I stayed in Luang Prabang, Laos, for a few weeks, watched the Buddhist Alms Giving at sunrise, climbed up to Mount Phousi, and had many delicious dinners on the night market. But my favorite of the many things to do in Luang Prabang was a day trip to Kuang Si. The National Park about 45 minutes South of Luang Prabang boasts stunning waterfalls, hikes, a Bear Sanctuary, and a Butterfly Park; in other words: it’s a great place to spend a day (or more).
Kuang Si National Park
Kuang Si waterfalls are just a small part of Kuang Si National Park, but a part that sits close to the park’s entrance in Thapene village.
There is parking half-way through the village and just outside the park gates. Motorcycles pay 2,000 Kip at both parking options (parking at the Butterfly Park is free).
The entrance fee for Kuang Si National Park (including the Bear Sanctuary and the waterfalls) is 20,000 Kip ($2.50).
Scroll to the end to learn more about Thapene and transport options.
Free the Bears Sanctuary
Unless you stick to the main road to the big fall, you will first pass through the bear sanctuary on your hike to the Kuang Si Falls.
Here, the Australian-led NGO Free the Bears runs several enclosures for Moon Bears that have been rescued from bile farming. Unfortunately, the bears are no longer able to survive in the wild. So as they succeed in rescuing animals, the sanctuary has to be expanded continuously.
It’s an informative walk and I dare you not to Awww! over the ridiculous positions the bears assume as they lounge in or on the various hammocks, decks, and pools provided for their comfort.
Needless to say that donations are appreciated. And so is volunteering. For more info check out the Free the Bears sanctuary website.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
The Nam Xi river (also called Kuang Si or Kuang Xi) runs only a few kilometers from its source to the mighty Mekong River. That, however, in a most spectacular fashion.
Tat Kuang Si – “Waterfall of the deer dig” after a local legend that saw a deer build a home under a rock protruding the fall and making an angelic sound that drew visitors from near and far – consists of several cascades dropping a total of 80m within 120m distance.
Coming from the bear sanctuary, you’ll first pass a few smaller falls into basins. You’ll immediately notice the striking turquoise color of the water, caused by sediments in the limestone. Get your bikini out and go for a swim in the refreshing waters (changing rooms are available). Or wait and enjoy your bath in other, less crowded spots (albeit without changing rooms).
Finally, after about 20 minutes, you’ll reach the main fall: Water gushing endlessly from a whopping 60m above.
Make sure you have a wipe on you to clean the fine mist of water off your camera lens as you take pictures.
Cross the river, and climb up the cliff for a more remote bathing spot. Be sure to bring good shoes as the path is steep and the ground slippery when it gets wet.
I took about 20 minutes for the climb/scramble.
But it’s worth it. Not only for the pools and the nibble fish and the swing over the water but also for the views of the valley and the mountains.
Note that you can get coldish drinks but no food up here. So, if you plan to spend the day, bring a picnic.
Phalaesi Cave and the source of the Kuang Si
Being such a short river means that you can go and visit the source of the Nam Xi / Kuang Si in an easy 40-minute hike.
There was a boat ride advertised but a) did the boat look like it had buoyancy issues and b) I am not sure how the boat could get all the way to the source given there are additional small falls upstream.
So you walk: From the top of the main fall, cross the water until you get to the sign “Source of waterfall.” Follow the path – proper footwear is advised as the path gets muddy at times and you will walk about 2.5km one way.
After about 20 minutes, you’ll hit a slightly bigger dirt road, where you need to take a sharp right towards the source and Phalaesi cave. There is a sign indicating the turn, but it looked like it was about to fall when I passed there. If you have maps.me on your phone, you can check you’re not taking the wrong turn (which leads you back to Thapene village).
The Nam Xi springs in Phalaesi Cave. You have to pay a 10,000 kip entrance fee, which includes a flashlight, a freshly picked banana (when in season), and the good feeling of supporting the local temple.
I admit it: I paid my dues, ate my banana, climbed up the stairs to the cave entrance. And I didn’t dare go inside. I was entirely on my own, mind you. The cave is dark and not high enough to stand upright and there is a cobra hewn into the rock above the entrance. It also didn’t help that an unspecified snake slithered off the rock next to the entrance just as I was about to pass.
So I have no idea whether the inside of the cave is worth a visit and what the less fearful adventurer can expect to find.
But fortunately, you can also visit the spot where the river first reaches sunlight. The turquoise waters form a pool, which is open for swimming. A small stall is selling cold drinks, crisps, and biscuits.
As mentioned, there is a road connecting the cave/source to Thapene village. However, I only recommend using it on your motorcycle if you know what you are doing. The road is a dirt road, muddy at times and extremely steep. Even the locals would have their passengers get off their bikes and walk for sections too steep or too rutty. It turns off opposite Carpe Diem restaurant, about 100m from the National Park entrance.
I walked along that road back down to Thapene in half an hour.
Kuang Si Butterfly Park
My last stop for the day was the Butterfly Park.
The park sits at the entrance to Thapene village, about 300m from the Kuang Si National Park gate and parking. It was set up in 2014 by a Dutch couple and is the first in butterfly park in Laos.
The property is split into five sections – a colorful garden, an orchid garden, a cactus garden, a waterfall (downstream from the main Kuang Si Falls), the butterfly enclosure – and you receive a guide with info on the sections and Laos wildlife. The small restaurant with koi pond and ducks serves cold drinks (loved the Iced Tea!), sandwiches (if for nothing else come for the real Dutch Gouda cheese), and cake.
The Butterfly Park’s aim is to offer educational excursions to the park to local school children to increase awareness of the fragile ecosystem of the land.
While you can see plenty of butterflies roaming freely in the forests around Luang Prabang, I had never seen so many different colors and sizes in one spot. And the guides at the enclosure also provide additional info about a butterfly’s lifespan and reproduction, including a caterpillar and pupae display.
Regular entrance fee to the Laos Butterfly Park is 40,000 Kip; they offer lunch packages with entrance fee + a large sandwich + a drink for a total of 75,000 Kip.
Tip: If you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity, shoot Inge and Olaf a message. They’re always happy for a pair of helping hands.
Ban Thapene is a traditional Khamu Village. On your way to the falls, you’ll probably only see the eateries lining the main road, from cheap and local to more expensive tourist fair, but if you have some time, get off the National Park access road and explore the side streets.
If you want to spend the night here rather than in Luang Prabang, I saw two guesthouses (at the time of writing, you can only book Vanvisa at the Falls, via booking.com). If you don’t have your own ride, book a seat on the tour tuk-tuks and see if you delay your return by however many days you wish to stay.
How to get to Kuang Si
Kuang Si Waterfall and Thapene village are roughly 25km outside of Luang Prabang, down the Mekong river.
I rented a scooter from my guesthouse, the Lakhangthong 2 Friendly House, for 110,000 Kip. Scooters and motorcycles are much more expensive to rent in Laos than, for example, in Vietnam. If your accommodation in Luang Prabang doesn’t have scooters or semi-automatics for rent, you’ll find a couple of places along the main stretch through the old town. Prices vary from 100,000 to 150,000 Kip per day.
The road to Kuang Si is full of potholes and the bridges are iron frames with wooden beams. But the road is signed well (find the milestones to “Kuang Xi”), there is not a huge amount of traffic, and Lao drivers are generally relaxed. So this journey can be also be done by inexperienced motorcyclists.
However, if you’d rather have somebody else drive you, you can either book a tour or your own private taxi/tuk-tuk.
Shared tuk-tuks leave every day around 11.30am from Luang Prabang with pickup from your accommodation. The Lakhangthong, for example, sells the ticket for 40,000 Kip per person (about $5). The disadvantage of this tour is that it only gives you two to three hours in Kuang Si. So you won’t be able to do everything described in this post.
Hiring a private tuk-tuk will knock you back at least $20, more likely $25 (200,000 Kip) for half a day. While you theoretically have your say in where to go and stop, I have heard that drivers tend to rush their clients and refuse to make an extra stop at the Butterfly Park. So make sure you have that discussion before you get on board.