A couple of months ago I ran a Google image search on infinity pools. As you do. Tucked away on page 12 amongst all the luxury hotels was a secret tropical plunge pool at the top of a jungle waterfall in northern Laos. I’d wanted to visit Laos since studying it at university so decided it was time to pay the country a visit. Hubbie and I abandoned our carefully laid plans for campervanning around Scotland and instead, less than 2 weeks later, we were climbing waterfalls, ploughing paddy fields and boating down the Mekong in what might just be our new favourite Southeast Asian country.
Temples, Bears and Waterfalls
Although we could easily have seen these sights independently, we decided to take a day tour with Banana Boat (no, not the yellow inflatable kind that you find in Benidorm) because we liked the idea of arriving at the waterfalls via a boat trip along the mighty Mekong river, rather than by road which is how most people (and tours) visit. Tiger Trail is the undisputed market leader in tours for this region, but never being comfortable with one company having a monopoly on the business, we opted for giving the lesser known Banana Boat a whirl. Another deciding factor was that we didn’t have to visit the very touristy and uninspiring Pak Ou Caves which seemed to be on the agenda for pretty much all other trips to the falls.
We were collected from our hotel (the Mekong Riverview) at 11am, and it was great not having to rise at the crack of dawn and being able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast before heading out for the day. I could get used to this pace of life! The boat was waiting at the bottom of the main river steps just a few metres from the hotel, and we were left in the capable hands of Captain Daeng for the day. He spoke no English, but knew the river currents like the back of his hand, and I know which I found more important whilst negotiating the mighty Mekong!
Sure, Luang Prabang is stuffed full of temples and once you’ve seen several you might be forgiven for not wanting to visit yet more. But Wat Chomphet is a little different.
Just a short hop by boat across the Mekong from Luang Prabang, the temple is perched on the hillside with magnificent vistas out across the town and mountains beyond, and a couple of neglected stone stupas. Negotiating the muddy river bank balancing on old bits of plank and dead tree branches, and the steep climb up the hundreds of steps to the top are worth the view alone.
There are also walks in this area if you’re visiting independently and fancy a bit of an adventure getting lost on the poorly marked trails. Hobo maps is an excellent resource for this area.
Taking a slow boat down the Mekong is one of those traditional top-of-the-list experiences that many travellers think about, yet not many actually get there. Our banana boat with it’s incredibly comfy seats and courteous captain set off at a reasonable pace, and we were soon passing dozens of little wooden fishing boats, herds of water buffalo and the odd floating tree as we cruised south towards Kuang Si.
We didn’t see another tourist on the Mekong all day, so it really did feel like being immersed in rural Laos. Children swam and played in the river, animals came down to drink, and fishermen untangled nets on the sandy riverbanks. Life went on as normal and we were privilidged to have a front row seat as we passed through.
The river trip lasted about 50 minutes, with the scenery becoming more dramatic the further downriver we cruised. The lush green mountains were never far away and in places the river gained momentum as it passed through steeper gorges. We disembarked on a river bank and walked up to the village where a car was waiting to drive us 15 minutes to the much anticipated Kuang Si waterfalls.
This place is just astonishing, and yes, the water really is that colour!! I was hugely excited and immediately insisted we scramble to the top of the falls to find that plunge pool, the reason we were here. The entrance path takes you through the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a worthy cause but a rather forlorn place where we didn’t fancy lingering.
To reach the main falls, you walk up past several stages of enticingly emerald plunge pools, some of which you can swim in! There are signs indicating where bathing is allowed, as well as asking tourists to dress respectfully and not flounce around in skimpy bikinis. Unfortunately most visitors ignored this (shame on you all!) and unsurprisingly an eager audience of young (and older!) local lads soon congregated on a nearby bench to watch the spectacle. There are little wooden cabins to get changed in, as well as a cafe if you’ve forgotten your picnic.
Kuang Si is a heaven shared by tourists and locals alike, and even the monks often come here to cool down in the heat of the day.
To climb to the top of the falls it is best to take the path up the left side as you face it (less steep and treacherous than the path on the right). The magical little pool is at the top of the second stage of high falls, about half an hour from the viewing platform at the bottom. When you eventually reach the section of path with the wooden steps, climb almost to the top, then leave the trail just before the steps turn a sharp 90 degrees to the left. Head along the little stream through the trees, scramble up a small waterfall (you will get wet!) and voila. There it is. Paradise.
Swimming isn’t advised in this pool, but we were going to jump in anyway, until we were joined in our jungle solitude by a couple of monks, clearly with similar ideas. Yet not wanting to be disrespectful we all restrained ourselves and eventually hubbie and I clambered back down the waterfall, boots dangling by their laces around our necks and cameras wrapped up safely in their dry bags. The rock beneath the flowing water was surprisingly less slippery than we expected, although it didn’t stop us getting absolutely drenched in our clothes!
I suspect the naughty monks did end up jumping in the plunge pool. Whilst we were swimming in the cool water of the pools below some while later, they emerged from the forest their orange robes sodden and eyes shining.
We then reversed the entire journey back to Luang Prabang, feeling our chilled Beer Lao on board the banana boat was well deserved after all that climbing!
So how did Banana Boat do?
Ok, there were a few slight teething problems, which mainly came down to differing cultural expectations, but overall the day was a huge success and we would definitely recommend the company.
What we loved…
We visited during the low season in June and were the only people on the tour. Being antisocial tourists we thought this was excellent! This meant we had the boat to ourselves, and the company were kindly flexible with the programme so we actually spent longer at the falls and came back an hour later than scheduled.
The boat is oh so comfy, especially compared to all the wooden benches on offer in many of the other vessels we saw on the river.
Captain Daeng was really thoughtful throughout the trip, even providing us with snacks (bananas and delicious dried mushrooms) on the boat, served up on a little wooden table he had made himself. We even had Beer Lao to wash it all down, and handy wooden bottle holders to stop it going overboard! It’s the small things that make a big difference.
Communications prior to the trip with Emi Wear in the office were excellent, and emails were always responded to immediately.
What we weren’t so keen on…
We had been expecting a certain degree of independence at the waterfalls, perhaps agreeing to meet back at the transfer vehicle at a certain time. However Captain Daeng followed us around pretty much the entire time, even walking right up to the top of the waterfalls behind us. The language barrier prevented us from communicating our wish to be left alone, and I found it very stressful and embarrassing to have a ‘minder’ tagging along, especially when all the other visitors were clearly there on their own. It would have ruined my whole experience that day if hubbie hadn’t told me to pull myself together and snap out of it. Yet Captain Daeng was simply being courteous and ensuring the welfare of his passengers so we can’t really fault him for what is natural to his culture of hospitality. I have since discussed this at length with Emi who has assured me this will be addressed for future tours.
The lack of communication and information on the day resulted in us not being able to find a cave we were supposed to explore during our stop at Wat Chomphet. We didn’t realise we had to walk right through the temple complex to find it. Apparently there should have been an information booklet in the boat, but we were not told about this.
Whilst the incredibly soggy sandwiches at lunch were not exactly appetising, what was more disappointing was reading about this very issue on Trip Advisor prior to our trip, and the response from Emi promising to try something different to rectify the situation. So we were rather surprised with what we were given.
The tour was supposed to include a transfer in the back of a flat bed truck, local style, from the river to the falls at the end of boat journey. We thought this sounded like a fun way to travel (despite previous misadventures with truck travel) and were really looking forward to it. Instead however an air conditioned people carrier was used, and yeah, I know I shouldn’t complain, it was a generous and luxurious bonus no doubt provided out of consideration for the clients, but we don’t all need to be ferried around in luxury. It wasn’t really what the trip was all about.
These are all simple things which can be easily remedied, and if Emi follows through with her assurances that our concerns and suggestions will be addressed, then this will be a superb tour, and a company to watch out for in the future!
Tips for visiting Kuang Si Falls
If you’re going independently, try to visit early morning during the week when it’s much quieter.
Don’t try to climb the path to the top of the falls in bare feet or flip flops – it gets very slippery if it’s rained and even sure-footed hubbie nearly ended up on his bum!
There are shops selling cold drinks and souvenirs, as well as toilets just before the entrance gate.
Water flow at Kuang Si in June was perfect! It’s worth noting that the other falls over at Tad Sae were virtually dried up at this time of year.
It costs KIP 20,000 per person. And is worth every penny!
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