Date Traveled, August 2012
The Kuang Si falls outside Luang Prabang are famous for their inviting turquoise waters and basins which form natural bathing pools. The falls are stunningly beautiful and offer a great way to cool off in the afternoon heat.
A visit to Kuang Si falls is probably the most popular day trip for visitors to Luang Prabang. As such there is a highly organized tour machinery in town for this and the Pak Ou caves. All the tour agencies more or less offer the same thing, a tour of the caves leaving in the morning and a trip to the falls in the afternoon. Each trip will involve a stop at some local ethnic Hmong village. The going rate for the falls was 50,000 to 60,000 Kip a person when I was there. Ask around because I definitely got some quotes that were above these. The cheapest way to get there without maybe renting your own motor bike is to negotiate with a tuk tuk. Going there on a private tour has its advantages as you have the opportunity to beat the tour group crowds and also bypass the inevitable stop to a Hmong village and spend as long as you want at the falls. That said, If you do want to go private, I personally would recommend you try and shell out a bit more for a private car as the ride is pretty long across some winding roads and in the hills and I believe a car would be a lot safer than a tuk tuk or a motor bike. A private boat is far more expensive and will run you anywhere between 250,000 to 350,000 Kip for a trip to the cave. My partner and I went with a tour group and then found out that the agency doesn't necessarily own the van which sends the groups, rather it is all contracted out between agencies. Not much in the way of choice because there really isn't any competition. Also don't book it through the hotels as you probably end up paying a bit more for the hotel's commission and in the end its all the same van anyway.
After picking up all the tourists from various hotels and guesthouses, we had a tightly packed van of maybe 12 people in the back. There was hardly any room to move and there was an unreasonably long stop under these conditions at a place on the way to get the tire air pressure fixed. One thing enjoying slow and relaxed service in Luang Prabang town, quiet another when you are stuffed inside a van like a piece of sardine. The mood was quite irritable by the time we got to the falls but we were all relived to get off that van.
The group agreed to meet back at the parking lot after two hours or something like that and informed our driver to that effect. I believe there was a two maximum time but he could meet us earlier if the group agreed. I wasn't sure if we needed the full time but am glad we took it. Right by the parking lot is a shaded area with a lot of shops selling souvenirs and other stuff and stalls selling food. There are restrooms here unless you don't mind going off trail later, but they were not the cleanest and going in the woods is something to consider. All in all this whole affair seemed unappealing up until this point. As you follow the slightly sloping path towards the falls you first encounter some bears in a little enclosure. There is diversion for a bear rescue center if you want to visit which I did not go to. After walking a while in, I was still a little grumpy and wondering if I should have just stayed in town when I first caught a glimpse of the falls.
Your first view of Kuang Si
One of the many cascades
An inviting swim hole up ahead
The most popular section for a swim
Swinging from the branches
Just like that, spirits started to return. The falls looked beautiful and the trouble of haggling with tour agencies and coming to the place like a packed fish was forgotten. The waters were not the sparkling turquoise of the pictures...I had come just after the rainy season and the extra sedimentation did not give it that color, but it was still a gorgeous greenish-turquoise sort of hue. We kept walking upwards till we came across the first of the two largest bathing pools. This one not as interesting as the one further ahead but had less people. A short climb up to the next higher level and we came across the most popular pool. It was popular for good reason, it was large with beautiful waters and being fed from the waterfall just above it and itself feeding another waterfall at its other end, it was like a little hidden spot in a mountain, except for the fact it clearly wasn't hidden and there were many people but you don't really mind that. It's too much fun to and the crowds were actually quite merry. That said there were about 20 or so people bathing there, it could maybe double that but anything beyond and it would be too crowded. There was also a rope hanging on a tree for people to swing into the water from a branch. I would return to swim there later after exploring the rest of the falls.
Continuing upwards, the crowds start to thin and you get to enjoy the falls with a little bit more solitude with only the occasional passerby. The falls were clearly flooded and we passed sections where the water had submerged viewing platforms and reached a bench by the falls. After some more climbing you reach a cafe with a nice seating area overlooking a large basin and the falls flowing further down. We didn't feel like resting there and continued onwards till we reached the main waterfall which you can tell you are approaching by the spray from a distance. The main falls were nice but we were immediately attracted to the trail that goes to the top.
The further up you go...
...the less crowded it gets
These sections were flooded in the rainy season that had just ended
Approaching the main waterfall
Here a fair warning...the trail is steep and not very well maintained. I would not go up in the rains as it would be ridiculously dangerous. It is a little dangerous even when it isn't raining, but you will not notice that on your hike up. If you are reasonably fit, you will be able to reach the top in about half an hour or so. The climb is very steep and there are sections in the trail where you will probably need to haul yourself or climb up a bit. Burns calories, but no trouble if your are reasonably fit, however the fact that it isn't well maintained came to bite me on my way down when that steep sections that challenged my muscle while climbing up started to challenge my balance on the way down. Between the muddy poorly maintained trail and the fact my sneakers gave me no grip made it a pretty scary descent for me. It depends on you I guess...there was a guy who zipped past me on the way down wearing flip flops so I guess it was easy for some people. But I found it scary and I have some experience, and so did the two Korean guys who tried to warn us off as they were making their way down.
And so what is the reward for your achievement of hiking all the way to the top of Kuang Si falls and knowing you are going to risk tumbling down on your way back? Bragging rights I guess...if you were expecting a view with spectacular vistas on the top, forget it. You get a muddy canopy of trees blocking everything.
The main falls...most people don't bother coming all the way up to here...even less hike to the steep top
The (non) view at the top...the climb was just hard...the descent was harrowing.
A well earned break
Somehow I made it down alive, a little bit after my partner who had much less trouble with footing or balance. Aside from being alive, there is a nice reward at the bottom, a rejuvenating relaxing swim in the Kuang Si's basins.
On our return trip we were generally cheery enough to not mind being packed in that tight van...and we got stoned on the way back. As in had a stone thrown at our van :-). We were now eager to get back to Luang Prabang but the van stopped at a local Hmong village. The group was unanimously uninterested in stopping there. We didn't even need to discuss this, one person asked would everyone prefer to go back directly without stopping and he was answered with thundering agreement. He explained to the driver that we would not be getting out and would like to head back immediately. I suppose this sort of request isn't very common because the driver seemed confused at first but eventually restarted the engines and began to leave. Just as we were leaving, a stone flew in at our van from somewhere and hit us. No one was hurt but it must have left a good scratch on the van somewhere. Some kids at the village must have given us their thanks for not stopping...oh well. Still a good trip with a few good stories to tell.