The Waterfalls of Paksong – A Story of Rivalry
Paksong is a tranquil town untouched by the deafening buzz of the present world. It’s huddled away almost unnoticed by drivers whizzing by on the smartly paved main road. Its streets remain mostly covered in amber-colored dust which lifts and swirls at the slightest movement. Despite its unfashionable demeanor, Paksong is located in the very fertile and in the best coffee region of Laos (coffee is the number one agricultural export).
Introduced in the day of French Colonialism, coffee-growing continues to thrive here. If you’re a coffee lover then this tiny town with nearly 5000 families cultivating coffee is the place to be. But we didn’t visit any coffee farms nor buy any coffee; something else drew us to this tiny town on the Bolaven Plateau – the many waterfalls dotting the area.
We had taken a local bus from Thakhek which dropped us off on the main road. We arrived at dusk when the sky was cloudless, draped in a dark, royal blue. The road had no lights, we could hardly see a few feet in front of us. We seemed to have been left in the middle of nowhere.
What are we doing here?
The sign of a small guest house was the only visible light beckoning us to go in. And so we did only to be greeted by the most gracious and lovely hosts ever – what a surprise! This was the only guest house
within walking distance and, hurray, they even had a room for us! It was clean, basic and well-appointed with a full bathroom (including hot water); we were relieved to find a place to rest our weary heads.
The next day we woke up to a livelier (but in no way bustling) version of Paksong – making us realize there was more to this unassuming little town. To our delight, we noticed the central market was just across the road. Of course we couldn’t resist going – what’s better than a market to get a feel for a town and its people?! It was much bigger than we had expected with several stalls scattered around the dusty ground.
Women dressed in their traditional sinh (skirts) sat patiently waiting for their next customers while younger girls chatted away carefree on their cell phones (Paksong is underdeveloped but cell phones have made their way there). Rugged, dirt-encrusted men smoked their cigarettes until the butts were burnt to ashes. And everybody was astonished to see a couple of lone travelers curiously roaming around the local market! This ensued some enthusiastic hellos and spontaneous invitations to browse in their shops. One man drunk with liquor and happiness even offered us a few bottles of beer; we declined but upon his insistence we chose water instead.
Gotta love markets!
Without the possibility of renting a motorbike in this sleepy town, we were compelled (and quite happy) to take local songthaew, pickup trucks adapted with long benches and covered with a makeshift roof acting as shared taxis, to get to the nearby waterfalls. The waterfalls cited in guidebooks as the most famous and the most spectacular are Tad Fane so that was our first stop.
The songthaew dropped us off at the beginning of the road that lead to the waterfall. The road was unpleasantly dusty and the sun was unbearably hot. Large chartered buses and mini-vans filled with tourists passed by leaving a cloud of dry, red dust in the air. I covered my mouth with my scarf to absorb the dust and to muffle a few swear words – the heat and the dust were getting to me!
The multitude of tourists should’ve been some sort of indication of what to expect but onward we trudged. After a long, dusty walk of about 15 minutes, we finally arrived at the entrance only to find out that the Tad Fane waterfalls were actually located on the grounds of a luxury resort. Second indication.
We grudgingly paid the minimal admission fee of 10,000 kip (less than $2) and made our way to the waterfalls passing a number of luxury log cabins as well as the triad of tourists who were comfortably seated in the vehicles which had caused our lungs to be filled with dust.
Tad Fane waterfalls were underwhelming and overrated. Crushing down at 100 meters high into a deep gorge, the twin waterfalls are inaccessible by foot. You can only take pictures from a distance on a small designated platform where everyone stood in queue waiting for their turn and vying for a spot with ‘the most spectacular waterfalls in Laos’.
We took our uninspiring pictures and left disappointed and a little pissed off at the misleading description of Tad Fane. Off we went to, once again, venture onto the dusty road ahead.
Across the road from Tad Fane Resort was a hand-painted wooden sign indicating another waterfall – Tad Tham Cham Pee. Determined to not let our day go to waste, we headed hope in hand in that direction (we figured it couldn’t be worse than Tad Fane). The road wasn’t paved but it wasn’t as dusty (or as popular) as the one going to Tad Fane. We only crossed paths with a few travelers on motorbikes (they came from nearby Pakse) but that was about all.
Once again, the heat was unbearable and the sun was beating down on us – are we there yet? – but this road was much more pleasant than the previous one. We passed a few houses with dogs barking out our arrival and a few locals happy to see some foreign faces (drenched in sweat).
After what seemed like an endless road, we arrived at a pretty, open field with a small wooden establishment advertised as a restaurant. We continued past the restaurant following a step-down trail to the waterfalls. And there they were! The wonderful Tad Tham Cham Pee waterfalls saluting us from below.
The three-tier waterfalls were small in stature but managed to make a huge impact with its beautiful surroundings. The natural pool was serene and clean inviting onlookers to take a dip. I couldn’t resist removing my booties to refresh my swollen feet in the cool, pristine water. Not only could we get up close but we could also walk all the way behind the waterfalls to truly take in its thunderous, crashing veil. What’s more, it was free including the floating raft made of wooden planks used to float to the middle of the natural pool!
With just a handful of visitors, this place was heavenly – I couldn’t believe our luck! We lingered for a while taking as many pictures as we could (the sunlight was perfect) and then we headed back, satisfied and refreshed.
It’s no surprise that Tad Tham Cham Pee wins in this story of rivalry – hands down.
After a true disappointment and an even truer surprise, our two days in Paksong were over. We bade farewell to our wonderful hosts (who had kindly invited us to join them for a delicious homemade supper) and off we were to Tad Lo.
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What are your thoughts on these waterfalls? Am I being a waterfall snob?