When I analyse the past year, I can say I have spent more time in the nature and on a bicycle than on my laptop. This year I wanted to keep a similar trend, so when I planned my trip to Laos, I made sure I included cycling in my schedule. Our first destination in Laos was Luang Prabang, and one of the companies that gained my trust by simply browsing their website and reading post comments by their customers was Off Road Laos Adventures. One of their must-do tours was the Bicycle Tour to Kuang Si Waterfall, so I booked it without further thinking.
We made our way to their office at 8am and found co-owner Charly and our guide Nyai busy preparing our bikes. Introductions were made, after which Nyai the guide, who is unusually tall compared to his average Laos countrymen – which is why they call him Big – showed us Off Road Laos Adventures license and the official day permit for our tour. Nyai also told us that the tour was on paved road all the way, but it was quite flexible and adaptable to what we would be enjoying, which we liked. We tried our bikes, chose the right helmet and we were ready for the ride. We crossed a river and headed into the mountains. The first few kilometers uphill were hard and challenging, but the jungle scenery was so stunning and worth the effort that we forgot we were climbing.
The road was basically empty and the landscape amazing; we crossed a few villages where we stopped to drink water and to recover, looking at locals interacting and tasting local snacks. We were seeing a side of Luang Prabang that those staying in the urban area do not get to experience. It was by now back to a standard ride of a few ups and downs, and we could relax while cycling, looking at farmers tending their rice fields, water buffaloes grazing on the edge of the road and kids running out of their shacks to say hi as we rode past. The mountains were beautiful and lush and served as a backdrop.
Nyai was brilliant and lots of fun, and shared his knowledge and insight of the local culture with us at a Hmong village, where kids wore colourful traditional costumes and stalls selling local handicraft abounded. At a cotton production center in the next stop, we watched a woman going through the whole working line: she took a handful of cotton just collected from the plant, made it into a thread and worked the fabric on a wooden loom. Nyai stories and anecdotes from his experiences added to the tour. This was exactly the way I wanted to experience this ride, seeing villages and places up close and not speeding past through the windows of a minivan.
We arrived at Kuang Si Waterfall where Nyai took us to enjoy a great lunch in a local restaurant: noodle soup and a delicious BBQ of locally bred chicken (a bit bony said Nyai, but much better than a hormone-fed chicken from China). Nyai had a papaya salad so spicy the mere smell gave us the chills. He decided to make use of the time at the table to tell us the story of Kuang Si Waterfall; Kuang means dear in Lao language, and the legend tells of a golden dear that used to come to drink regularly at one of the fall’s pools, or so the locals say… The story of the few villages that were relocated by the Government from up the hill sounded more interesting: apparently, villagers up the hill used so much water for irrigation that the waterfall was dry most of the time. Once the government decided to turn Kuang Si Waterfall into a local attraction, they had to be relocated in exchange for commercial spaces near the waterfall entrance area used to do shops, souvenir stalls, restaurants. Enough to think that up to 20 years ago the way to Khuan Si Waterfall was just a small dirt track, where now you have a big road used daily by dozens of minivans, buses, tuk tuk and motorbikes unloading hordes of tourists who come to see the most visited waterfall in the area.
After leaving the bikes at the restaurant parking lot, we entered the falls compound, paying the 20,000 Kip fee. Kuang Si Waterfall spans a large area through a lush jungle; the walking trails wind past several pools and waterfalls cascading from high limestone cliffs. Visitors can relax and swim in these pools, which have an incredible water made turquoise blue by the high level of calcium in it. The place was crowded, though there are sections of the area where most visitors do not usually reach, with pools big enough to swim and lots of ledges to lay out on.
We had a nice swim in the crystal clear waters and a rest, then proceeded to visit the Asiatic Bear Rescue Center, a bear sanctuary located along the jungle walk, where we observed some 23 Asiatic black bears, most of them young clubs, that have been confiscated but the Lao Government from illegal poaching and trading. For more info visit http://www.freethebears.org.au/web/Projects/Laos/Meet-the-Bears/ . You can also opt to hike up to the upper tiers of Kuang Si Waterfalls, but for us the time was not enough, plus we had to keep some energy left for the ride back, so Nyai discouraged us from trekking at that point. We therefore hopped back onto the bikes and started to cycle.
The ride back was not so bad, most of the route was now downhill; we maintained a decent pace and reached Luang Prabang by 3,30 pm, to the surprise of Charly, who thought we had been pretty fast. It was only then we were informed we had cycled 35 km each way for a total of 70+ km, which under the Laos sun was quite an achievement!
For me it was indeed THE BEST WAY to discover the local lifestyle and nature on two wheels, propelled only by your own body, hence closer to nature. And it was indeed THE BEST CYCLING ADVENTURE I had in Laos during this trip. You will need to be relatively fit since the way there is a gradual uphill, but this tour should be accessible to most. You may, like me, get a bit stiff after the ride, but a good stretching and great memories will surely make you recover fast. It was a great experience, one that I would recommend to anyone visiting Luang Prabang and wanting a bit of an active adventure on the side. And Nyai was an active part of the tour, an excellent guide and a friend who looked after us very well!
Off Road Laos Adventures co-owner Charly is the son of a French couple living in Luang Prabang. Off Road Laos Adventures are fast becoming one of the best tour companies in Luang Prabang. His motto is “quality not quantity”, and this was clearly reflected in the bicycle tour we took with them.
Off Road Laos Adventures employs local guides, treating them and paying them fairly. They take extra care when organising each tour, be it a bicycle ride, a cross-bike tour or a trek. All Off Road Laos Adventures partners survey the tours themselves, studying each route extensively before offering it to visitors. They have a policy of cancelling some of the tours when off season, when the weather would not allow for a pleasurable experience. Kudos to them!
This is their link to Bicycle Tour to Khuan Si Waterfall:
You can of course rent a bicycle and go to Khuan Si Waterfall on your own, but I can honestly say that having a local guy like Nyai with us was a great bonus both for his great company and for his knowledge of the local people and culture, a knowledge he was more than willing to share with us at any time.
The bicycles were in great condition, and the fact that Off Road Laos Adventures register each outing with the Government, pay the tourist taxes and provide an insurance should at least avoid unwanted trouble in case of an emergency as well as exploitation of local guides who often get underpaid – beware when a company offers a tour at a price that is too cheap. Off Road Laos Adventures really care about your expectations and about how things are arranged. Having not tried
WHAT TO TAKE WITH YOU
Being prepared for a bicycle tour, especially if you are inexperienced, is the best help against injury and disappointment, so this is a list of things you may want to stock in your day-pack:
– mosquitoes repellent
– a hut and sunglasses
– multiple layers of clothing: the weather may start cool in the morning and become baking at midday, the sky might turn overcast and it may rain; consider everything
– tissue/toilet paper and hand sanitizer as bathrooms may not be available and there may not be a chance to wash your hands when you need to
– plasters and a bandage – you may need to patch yourself up in case of a fall, and though your guide will have some, it is always better to bring extra.
– water – your guide will supply the first, you will then need to buy refills along the road
– a banana or an energy bar – though there are plenty of places along the route to pick a local snack
Asian Itinerary was kindly accommodated by Le Vang Bua Villa during their whole stay in Luang Prabang.