Riding the Southern Swing: A Town Called Bullshit


Attapeu is actually a nice town, despite it’s name. The story goes that when the Lao Loum people first arrived, they pointed at the ground, asking the local people what they called this place. The locals thought they were pointing at a pile of water buffalo crap and responded “itkapeu”, which in time morphed into “Attapeu”, proving that sometimes things can still turn out well, despite a shitty start.

It was our second attempt to ride to Attapeu and this time we actually got an early start, knowing the road was long and mostly unpaved. The road out of Paksong was rough but in better shape than I’d feared, and we kept to a slow cruising pace that afforded us plenty of time to enjoy the views and stop for photos.

Riding the Southern Swing: A Town Called Bullsh*t

The Bolevan Plateau is known for its many waterfalls and we’d find three of them on this ride. The first was “Couples Fall”, which we reached by following a single dirt track through someone’s coffee fields and then crossing a wobbly bridge made of logs loosely tied with vines and finally scrambling across a field of slimy, moss-covered boulders. Adventurin’ ain’t easy.

Further up the road, we found “Alone Falls” which wasn’t quite as spectacular but also didn’t require any real feats of daring to visit, so we took a few quick photos and made our way back to the main road. Dense jungle and steep mountains surrounded us as we passed through small villages or by the occasional lone hut packed with children, who’d run out waving and squealing “saibadeeeeee…”.

From time to time, we’d stumble across tribal funeral shrines where the cremated remains of loved ones were stored, along with goods they’d need in the afterlife — clothing, cooking utensils, tools, food and drink.

Riding the Southern Swing: A Town Called Bullsh*t

At one point, Christina was convinced she’d seen a deer on the road ahead but when we stopped to investigate, we only found a rather ordinary-looking goat. Stu and I decided it was probably a hybrid species as yet unknown to science and offered her the honor of naming it. I suggested “Attapeu Deer”, but she dubbed it the “Christinalope”.

The last falls was the most impressive and the easiest to reach — simply pulling off the road into a crude parking area gave us incredible views of what I think is the Katamtok Falls, with a drop of nearly 200 feet.

Riding the Southern Swing: A Town Called Bullsh*t

After seven blissful hours of riding through the thick, green landscape (we only got lost once!), we hit tarmac, taking a right turn to Attapeu, 50km away and reached town well before sunset. Attapeu turned out to be a sprawling but sleepy town that sits at the confluence of the Se Don and Mekong River — not a lot to look at, but peaceful and tourist-free. Looking for a room for the night, our second stop –Phoutthavong Guesthouse– was a winner.

Renting three rooms at once gives you a little bargaining power, and we talked the owner (who we again named Mama) down to 60,000 kip ($7.50 US) a night. It still seemed expensive for such a small town, but when we she explained that the price included AC and satellite TV, we quit complaining. The balcony behind my room overlooked a large garden with banana trees and a huge palm. We were only two blocks from the town’s main street, but the neighborhood was almost eerily quiet and peaceful.

Finding dinner in Attapeu proved to be a bit of a challenge. Stu and I were excited to try a place on the Mekong that was said to specialize in barbecued goat (order a whole goat and you get to drink the blood for free!), but when we arrived they had Lao pop music blasting at ear-bleeding levels and a group of five or six men were staggering about, drunk off their asses. Next.

Another cafe nearby seemed to only have roasted crickets on the menu, so we bailed on it and wandered around town for twenty minutes looking for a decent, sit-down meal. Stu spotted a sign to the Sabaydee Restaurant and we ended up on the other side of town, sitting on a deck overlooking the Se Don as the sun dropped below the horizon.

When we entered, the waitresses just stared at us with wide eyes –unsure how to deal with the language barrier– then ran to get the manager. She appeared at the table and cheerfully explained “We no have English menu so you order me”, to which Stu replied “I hope she has a sister, because I’m starving”.

Riding the Southern Swing: A Town Called Bullsh*t

And so we were introduced to fish soup, Attapeu-style. A large brazier was installed in the center of the table and a contraption that looked like an aluminum sombrero was placed upon the hot coals, rather like a Korean barbecue set-up. A large plate of thinly-sliced fish and fresh shrimp was brought to the table and the manager eagerly explained how it all worked.

Thick strips of pork fat were placed on top of the dome, so that the fat ran down the sides and prevented the fish from sticking (in theory, at least). The trough at the bottom was filled with water, into which we added cabbage, coriander, chilies, rice noodles, garlic, soy sauce and a raw egg. Bits of fish and pork fat, aided by gravity, added to the flavor.

It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia. Total cost for three people: six dollars.

After the soup was depleted, we’d simply add more water and vegetables — while it was cooking, we’d enjoy the shrimp and fish, which was dipped in a thick peanut sauce packed with as much garlic and chili as we could stand. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia. Total cost for three people: six dollars.

Our last night in Attapeu turned out to be the strangest, at least for me. We’d watched a movie in my room and then turned in early, expecting to get an early start the next morning. I was sitting up in bed editing photos when I heard a knock at the door. When I opened it, Mama barged into the room holding a bottle of water and a small basket of shampoo packets. She was giggling and a bit drunk.

We had been smoking in the room during the movie and at first I thought she was here to chastise me for breaking the rules, but she gave me a big smile and asked “room, OK?” as she replenished the free bottles of water and the shampoo in the bathroom. “Yes, Mama. The room is fine, thank you.”

With the late-night room maintenance taken care of, she turned to me and started rubbing my left shoulder. “You want massage?” she asked with a wink. “Good, strong massage.”

“No, Mama! No massage.” Without missing a beat, she pulled a cell phone from the pocket of her shorts and offered to call a presumably younger friend to take care of me. “No, no. No massage tonight. Really!” I protested. She squeezed my shoulder again and grinned as I shooed her out of the room.

The Phoutthavong may not be the fanciest hotel in the world, but the service is top-notch.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Connie October 10, 2010 at 9:00 am

Yum, I love that hot pot! It’s in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam as well!


Andi October 11, 2010 at 2:06 am

That is too funny how the city got its name. What incredible falls!!!
.-= Andi´s last blog ..Europe- Day 3 Part 1 =-.


wes October 11, 2010 at 7:22 am

The waterfalls up there are crazy, Andy. I think we saw 9 or 10 of ’em, and we missed a few…


Cam October 11, 2010 at 3:55 am

Sounds like a great day!
.-= Cam´s last blog ..There is MUCH more to Peru than Machu Picchu =-.


Caz Makepeace October 11, 2010 at 8:46 am

Sounds like a fun day and a great story behind the name. It reminds me of how the kangaroo got its name. When the English first arrived they pointed to a kangaroo and asked a local Aboriginal what it was.
Not understanding what the white man was asking he replied, “Kangaroo,” meaning “I don’t understand.”
Pretty cool!
.-= Caz Makepeace´s last blog ..Travel Photo- Craig in Bryce Canyon- Utah =-.


wes October 11, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Ha! I love it. Had never heard that before…


Jenny October 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Ugh. I’m so jealous. Sounds like an epic adventure!
.-= Jenny´s last blog ..Warning- Selling everything sometimes sucks =-.


wes October 13, 2010 at 10:13 am

It was a lot of fun!


Joel October 12, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Best town name ever. I really need to break off the beaten path again soon – you are seeing some amazing things.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..Brain Drops XIV- Munich Oktoberfest Edition =-.


ayngelina October 12, 2010 at 11:21 pm

You must include more food photos. I miss vegetables that aren’t white!
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..How good is airport security in Colombia =-.


Nomadic Chick October 13, 2010 at 2:09 am

Why are you always getting propositioned? Bad ass biker aura. Or maybe you look like you constantly need a massage? :)
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Solutions =-.


wes October 13, 2010 at 10:12 am

Well, I *am* tense… I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that I’m a single man traveling solo – they just assume that I’m lonely. Though, my buddy Stu *wasn’t* approached by Mama with an offer — a fact I pointed out to him at every opportunity.


Mitch October 13, 2010 at 8:58 am

I vaguely remember a Pratchett bit about the silly names places end up with because of pointing explorers, such as “Your Finger You Fool.” FUN FACT: Kangaroo means, in an east coast Aboriginal dialect, “jumping.”
.-= Mitch´s last blog ..DAY 159- The Waiting Room =-.


wes October 13, 2010 at 10:11 am

Ha! Any Pratchett reference is a definite win!


Christy @ Ordinary Traveler October 14, 2010 at 2:00 am

Those falls are gorgeous! Sounds like another fun adventure! You guys are brave to cross those bridges on your motorbikes. I was leary to just walk on them!
.-= Christy @ Ordinary Traveler´s last blog ..Photo of the Week- Drunk Nuns in Prague =-.


wes October 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

Oh, we didn’t ride across those — no way! :) As you say, just crossing on foot was tricky enough…


Eddie Shroff December 14, 2010 at 5:22 am

Hi Johny
Great write up
I cant open your last stop-Champasak?? can u help
I plan on doing same either from Pakse or Tadlo mainy to enjoy the greenary and to see all the waterfalls so how many days would u advise total and should we rent bikes and start from Pakse or Tadlo? We do get bored easily:)


wes December 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for catching that, Eddie. That shouldn’t be there — never wrote up the Champasak leg of the ride.

Definitely get your bikes in Pakse — there’s a lot of selection and the prices are right. Tat Lo is very small — not sure you’d even find a scooter there and if you did it would cost a fortune.

The loop itself is pretty short — you could do it in as little as 3 days if you wanted. I’d plan on at least 5 with flexibility for up to 7 if you wanted. Most legs are just a few hours riding but the Attapue/Pakse leg is a full day. Some of the waterfalls are well away from the road and will take an hour or more to visit…