Laos: the land of roosters, butterflies, incredible landscapes, and limestone caves, with a rich history and French influence. If you haven’t heard of Kuang Si Waterfalls, a quick Google image search will show you why so many people travel to Laos just to see this oasis outside of Luang Prabang. I have been to some incredible waterfalls in my life, and this one is by far the best (even better than Krka National Park in Croatia!). Here are some tips and pictures if you are looking to go in the future or just want to learn more about it:
The Kuang Si Waterfalls are about a 45 minute drive outside of Luang Prabang and an absolute must-see if you are in Laos. Between the Black Bear exhibit and series of 7 cascading waterfalls, there is a ton to explore at the park.
How to get there: Find a tuk tuk on the street near the night market and negotiate. Don’t book through hostel or guest house; you will get ripped off! I would recommend a tuk tuk over a minibus/van because you can see the beautiful views better and you are less likely to get carsick on the windy roads with an open air truck (I did both and much preferred the tuk tuk).
Go with a Group: The bigger the group (4+ is good), the lower your price. Tuk tuk drivers may start out with something outrageous like 80,000 kip per person, but believe me, if you try hard enough and talk to enough drivers, you can get it down to 20,000 kip ($2.50 US) per person roundtrip. The driver will wait for you for three hours at the park entrance, but see if you can negotiate 3 ½ or 4 hours- you will want to stay longer!
Once you get to the bridge with the incredible views and photo ops (see below), you may think you’ve reached the top of Kuang Si Falls…don’t worry, there’s more. Continue on the trail (I highly recommend wearing sturdy hiking sandals like Chacos as opposed to flip flops) and you will see a fence with barbed wire and a sign that says “do not pass”. Go against what your gut may tell you and crawl through the fence to reach the best part of your day. You can swim at the very top of the waterfalls, go underneath the 300 ft. waterfall into a small cave, and take some incredible photos. There are typically just other backpackers up there who’ve heard about this “secret spot” through word of mouth, so it’s a great chance to make new friends!
I didn’t do this the first time I went, but I am so glad I went back to Kuang Si Falls to hike up and around the top waterfalls. If you continue on the trail to the left when you climb back through the “do not pass” fence, you will not regret it. There is a trail at the very top above all of the waterfalls with incredible views of the mountains and there was not a soul up there when I went. You can even follow the signs to get to another cave farther back, but unfortunately, I ran out of time, and followed the trail down the other side of the waterfalls (see photos below).
Butterfly Park: There is a butterfly park about 300 meters away from Kuang Si falls, which is a great addition to a day trip. I wanted to go until I found out it was 40,000 kip for entrance, which is pretty expensive for Laos standards. I’ve heard it’s beautiful, but didn’t get a chance to go for myself, so let me know what you think if you do!
Though I could visit Luang Prabang just to see Kuang Si Falls, there is also a ton of other activities to do. Here are a few I recommend in order of how much I enjoyed them:
Night Market: Make sure to eat at the buffet at least once (15,000 kip for all-you-can-eat vegetarian food), eat at the noodle place on the corner by the tourist center, try the local coffee at the countless cafes, and support local people by buying their unique handicrafts. If you head to this area in the day, there is an awesome spot with several vendors selling fruit shakes and sandwiches. I highly recommend the chicken, cheese, and avocado sandwich!
Utopia: This bar and restaurant is the best spot in town with totally different vibes in the day and at night. With views of the river, tons of places to chill out, yoga classes, delicious food, and a sand volleyball court, Utopia is a great place to hang out in the day or around sunset. At night, this is where all of the backpackers come to hang out and drink at the bar. Though there is music and plenty of flowing drinks, this place usually doesn’t get too rowdy and is a great place to meet new people.
UXO Visitor Center: I learned SO much about the history of Laos and how the Laotian people are still affected by the Vietnam/Second Indochina War here. Do not miss this visitor center while you are in Luang Prabang- it was absolutely fascinating, heartbreaking, and eye-opening to learn about the unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War scattered throughout the country and how they even have to teach the children how to identify and avoid them. UXO is an organization that goes to villages throughout Laos to detonate or defuse these deadly unexploded bombs that kill hundreds of Laotian people every year. How did I not learn about this in school?!
Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center: Another educational spot that should not be missed when in LP. I learned about the different ethnic and cultural groups of Laos and all about their daily lives, crafts such as weaving and embroidering, and how tourists can support the local people. Amazing!
Bowling: As strange as it sounds, bowling in Luang Prabang is basically a daily ritual for visiting backpackers. After Utopia closes at 11 p.m., everyone heads to the bowling alley, as it is the only place open late and is surprisingly a lot of fun when there are that many people there.
Mount Phousi: Hike to the top of this mountain with a temple for beautiful views of the river and the city for sunset. I would not recommend doing what I did and going at 1 p.m. in the peak heat hours of the day (even though the views were still worth it!).
Royal Palace Museum: If you’re a museum buff, check out this museum to learn about Laos’ history, get to know the royal family, and see beautiful traditional art.
Free Movie Night at L’Etranger Café & Bookstore: Just make sure to buy food or a drink here, and take a night to relax watching a movie in the upstairs lounge. The night I went, we watched The Intern!
Sunset Cruise: I attempted to do a cruise with Sa Sa Sunset Cruise, but unfortunately, not enough people signed up that day (#lowseasonproblems). I hear it’s fun though! If you end up going, let me know how it is :).
Other than that, walking around the Old Quarter is a great experience in itself. There are plenty of shops and cafes to take refuge in from the heat, but my favorite part was just enjoying the French Colonial architecture and walking along the river. There are a few other activities I missed, so make sure to look online or ask around for other things to do, such as seeing the early morning Alms Giving Ceremony.
How much to expect to spend: Depending on what you’re doing, you can expect to spend between $10-$15 USD per day including accommodation (this could be more if you buy alcohol).
LPQ Backpackers hostel (40,000 kip/$5 USD per night): Simple, but does the job. I had no complaints about this hostel, other than the rock hard beds and not-so-helpful reception.
Khounsavan Guesthouse (50,000 kip/~$6 USD per night): This hostel had better reviews, more people, and a pool, so I switched here for my last two nights. To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed based on the food, reception/service, and (bath)rooms. The pool was nice and the people I met were great, but I think the signs that say “rated best hostel in Laos” may be a bit of an exaggeration. Regardless, it is still a fun place to stay, especially if you’re looking to meet people and go out.
If you don’t want to book anything in advance, you can very easily just show up near the night market and find tons of guesthouses nearby. However, some of these guesthouses may not be as social as the two I recommended above :).
Booking Busses: Almost everyone is either going to or coming from Vang Vieng via bus, and there are a ton of places to buy bus tickets. I highly recommend going directly to the bus terminal and buying your ticket there, rather than buying at your hostel/guesthouse or at a tourist office. These places will charge you extra and there are a lot of scams for “VIP buses”, which are quite the contrary. I paid 85,000 kip for my “VIP” bus, but others on the same bus paid 115,000 kip because they did not buy directly at the bus terminal. Just an extra tip!
I hope this was informative and showcased all that Luang Prabang has to offer, which is a lot more than Kuang Si Waterfalls! I kept extending my time here because I enjoyed it so much, so I hope you get the chance to go as well :). I will upload my GoPro video of Laos highlight soon- thanks for reading!