Caffeinated Waterfalls in Southern Laos
Caffeinated Waterfalls in Southern Laos
“Coffee tourism and the original chalet began as a side dish, but it grew and grew. Now it’s a bowl,” said Sinouk Sisombat, founder of Sinouk Coffee, while speaking of his Bolaven Plateau plantation and Sinouk Coffee Resort.
That “bowl” is now a main dish on the paved waterfall circuit that starts about 20 km east of Pakse, and Mr Sinouk explained how his coffee brand grew alongside Bolaven tourism.
“I returned to Laos in 1994, after living in France for 30 years. I wanted to contribute to my childhood homeland, and chose the coffee business, as I saw this commodity had potential as the country’s flagship product.
In the 1990s, there was no electricity, rough dirt-road access, and not a tourist in sight. It would be more than a decade before the lights came on, and Routes 16 and 20 replaced the rugged trails leading to a string of waterfalls.
In the Beginning
Upon arrival, Mr Sinouk built a large chalet on his plantation, about 40 km from Tad Yeung Waterfall on Route 16, and 30 km from Tad Lo in neighbouring Salavan Province.
His coffee trees began bearing fruit in 1997, while he opened up his residence for ambassadors visiting Salavan, Sekong, and Attapeu Provinces.
Mr Sinouk soon started exporting his coffee, mostly to France, which proved a tough market to crack. In 2002, he launched his brand, Sinouk Coffee, “But by 2005, we found France too costly for distribution, and pulled out.”
Mr Sinouk then focused on Laos, and his brand began popping up in shops around Vientiane and Luang Prabang. He opened the first Café Sinouk in 2007, in the capital, and today there are 15 outlets in Laos.
Meanwhile, eco-tour companies and independent travellers began heading to the Bolaven Plateau’s falls, and tourists started staying in the chalet.
Sinouk Coffee Resort Blossoms with Tourism
“In the beginning, it was difficult to book rooms,” Mr Sinouk admitted. “We thought we should be receiving more visitors, and progressively discovered the potential for linking our plantation to the area’s tourism. We wanted to show coffee’s origin. Who makes it? Where is it from?”
The four-room streamside chalet started taking off in 2010, when the paved road from Pakse and electricity arrived. “Now that the chalet was just 90 minutes from Pakse on a perfect road, I could develop and expand.”
The Sinouk Coffee Resort started with that first chalet, which now features a dining room, lounge, and veranda above a rocky creek, with a view to the Japanese bridge.
Before the end of 2011, he had transformed the property’s entrance, so people on the road could see the garden with Koi fish ponds.
Mr Sinouk and his team of gardeners designed all the landscaped gardens, walkways, and even the creek. “Visitors admire the gardens, but they still need some years before completion,” he said.
Mr Sinouk took Sinouk Coffee Resort the next step in 2012, by adding the Café Restaurant in a Lao-style wooden pavilion.
“All our visitors can enjoy healthy food. The menu includes basic western, local, and Southeast Asian dishes, with most of the vegetables coming from our organic garden.” He noted the restaurant offers special set menus for groups.
Guests at the gardens and Café Restaurant can also explore the plantation and learn the coffee process. “Paths run throughout the plantation and into its forest to Red Creek,” Mr Sinouk explained. “Visitors can observe how the coffee trees grow, and visit the nursery to see the birth of coffee they drink.”
He added, “The Coffee Pavilion dedicates a space for a display that explains all coffee processing stages until the final cup.”
With demand on the rise, Sinouk Coffee Resort added the four-room Chalet 2 in 2013, which offers private balconies with garden or plantation views.
The spacious Chalet 3 opened the following year, and features six superior rooms and four master rooms, all with private balconies or terraces overlooking the gardens.
Sinouk Packs the Resort
Mr Sinouk read the market well. “The chalets are now booked solid during high season,” he said. “Plus, we work with 50-60 tour operators and larger DMCs like Nakarath, Exo Travel, Lao Mood, and Amica Travel. Sinouk Coffee Resort is part of a package. Some come for lunch and others stay overnight.”
He pointed out that foreign guests often arrive at around 17:00, with the aim of going on an excursion the next day. “Many stay for two nights, using the resort as a base for exploring the Bolaven more in depth.”
Mr Sinouk noted that his market is segmented. “Some come for adventure like jeep tours and Green Discovery’s zip line. Others visit the falls. Families often come for comfort and to enjoy the pool and gardens.”
He admitted that business slows during Green Season, but they see local traffic, and it’s easier to find a room. “We mostly get Lao daytime visitors, who come to enjoy the swimming pool and gardens, which are in full bloom.”
Along with flowering plants, Green Season turns waterfalls into powerful, ground-shaking gushes, and the Bolaven Plateau launches loads of gorged rivers from its cliffs.
The Bolaven Waterfall Circuit
The circuit kicks of 35 km east of Pakse at Tad Itou, some 15-20 metres tall, on Route 16. A steep set of stairs steps down to Itou’s base and a natural swimming pool.
The circuit’s star, Tad Fane, comes at KM 38, where the Champi and Pak Koot Rivers meet at a 120-metre cliff, plunging side-by-side from the Bolaven Plateau and landing together in a single pool. Trekking and kayaking tours are available at the falls.
Just across Route 16, Tad Champi pours off a sheer rock face. A path from the car park and picnic area leads to the falls and its handcrafted stairway to tahe swimming hole surrounded by boulders.
At KM 40, a platform looks over Tad Yuang, a pair of raging spouts blasting down a 40-metre ragged ledge through thick jungle. Stairs lead to the falls’ swimming pools.
KM 50 at Paksong brings the turnoff to Route 20, where a 32-km drive lands at Sinouk Coffee Resort.
From here, the paved road continues 30 km to Salavan Province, where the 30-metre-wide, tree-lined Xe Xet River crashes over a 10-metre wall at Tad Hang. The falls are visible from the Route 20 Bridge, and a riverside path leads to a boulder-top view.
A 500-metre path continues through a maze of shrubbery to a platform at Tad Lo, with a view of the 12-plus-metre cascade split by a jutting rock protrusion before landing in a cloudy mist.
From here, you can continue some 50 km to the 6-metre-high, rectangular shaped Tad Pha Suam Houay jumping into a rock-walled swimming pool. However, the falls are just 12 km from Route 16, a 20-km drive from Pakse.
Back to the Garden
Mr Sinouk has handed the reins of the coffee business to his daughter, and stepped down as President of the Lao Coffee Board after a long tenure.
“I want to do some travelling,” he said after explaining Sinouk Coffee’s future in packaging and marketing. “But what I really want to do is get back to the resort’s gardens. Visitors enjoy them, and I enjoy creating them.”
Little did Mr Sinouk know in 1994, that his plantation and residence would become Sinouk Coffee Resort, the centre for tourists on the Bolaven Waterfall Circuit…and it was all over the love of coffee.
To discover more about Lao waterfalls, click here.