After you take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, the first activity you should do is the Kuang Si Waterfalls. But Kuang Si is more than just the waterfalls, and some of the tours only give you two hours there. How do you make the most of your time on your visit? I went two times. The first time, I failed to do everything. The second time, I succeeded.
Every continent has an epic waterfall, or perhaps a couple. There’s Angel Falls in South America (Venezuela), Niagara Falls in North America, Victoria Falls in Africa (Zambia) and, my personal favorite, Plitvice Lakes in Europe (Croatia). Then there are the waterfalls in Iceland, but those are out of this world! Asia actually has quite a few stunning waterfalls, and the Kuang Si Waterfalls are right up in the top of the list.
Where Are the Kuang Si Waterfalls?
If you’re like I was before I starting traveling, you probably have no idea where Kuang Si, Luang Prabang or even Laos are. In Southeast Asia, Laos is that tall, narrow country bordered by Thailand, China, Vietnam and Cambodia to the west, north, east and south respectively. It has a really chilling history, which I’m going to be mentioning more in my next article. To make a long story short, it was under French occupation for about a century, changed hands a couple times in World War II, gained independent in 1949, had the hell blown out of it by the US during the Vietnam War in the 70s, and finally has been trying to put itself together in recent years.
The capital of Laos moved to Luang Prabang after the end of the French occupation in 1949 until 1975. After that, Vientiane reverted back as the capital. While Luang Prabang is no longer the capital, it’s still one of the most important cities and cultural centers of Laos. It’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage SIte, and it’s a hub for tourists. As such, there are a few attractions in town, but the main attraction is definitely the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Luang Prabang is located on the Mekong River (Skyetravels.com/Slow-Boat-in-Laos). Kuang Si is located about an hour’s drive south of the town, but not on the Mekong. If Google Maps is to be believed (and I don’t recommend that when you travel), the river of the Kuang Si Waterfalls begins at the top of the mountain just before the falls, and disappears in the village just after the falls. Then again, the jungle around the waterfalls is too thick to see the river from the satellite imagery in Google Maps. So maybe the water really does just come out of the ground, cascade beautifully over the cliffs and trees, and then go subterranean again.
Getting to the Waterfalls
There are four ways to visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls. These are by tour, by taxi, by scooter and by hitchhiking. Tours and taxis are both about the same price – about 50,000 Laotian kip ($6.50). The difference is a tour is in a minivan, and a taxi is in a pickup truck with benches in the back. Also, it’s possible to haggle with the taxi. When I went to the waterfalls in 2017, I was able to get a taxi down to 25,000 for my ride. My taxi also got me into the waterfalls without paying the 20,000 entrance fee. This year, I was talked into taking a tour by my guesthouse and paid the full 50,000, which I later regretted.
The disadvantage of both the tour and the taxi is they both have time restrictions. They will tell you to meet you back in the parking lot at a certain time. This year, my tour van told us we only had two and a half hours before he would be returning! I wanted to spend a lot more than that, as there was a hike I was interested in, so I quickly found some other passengers on the tour and told them to leave without me.
The better options are to rent scooters, or just to hitchhike down to the waterfalls. As this is the most popular attraction, there are plenty of people going both directions (although many of them are using tours, taxis or scooters themselves). Just stick out your thumb on the main road and you shouldn’t have long to wait.
I actually almost made a mistake returning this time. I left the waterfalls just as they were closing, and not only was the last taxi leaving, they were trying to charge a crazy fee for the ride (as much as I had already paid for the return trip with the tour). Instead, I walked a little ways down the road, stuck out my thumb, and a few minutes later was picked up by a Chinese family that took me right into the center of town.
What to Pack
What you should pack for the waterfalls depends a lot on what you want to do. Of course, the main attraction is the beauty. Bring your camera (either a phone or DSLR). It’s optimum if it’s waterproof or has a waterproof case. I took most of my shots while swimming in the water or sitting under the falls. For footwear, you can either bring shoes or sandals. Just know that there’s an optional 2-mile hike to a cave, and you might want to wear shoes for that (although I wore sandals myself).
You could bring some snacks and water, but there are a few places to purchase those at the waterfalls for a decent price. Some mosquito spray is always handy, but not entirely necessary. And finally, bring a little backpack for your possessions. Umm, that one was kinda obvious.
Spending a Full Day at Kuang Si
I consider that there are five “zones” at the waterfalls to explore. These are the bear sanctuary, the pools, the base of the falls, the top of the falls, and the cave. If you add a hike to the cave and lunch to your trip, you can expect to spend at least five hours there. If you’re only there for pictures of the falls and swimming in the water, two to three hours are sufficient.
The pools below the falls are only a five-minute walk from the parking lot. Don’t waste any time. Strip down to your swimming trunks or bathing suit and jump right in. The water is cool and tinted with a cyan or turquoise color. At least, it is in the winter months (November-April). During the rainy season (May-October), the water is a muddy brown color. It’s also gushing over pools in a raging torrent, and swimming isn’t really a safe option.
Have you ever been to a fish spa? Those are the places in SE Asia (and sometimes in Europe) where you can put your feet into a small fish tank and let the fish…umm…suck the dead skin off your feet. It’s not really nibbling, but what is the action called when a fish uses its mouth to pull off the dead skin. Ugh, the limitations of the English lesson…or is it the connotations. Anyway, I digress.
In the pools of the Kuang Si waterfalls, there are hundreds of the fish that are used in the fish spas, except the ones in the waterfalls are significantly bigger. Don’t worry, they don’t bite. But their…whatever it’s called…is really ticklish. Personally I quite like it, and I spent the last half hour of my visit with my feet in the shallows while they gave me an exfoliation.
The Base of the Waterfalls
Upriver from the pools, you’re not supposed to swim. This is the scenic part of the waterfalls. And when I say scenic, I mean drop-dead gorgeous. The color of the water (cyan or turquoise), the white rocks (are they limestone?), the verdant foliage (green leaves) of the jungle and the ever-present sound of rushing water, not to mention the jungle’s insect sounds, combine into a aesthetic, tranquil environment where you can forget about your worries and your strife (for those who remember The Jungle Book).
Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare… Wow, I’m on a roll today!
There are several stages of the waterfalls, each more impressive than the last. They culminate in the “big waterfall” streaming down the side of a high cliff. It’s not high like Angel or Victoria Falls, but beautiful nonetheless. You might need to bide your time on the bridge to get the perfect photo, or bring a drone and make me really jealous!
The Top of the Waterfalls
On either side of the bridge are trails up to the top of the waterfall. The left side is meant for going up and the right is supposed to be for the descent. On both of my visits, I ascended on the right and came down on the left.
After my first visit, I found an article by Nomadic Matt about the “secret waterfalls of Kuang Si.” This time, I made sure to find them on my way up. I did, but they weren’t anything spectacular. You’ll probably get the place to yourself, but there’s not much of a view, and the water is more stagnant which means more mosquitoes.
It takes about 10-15 minutes at a comfortable pace (or 30 minutes if you’re really slow) to reach the summit. I’d say this point is slightly anti-climatic. You can get pretty close to the edge of the waterfall, but then you only see the treetops of the jungle below. The base of the waterfall is hidden from view. This is when that drone would come in handy. Now you can either head back down, or continue to the Spring Cave.
Spring Cave and Restaurant
The Spring Cave (I seriously don’t know how someone managed to find this one) is a two-mile hike from the top of the waterfalls. The trail is fairly flat, and they were building a road for vehicles for the final part of the hike during my recent visit.
Outside the cave is the Spring Cafe, built along…you guessed it…a spring. They have a big menu of all the local dishes, and I have to say my lunch there was one of the best I had in Laos. The quality was surprisingly good, and my mango smoothie was absolutely perfect after the long hike.
There’s a guy working at the cafe who’s quite eccentric. He caught my attention when he was doing backflips off a hand swing into the spring water. I went down to take a video of him, and he quickly enticed me to try to walk across one of the two thin tree trunks that had fallen across the spring’s creek. It’s about 30 feet across. I fell several times before succeeding twice. The game is you get a free beer if you cross successfully.
The cave has an entrance fee of 10,000 kip ($1.25), which includes a flashlight and a banana. You can either eat the banana or leave it at the altar in the cave. Unlike some of the caves in Thailand where they’ve brought in electric lights, this one is pitch black. It’s also surprisingly deep. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, you’ll find another opening to squeeze through into the next chamber. I turned around after about fifteen minutes when the path changed from a flat, hard, mud surface to big boulders I would have had to climb over. Return your flashlight, eat your banana and make your way back down to the base of the waterfalls.
Don’t Forget the Bears
Hey, speaking of bare necessities, we can’t forget about the bears! At the beginning of the trail up to the waterfalls is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center. Per their information displays, they rescue bears that were meant for the Chinese bile farms where they pump out the bile from the bears’ stomachs and use it for medicinal purposes. Supposedly that’s a really lucrative market, but not exactly humane for the bears.
There are several large enclosures where the bears are free to play around, lounge in hammocks or climb over jungle gyms. While some of the bears were inactive, others were moving about a lot, interacting with each other and generally appearing to be enjoying themselves. I love animals and, while I don’t like to see them in captivity, sometimes I think it’s better than the alternative. You can make some donations for their wellbeing at the rescue center.
- Location: See Google Maps (https://maps.app.goo.gl/VfcxCEhPaESPbd6r7)
- Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
- Admission fee: 20,000 kip ($2.50)
- Tour fee: ~50,000 kip ($6.25); doesn’t include admission
- Taxi fee: 20,000 – 100,000 kip ($2.50-$12.50); might include admission
- Best time to visit: November-May
- Length of visit: 2-5 hours
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Planning to visit Laos? Here are my other stories on what to do there, and some of my personal adventures.
- Journal Entry: Putting Up With the Scams in Asia
- A Guide to Spending Three Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
- The Ultimate Guide to the Slow Boat in Laos
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.