Backpacker, Lottie Butler, discovers a hidden secret in Central Laos...
Moving away from Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang
In the face of the stifling temperatures of landlocked Laos, most travellers instinctively make a beeline for the riverside oasis of Vang Vieng. Once a statutory stop on the backpacker trail, with an infamous reputation, Vang Vieng was the home of 'Tubing' - a headache-inducing whirlwind of dubious-looking makeshift rope swings, buckets of potentially lethal concoctions and false Dutch courage.
Others head North to the picturesque slice of French colonialism that is Luang Prabang, while those willing to bear the bone-rattling 14-hour night bus to the border are welcomed to the sleepy shores of Four Thousand Islands. However, for those who can handle steamy temperatures and a lack of air conditioning, Laos is far more than a dusty desert peppered with two or three watery respites.
Welcome to Tad Lo!
The Bolaven Plateau, home to a cluster of small villages each within a moto ride of each other, is less prominent on the standard backpacker itinerary and, despite being only a stones throw away from Four Thousand Islands, has only been lightly grazed by the hand of tourism. A local bus trundles to Tadlo, a village on the Plateau, within a few hours. Instead of being squashed into a mini-bus full of fellow backpackers, you find yourself sitting amongst locals, some of whom have casually strapped their animals to the roof.
On arrival in Tadlo, visitors are deposited at the edge of the dusty red, sun-baked road, marked only by two or three widely-spaced bunches of simplistic bungalows, all made from roughly hewn wood with thatched rooves. Sleepy and quiet, with not a shop in sight, the only obvious residents are the long-legged chickens clucking between the bungalows and the squeaking piglets and puppies which play in the dirt.
Local Village Life
However, appearances of tranquillity aside, the village community is alive and vibrant, albeit hidden from public view. You don´t have to venture far from the road before hearing the buzz of voices and glimpsing flashes of coloured clothing.The locals homes are scattered in clusters across the landscape, and a local will happily act as a guide to lead you around the village, explaining in broken English their curious religious beliefs and customs. The experience is a far cry from the tourist-friendly villages of North Thailand that offer guest rooms and clean sheets: the community in Tadlo is refreshingly untouched.
Smoking, Chilling & Chewing the Fat
Wandering freely, you have the chance to peer tentatively into the musty huts, where your awkward smiles are greeted by enthusiastic waves and toothy grins. Women squat on their haunches, arranged in a semi-circle and chatting idly, groups of men shelter under the shade of ferns, lounging in hammocks or sharpening knives on a block of wood and children potter around barefoot between the huts. The older residents, their leathery wizened skin crumpled in deep wrinkles, can be seen crouched down around a long, faded, wooden pipe with a smouldering cake of herbs attached. Sucking deep gulps of smoke, they barely pause for oxygen.
Tad Lo's Secret Jacuzzi?
Amidst the sweltering heat of Southern Lao, the Mekong River provides a watery sanctuary for travellers, who loll lazily in the waters to try and alleviate the heat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine being comfortable in a village that not only is a substantial distance from the nearest air conditioning unit but is also without easy Mekong access. However, first appearances can be deceptive...
In the morning, the only sign of water in Tadlo is a narrow stream that dribbles tentatively down tiered, black slabs of stone to form muddy pools. However, at 3 pm every afternoon the currents of the water suddenly gather pace and strength and within half an hour, the murky trickle is flooded. White froths gather in swirling pools around what were just rockpools in the morning and the tiered black slabs become submerged under strong cascades of water, transforming dry rocks into an impressive waterfall.
Mesmerising to watch, the rushing sound of the water makes it the ideal spot to sit in the jacuzzi-like currents that gather in the rocky coves or to bask on a rock and enjoy the cool, refreshing spray. The transformation is a daily event, occurring like clockwork when the damn located higher up in the valley is opened, and you don't have to scramble far before you stumble across other equally impressive torrents or natural lagoons.
Bath Time for Local Kids, Grown Ups and Elephants!
The revitalising rush of water through the village serves villages and travellers alike. One pool, in particular, seems to be a popular haunt for locals. Though hidden from view by a knot of trees and tall jagged rocks, its existence is given away by loud splashes and excited squeals. Overflowing with children leaping off rocks, sliding down rapids and diving to pluck stones from the bottom, the pool is a hive of activity. Unbelievably, the lagoon is not just a natural adventure playground, but also doubles up as a bath: at least once a day a large weathered, crinkled head can be spotted amidst the children when the village's two elephants lumber into the pool, each taking a turn to be scrubbed down by a flurry of eager hands.
A Rewarding Off the Beaten Track Experience!
Though hard to imagine when sat on a bus trundling along dusty roads, the countryside of the Bolaven Plateau has something more than the warm, somewhat murky waters of 4,000 Islands. A slice of authentic Lao, it offers the chance to explore relatively untouched villages and to interact with shy, bashful locals, not to mention the revitalising havens of hidden waterfalls. With the opportunity to hire a motorbike and explore the villages yourself, it is hard to think of a better place to go to get off the beaten track.
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