Rising out of the Mekong valley the Bolivian Plateau is a highland plain of fertile fields, majestic peaks, pretty waterfalls and home to a number of ethnic tribal minorities. Planted by the French with banana, coffee and rubber the regions’ plantations have become the food pantry of southern Laos.
In the heart of the Plateau, little villages cluster around a series of waterfalls; Tad Suong, Tad Hang and Tad Lo. Getting to this upland wonderworld wasn’t difficult, just painfully slow as we hopped a local shared taxi from Champasak to Paske then a local bus up to the Tadlo turnoff before thumbing a ride on the back of a tractor to the village itself.
It is a place that retains the feel of a laid back small town despite the dozens of guesthouses that crowd its beautiful waterfall. Some of the more upmarket bungalows are no more than a couple of metres from the Tad Hang falls. It didn’t matter that these were beyond our means as the roar of the falls can be heard from anywhere in the village.
We took a half-day guided trek where we walked a large loop between three waterfalls and three traditional villages. We walked through paddies and fields: rice, bananas, palm sugar, chili, tobacco, coffee and a range of different vegetables. Our first destination was the Tad Suong waterfall, a relatively small stream tumbles off an enormous rock face. I imagine it would have been super impressive before the hydroelectric dam came online. From there we made our way to the Tad Lo falls before finishing back at Tad Hang. Along the way we stomped our western way through three traditional villages, home to different ethic minority tribes who retain their traditional dialect and lifestyle.
We watched the villagers, young and old, going about their daily routines: recently harvested produce was laid out to dry in the sun, children played in the dirt, women pounded rice in large mortar and pestles, livestock free ranged under foot and farmers tilled the fields. True to the Asian norm, tobacco is king but in the villages unprocessed leaf is the smoke of choice; a bunch of five-year olds smoked it in a bamboo bong while a group of eighty-year olds women looked on while chewing it.
While it was fascinating, our time in the villages brought about an underlying feeling of discomfort that we couldn’t quite shake. Being there felt like trespass. Like we were intruding uninvited. The feeling was more acute at certain moments like when our guide interrupted a school class mid lesson so that we could take a photo (we declined). Or stopped a lady pounding rice with a giant mortar and pestle to show us exactly what she was doing.
I definitely picked up hints of animosity from some of the locals. I guess it is the same with all small towns that attract lots of visitors (like The Island or Inverloch in summer). Tadlo was a beautiful, quiet little place where we wiled away our time walking, swimming and reading. The trek was stunning and incredibly interesting but it also made me ponder the impact of the footprints I left behind.