll be fine and the ticket fellows have done it before.
Once on Don Det, take your pick of a string of riverside bungalows for 15,000-20,000 kip each. The beds are hard but the hammocks are soft. There are a couple shops on the island but predictably the selection is limited and prices are higher than on the mainland. It might be an idea to pick up some snacks before leaving Nakasang. After a tough couple of days, kick back in your hammock and rest those muscles. You deserve it! When you feel like moving again, take your bike for an excursion across the rail bridge (9,000 Kip for a day pass) and to the waterfalls on Don Khon Island. You can easily do this in an afternoon and be back in your hammock for sunset. Don Khon Island has more accommodation if you don’t like what you see on Don Det.
Section 2 – Island hopping from Don Det to Don Khong via Don Som (24km)
Enough lounging in hammocks and drinking beer with the backpacking crowd? It’s time to island hop to Don Khong. First though, do any internet tasks and change any money you might need. Both are better value on Don Det than Don Khong. When you’re ready, drive to the pier at the north end of Don Det and get a local ferry just across the river to Don Som (10,000 kip for you and your bike). This is a completely untouristed island. It’s quite the adventure as you roll off the ferry and onto a tiny track running north towards Don Khong. The track twists and turns its way across the island, going from the west bank where you arrive, over to the east bank and back again before finally dropping you at another ferry pier for the ride to Don Khong. You’ll see plenty of rice fields, water buffalo, a couple temples and many children and adults saying ‘sabaydee’ and yelling ‘falang’ as you appear.
You’ll have to ask directions a few times when the track splits to find out which one is the way to Don Khong. It’s not always obvious but the locals are only too happy to help. After about 16km the track splits three ways. Go to the left, behind a few houses, and you’ll find a fellow who will take you across for 7,000 Kip a person, bike included. Although it’s a short journey, crossing Don Som will likely take at least a couple hours because the track is quite narrow. In the wet season it will be muddy in places but should be no problem to pass.
Don Khong greets you with paved roads and 24-hour electricity. Keep to the eastern side of the island and you’ll eventually run into the string of guesthouses. Watch on your right for a ferry dock, three kilometers from the town centre. Penny pinchers can get back to the mainland from here for 7,000 kip – less than what the boats at the landing outside the guesthouses will ask.
Room prices are relatively high on Don Khong and we preferred the scenery and atmosphere on Don Det. Still, there are some nice temples to visit on Don Khong and stopping here makes the next day’s journey more managable. We visited nearly every guesthouse in town and concluded that the Mekong Guesthouse has the best budget buy at 30,000 kip for a double fan room with shared bathroom but there’s a view only of the adjacent building and it’s a hike to the toilets. Across the street is V Mela Guesthouse (where we stayed) with nice rooms in a garden setting for 50,000 kip. Pon’s Guesthouse is central and has rooms with ensuite bathroom for 60,000 Kip. We can recommend Pon’s restaurant. TV and aircon anywhere will cost at least 100,000 kip.
If you decide to visit Don Khong directly, skipping Don Det and Don Khon, then you can save money by taking the local ferry service. Do not take the turnoff marked Don Khong but one just before, marked Ban Hart and Ban Khinak. Follow the paved road until you meet the ferry pier and you can go across for 7,000 kip and be dropped off just south of where the guesthouses are. It’ll cost you more if you take the road marked Don Khong.
Section 3 – Don Khong to Champasak (115km)
Hop in a boat to get off Don Khong. The boats near the guesthouses will cost you more but using the local ferry pier will add about 8km to your day by the time you backtrack to the pier, out to the main road and then back to the Don Khong turnoff where you’d come out if you used the central dock. We used the local service and had a mediocre breakfast of pho (noodle soup) and coffee in the first village as we got off the boat. It might be better just to get something on Don Khong.
Once you leave the pier area, there aren’t any chances to get breakfast, beyond maybe picking up a bunch of bananas, for some time. There are a few small shops but the next restaurant of any description appears 30km down the line. There are drinks stalls around 50km into your day and a reasonable choice of roadside snack food and restaurants another 20km further on. In general there aren’t a lot of places to pick up food on this route. On the other hand, the road climbs and falls only gently in places and it’s well paved so you can make good time.
With an early start, energetic cyclists can speed through the mostly flat road (there are a couple gentle hills) to reach Ban Thang Beng (Phiafay on road markers) for a late lunch. You’ll have about 90km on the clock by now so you should be hungry! A fine bowl of pho can be had here for 10,000 kip at a roadside restaurant. There are a few eateries to choose from and even a guesthouse if you’re feeling faint.
Most of your work is done by now. Carry on until kilometer 31 on the road markers for the Wat Phu turnoff. Champasak is not listed on the sign. The road leads to the ferries that will take you over the Mekong for 10,000 kip each. Turn left from the ferry dock to get into Champasak, which is little more than a quiet village with a long string of guesthouses. We stayed at Vong Paseud, right at the end of the town on the left hand side. They have clean rooms with ensuite for just 30,000 kip, a reasonably priced restaurant on the water and you can park your bike outside the door to your room. It’s run by a very cherry fellow who speaks quite good French and some English.
There are some modern amenities in Champasak. The bank can change money at a good rate during the week and there are a few internet cafes. One is near the ferry pier. Turn right (instead of left towards Champasak) and go about 100 meters to the secondary school. The cafe is on the top floor of the school and is open from 8am to 8pm. It charges 200 kip a minute. There is also internet access in the information centre in town and just down the road from Vong Paseud.
The famous Wat Phu is 8km outside Champasak. Get there early before the tour groups arrive and come armed with 30,000 kip for the entry fee. There are quite a few local restaurants on the road leading to Wat Phu for budget lunchtime meals. Our best one was about two kilometers from Vong Paseud, with a wooden railing fence outside. We paid 5,000 kip for a vegetarian lunch for two including iced coffees. Bargain!
Section 4 – Champasak to Paksong (75km)
After a few days in the hot and humid lowlands of Laos, it’s time to head up onto the refreshingly cool Bolaven plateau. Retrace your steps across the Mekong and out to National Road 13. Turn left and start tackling a series of hills, more strenuous than the ride to Champasak but good practice for the climb to Paksong! When the road splits about 8km before Pakse, take a right onto Route 16. From here you’ll be climbing all the way until you reach Paksong at kilometer mark 50 and 1,300 meters above sea level.
There’s a market at the junction and quite a few roadside stands. You might want to pick up some bananas or other snacks here before you start the hard work. All along the route you should be able to pick up a cold drink but finding a meal could be more problematic, other than instant noodle soup (not so bad with an egg mixed in and some fresh chives). The best selection of food and fruit, including some truly huge pineapples, is where Route 16 and Route 20 join.
As you climb, you’ll pass some blacksmiths working hard to turn out knives. Further up a few signs for waterfalls appear and you’ll want to detour to at least one or two. Tad Fane is the most famous at kilometer 38 and you can stay in the comfy resort here for $30 U.S. a night. You might be able to bargain the price down a bit. Otherwise it’s 5,000 kip to see the falls.
Just up the road from Tad Fane at kilometer mark 40 is a guesthouse; a cheaper option if you don’t want the resort but can’t quite bring yourself to finish off the last 10km to Paksong.
There are a few accommodation options in Paksong. If you want to do a Coffee Workshop and you don’t mind a cold shower you may also be able to stay with a Dutchman, appropriately called Coffee, and his Lao family. Look for the sign in the middle of Paksong on Route 16 that reads ‘Daily Fresh Roasted Coffee For Sale’. A day of trekking to a coffee plantation and wok roasting coffee, including meals, costs 200,000 kip. We thought it was worth every penny.
Section 5 – Paksong to Tadlo (65km)
It’s a fast and almost entirely downhill run from Paksong to Tadlo. Only a bumpy stretch in the middle might slow you down. You can easily do this ride in a morning.
Get some breakfast at the Paksong market before you head out. Try the fried sweet dough with sesame seeds. Delicious and cheap at only 1,000 kip each.
Go north out of town on Route 16, keeping to the left when the road makes a large curve. It’s about 35km to Tha Taeng. Here you can pick up food and you’ll find several guesthouses in and around the town if you want to stay. After Tha Taeng, the road deteriorates to a bumpy dirt track. This could be messy if it’s been raining hard but the road should still be passable and it’s downhill all the way. On a sunny day, there are nice views of the surrounding mountains and countryside.
After nearly 20 kilometers you meet a paved road. Go left on a gently climbing road for about 5km until you reach Lao Ngam village and the turnoff for Tadlo falls. The turnoff is on your left, just before the bridge. It’s a further couple kilometers to the falls. The dirt road with most of the guesthouses is not clearly marked but it’s on your right, almost at the base of a killer hill and before Tadlo Lodge. There are plenty of places to stay.
Tim’s Guesthouse is popular but the simple rooms with shared hot shower are pricey at 60,000 kip. Just next door, Samly Bungalows with shared bathroom and cold showers are 20,000 kip. There’s a lovely family running the place. They even put a tarp over our bikes at night to protect them from rain – very thoughtful! A few meters further on by the river, Sipaseuth Hotel has ensuite bungalows on the river from 60,000 kip but the rooms are dreary. Internet access at Sipaseuth is a relatively reasonable 20,000 kip an hour.
Pap’s Restaurant was the best budget eating option we found. It’s on the right before Tim’s Guesthouse as you go towards the falls. They serve up a selection of basic dishes like soups and fried rice in portions big enough to tame even a cyclist’s appetite and Mama Pap is quite the character. Prices are very reasonable, although service can be slow.
Section 6 – Tadlo to Pakxong via Salavan (215km)
From Tadlo, you could go straight back to Pakse all on asphalt. On the other hand, if you’re carrying on towards Vientiane and don’t mind a bit of dirt road then you can cut off a few kilometers by taking the interesting ride up to Salavan and then Route 15 to Napong Tansoun, where you can rejoin the main Route 13. The ride into Salavan is fairly flat and soon you’ll be greeted with your biggest town in days. There are plenty of guesthouses in Salavan (you should be able to get a basic but decent room for 50,000 kip), cheap internet at 8,000 kip an hour and a large market.
When you’re ready to go, head down route 15 to Napong. It starts out paved but soon reverts to hard packed dirt. All along the road you’ll pass small villages and plenty of kids yelling ‘falang’ and ‘sabaydee’ at you. Depending on your mood this can either be endearing or annoying. Their voices can be deafening sometimes. There isn’t much to eat on this route although it’s easy to pick up bananas and there are one or two sizable villages where you might get more than instant noodle soup at lunchtime.
The road is very low on traffic and generally it’s possible to pick out a smooth track between the bumps but during rainy season it can get messy quickly. This is especially true of the stretch after you cross the Xe Don river, which is in worse shape than the first part of the road. If the bridge across the river is flooded, boats will take you across. You should be able to pass even in the rain but you might be pretty dirty by the time you reach Route 13 again.
Napong, at the junction with Route 13, is a popular stop for buses so there’s no shortage of food but the closest hotel or guesthouse is in Khongxedon, three kilometers back towards Pakse. If you turn towards Vientiane, there’s nothing for a good 100km but with a tent or mosquito net you could camp out in one of the many huts the rice farmers use for shade during the day. We hoped to ask at a wat but didn’t see any for the first 40km and by that time it was dark so we took over a rice hut. It was a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Many of them even have pillows and blankets!
The first sign of a guesthouse comes just before Pakxong. After none for miles, now you have close to a dozen to choose from in the run up to Pakxong, including four in the town itself. Watch for a sign for Kiengphavanh Guesthouse, 1.5km down a side road. The turn is next to the bank with a Western Union sign, on the left as you enter town. It’s brand new and sparkling fan rooms with TV and bathroom are 50,000 kip. There’s a great market on the northern edge of Pakxong (technically in the next village along, where the buses stop). There you can pick up some very spicy green papaya salad as well as all the usual goodies.
Section 7 – Pakxong to Savannakhet (70km)
The ride into Savannakhet isn’t very long but it can be a sweaty affair with a steady string of rolling hills to test your legs. There are a few spots to pick up snacks and cold drinks along the way. The best place is probably at Lak 35, just before the road splits, with the left fork going to Savannakhet and the other half carrying on to Vientiane. There’s also a guesthouse at Lak 35 and more accommodation a short distance after the turn to Savannakhet.
Hotels are hard to spot at first in Savannakhet but there are a few off the main Latsavongseuk Street. Running parallel to Latsavongseuk is Saenna (the Catholic church is at the one end of Saenna) and here you’ll find three guesthouses, the best of which is Souannavong with clean and cheery rooms with cable TV and bathroom from 60,000 kip. There’s a garage around back to put your bikes in. Dreary rooms from 35,000 kip can be found at the other two options on the street.
Just around the corner from Souannavong Guesthouse is a local lady who will whip you up a super bag of som tam salad for 3,000 kip and back on Latsavongseuk, near Sutthanu street, is a vegetarian restaurant with great lunchtime meals at 10,000 kip. Look for the sign that says ‘vegetarian restaurant’. There are a few internet places also in the area, with prices from 3,000-4,000 kip an hour.
From Savannakhet, we took the bus to Vientiane. They go many times a day and take 9-10 hours. The fare is 85,000 kip (110,000 kip on the VIP bus) and you’ll have to bargain a fare for your bikes. Something between a third to half the ticket price should get your trusty steed a spot on the roof or lashed to the back of the bus. The tickets are bought before the journey but the driver and his assistant collect the cargo fare at the end from all the passengers.
If you want to continue on, we can only give you our observations from the bus window. The rolling hills seem to continue for much of the way to Vientiane and the 130km to Thakek has the potential to be a very long and hot day. Aside from one stretch south of Paksan (around route 8A, which we’ve heard is beautiful riding) where the mountains rise up alongside the road, the scenery is much the same as the previous few days. Plenty of rice paddies and rural life and not much else.