Often dubbed as the most beautiful waterfalls in Laos, the Kuang Si waterfalls can’t be missed. You can get there by organized tour, tuk-tuk or scooter bike but since it is only 30 kilometers out of Luang Prabang I – being true to my Dutch origin – decided to cycle. The ride is spectacular, the exercise healthy and it is the cheapest alternative out there. So give me one good reason why you shouldn’t man up and start peddling!
– Practical information –
This itinerary combines a visit to the waterfalls with a visit to a moon bear sanctuary (which is literally 400 meters from the waterfalls) and a visit to the Laos Buffalo Dairy farm. Cycling the 60km round-trip is interesting for both beginners and more advanced cyclists. If you have a shitty stamina and never work out two climbs will probably have you gasping for air, but they are certainly doable! An expert cyclist would probably dub this one as easy/beginner level.
Minimum of 70.000Kip. 50.000Kip for the rental of a decent (front-wheel suspension) mountain bike. Entrance to the falls is 20.000Kip. Bring extra money for food and water on the way, and add another 50.000Kip if you want to visit the Laos Buffalo Dairy farm on the way back (including 2 scoops of delicious homemade organic buffalo milk ice-cream). It is wise to bring another 50.000Kip for a possible tuk-tuk ride back if you really don’t feel like cycling anymore or if your material breaks down.
Approx 4.5 hours of cycling roundtrip. It took me a little over 2 hours to get there and 1.5 hours to get back (during the cooler hours of the day). I am in decent shape but cycled together with two travelers that were less fit. Calculate in enough time to relax, walk around, hike and swim at the waterfalls (a couple of hours). All in all, this is a day-trip. If you leave around 10 AM (as we did) you will get back at around 5.30 PM in Luang Prabang with plenty of time for stops and a couple of hours at the waterfalls. Consider getting up earlier to have a cooler ride. We were very sweaty and sticky when the sun came in at full strength after 11 AM.
what to bring
– Sunglasses & sunscreen
– closed shoes
– swimming outfit & towel (there are changing rooms at the falls)
– a bottle of water (more can be bought along the way and at the falls)
– sugary snacks to fuel yourself during the ride
– Preparation –
So apart from the pearls of wisdom that you are probably used to receive from your parents (don’t drink too much, get a decent night of sleep), I would mainly recommend on not departing too late. The day-trip is perfect if you head out early to cycle to the waterfalls in the cooler morning hours and get back a few hours before the sun gets down. Cycling through the heath of the day and cycling back when it’s dark, however – less enjoyable.
Rent a bicycle
Mountain bikes can be rented all around town. I got mine in a little place just across of the public primary school on the northern-side of Phou Si Mountain but in all honesty, there are probably better places around. We went there because we were looking for 3 multi-gear mountain bikes and most places only own 2 decent ones. The best is to just find a rental place close to your accommodation.
The route is super easy to find. Use google maps (download an offline map of the area) or maps.me and start cycling in the right decision. Before you’ve left town you will see signs pointing you in the right direction. From that moment on its pretty straightforward.
– The ride –
The way up
The cycle starts with a few kilometers of reasonably flat terrain. The roads are paved but filled with potholes, enough of them for me to advise you to rent a mountain bike instead of a road bike. After about 4 kilometers you’ll start to feel the incline building up and suddenly a big hill dooms up in front of you. Switch your gears and let the sweat flow freely! This is immediately the hardest part of the whole ride. The incline is pretty steep but short – only 2 or 3 kilometers. When we approached the first hill we decided to all take the climb at our own pace. After a few minutes, when your legs start to ache you notice that suddenly the 2 meters in front of you are way more interesting than the beautiful landscape. This part is all about clenching your jaw, focusing on the road and inching up in the lowest gear until you reach the top. One of my travel companions decided a few meters before we reached the top that he wanted to turn around and head back into town. Little did he know that this climb was really all there was to it.
I wish I would have known, so I could have convinced him to continue because once you reach the top the fun begins. The decline is less steep and stretches a bit longer. For a couple of kilometers you fly down the road at high speed while breathtaking landscapes roll out in front of your eyes. What follows is about 10 kilometers of going up and down. The inclines are short enough to use your previously build-up speed at the last decline to get to the top. As the road creeps closer to the Mekong River the landscape changes from lush forest to farmlands and rice-paddies.
After a while, you have to make a turn left (clearly signaled). This is where you have to start preparing for your final climb. A longer but less steep incline follows for about 4 KM’s right up to the base of the waterfalls. You have to park your bike on the right at a ‘secured’ parking lot. There are lots of shops and restaurants around to have a quick bite before you head up to the waterfalls. You first get to the moon bear sanctuary and then to the actual falls.
The way back
The way back follows the exact same route as the way up (but now with different views – there is No Road Back 😛 – ) but it involves more downhill than uphill and thus requires less effort. You start with the 4 KM decline, turn right and follow the signs to Luang Prabang. After a few kilometers, you’ll see Laos Buffalo Diary farm on your right. A small organic farm where they make dairy and delicious buffalo ice-cream. The buffaloes are well taken care of and this makes for an excellent stop on the way back (the ice-cream included in the entrance tickets is a welcome bonus, and to be honest for me probably the main reason for the visit). There is an option to also participate feeding and take a guided (instead of self-guided) tour for an additional 50.000 Kip but I do not feel this worth the extra 5 bucks.
– The waterfalls –
The waterfalls themselves are gorgeous. Even by anticipating on awesome falls, you will not be disappointed. Granted, you do not have all the pools all to yourself but if you manage to find the entrance to the ‘secret pools’ – which are really not that secret – you’ll find yourself almost alone at an incredibly pretty swimming hole.
Moon bear Sanctuary
Once you have paid the 20.000 Kip to enter the park you first pass through a moon-bear sanctuary. Here they save moon bear from being killed for their bile to be used in traditional Chinese medicine. I’ve heard many people speak highly of this sanctuary but in all honesty, the bears are still not treated correctly. The cages they are being held in are quite small and the bears all look bored and unhappy. I see no real reason why they didn’t extend the perimeters of their cages except for that it would be harder for visitors to spot them. Obviously, this is a difficult subject since the bears are actually being threatened and the only way to raise public awareness is by actually showing visitors how majestic they are but the visit left a bittersweet taste in my mouth that didn’t wash away easily.
When you walk onward you arrive at the bottom pool of the waterfall where immediately the light blue color invites you to dip in. The lowest 4 pools are all accessible to swim in and even have changing rooms next to it.
You can hike all around the waterfall and go up to the source. Near the source, you can take a small boat to get to the actual source in a bottomless boat (the fish swim right in between your feed) for 10.000 Kip. The boat is a bit of a scam as it only takes you about 30 meters further than the path does. And the source is not a particularly interesting place to be as you can’t really see anything bubbling up. It does, however, provide a different perspective on the place and a relaxed 15-minute boat-ride which for 10.000 Kip might be worth the money spend. Walking all the way around the waterfall takes you about half an hour (with time spend making photos).
The secret pools
To get to the secret pools you have to head back down a bit until you see a path without a sign next to it heading down from the upper-most accessible pool. Walk for about 5 minutes until you find yourself at a beautiful pool with rocks to jump off from and with deep areas to swim in. But even if you don’t find the secret pools, the Kuang Si waterfalls are gorgeous – so you better not skip it!