I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published March 17th 2015
If you find yourself in Luang Prabang, do not miss this
Steadily creeping onto the tourist radar is Laos. This beautiful country is 237,000km2 of mountains, rivers, rainforest and sleepy cities, sandwiched between Cambodia and Vietnam to the south and east, Myanmar and Thailand to the west and China to the north.
The falls themselves. Image courtesy of Justin Vidamo, via Flickr
While each of these countries – with the possible exception of Myanmar – has burst onto the world tourism scene in recent years, little landlocked Laos has found itself somewhat left behind. Things are changing of course, but visiting Laos still feels a world away from the hustle and bustle experienced in places like Hanoi or Bangkok, despite both being just a bus-ride away.
One of the jewels in Laos' already glittering crown is Luang Prabang, but tackling this ancient city on the Mekong is another story for another time. Right now, though, I want to direct your attention to a little spot about 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang, a waterfall named Kuang Si. It's worth it I promise!
Kuang Si waterfall proper is a 60 metre cliff face rising out of the jungle, with cascades of water falling into a plunge pool at the bottom. It's a spectacular sight in its own right, but this is not all; leading up to the falls are several smaller pools – about ten or twelve in total – each with their own beautifully cascading rapids and falls.
Watching the dazzling green-blue water tumble in and out of pools and between rocks and trees is a captivating sight, and definitely worth the journey from Luang Prabang. The best time to visit is either just before or a few weeks after the rainy season (June to August) when the river will be at its most wild and naturally impressive. Come during the rainy season and you can expect to be hot, drenched and covered in mud, and probably not able to get anywhere near the falls.
The water here is truly incredible. Image taken by author
Having said that, I visited the falls in January, and found the whole thing pretty picturesque! Take a look at my photos and judge for yourself.
Despite being a little way out of town, Kuang Si falls is pretty easy to access for the individual traveler. Heading south out of Luang Prabang you will soon reach a junction with a right turn, clearly signposted as the road to Kuang Si. From here it's about 28km to the falls, along a winding mountain road which is incredibly rewarding to motorcyclists.
Our chosen mode of transport. Image taken by author
My advice is to rent a motorcycle – it should cost you between 70,000 and 100,000 kip for a manual – and head down to the falls at your own pace. Be sure to check your fuel though; miss the last petrol station and you've got about a 32km round trip to the falls and back. Those mountain climbs really guzzle the fuel, so fill up just to be on the safe side and enjoy your journey.
Alternatively, you can book a tour from one of the numerous operators in Luang Prabang. Simply enquire in your hotel. You can also rent a tuk-tuk – or three-wheeled, open-sided taxi to the uninitiated – to take you to the falls for a negotiable fee.
Enjoy and Explore
You made it and it's time to explore! After paying the 5,000 kip to park the bike plus 20,000 kip to enter the park area, the trail winds its way through some pleasant jungle towards the river. Your first stop is the park's bear sanctuary; a large enclosure with a habitat for rescued bears.
Bears at play in the sanctuary. Image from freethebears.org.au
Unfortunately, harvesting bile from captured bears is an ongoing practice in parts of China and South East Asia. Bears are kept in horrendous conditions and have bile fluid routinely extracted from their gall bladders, causing a great deal of pain and discomfort for the creatures. This bile is then sold for use in traditional medicine.
The rescue centre at Kuang Si houses a small group of bears rescued from bile farms. There were no bears visible in the habitat when I visited, but the centre is well worth a look and does admirable work.
From here, the trail continues to the first of the beautiful, tropical pools, before following the line of the river through the trees towards the falls. All of these pools are safe to swim in – barring one which is a religious site and is cordoned off – and a dip in the luscious water is the perfect way to cool off after a hike.
A small bridge crosses the river beneath the cascade itself, and is the perfect spot for snapping a picture of the falls. It gets a little crowded here, but with patience you will find yourself the best photo-taking location.
Having reached the falls you have two options: you can either go to the left of the river, or to the right. Heading left takes you up a steep trail to the top of the falls, while heading right brings you to another fork in the trail, allowing you to take a winding path further into the valley, or an even steeper climb up to the head of the falls. If you're in fairly good shape and want to see a bit more of the countryside, this is the way to go!
For a taste of just how beautiful Laos can really be – right within reach of your hotel in Luang Prabang – Kuang Si falls is a great place to start. The tourism industry in the country has been bubbling under for some time, but looks to be about to explode, so now is the time to get in before the crowds and enjoy everything this incredible place has to offer.
Hopefully you enjoy this place as much as we did! Image taken by author