Virtual meanderings

Rise and then Fall (Luang Prabang Kuang Si)

      A traditional Lao water mill

      I got up at 9 o’clock in the morning. Outside the room in the hostel yard I heard some people talking about – maybe – going to certain nearby waterfalls outside Luang Prabang.

      The hostel manager was quite glad to help such a good idea (he could arrange a ride for us to the place and back for 25,000 kip each, e.g. $3). It suddenly felt like a plan for the day – a close encounter with Lao nature was too tempting to refuse. Yesterday had been the day of getting to know a bit about town, today would be the day of getting to know a bit about its surroundings. Everyone else felt the same way.

      Our means of transport soon came – a covered multi-purpose pick-up truck. It reminded me of the ubiquitous Chiang Mai red trucks, albeit one notch less sophisticated. All five of us waterfall prospectors hopped in and off we went. Who was in the back of that track? First, there was Ashley – 27, an African-American (in fact the only AA traveler I saw throughout the journey). Then there was Diego – a PhD student studying in California who said he was from Colombia (but was traveling on an US passport). Then one tall Australian guy, and a blond Irish (whose names, unfortunately, I am not able to recollect). And last but not least – myself.

       While the pickup truck advanced towards the rainforest hills – shaking and stirring our inner organs – we engaged in the usual small talk occasionally trying to out-shout the noisy wind current created by the moving truck.

       Some thoughtful remarks: one always has expectations when traveling (even if we wrongfully believe we’ve mastered the art of not having any). If we did already read about the place we’re going to, this already crafted a certain image in our minds. Yet even if we are completely clueless about a place the very keywords “Buddhist temple, jungle waterfall, ancient monument, night market” suffice to bring sights and sounds in our imagination. Either way, the pre-judgment is inevitable – and hence an inseparable part of any experience. Then, of course, we arrive at the place, and it is always different from what we imagined. It is better, worse or just plain completely unexpected. This is all the more true for relatively unknown countries like Cambodia and Laos (our mechanism for generating expectations obviously depends on our familiarity with the culture). (End of thoughtful remarks).

       We’d somehow assumed (or rather – were hoping) that the waterfalls would be a secluded, relaxed place in the jungle. Next thing – our truck arrives at a big parking lot, with tens of other parked trucks and tuk-tuks. The lot was surrounded by stalls and food shacks. There was gate and a big sign in English “National Park”, and we entered. There was no river or waterfalls around just yet. Following the path, we first came across a small fenced establishment hosting some protected black bears (only one could be seen at that moment, the remaining bears were probably enjoying their protection in the specially built bear shack).

       Next the path took us to a river – and soon – to a waterfall. Hmmm, it was not a particularly big one. There you could take off your clothes and jump into the waters. You could even do it in style by catching a rope which was fixed to a tree branch and jump into a small lagoon. I say you could do that because the area was full of visitors (foreigners mostly, but some local people too) doing just that.

      Kuang Si downstream

      Looking at the waterfall I wondered: was the Lao people’s modest way of living affecting their perceptions of size and importance (see my Luang Prabang National Museum post)? Or was this a borrowed Thai-style technique – marketing an overrated attraction to extrude some easy money? Or were the waterfalls further up? Monumental questions, and only one way to find out – by…well, going and finding out.

       My companions, however, preferred to take a dive and swim. As for me, I wanted to walk around, expore and enjoy the hill-forest-river area which was very interesting all by itself. So I left them and continued further up, immersing myself in the big trees and lush vegetation. It got a lot better – soon there were much fewer people & screams & shouts. The river waters grew stronger and the path finally arrived at a much larger and very beautiful waterfall around forty meters of height.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall - for real

       That was it – it could not be anything but “it”.  Water was flowing all around – it was the rainy season and it had gotten out of the river bed and flooded the trees. The level had gotten so high that it was pouring over the observation bridge in front of the waterfall. The waterfall lake had perhaps quadrupled its size and water flooded an area with benches and wooden tables meant for visitors to sit and have lunch.

Kuang Si waterfall

Tell you what, there shouldn't be water here...

       But this was not the end of the path – it continued upwards, perhaps to the very top of the waterfall. If one could go up there, I reasoned (like many others have reasoned), the view would be amazing. So I went further up the steep slope – and it did get to the very top of the waterfall. If you could find it. Trees were growing all around blocking the view. Up there on the flat area the path was submerged under ten cm of water. I would not mind going through – I was wearing sandals – but the problem was that I could not figure out where the path itself was. And there was no one around to ask. I hanged around for a couple of minutes, but then I gave up and headed back.

       Halfway on my way down I met more people – and then Diego and the rest – going up. Later on Diego told me that in fact there was a way to the waterfall and a view. They’d managed to get there with the help and guidance of some local guy. Yet, I’d managed to have my share of a beautiful view as well. You see, on the way down the path forked in two. I decided to try the other path and it eventually took me to another – smaller – waterfall in a completely natural area without any wooden shacks, bridges, tables etc. – where there was not a living soul around. It was so nice that I did not even take a photo of it.

       Kuang Si | carnivorous plant

       This is something I saw on my way back –  I presume, bug-eating plants.

       More about these beautiful waterfalls in this link and that link.

       By the way, despite our “there will be only a few people around the waterfalls in the virgin rainforest” childish expectations proven wrong, it is indeed very easy in Laos to step outside the tourist areas and enter a whole different – and very interesting – world by just biking for a couple of minutes (more about that soon).


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