Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo


The Southern Swing is a beautiful 450km loop around and over the Bolevan Plateau in southern Laos. Passing through dozens of small tribal villages and with views of dramatic waterfalls along the way, it can be ridden in 2-3 days if you like. Most people take 5 or more — we had the bikes for a week, so we were in no hurry.

We’d stopped for a couple of nights in Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province and the largest town around, to rest up and rent some bikes for the ride. Scooters here go for 70,000 kip a day ($8.75), but drop to 50,000 if you rent it for a week. My partner, Stu, and I had talked one place down to 45,000, since we needed two bikes, but she wasn’t open the following morning when we came to collect them.

We’d scoured the town, looking for a map of the area to no avail. The blurry maps in our knockoff guidebooks didn’t exactly inspire confidence and we spent a couple of hours trying to figure out the route, finally deciding to just go for it and figure it out as we went. Picking up the bikes that morning, we were given a photocopied map of the loop, complete with suggested stops and mileage between towns. Problem solved.

Leaving our main packs in storage at the hotel, we loaded up our gear, filled up on gas and headed for the tiny town of Tat Lo, 85km away. The bikes were fairly new and seemed to be in good shape. This was a good thing, as we would really beat the hell out of them by the time we were finished.

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

I’d been hoping to hear from Christina, who I’d met weeks before in Dien Bien Phu, because I knew she wanted to do the Loop as well and was headed our way. As it turned out, she had arrived in Pakse the night before but didn’t receive my email until about an hour after we left town.

All but one of the roads on the Loop were well-paved and in good condition. Traffic was very light and I thought more than once that this would be an excellent introduction to riding in Asia. The scenery was stunning and Laos drivers are relaxed and courteous, with very little of the run-you-off-the-road mentality I experienced so often in Vietnam. In fact, every time we ran across an aggressive driver, they invariably sported Vietnamese license plates (the border is only about 100km away).

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

With only 85km to cover the first day, we took our time and stopped often to take photos. There’s a lot of water on the Plateau and the rivers were running strong, packed with squealing kids playing and splashing about or women washing clothes on rocks. Dark storm clouds rumbled and roamed about the horizon — we would spend the following week trying to dodge them, with mixed success.

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

Soon, we found our first waterfall hidden down a side road, within a large resort. We found the falls to be pretty impressive at the time, but they paled in comparison to others we’d visit over the next week. The resort also featured an ‘ethnic village’ on site — it was more of a heritage center, with huts built in the varying styles of local tribes and plenty of local crafts on sale. It was low season, so there wasn’t much going on — only 3 or 4 of the huts were occupied. All in all, it was a pleasant stop and well worth the 5,000 kip entrance fee we paid.

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

We managed to spend over four hours traveling the measly 85km, not because of road conditions or getting lost, but due to our increasingly itchy trigger fingers. Finding the turnoff to Tat Lo, we pulled up to the fancy Saise Restaurant just as the clouds unleashed a heavy downpour. We sat on a covered deck overlooking the wide Tat Lo waterfall and drank a cold Beer Lao while the rain poured for a half hour, making the best of the situation and feeling grateful for our lucky timing.

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

Crossing the bridge after the rain stopped, we each got a room at the Siphaseth Guesthouse (which we quickly named the Syphilis Guesthouse for no good reason) and checked out the view from our bungalow’s balcony — it was spectacular. The deck overhung the river bank, with a view of the bridge and falls to the left. To the right was the bulk of the town itself, hugging a gentle curve in the river. (Our bungalow was the one on the left in the photo below — $7.50 a night.)

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

Below us, a young woman stood on a rock fishing with a pole, while an ancient old man waded through waist-deep water, casting his net. Neither seemed to be having much luck. As we watched, several young boys in their underwear walked out on the bridge to jump into the river’s deeper side. One of them, a kid of maybe four years, balked at the plunge and stood on the edge for several minutes, trying to gather his courage. One of his buddies tired of his indecision, planted a foot in his back, and pushed him over. He surfaced with a screech, shouting and shaking his fist in a motion that required no translation.

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

Tat Lo turned out to be one of my favorite spots in Laos. It was small and undeveloped and still had it’s own heart. There were just a handful of hotels and restaurants — the rest of the town was filled with Lao families living their lives, most of them making a living from the river or nearby fields. Kids, pigs, chickens, cows, and goats ran through the streets with abandon.

We only saw a couple of other travelers while we were there and I really got the feeling that for once I was at a place at just the right time — it was just developed enough to have easy access to food and shelter, but didn’t –yet– depend on tourism to survive. I wonder how long it will remain that way.

Riding the Southern Swing: On the Road to Tat Lo, Laos

As we settled in for the night on the balcony, mixing drinks with a bag of lao lao (yes, a plastic bag) that I’d bought nearby, I finally got an email from Christina saying she was leaving Pakse the following morning, heading our way. Stu and I were both rather enchanted with Tat Lo, so we really didn’t mind staying another day so she could catch up.

As the sky darkened, we watched distant lightning storms crawl across the horizon and relaxed to the most amazing soundscape. It was a multi-layered thing — the deep, guttural roar of the nearby falls was joined by the keening drone of cicadas and overlayed with the pulsing rhythm of a thousand frogs. As I went to bed, I left my bungalow door open, unwilling to block out it’s hypnotic melody.

Within minutes, I was asleep.

Next: We get lost. Very lost…

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron | BeforeYOUBackpack.com September 24, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Johnny I found exactly the same when I took to two wheels in Laos, it’s such a great country and perfect for two wheeled exploration. I never got around to the south but we’ll be back soon!
.-= Aaron | BeforeYOUBackpack.com´s last blog ..9 Iconic forms of Asian transport =-.


Erin September 25, 2010 at 4:02 am

It sounds wonderful! Your post has confirmed that Laos would be a great place for a motorbike trip. We don’t have much experience as we’ve only ridden bikes in the Cook Islands where the roads are very quiet (although often rough). Look forward to hearing more.


wes September 25, 2010 at 9:03 am

Definitely do it if you have the chance. The mountains in the north are stunning and the south is so mellow. Perfect place to ride!


ayngelina September 25, 2010 at 8:13 am

Yet again insanely jealous of the photos. I haven’t been out much as it’s not so safe with my DSLR but I need to at least take the point and shoot out.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Dancing my blues away in Cali =-.


Jaime D. September 25, 2010 at 9:36 am

It seems like when your not sure what you are doing 100% you end up having such a GREAT time and experiencing things you didn’t plan too. I love the pics and glad everything we went well ;)
.-= Jaime D.´s last blog ..7 most FAQs about my RTW trip =-.


wes September 26, 2010 at 9:59 am

Agreed, Jaime! And, thankfully, I’m rarely sure what I’m doing ;)


Dan September 25, 2010 at 11:49 am

Sounds and looks incredible Johnny, I’m really hanging out for Xmas when I’ll be headed over again.
.-= Dan´s last blog ..What is Authentic Travel Really =-.


Matt | YearAroundTheWorld October 1, 2010 at 12:24 am

Looks like a great trip, love that photo of the two kids walking down the road.
.-= Matt | YearAroundTheWorld´s last blog ..Hiking 12 Miles on Franconia Ridge in New England =-.


Big Deek February 7, 2012 at 9:43 am

Frequent rider of Laos and wanted to mention that the best map for riding Laos is the GT rider laos map, its waterproof and packed with info and trails you do not get on any other maps. You can find them in both Vientiane and Pakse at monument books or in the lobby of the Langkham Hotel (Pakse)

Great Value at 60,000 kip

I have used mine 4 years running


wes February 7, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Thanks, man! Great tip. I’m dying to get back to Laos and spend some serious time in the saddle.


Simon Jones July 4, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Found your blog post while researching this ride. We’re at Tat Lo right now so hey, thanks for the info!


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