The Kuang Si waterfall and Pak Ou Buddha caves are two of the main tourist attractions around Luang Prabang. The waterfall is about 32 km south-west of the city, and the falls are about 25 km north-east. Both take about an hour to reach by road, the most popular option being to share a tuktuk (to share the cost) or go on an organized trip. To visit the caves, you can also go on a boat ride, 1 hour there and 2 hours return.
What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that there is a secret transport option C: navigate the winding jungle roads by motorbike. And it is this option that Andy and I chose. Our first hurdle was obtaining an automatic motorbike. Neither of us can drive manual, and although I have in the past (manual motorbike and dirt bike) it has been at least 4 years. Plus I don’t have a NZ motorbike license so wouldn’t be covered by my travel insurance if we crashed. Everywhere rents out manual bikes for around 120,000 kip (15 USD) and there seemed to be only one place in town that all travel agencies got automatic bikes from, which were apparently booked out and then no one answered their phone. However walking around, we found one place that would give us an automatic bike and 2 helmets for 200,000 kip (25 USD) for 24 hours (Lao Siri Ticketing Co Ltd, 023 Ban Xiengmuane Sisavang Vatthana Road (map here), (856) 71 254885, email@example.com). As we finally found a bike at noon, we split up our travels and did the waterfalls that afternoon followed by caves the next morning. But this decision was actually made for us by the weather…read on.
I drove, and Andy seemed skeptical and somewhat scared saying “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, but once I gained my balance with him on the back, adjusted my helmet and got used to driving on the right side of the road, we were off!! No map, just a general “that a way” indication of our destination. Out of all the countries I have been in Asia, Laos was the most relaxed in terms of driving. No honking, no crazy over passing, one way roads are actually one way, and I felt totally normal driving. Wind in my hair, sun on my back, the only bad thing was the beautiful scenery that wanted to distract me along the way. I had to tell Andy to take photos as we went so that I could concentrate on the road.
Going by motorbike was also great because you encounter lots of beautiful butterflies along the way. Regrettably, one or two drove into me, but there were many more that weren’t suicidal. It took about an hour to get to the falls, on windy well paved roads, through lots of wonderful small villages, picturesque rice paddies and children playing games on the sides of the road. It really was an adventure.
Upon arriving at the waterfalls, the parking lot attendants laughed at my attempt to park the bike due to my sudden braking and the slippery muddiness of the lot. But 2000 kip got us parking, and allowed us to leave behind our helmets. The waterfall and all its lower pools were really breathtaking. You walk up through the forest, surrounded by nature, past ice blue pools, until you finally reach the waterfall at the top. It is huge. I climbed over the fence for some photos, and was the only westerner amongst local Lao doing the same. Andy then finally followed me out, getting slightly closer to the waterfall, although he almost fell in at one point, due to the slippery rocks!
We then found a nice quiet pool to swim in. Because most crowds arrive after 3, we had a pool all to ourselves. The water was freezing, and you have no idea how deep it is or even what is on the bottom, but it was so refreshing. I found some rocks to stand on so I wasn’t constantly treading water, and then realized the little fish were giving me a fish manicure. Like all the places popping up in Siem Reap, where you have fish eat dead skin off your feet, I was having a fish manicure but for free, and much more authentic.
Luckily we left at 3, because about half way back to Luang Prabang it started POURING with rain. And I mean pouring. We had to stop, scramble through the backpack to find our ponchos, put them on and continue on, with Andy putting his hand over my eyes to shield them from the rain so I could see. It was probably one of the most memorable moments of my trip, turning up at the hotel soaking wet in ponchos off a motorbike. You would never get that on an organized tour of even from a tuk tuk ride.
The next morning we ventured off to the caves before we had to return our motorbike at noon. We had no map, and unlike our trip to the falls, we had no exact idea of how many lefts or rights we had to turn. We just knew how to get out of town in that direction. And the way out of town included a very long bridge, with the driving space the size of a motorbike. I held my breath, and zoomed on. Somewhat slow and swerving, we made it across, without falling off to the sidewalk area, which would have been a mission to get back on the driving portion.
We soon found our way, and after stopping to ask for directions, and receiving no legible English answer, we finally found a road sign that said ‘Pak Ou’. The road changed from paved to dirt, windy and bumpy, but we became fully immersed in the rainforest and rice paddies, having workers and children waving and yelling hello. We even had to stop for elephants crossing the road!!
Once we arrived, we had to pay for parking, and were allowed to wander into the town. It wasn’t clear where on earth the river was, so we walked and walked, and finally asked for directions. We found the river, saw boats, but no boatmen. So continuing, we walked down, looked around, and a man appeared over the horizon out of no where, and let us on his little boat.
Upon arriving at the caves on the other side, there are two caves you can visit, the lower and upper. The lower was a bit disappointing, as there are a lot of Buddhas but nothing overly impressive. Just lots of small to large Buddha statues haphazardly arranged. We then ventured up to the top cave – a total of 220 steps up. And it was a hike. It is much cooler up there, and you walk in a dark cave full of tourists. If you allow your eyes to adjust, you can actually see around without a flashlight, but most tourists are using flash on their cameras and flashlights so it took away from the magic of it. There were beautiful golden Buddha statues in the upper cave, but even those were not as beautiful as some of the Buddha statues we saw in temples in Luang Prabang. The caves themselves are not breathtaking or spectacular. It was still fun though, and definitely an adventure due to the motorbike.