Sometime in autumn of 2016 Darsh and I are collecting ideas for our upcoming trip. Discussing Luang Prabang:
D: We could trek and visit the Kuang Si waterfalls!!
A quick look on Google research later my reply read:
M: 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're not exactly sure what to expect. Not that we (or at least I) would care too much either. We have most of the day available and are quite excited about some outdoor activity. There are a couple of other blog posts describing cycling to Kuang Si waterfalls. I've enjoyed this one in particular, by Richard at The Matrix of World Travel.
We rent mountain bikes at a local shop in Luang Prabang and head off. The bikes are a lot more useful 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 realise that Darsh's bike has a broken gear shifter. We can only change between the three chainrings in the front; the back cogs’ mechanism wouldn't work. I fumble to move the chain to a middle chainring in the back, giving us three reasonable gears to work with. Then I give Darsh my somewhat more functional bike, and we continue.
It was a fun ride through the villages north of Luang Prabang. My bicycle works adequately for me: the gears are sufficient, the brakes lousy, but workable, everything seems fine. However, at the end of a downhill section, I notice my rear tube losing air.
I cannot stress enough how lucky we are, that this misfortune happens at that time. We've been cycling through one of the few villages along the way, and a small shop is just a 5-minute walk back. They have bicycle tyres on display, which makes me feel like this might turn out OK. We approach the girl in charge of the shop. I assume she's the owner's daughter and maybe around ten years old. We point at the flat tyre, and she disappears inside their house. She comes back with an air compressor blowing up the tubing again. We take the opportunity for a little rest, buy some snacks and water and wait for some 20 minutes. Of course, the tyre looses air again. We show it to the girl, and she goes to the pagoda on the other side of the road finding her father. Without much of a word he takes out the tubing, finds the tiny scratch causing the problem and skilfully patches it. We pay them and are back on our way.
Our bicycle ride to Kuang Si has quite a nice layout. It starts flat out of Luang Prabang, followed by some easy uphill climb. Then the roads lead mostly downhill before the final uphill climb to Kuang Si. It's a perfect trip. It starts easy before having some early difficulty (when you're still full of energy). Then it goes down for a while and only when you can almost see the finish line (and there's no 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 overly dramatic. On the other hand, we're lucky for having a sunny day with moderate temperatures. I can imagine this trip being quite different with added heat or humidity.
Going by bike is such a great way to reach Kuang Si. We pass some motos and tuk-tuks on our way, getting a couple of “what the f, you're crazy” kind of looks about our means of transportation. However, I enjoy the freedom and flexibility we earned by taking bicycles. We stop at the villages, spend more than an hour around a beautiful, peaceful – and empty – Buddhist temple and take time to buy scarves at a local market. On the final climb, we meet one or two other cyclists on their way down. That is when we get a handful of encouraging waves and cheerful shout-outs from like-minded “crazy” folks.
We've left Luang Prabang a bit late, mostly because of an ATM-mishap almost precisely as described by Julie on Arty Dubs (unfortunately with no happy ending for me because the banks are closed for the New Year's holiday). With all the little breaks and generally taking our time, we don't arrive at the waterfalls until just before closing time. That means that the sun's already gone. However, the great thing is that we have the entire place almost to ourselves. It's the dry season, but the falls are still an impressive and beautiful sight.
We hike up from one level of the waterfall to the next, each one more beautiful than the one before until we reach the main falls with a breathtaking view to compensate for all the challenges to get here. Not that we'd have any need for compensation. The road is the goal. Biking to Kuang Si has been one of our trip's highlights, not just for the waterfall, but mostly for the way to get there.
As sunset approaches and darkness engulfs us, we arrange for a tuk-tuk to take us home. With our bicycles packed to the back of the tuk-tuk, we huddle trying to stay warm. We're quite surprised how long the ride back feels and only then do we realise how far 30 km can be.