Luang Prabang is a city that encourages travelers to slip off their shoes and take a break. With two weeks at my leisure, I have ample time to see the best of nature and culture on the daytrips from the city. The local Laotians have insisted the the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls are spectacular. They’re proud of the clear waterfalls and ice-blue lagoons.
The backpacking trail through Southeast Asia is strong, and Laura and I ran into friends from Vang Vieng. The group of us shared a tuk tuk in search of the turquoise pools and an afternoon in nature.
Visiting the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls Near Luang Prabang
Getting to the waterfalls is half of the fun. Our tuk tuk wove through the Laotian countryside, over bridges, through rice paddies, and past work elephants. Vendors line the waterfall entrance and the first pools of beautiful turquoise water are just a five minute walk into the National Park.
The water color is unreal. These photos are straight from my camera, and even in retrospect I wonder if they’re doctored someone. We all had to reach out and touch the pools of water to even believe they were real, let alone a naturally-formed gift from nature.
Luang Prabang sits directly along the shores of the mighty Mekong River. But even the importance of the Mekong cannot overcome the fact that the river’s placid waters glisten an unattractive shade of muddy brown under the high sun. But just an hour from those dull waters, the icy-blue pools seem like a color best fit for a child’s box of crayons.
Our group left for the Falls early in the day, so we had hours to spend at the park. The first lagoon we found was gorgeous and a designated swimming spot. We all were sure we had just found paradise and we stopped for a while to wade into the frigid waters. Little did we realize that the path continued for another kilometer path even more grottos, pools, and gorgeous tiny falls.
We had spent about 40 minutes in the tuk tuk, which isn’t too far, but we were all feeling antsy and the water was too inviting to pass up. That said, it was freezing cold. Not just a tad chilly, but the lagoons are covered with forest and only dappling light filters through to warm the water. The group wasn’t daunted, however, and we all stripped down to our bathing suits and splashed around a bit. Then we dared each other to brave the cold water for long enough to hit the pocket of sunlight in the middle of the pool — Laura and I were game. And we even tried to make it look like our lips weren’t turning blue.There’s no reason to rush, there’s not too much land to cover, so we meandered past the pools of water. We also hunted for the perfect spot to do an impromptu photoshoot. The spot had to have the perfect combination of waterfalls, lush tropical vegetation, and captivatingly blue water. My friend Shimi noted that the place oozed so much beauty that she thought it would be the perfect spot for a couple to propose marriage — I have to agree, it’s stunning.
Once we found a gorgeous spot, we decided to reenact the Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot that was here months earlier. Well, we kind of reenacted it. No one wanted to brave the chilly waters again so we all took turns rolling up our pant legs and voguing for the camera.
The results were both hilarious and completely unattractive, and also exactly what we had hoped to create. :)
The Pak Ou Caves are located upriver from Luang Prabang and it’s a very different experience than visiting the waterfalls. As I wrote about years later, however, the caves were memorable for their cultural importance, even if parts of the tour are lackluster. That post shares a bit more on the significance of the caves, as well as how to get there.
Laos has quickly become one of my favorite countries on the planet. There is no single part of traveling here that I can point to as “the reason” I love it, but it’s rather the collective whole of the people, cultures, and stories I’ve found while here. This is one of those spots I know I will return to again.
Quick Tips: Visting the Kuang Si Falls
Get There: From Luang Prabang, hire a tuk-tuk. You can find these all over town, and many wait for tourists on the night market street. They leave when they have either a full group, or when the occupants agree to pay about 180,000 – 200,000 kip round trip. If you’re solo, start the day early as you can wait for the tuk-tuk to fill and score a shared ride for around 40,000 kip per person. The driver will wait for you at the falls and drive you back to town — pay the driver once you are back in Luang Prabang. I’ve done the falls twice, and I rented a motorbike the second time, which is a good way to give flexibility and freedom to your schedule. Day tours and minibuses run out to the falls, but it’s probably easiest to just do it as an independent journey — the whole process is pretty straight forward. More options for getting there are covered in depth here.
Plan Your Day: It takes roughly 45 minutes to make the 23 kilometer journey out to the falls. Once there, you’ll want four-to-five hours at the falls so you have time to see the bears, swim in the lagoons, and even grab a snack. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip and includes visiting the bear sanctuary. Only swim in the marked pools as others are either unsafe or considered sacred by the locals.
Things to Bring: The temperature fluctuates a lot, so even a warm day might be cool in the shady forest. Wear your swimsuit under your clothes and bring a light jacket, that should cover you for anything you need. The pathways are cleared, tightly packed earth and there are no big hikes. You can definitely navigate in sandals.
Guidebook: I used the Lonely Planet guides during my time in Southeast Asia and they are my go-to. While the guesthouses they recommend are usually overrun, the Laos guide offers a good bit of history, as well as the nitty-gritties on transport around the region.