With a multi-tiered cascade and mesmerising turquoise water that triggers involuntary gasps at first sight, Kuang Si waterfall is considered one of Luang Prabang’s top attractions and a must visit.
Set some 28 km from town, clear, cold spring water flows over limestone formations into layers of vibrantly turquoise pools. Follow the unpaved trail as it gradually rises through the forest to different levels. Some have shallow swimming areas popular with families, one in the middle has a rope swing favoured by backpackers. At the top is the piece de resistance, a tumble of water pouring from the mountainside.
Picnic spots, public toilets and changing huts are available. Swimming is permitted only in marked areas—please obey as certain areas are considered sacred, others (including the big falls) can be dangerous. Modest swimwear is most appropriate. Locals swim fully clothed. Be aware that women clad in bikinis tend to attract an audience. Food stalls outside the park entrance sell baguettes, fruit shakes and skewers of grilled meat, and there are a handful of small restaurants and souvenir vendors.
It’s also possible to hike up to the top of the falls following the steep trail on either side; decent footwear is recommended. The trail can be muddy and slick from the mist, and completely flooded/inaccessible after heavy rain.
Though there are strong rumours that Kuang Si may be developed by a Chinese company, for now the park remains wonderfully natural by Southeast Asia standards—no cable car or fake concrete animals. The animals you’ll see are real: Kuang Si is also home to Asiatic black bears at the Free the Bears sanctuary. It’s included in the park entrance though the organisation doesn’t receive money from the fee. The best time to be at the viewing platform is around feeding time at noon. Keepers scatter and hide food in the enclosure, then the bears have a jolly time sniffing and scratching it out.
Kuang Si is popular and can get very crowded. The best time to beat the rush is first thing or at the end of the day. There’s a bump up in busyness on the weekends and expect it to be packed on public holidays, especially Pi Mai (Lao new year).
The roundtrip visit to Kuang Si can be done in as little as three-hours (a hurried 1.5 hours spent at the falls), or as long as the whole day, padded with several places of interest. We suggest adding one or two of the following:
Three hundred metres down the road from the parking lot is Kuang Si Butterfly Park. Opened in February 2014, well-manicured trails lead through beautiful gardens, past forest, streams and swimming holes to a netted garden full of local butterflies. They have a restaurant/cafe and clean Western-style toilets.
On the falls river between Kuang Si and Kuang Si Butterfly Park, there’s two great places for swimming and chilling out with food and drink. From the main road, head down the path leading through the temple to find locally owned Vanvisa Guesthouse and foreign owned Carpe Diem restaurant. The latter has a wooden dining deck, loungers and a natural swimming area made easier to access with steps and handrail.
About six kilometres shy of Kuang Si in Ban Muang Khay, Laos Buffalo Dairy farm is the first of its kind in Laos. The business rents, milks, feeds and provides veterinary care for buffalos from local villages, who welcome the additional income. The milk is made into cheese, yogurt, ice cream and cheesecake, which can be enjoyed at their onsite cafe.
Buffalos produce far less milk than cows, but buffalo milk is richer in protein, calcium and Vitamin A. Visitors can learn more about the project on a guided tour of the farm and cheesemaking facilities. The farm animals will be a hit with kids. T: (020) 5230 2475; Open daily 09:30-17:30.
Not far from Laos Buffalo Dairy in Ban Thinsom, a local organic farm is the location for the Rice Noodle Experience. Foodies will delight in the hands-on culinary lesson on how to make khao poon (Lao fermented rice noodles) the traditional way. That means no modern machinery, just simple equipment and a lot of steps to create this classic noodle. The morning tour is US$47 per person based on two people. Advanced booking is required.
Finally, in Ban Phong Van village on the road to Kuang Si, just 15-minutes from Luang Prabang is Living Land Organic Farm. If you have your own transport or have arranged a tuk tuk for the day, the morning Rice Experience can be paired with an afternoon swimming at the falls, not a bad way to wash away the mud and sweat.
There are several ways to get to Kuang Si waterfall. The most economical for budget travellers is to either join a shared minivan with set departure times for 60,000 kip per person (book through a travel agent), or do a shared tuk tuk in the form of a songthaew (pick up truck with benches in the back—these are the only kind of tuk tuks that can make the journey). This means either gathering your own group or going to the mob of songthaews that hang out and tout for waterfall trips at the main intersection in front of the post office, Joma Cafe and fruit shake stands. They’ll try to compile the maximum number of passengers into one—bank on 40,000 kip per person or less if there’s lots of people, but expect a long wait for passengers and getting sorted. These songthaews are a bit of a mafia and some have been soured by the daily hustle and can be unpleasant to deal with.
If you’re looking to hire your own private tuk tuk (the benefit being you can stay as long as you like and stop at sights along the way), we suggest you avoid the above and find a lone wolf hanging out way down the main road or on a side street. These guys tend to be more relaxed. Negotiate for 160,000-200,000 kip roundtrip, at the higher end if you expect him to wait for a long time or stop at sights along the way. Private air-con minivans are around 200,000 kip.
The trip is doable by bicycle. We recommend a bike with gears but we met a couple who did it by regular push bike and they (barely) made it, so it is within the realm of the possible. Renting a motorbike and driving there is an option we do not recommend unless you are an experienced rider, wear a helmet, have a license and insurance that covers this. We hear with alarming regularity (and have witnessed a couple) bad tourist motorbike accidents on the road to Kuang Si.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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