Some time in autumn of 2016 Darsh and I were collecting ideas for our upcoming trip. Discussing Luang Prabang:
Darsh: We could trek and visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls!!
A quick look on Google research later my reply read:
Martin: I think, we should bike there
Bike as in bicycle that is. My inspiration came from Summer and Kaela’s blog post. They make it sound like quite a torturous adventure, so we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. Not that we (or at least I) cared much either. We had most of the day available and were quite excited about some outdoor activity. There are a couple other blog posts describing cycling to Kuang Si waterfalls. One I particularly enjoyed comes from Richard at The Matrix of World Travel.
We rented mountain bikes at a local shop in Luang Prabang and headed off. The bikes were a lot better suited for anything beyond city sightseeing than what we had for our trip to the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon a couple of days before. That said I soon realised, that Darsh’s bike had a broken gear shifter. We could only change between the three chainrings in the front, the mechanism for the back cogs just wouldn’t work. I fumbled to move the chain to a middle chainring in the back, giving us three reasonable gears to work with. Then I gave Darsh my somewhat more functional bike and we continued.
It was a fun ride through the villages North of Luang Prabang. My bicycle worked adequately for me: the gears were sufficient, the brakes lousy, but workable, everything seemed fine. However, at the end of a downhill section I noticed my rear tube loosing air.
I can’t stretch enough how lucky we were, that this misfortune happened at that time. We were cycling along one of the few villages along the way and a small shop was just a 5 minute walk back. They had bicycle tyres on display, which made me feel like this might turn out just fine. We approached the girl in charge of the shop, I assume she was the owner’s daughter and maybe just over 10 years old. We pointed at the flat tyre and she disappeared inside their house. She came back with an air compressor blowing up the tubing again. We took the opportunity for a little rest, got snacks and water and waited for some 20 minutes. Of course the tyre lost air again. We showed it to the girl, she went to the pagoda on the other side of the road finding her dad. Without much of a word he took out the tubing, found the tiny scratch causing the problem and skilfully patched it. We paid them and were back on our way.
Our bicycle ride to Kuang Si has quite a nice layout. It starts out flat leaving Luang Prabang, followed by some easy uphill climb. Then the roads lead mostly downhill before the final uphill climb to Kuang Si. Thinking about it, it is a perfect trip: Starting easy, then having some difficulty early (when you’re still full off energy), going down down down for quite a while and only when you can almost see the finish line (and there’s neither way nor chance of turning back) you get your grand finale to reach the waterfalls. In my opinion, some of the blog posts about this tour seem a bit over-dramatising. On the other hand we were lucky having a sunny day with moderate temperatures. I can imagine this trip being somewhat different with added heat or humidity.
Going by bike is such a great way to reach Kuang Si. We passed some motos and tuk-tuks on our way, getting a couple of “what the f, you are crazy” kind of looks about our means of transportation. However, I enjoyed the freedom and flexibility we earned by taking bicycles. We stopped at the villages, spent more than an hour around a beautiful, peaceful – and completely empty – Buddhist temple and took some time to buy scarves at a local market. On the final climb we met one or two other cyclists on their way down. That’s when we got a handful of positive looks and shout-outs from like-minded “crazy” folks.
We had left Luang Prabang a bit late, mostly because of an ATM-mishap almost exactly as described by Julie on Arty Dubs (unfortunately with no happy end for me because the banks were closed for the New Year’s holiday). With all the little breaks and generally taking our time we didn’t arrive at the waterfalls until just before closing time. That meant, that the sun was already gone. However, the great thing was, that we had the entire place almost to ourselves. It’s the dry season, but it’s still an impressive and beautiful sight.
We hiked up from one level of the waterfall to the next, each one more beautiful than the one before until we reached the main falls with a breathtaking view to compensate for all the challenges to get there. That means, if we would have had any need for compensation. The way is the goal. Biking to Kuang Si was one of the highlights of our trip, not just for the waterfall, but mostly for the way to get there.
As sunset approached and darkness engulfed us, we arranged for a tuk-tuk to take us home. With our bicycles packed at the back of the tuk-tuk, we huddled trying to stay warm. We were quite surprised how long the ride back felt and only then did we realise how far 30 km can be.