The Adventures of the Barefoot Trekkers… At Kuang Si Waterfalls

Luang Prabang, Laos

The beauty of being a solo traveler staying in a hostel is that it is so, so easy to find people who wish to do the same activity as you.

“I want to visit Kuang Si Falls today,” I said to the girl I sat down next to in the common dining area at Khounsavan Guest House in Luang Prabang, as we awaited our breakfast.

“Oh, me too,” she exclaimed. “And I met another girl in this hostel last night who also wants to go to the falls today. She says she knows several other people who want to go, too.”

And just like that, my problem of how I was going to get to Kuang Si Falls was solved.

The typical backpacker has several options by which to visit Kuang Si Falls, a highlight of a visit to Luang Prabang, located twenty-something kilometers outside of town:

  • Motorbike – Good for the independent traveler, but it’s shockingly expensive to rent a motorbike in Luang Prabang (approximately $20 for 24 hours, as compared to $5-6 everywhere else in Southeast Asia).
  • Mountain bikeOh, I’m in good enough shape, you’ll tell yourself, but just remember that even if you make it to the falls in one piece, you have to return on those hilly, dusty roads. Only recommended for the really fit.
  • Minivan tour – Every guesthouse sells these tickets. At a prearranged time, a minivan picks you up, and you, along with the other passengers in the minivan, get two hours of time at the waterfalls, all for the reasonable price of 35,000 kip ($4.30). The downside is that you only get two hours, which, you may learn too late, may not be enough time to savor the area.
  • Tuk-tuk – Grab some fellow travelers and split the cost of that one-hour ride (180,000-200,000 kip, around $22-25). The more passengers you can find, the less you’ll each have to pay! Bonus: your tuk-tuk driver waits for you at the falls, so you don’t have to arrange return transportation.

Having gotten addicted to riding motorbikes in Cambodia, I first wanted to rent a motorbike. But $20 would eat up two-thirds of my set daily budget, so I gave up on that desire and turned to making new friends.

We were seven, a motley crew assembled from the friendly solo travelers at my hostel and several others. Each of us had found our way to one another through the way that most solo travelers befriend other solo travelers: by meeting one and being introduced through him or her to others. Like I said, the beauty of being a solo traveler staying in a hostel.

We secured a tuk-tuk simply by walking to the “center” of town, the four-way intersection at the start of the night market street that, perhaps due to the time of year, was marked with a light-up wire Christmas tree. (Or maybe it’s just left there year-round? WHO KNOWS.) Our driver was a quiet man, slow to smiles, who reminded me of the (conversely always smiling) doorman who always greeted me back at my office building in Seoul.

His quietness was why I picked him, really. Most tuk-tuk drivers are slick, fast-talking, and assertive—the traits needed to attract and hold on to potential customers in that competitive field. When I travel, I like to take the extra minute to search with my eyes for the more withdrawn driver, the one who isn’t naturally inclined to approach and pester passersby for fares.

No one goes to Kuang Si Falls and returns disappointed. Even if you loaded yourself up with online photos when researching whether or not to go there, nothing compares to the sight of the pearly blue pools of the lower tiers emerging through the trees after your three-minute walk from the tuk-tuk parking area.

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The upper tier is even more impressive. Five minutes away from the lower tiers, water falls 60 meters (200 feet) in a shimmering, layered cascade into pools that run a darker blue than those of the lower tier. A sturdy wooden bridge allows you to stand before the falls, feel on your face a whisper of spray carried over by the breeze, take photos, and let your imagination run wild.

Kuang Si Falls - like something out of a fantasy tale.

Well, that’s what I did. I looked at the falls and my mind conjured up leather-clad heroines on the run from her turncoat ex-guards, her only supplies her saddlebag, her only companion her trusty white steed. She stumbles into this clearing at the base of the falls after a weary run through the forest. While her horse quenches his thirst, she stares up at the dazzling water droplets caught in the sunlight, and experiences a vision that directs her to the next step of her quest. Hey, I was a book nerd way before I started traveling. I’d been slowly rereading some of my favorite fantasies, Kuang Si Falls looked exactly like the sort of place that Aerin from The Hero and the Crown, Katsa from Graceling, and Ani/Isi from The Goose Girl would appreciate.

After we had taken enough photos, we decided to climb to the top of the big falls, where we had heard there was one more tier of waterfalls, as well as a cave that we could explore. There were paths on both sides of the falls, so we took the one on the right.

Or, that’s what we thought we did. For almost an hour, we struck out on a path that led away from the falls. No problem, we thought. It must just be a meandering path. Better than slipping while climbing the steep slope close to the falls, right?

We walked until the sound of the falls faded behind us. Vistas opened up before our eyes: far-off mountains, stained brown, red, and orange from the dry season haze.

We forded a small stream, grasped vines and roots to haul ourselves up and over an unbroken three-meter-tall mud cliff. I lost my balance and fell backwards into a tangle of vines. We avoided using as handholds the trunks of skinny trees with frighteningly long spikes:

Like, seriously? Not something you'd want to fall against.

Like, seriously? Not something you’d want to fall against.

One by one, we kicked off our flip-flops. They were no match for the path, which not only got steeper and steeper, but was that kind of semi-solid dirt that was packed down save for an uppermost layer of smooth, cold, slippery mud.

Now, since I was young, I have hated having dirty feet. No toughened soles from childhood summers of roaming barefoot outside for this one, oh no; I was reluctant even to fling off my shoes when we picnicked in luscious green parks. I insisted on wearing flip-flops to swim meets even when the hundreds of other swimmers around me had given up on that. You could’ve used my toes as dining utensils, I tried to keep them so clean.

So there I was, struggling up the steep hill of mud, and I finally decided, To hell with it, and took my flip-flops off.

And I discovered something that you probably all know already:

Going barefoot is great.

After all, the earliest humans went everywhere barefoot. So many shoes change the natural movement and gait of the foot, and flip-flops are the worst culprits. It felt good to have control over how my feet gripped the slick path. As soon as I took my flip-flops off, I felt much more sure on my feet.

It was also surprisingly non-dirty to walk barefoot on that path. The mud beneath our feet was so packed down that little of it actually got onto our skin.

Barefoot trekking. Can't do this in New Jersey.

Barefoot trekking. Can’t do this in New Jersey.

Anyway, we did the rest of the hike barefoot, and at last ascended the crest of the hill to find…nothing. A big, fat nothing. Just a leaf-strewn little space, with too many trees around to even take in any view that could have rewarded our sweaty hour-long hike. We could hear the sound of water, but it was nowhere to be seen. Our group made eye contact with other hikers who had chosen their path incorrectly. We exchanged looks of bemusement and frustration that we had expended all this effort for nothing. Couldn’t someone have put a sign at the start of the path, indicating to where it led?

...literally nothing to see here.

…literally nothing to see here.

After a brief rest, we dragged ourselves back to our (bare) feet and began the return trip. We finally staggered back into the main falls area. No one had any desire to take the real path to the top of the falls anymore: our T-shirts were soaked through with sweat, our feet were tired, and we just wanted to shuck our clothing and jump into the sweet blue pools of that travertine waterfall. Which we promptly did:

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It was the end of our time at Kuang Si Falls, but not the end of our adventures. Stay tuned for Part 2!

Great group of people I got to hang out with in Luang Prabang, Laos. This particular group's story will be told in a future blog post at some point...

Introducing the Barefoot Trekkers: Sahara from South Africa; Kelly from Melbourne, Australia; Pietro from Portugal; Anna from the Netherlands; Nikki from the UK; Win from Austin, TX; and me

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