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Pick up any guidebook for Luang Prabang in northern Laos and one of the big ticket items listed is sure to be the Kwang Si falls.  Around 30km south of the city, the falls are on the must-see list for pretty much every visitor to the area.  I’d managed to avoid the endless solicitations of the tuk tuk drivers for a few days before finally taking the trip out there, and was looking forward to an easy afternoon walking around a beautiful area and maybe taking a refreshing dip in one of the swimming holes.  What I hadn’t counted on was finishing up covered in mud and soaked to the bone, with an elevated heart rate and sporting a new and varied collection of cuts and bruises.  I’m sure the Lonely Planet didn’t describe this as an adventure travel destination…

Any questions that I may have had about how to get out to the falls had been answered within approximately 2.7 seconds of arriving in Luang Prabang.  Some people seem to believe that the soundtrack to this world heritage city is the daily chanting of the Buddhist monks or perhaps the quiet lapping of the water at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.  As prevalent as those sounds were, it was the calls of “Sir!  Tuktuk?  Waterfall?” as I wandered the streets that formed the most pervasive backdrop.  Right, so transport wasn’t going to be an issue then.

The main reason that I’d waited a while before visiting Kwang Si was to tie in with two friends of mine who were due in town a couple of days later.  Prices per person drop dramatically if you can fill up a vehicle with half a dozen people, as evidenced by the fact that Luang Prabang was the only place in Southeast Asia that I’ve ever been touted for a tuktuk by fellow backpackers.  Ignoring the ominous clouds we rounded up a typically multinational contingent, found a driver – it wasn’t exactly difficult – and headed out of town.  Just in time for the heavens to open.

After grinding at a glacial pace up and down the steep mountain roads for an hour, avoiding slow-moving water buffalo and fast-moving pickups in equal measure, we jumped out into the muddy carpark and paid our nominal entrance fee.  The drizzling rain on my face and the puddles on the track towards the falls should have given some idea what was in store, but at this stage I was still blissfully unaware of what lay ahead for the next hour.  After a quick splash around in the pool at the bottom of the main waterfall it was time to tackle the trail that headed up to the top.  Within a minute it had become apparent that (a) the track was extremely steep, wet and slippery, (b) Laotian health and safety legislation was perhaps a little less stringent than other countries and (c) flip-flops were an appalling choice given the underfoot conditions.

After losing a shoe in the mud for the twentieth time – and then promptly slipping out of it again as soon as I put it back on – I gave up and opted for the barefoot approach instead.  I had no more traction than before, but at least I didn’t have to stop every ten seconds to retrieve my footwear.  With half a dozen of us slipping, sliding and stumbling up the hill desperately grasping for tree roots and rocks, there was a real risk of someone falling and taking the rest of us over the cliff with them.  Going back down didn’t seem any more appealing than going up by this stage, so we all carried on and tried our hardest not to kill ourselves or anybody else as the rain got harder and the conditions became even more treacherous.  Somehow we managed it, but it was a close run thing.


Half an hour later we made it to the top of the falls and I was able to get my camera out of my pocket for the first time to snap the views.  Only briefly, mind you, as the pouring rain, knee-high rushing water and 50m drop weren’t particularly conducive to great photography.  Our party of six had caught up with a couple of English girls who seemed very happy to see us – they were not relishing the trip back down in the slightest and seemed to believe that there’d be some sort of safety in numbers.  An interesting perspective, I guess – perhaps they were just looking for someone to cushion the blow when they fell.

And fall we did.  If the uphill slog was treacherous, the downhill slide was downright life threatening.  Despite the promise of steps on the way down, the reality was that at least ninety percent of the track was a steep muddy path with sheer drop-offs into the jungle.  Gravity took over at least three times – I was still patching up cuts and admiring purple bruises a week later.  It was a great opportunity to test out the robustness of my camera, however – apparently a Panasonic Lumix will happily survive being drenched with rain and then breaking the fall of a twelve stone backpacker.

Around ninety minutes after starting this ill-advised adventure, we made it to the bottom of the waterfall again with whoops of joy and hugs all round.  Honestly, you’d think we’d just conquered Everest.  The good thing about being so wet, blooded and muddy, however, was that the previously chilly waterfall now seemed the perfect place for a shower.  The new clean and dry arrivals to the viewing platform looked at us as if we were insane as we splashed around underneath the tumbling water.  If only they knew, we thought.  If only they knew.

Long story short?  The Kwang Si falls are stunning, and well worth a few hours detour from Luang Prabang.  Just wear something a little sturdier than flip-flops and wait until the sun is shining.  Or have the emergency room on standby, one or the other.

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