Though I’d seen it in pictures, viewing the turquoise pools of water up close had me instantly mesmerized. But the Kuang Si Falls aren’t just a treat for the eyes – they’re also perfect for cooling off on a hot day. Arriving at the falls after an easy drive from Luang Prabang, it was tempting to head straight for the water. But I was curious to see where the dirt trail alongside the cascading waterfalls would eventually lead. I soon discovered that the Kuang Si Falls also has some rewards in store for those with a knack for exploration.
But first, how does the water even get that color in the first place?
A Quick Geology Lesson
The Kuang Si Falls are what’s known as a travertine waterfall. Travertine is a fibrous type of limestone, also known as calcium carbonate. When the water flows over the travertine, it creates a white coating along the bottom of the cascading pools. The turquoise or aqua color you see at Kuang Si Falls is a result of the light reflecting off the white calcium carbonate at the bottom, and back up again through the mineral rich water.
Now, I’m no science expert and am not 100% sure what all that really means, but at least we have some sort of scientific explanation for the water’s majestic appearance. Otherwise, we’d be forgiven for thinking it was magic.
Reaching the Top
As tempting as it was to jump in one of the cascading blue pools, I also felt compelled to see where the trail would lead. I stopped for a moment in awe of the main large waterfall before continuing my ascent to the top. Eventually, I arrived at a wooden staircase that was partially submerged by a mini waterfall flowing right over it. I decided to climb up.
There were no more waterfalls or turquoise pools in sight anymore. I was now in a typical jungle environment, climbing up a rocky and muddy nature trail. Now covered in sweat, I was unsure if this is where I wanted to be instead of cooling off in the water down below. But having come this far, I decided to keep pressing on for at least another ten minutes.
Finally, I made to a flat area where a large trail branched off into two sections. I chose to go right, which is likely where the water would be, if any. And after a couple more minutes of walking, I arrived at a place I didn’t quite expect to find.
In the middle of the forest at the top is a massive pool of water that people can swim in. In contrast to the rushing waterfall below, the water is calm – not to mention an ugly brown. The views from the top, though, are what make this climb worth it. I forgot about steep and sweaty climb up as I stood over the top of the waterfall with the beautiful green landscape in the distance.
As for the water at the top, it’s very muddy and mushy at the bottom of the shallow parts, while becoming deep when you least expect it. The water is also full of little fish that will feast on your feet’s dead skin cells. As this is a service you need to pay for elsewhere in the world, you might as well take advantage of the opportunity!
Though I only encountered a couple people on the way up, it turns out that this body of the water at the top is far from secret. When I arrived, there were plenty of other visitors either in the water or in the midst of coming or going. Apparently, there’s another way up on the right-hand side of the waterfall which is much more difficult. Hearing a few people complain about it, I decided to take the same path down that I used to climb up. I’d had enough of the muddy brown water and was ready to finally get in the pretty turquoise pools down below.
The Golden Deer
As you might expect from a natural wonder in Asia, the Kuang Si Falls have their own mythological origin story. The story goes that the water first sprang forth from the ground after an old man dug a hole at the site. The water was so gorgeous that it even attracted a golden deer to come to the spot.
Supposedly, the golden deer was said to have resided under a large rock which could be found at the falls until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 2001.
There’s likely some more to the golden deer story that’s been lost in translation. ‘Kuang,’ in fact, means deer in the local language, so there’s clearly a strong emphasis placed on the legend. A golden deer, of course, appears in the Ramayana, as well as the local Laotian adaptation of it, Phra Lak Phra Ram.
There’s also a Buddhist tale about one of Buddha’s previous lives as a golden deer, in which he was so beautiful that he hid deep in the forest out of fear of being hunted. Once, after saving a drowning man from a river, he made the man promise that he’d never tell anyone about the deer he saw. The promise was broken, however, after the king’s wife saw the deer in a dream, and asked people to go find it in exchange for a great reward.
Nowadays, there don’t seem to be any deer in the area, golden or otherwise. But the entrance of the falls does feature a special sanctuary for Asiatic Black Bears which is worth checking out.
Finally satisfied that I’d seen everything, it was time to get in the main pools of water. The temperature was perfect, and while there was a decent amount of other people in there with me, we all had plenty of space to swim around. Like the brown pool at the very top, the depth of the water can change instantly without warning, but you’re never too far away from a rock or tree to grab onto if necessary.
Part of the fun is exploring the different pools, though some are marked as off limits. The water is just as beautiful to look up at close as it is from a distance, and I would’ve been happy to spend the rest of the afternoon there. I had to make it back in time for the ride back to Luang Prabang, though, and reluctantly got out of the water to hurry back to the parking lot.
But I made it just in time only to discover that our driver was in the middle of a karaoke session at a bar in the restaurant area, and he wanted us to wait another 15 minutes. Considering that this was Luang Prabang, the others in the group and I just shrugged and laughed it off. We were thankful for the great day trip, and that at least our driver didn’t seem too tipsy.
As a visit to the falls is the most popular day trip from Luang Prabang, so you won’t be able to miss the signs for Kuang Si tours all over town. Or, you can simply ask at your hotel and they should be able to arrange for the driver to come pick you up. Think of it more as group transport than as a tour.
Generally, round trip tickets cost 500,000 kip while it’s another 20,000 kip to enter the site. There are usually two time slots you can choose from every day. I chose the morning option, which left at 11:30 and arrived at around 12:30 PM. We then had to be back in the parking lot at 3pm, although another hour or so would’ve been perfect.
Of course, you can always rent a motorbike and drive there yourself if you want to take your time.
There’s also an option to do a combined Kuang Si / Pak Ou Caves tour in a single day, though I wouldn’t recommend it. The day would be too long and too rushed. And if you ask me, if you find yourself in a rush during your stay in Luang Prabang, you’re doing it wrong.
There are a number of convenient ways to get to Luang Prabang.
People traveling in northern Thailand prior to their visit to Laos often take a Mekong river cruise to get there. This is an option best suited for those with plenty of time on their hands. The journey takes at least a couple of days, and most cruises stop in a town somewhere at night. There are a number of river cruise options out there, so it’s best to do extensive research if you’re interested.
Luang Prabang also has an international airport with direct flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Siem Riep and Kuala Lumpur.
At the airport, you can get a visa on arrival for $35 USD. To save yourself some hassle, it’s best to have the cash on hand in advance, as the ATM’s are actually outside the airport.
Traveling from within Laos, you can take a domestic flight, but bear in mind the domestic flights in Laos tend to be considerably pricier than in neighboring countries.
The bus is another option, but many complain of the poor roads and overall uncomfortable ride. Coming straight from Vientiane by bus is too much for many people, solots of travelers break up the journey by stopping at the backpacker party town of Vang Vieng in between.
Luang Prabang is small and easily traversable on foot. Simply staying anywhere on the main peninsula would be ideal, as this gives you easy access to most of the town’s main landmarks. There are also some hotels and guest houses a little bit south of the peninsula, right by Wat Visounnarath.