Introducing Bolaven Plateau
Spreading across the northeast of Champasak Province into Salavan and Sekong, the fertile Bolaven Plateau (sometimes spelt Bolovens, known in Lao as Phu Phieng Bolaven) is famous for its cool climate, dramatic waterfalls, fertile soil and high-grade coffee plantations. It’s also known for being one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Second Indochina War.
The area wasn’t farmed intensively until the French started planting coffee, rubber trees and bananas in the early 20th century. Many of the French planters left following independence in the 1950s and the rest followed as US bombardment became unbearable in the late ’60s. Controlling the Bolaven Plateau was considered strategically vital to both the Americans and North Vietnamese, as evidenced by the staggering amount of UXO (unexploded ordnance) still lying around.
The slow process of clearing UXO continues, but in areas where it has been cleared, both local farmers and larger organisations are busy cultivating coffee (see Kąaféh Láo ). Other local products include fruit, cardamom and rattan.
The largest ethnic group on the plateau is the Laven (Bolaven means ‘home of the Laven’). Several other Mon-Khmer ethnic groups, including the Alak, Katu, Ta-oy (Tahoy) and Suay, also live on the plateau. Katu and Alak villages are distinctive because they arrange their palm-and-thatch houses in a circle. One unique Katu custom is the carving of wooden casketsfor each member of the household well in advance of an expected death; the caskets are stored beneath homes or rice sheds until needed.
Among other tribes, the animistic-shamanistic Suay (who call themselves Kui) are said to be the best elephant handlers. Elephants were used extensively for clearing land and moving timber, though working elephants are hard to find these days.
The Alak, Katu and Laven are distinctive for the face tattoos of their women, a custom slowly dying out as Lao influence in the area increases.
Several Katu and Alak villages can be visited along the road between Pakse and Paksong at the western edge of the plateau, and along the laterite road that descends steadily from Muang Tha Taeng (That Heng) on the plateau to Beng, in Salavan Province. There are also a few within walking distance of Tat Lo, and on Rte 20. In Lao Ngam (not to be confused with Muang Lao Ngam on the road to Salavan), around 40km east of Pakse, is a large day market frequented by many tribal groups.
The plateau has several spectacular waterfalls, including Tat Fan, a few kilometres west of Paksong, and Tat Lo on Rte 20 to Salavan.