LUANG PRABANG, Laos (Vientiane Times/ANN) -- Laos is endowed with abundant natural beauty including numerous rivers. The Mekong passes through the Khonephapheng waterfall in Champassak province, which is considered to be one of the largest falls in the world, and water is central to Laos’ attraction for tourists.
The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world at 4,350km and is the longest river in South-East Asia. The river has its source in the Tibetan plateau, running through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before flowing out through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam into the South China Sea.
Khonephapheng waterfall in Khong district of Champassak province has been recorded as the world’s largest waterfall, according to the website www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com.
Laos has many tributaries that flow down from the mountains into the Mekong. The rainy season causes all of these rivers to rise dramatically and they become fast flowing and brown, making them impossible swimming options.
The number of visitors typically drops in the rainy season as the roads become impassable and many places are difficult to access.
But the majestic Tad Kuangsi waterfall nearby the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang remains a highlight as it has crystal clear water all year round. The rainy season is the best time to visit when this spectacular cascade overflows. Visitors can enjoy a swim, a picnic, walks, or a visit to an animal enclosure.
At this time of the year, Kuangsi waterfall is at its most stunning and is surrounded by many tall and verdant trees.
Mr Bounmee, who is Head of the Management Office under the provincial Department of Information, Culture and Tourism, said recently “The waterfall is now at its most beautiful as there is so much water. Tourists enjoy taking photos and swimming here.”
“It’s the low season now but we still get quite a lot of Asian tourists, mostly from China, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand. In the past most came from Thailand, but in recent years their numbers have dropped.”
The waterfall is currently generating at least 6 million kip a day from entry fees (foreigners pay 20,000 kip each) and brings in more than 10 million kip a day in the high season from October to June, he added.
Making my fifth visit to the waterfall, I got chatting to some Vietnamese tourists who were visiting Luang Prabang and Laos for the first time.
Mrs Mai Kim Khuyen said “This is my first visit to Laos and Luang Prabang. I think this waterfall is truly spectacular and the water is very clear and cool. I think it’s the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen. Laos is very lucky to have this waterfall as it’s very special, and I hope to return to Laos someday to explore more places.”
Mrs Mai described her impressions of her first visit to Luang Prabang.
“Although it’s not the peak tourist season, my two-day visit to one of Asia’s best natural wonders has given me an unforgettable experience,” she said.
After driving for more than six hours from Vientiane, she and her friends made it to Luang Prabang at about 6pm. To begin with she felt tired and tense due to the long journey but this feeling soon completely disappeared and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of relaxation and contentment.
“I was inspired by the Mao Pha Sok guesthouse which is full of traditional decor that would be difficult to find anywhere else in the world except perhaps right by the Mekong,” she said.
Stepping out of their vehicle, she and her friends were warmly welcomed by the owners of the guesthouse - a couple that she guessed might have been struggling to support both their big family and an ambitious business in the tourist hub of Luang Prabang.
As the guesthouse is located right by the Khan River, there is a panoramic view which is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset. The rooms are large and simply equipped for a short stay by a group of two or three people. The price is very reasonable and the hospitality shown by the owners especially impressed Mrs Mai.
After a short rest they went for dinner at a restaurant with a strange style of service and the surprising name of “Quiet”.
Mrs Mai was somewhat surprised when she read the request for quiet printed on the menu, which forbade loud talking, laughing and shouting. But the reason for this soon became clear as she realised that noise would destroy the sounds of nature all around.
She was amazed to discover that when there was no human noise, the sounds of the frogs and insects and the fragrance of the surrounding plants and flowers intensified.
The food and service at the restaurant were quite unforgettable but the prices were rather high for ordinary tourists, she felt.
Mrs Mai also enjoyed her visit to the night market. The slow pace of walking through the many stalls and incessant chatter did not bother her in the slightest. Shopping at the market was a good choice and well worthwhile for any foreign tourist.
Another Vietnamese tourist, Mrs Luong Hoang Giang, said “This is the first time I’ve visited Laos and Luang Prabang and it’s a beautiful and friendly country. One of the favourite destinations for foreigners is the Kuangsi waterfall of course.”
“When you climb to the top of the waterfall and look down, you will really be amazed. It’s considered by many as the most spectacular tourist attraction not only in Luang Prabang but throughout Laos.”
The waterfall is located amidst thick and humid woodland and cascades over a considerable distance, creating several large pools suitable for swimming. Visitors feel relaxed here because they are immersed in the beauty and grandeur of nature.
The falls are stacked like stairs and the water rumbles down from the surrounding hills, foaming as it hits the bottom and then spilling out in successively lower levels downstream.
Elsewhere in Luang Prabang, another special attraction of the town is the daily early morning almsgiving ritual when local residents line the streets to offer food to the monks and novices who live in the many monasteries.
Mrs Luong said “Thanks to a Lao friend who spoke Vietnamese, we had an unforgettable experience. We got up early to observe this ritual. Our friend took us to the roadside, where the orange-robed monks passed silently by.”
“Some of the tourists present were Buddhists so they joined with the local residents in preparing offerings of food including rice, cakes, fruit and some money, sitting quietly as they waited for the monks to come. It’s a way of showing respect to the monks who represent Buddhism.”
Although the Vietnamese visitors had seen pictures of this scene, they were awestruck when they witnessed it for themselves. A group of about 100 barefoot monks carrying large bowls processed one behind the other, with the youngest ones last in line.
Later that morning the group visited the Luang Prabang National Museum, then they climbed up the almost 300 steps to the top of Phousi Hill where the whole town was laid out below.
The local cuisine is also a focal point of this intriguing town. Visitors can enjoy Vietnamese noodles, grilled fish, dried seaweed, sticky rice, and especially the traditional stew cooked by the local people.
Luang Prabang is only 400 km north of Vientiane, with a history that reaches back to more than 1,000 years and is well preserved for enjoyment by the present generation.