The Kuang Si waterfalls are about 30km outside of the city of Luang Prabang in northern Laos, but it takes a legit 50-60 minutes to get there due to poor roads winding through hills. How to get there will probably be your biggest and most difficult decision of the day. There are a few primary options:
- Shared Tuk-Tuk: The drivers will round-up as many people to join and split the cost, which will start at 200,000 kip (about $25) for 4-5 people, so expect around 50,000 kip per person. You’ll see tuk-tuks and organizers at the big intersection in front of the post office, fruit shake and baguette stands. In fact they are almost literally everywhere in the center of Luang Prabang, and you’d have to try to miss them. This is definitely the cheapest way, but could take a while if you’re a solo traveler and need to wait for a full tuk-tuk. Additionally, you’ll need to all agree on a set departure time to come back, as the driver will wait for you at the base of the Falls.
- Shared Minivan: Travel agents can sell you a spot on a public minivan. A big plus of this is that they are air-conditioned. A minus is that they generally have set departure and return times. As of late April 2017 when I was there, the cost was 60,000 kip per person and departure times were 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. You also lose a little flexibility with the set return time, and it can take a while to round-up other passengers from their hotels, adding extra time siting in the back of a minivan.
- Boat: This combines two great “musts” in Luang Prabang: the waterfalls and a boat ride on the Mekong. The boats will take you one hour downriver through gorgeous mountain scenery. You can’t get all the way to Kuang Si Falls on the river, so you’ll stop as close to it as possible, then catch a ride in a tuk-tuk for the last 10-15 minutes. This is also the most expensive of all, as you’ll be lucky to find it for under 100,000 kip per person, and you and your party will need to agree on a set departure time in the tuk-tuk to get back to the boat from the Falls.
- Rent a Motorbike: This will be the ultimate in independence and liberation, but the minimum in safety. The roads in Laos are terrible, and the drivers are worse. There really are no set “rules” by which people abide. Speed, passing, even the side of the road on which you drive are all “fluid” concepts in Laos. If you’re an experienced motorbike rider, then proceed with caution, but if you’re a first timer, then Laos is probably not the place to try it out.
Once you’re there, however, it’s absolutely sublime. I think the best way I can describe it is that if there is a true Garden of Eden, that’s the template which was used to make the Kuang Si Falls. It is a multi-layered waterfall at the top of a 20-minute hike, with multi-leveled cascading pools coming down the hillside which you can see from the trail, most of which are swimmable. The water glows with a turquoise hue, and at about 78-80 degrees, is the perfect temperature to be a refreshing elixir from the 90+ degree temps and humidity of Southeast Asia. Much like Ha Long Bay, my pictures can’t even come close to doing it justice, but just to say that it’s something you’ll need to see to truly understand and believe:
The main Falls, at the top of the trail:
There are few rules at the Falls. These people decided to disobey one of the big ones at the top of the Falls, itself.
You actually can hike all the way up to the very top of the main Falls if you so desire, but it’s a bit of a treacherous climb, and there’s no swimming allowed up there either.
Within the waterfall complex is the Kuang Si Rescue Center, which rescues and helps endangered bears. It’s a non-profit outfit run solely on donations which rescues bears from poachers, rehabilitates them, and gives them a new lease on life. Such majestic creatures. I saw about a half a dozen of them up close, from just a few feet away.
A trip to Kuang Si Falls is definitely an absolute must, and the #1 thing to do in and around Luang Prabang. It is at least a half-day trip, and you can easily spend an entire day exploring the trails, swimming in various pools, and relaxing at one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Asia.
Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel