Unlike at other times, I had a rough itinerary for my time in Luang Prabang — I wanted to get as much done in one day as I could to allow for more time to relax — and my main focus was to get to Pak Ou Cave and Kuang Si Waterfall.
It was more difficult than I expected to find a tour that included both the cave and waterfalls in one day — I found plenty of half-day tours for each and even more than included elephant riding, which I wanted no part in. When I finally found the tours I wanted, I found prices varied significantly.
And I still managed to overpay for my tour. I paid almost double what a woman on my tour paid because her entrance tickets weren’t included in the tour price (with her paying for her own entrance, it was almost half what I paid). More reason for me to say that anyone in Luang Prabang should avoid booking through Nova Tour.
Despite overpaying, it was well worth the trip to Laos.
Kuang Si was the final stop on the day’s tour before heading back to Luang Prabang where I could enjoy an evening of wandering the streets in search of local cuisine. Our van arrived at a parking lot full of taxi, buses, and tuk-tuks surrounded by overpriced souvenir stalls. It looked like a classic tourist trap.
To enter Kuang Si without a prepaid ticket on a tour is only 20,000 kip (US$2.50). From the entrance, tourists walk along a trail through Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre (whether it’s a real animal sanctuary like MandaLao or just a zoo for tourists is debatable). The center is home to endangered Asiatic black bears.
As I followed the crowd, I wondered how far the hike to the waterfalls was, and before I knew it I arrived. That’s when I searched for a place to change so I could go swimming in the pools. I found toilets and changing rooms a short walk from the crowded pool — the toilet was absolutely disgusting and I wanted to hunt down the filthy tourists who created such filth; the changing rooms were slightly better.
Solo traveler dilemma
The next problem was that I had no way of going swimming. I had a ziplock bag for my phone and wallet, but I had nothing to protect my camera. Everyone was leaving backpacks on some benches off to the side and I figured at least my towel and change of clothes would be safe there, but there was no way in hell I’d leave my camera there. I had lost my tour group, so I had no one to ask to watch my things while I took a dip. This is also where the tour guide I had paid for would have been useful had he actually done any part of a tour guide’s job.
I managed to walk into the water a little way, but I had to be cautious. The cloudy calcified pools make it impossible to see where you’re stepping, and the rocks are a bit uncomfortable on the feet. It’s easy to slip and fall completely into the water. While carrying a camera that is not waterproof, this adventure is a bad idea.
After deciding to not leave my camera out while I went swimming, I took a walk farther from the crowd — I wanted to see more of the waterfalls and the surrounding area. I hadn’t done much research and didn’t realize how big the area was (again, the tour guide didn’t tell the tour group anything about Kuang Si or where to go once there).
Finding less crowded views
I meandered along the trails, admiring the waterfalls and turquoise pools that reminded me a bit of Huanglong in China but with a little less color in the water. I found serene spots where tourists weren’t swimming or forbidden from swimming as the areas were considered sacred–these were the best spots for photos.
That first pool near the entrance to Kuang Si was by far the most crowded area. I found a few pools with only a few people relaxing in the cool water. I continued my stroll along the paths as I saw more and more pools and small waterfalls surrounded by trees and other plant life. As I walked, I enjoyed the soothing sounds of the water and the disappearing sounds of people.
And then I arrived at Kuang Si waterfall.
There’s a platform that crosses the water in front of the three-tier, 200-foot Kuang Si waterfall so tourists can take plenty of photos from a few angles without getting in each other’s way. But there were few people when I arrived. How was such a popular tourist destination so quiet and devoid of people? Obviously, the awe-inspiring view of Kuang Si and the sound of the waterfall muted any noise from the crowd, but the crowd didn’t exist.
I stood on the platform, staring at the waterfall and enjoying the mist it emitted on that hot day. I watched a few people sitting off to the side eating snacks and taking in the view as others walked past. Everyone who came this far stopped for photos and a moment to breathe — we were away from the crowds playing in the water farther downstream.
I’ve read a few stories on other blogs about crowds at Kuang Si, but I suppose I got lucky. Perhaps it was because it was my last stop on a tour before the sun set and most tourists make it their first and only stop for the day. Whatever the reason, I was overjoyed to have a peaceful view of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever visited. I can see why this is considered a holy place for locals — it’s impossible not to be overcome by the relaxing flow of the water.
There was a trail that went up from the side of Kuang Si, but I decided against going because I didn’t know how long the hike would be and I knew I had less than an hour left before I had to be back at the parking lot. Plus, I was wearing flip-flops, which makes hiking a terrible idea particularly as it increases the chance of slipping on wet rocks.
I decided to take a while longer to enjoy the waterfall in front of me rather than risk the hike (which I’ve read is worthwhile and I’m kicking myself for booking a tour that limited my time). I took a slow walk back toward the parking lot — I paused at some pools for more photos as the sun was setting and the crowds thinned out. Had I brought a flashlight, I would’ve been willing to stay even longer to catch the last glimpses of sunlight on the exquisite pools.
I was disappointed to leave so soon. I was more disappointed to have visited such a beautiful natural scenic site alone. I knew I had made mistakes along the way and I didn’t have enough time for a re-do. If any of my readers plans to visit Kuang Si, I’d advise spending the day there and renting a tuk-tuk (they’re everywhere in Luang Prabang) — avoid tours and just find some other travelers to join you for the day. Make some quick friends to watch your belongings and rotate when it’s time for a swim.