If you are visiting Luang Prabang, you won’t be able to avoid seeing and hearing about visits to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls – and you shouldn’t: It’s a beautiful sight to see, combined with the opportunity to hike through the forest and take a cool dip in the ponds at the different levels of the falls to refresh after the hiking! And if wildlife is of interest to you, there is a bear rescue center at the foot of the falls you can visit along the way!
There are quite a few waterfalls around Luang Prabang and the multi-tiered Tat Kuang Si falls are the most popular ones. They are impressive and carry plenty of water even in the dry season when some of the others slow to a trickle. They are set into a nature park about 30km outside Luang Prabang.
Once you reach the park, you’ll first come through the Bear Rescue Center. Sadly, bears are being hunted by poachers for bear bile (apparently popular in China) and the ones found and released from traps are brought here to be treated and kept safe, rather than being released back into the wild to be trapped again. You’ll be able to see them in the park, being fed and learn about them. One of them only had three legs, painfully making the case for the need of this center!
As you walk past the bear rescue center, you’ll reach the lower pond formed by the water falls. Due to the limestone of the cliffs the waterfalls over, the ponds have a stunning, light blue color! This was the busiest spot during our visit and I suggest to continue on to the second set of ponds that allow you to swim and further to the third and main falls!. Here you’ll have the best view of the main, tallest falls for lots of picture taking! The best spot is on the right side of the footbridge across the stream from where you can see all the way to the top of the falls as well as the full half-round at the bottom and the blue-green pond!
If you enjoy a good hike, you can climb up the hill to the top of the falls with breath taking (and in my case heart stopping) views over the cliff down into the ponds! The better maintained trail is on the left side of the falls. You’ll climb over a reasonably well maintained path, lots of stone or wooden stairs and some rocks the equivalent of a 23-story building (according to my friends’ Apple Watch), so I recommend to bring some water and wear proper sneakers to make your way up safely. At the top, you’ll find trails and bamboo bridges across the water and can enjoy views across the Lao countryside as far as your eyes can side. For the adventurous ones, the best viewing spot is from a log jutting out from the cliff (secured by some raggedy rail): You look down the face of the cliff and the waterfall all the way to the bottom. If you get dizzy easily (or haven’t paid your life insurance premiums lately), you may want to stay back from the edge! It’s certainly a stunning view worth the sweaty climb up!
If you want to relax from the climb or heady views, there are some picnic tables inviting for a break or you can hire a local boat to take you to the spring of the river a few hundred meters away.
Once you have made it back down, the sweaty hike has earned you a refreshing dip into the ponds. At the second level, there are even some changing booths, so bring some swim wear and a towel to enjoy the ponds. The water is cold (no, really, really cold) and very refreshing! It’s clean and safe to swim. Be careful jumping in though: While the ponds are quite deep near the falls, there are plenty of rocks with shallow water, so watch out before you leap and enjoy.
Visitor Tips: This is one of the most heavily advertised tour around Luang Prabang and any tour office or tuk tuk driver will be happy to sell you a ticket. The cheapest way to go is to head to the Hmong market at the big intersection near Phusi Hill between 10-11am. Enterprising tuktuk drivers will sell you a ticket for 25,000-50,000 Kip ($3-6), depending on your negotiating skills. That includes the return trip to the falls and back, with about 2-3 hours of time at the park. The entrance to the park is separate and costs 20,000 Kip ($2.50) per person. You can also book tours that include the ride in a more comfortable, air conditioned mini-van and lunch or a longer, guided hiking tour. If you’d prefer more independence, you can charter your own tuk tuk or minivan for 250,000 – 400,000 Kip ($30-50) depending on demand, vehicle and negotiations. There are food options in the park, including a very nice restaurant with views over the falls and the sounds of rushing water as the backdrop, as well as plenty of basic food stalls near the parking lot. In this case, there is not a whole lot of need to book the tour and the cheapest ticket will give you much of the same experience!
If you want to get away from town for a short break in the cool forest and cold waters or enjoy a rewarding hike with stunning views, this is a great tour for your visit in Luang Prabang. If the hike to the top sounds too tough, the walk to the lower levels is less than 15 minutes and fairly easy, making for a pleasant trip as well, giving you a choice of experience that fits your needs and I’m sure you’ll enjoy either way!