Around Luang Prabang: bears, waterfalls and ancient wats

The two most obvious destinations for half-a-day trip from Luang Prabang are Muang Si waterfalls and Xieng Men village. One cannot miss Muang Si- awe-inspiring in the rainy season and incredibly beautiful in the dry season- especially that this trip could be combined with visiting the Bear Rescue Centre. Meanwhile, Xieng Men village, lying on the other side of the Mekong from Luang Prabang, is a lovely, off-the beaten track destination with a few ancient temples and a small cave sheltering Buddha statues.

Wide Mekong, a single traditional boat and outlines of mountains  half-covered in clouds in the background

The powerful Muang Si waterfalls

Visiting Muang Si waterfalls is going to be a very different experience, depending whether you get there in the dry or wet season. Muang Si in the dry season is a poetic, high waterfall creating incredibly beautiful series of turquoise pools. To make it even better, swimming in the pools is allowed. We went there at the peak of the wet season, though, when the falls are at their most powerful and menacing, while swimming is forbidden as it would be too dangerous.

Powerful, multi-tiered Muang Si waterfall and a green wall of the jungle, with some huge trees partially under water

Tuk-tuk negotiations

In the low season negotiations for the reasonably priced transport to the falls shouldn’t be too difficult. All drivers we talked to uniformly asked for 200 000 kip for a return trip. That is actually the price for the WHOLE vehicle. We negotiated the price of 50 000 kip each. If we waited for 8 people, we could have paid just 25 000 kip. Even in the low season filling one truck up shouldn’t take longer than 40-50 minutes.

A small, blue shared truck similar to Thai songthaew stands on a main street in Luang Prabang old town, parked just  before a whitewashed colonial building turned into a hotel

The driver asked us for the money upfront, including the entrance fee to the falls. Despite warnings on the travel forums, it’s not a scam. The driver quite honestly told us he would get a small commission for each ticket. As we paid him for the entrance exactly the same money as we would have at the gate, I couldn’t object. The journey took around 45 minutes .

The Bear Rescue Centre

Just after crossing the gate to the park, one can (and in fact should) turn into a path to the Bear Rescue Centre. Moon bears don’t have easy life. Those cute, tiny bears with a yellow collar are vulnerable species not just due to loss of habitat but to great extent because of the demand for their… bile.

The ears, snout and a paw of a Asiatic Black Bear, sleeping on a wooden plaftorm

Sadly, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, still very much popular in China and Vietnam, bear’s bile is a cure for a variety of conditions. The method of bile extraction is particularly cruel. The bears are caught from the wild and placed for their entire lifetime in cages so small they literally cannot move. They have a crude bile catheter permanently sticking out of their gallbladder.

A wooden platform raised in the forest for the bears in the rescue centre in Laos. One small black bear is lying on the platform,

This Rescue Center, together with affiliate ones in Cambodia and Vietnam, had already saved 50 bears from this terrible fate. The bears cannot be returned to the wild but have a good life in a huge forested area. When we visited the centre, some bears were chilling in their hammocks, some resting on the platforms while others were searching for snacks hidden in all manner of places. The centre relies entirely on donations. No matter how tight my budget was, I knew I had to contribute something significant to this cause. I didn’t hesitate to buy a $8 T-shirt to support this initiative.

I'm  wearing a 'Free the bears'  T-shirt from the Bear Rescue Centre in Luang Prabang while posing to a photo on a ferry across the Mekong

The flooded path to the waterfalls

The path from the rescue centre leads through a beautiful forest full of really huge trees covered with fantastically shaped plants. Due to the high water levels, the path was flooded in parts.

A branch of a tree in Laotian forest, covered with exotic, fantastically shaped  green plants

All the pools that in the dry season would be still and serene were actually a roaring, fast flowing, slightly murky river. The picnic area with tables and benches was all under water. Most of the people walked through a bit muddy, a bit immersed path leading to the falls, only to discover that from the other end it was actually closed.

The swollen, fast-flowing river overflowing part of the forest just under the Muang Si waterfalls in Laos

The fall itself was spectacular: tall, wide and roaring. There wasn’t even a question of swimming in the pools below. I wasn’t particularly sad about it since the weather wasn’t that hot while the water was downright chilly. We admired the falls, ate a packed lunch and didn’t really have much to do for the rest of the time (we agreed to be picked up in 3 hours).

Huge, powerfull and high Muang Si waterfall with snow-white water going down in a few tiers, overflowing the trees growing at its sides.

Other attractions around the falls

There are some hiking trails going up the waterfall but those were all closed to individual tourists due to the flooding. We saw two groups coming down from that direction with a local guide. The first group was covered with mud till the knees but looked quite content. The second group looked like they got into big trouble. Most were covered in mud head to toe, some had their clothes torn and open, bleeding cuts. We didn’t think it was worth trying to go up. We could have visited the butterfly centre instead but didn’t fancy spending another 40 000 kip so we just waited patiently for the driver to turn up.

Xieng Men village – on the other side of the Mekong

Getting to Xieng Men

The second place outside Luang Prabang, literally right across the Mekong, is the Xieng Men village. There is a ferry pier at the back of the Royal Palace Museum. You can find a boatman to ferry you on a tiny boat for 10 000 kip but we opted for taking a large and sturdy car ferry which costs just 5 000 kip. It’s worth to make a trip – if only for the views of the mountains opening from the river.

A steep, muddy boat landing on the Mekong in Xieng Men village in Laos. Lots of tiny, narrow boats are moored to the bank in semi-circle and a few children walk up the path to the village.

The temples of Xieng Men

It’s just a short walk from the steep, muddy landing in Xieng Men to the three old temples. The first one: Wat Xiang Men was built in 16th century and although it was rebuilt many times it still retains its charm. When we were there, three novice monks played with other kids in front of it . After paying a 10 000 kip fee, we were led into the musky smelling interior by a local key holder.

Wat Xieng Men stands right next to a wall of forrest. It has two-tiered roof and a porch, where a bare-chested boy sits.

Just a little bit futher up the road was Wat Chom Phet, in itself not very impressive but worth a 10 000 kip fee for an incredible view at the Mekong and its confluence, Phousi Hill, Luang Prabang and the mountains.

A wooden window frame and a view from a hilltop at a forest below, wide, muddy Mekong, roofs of Luang Prabang and forested mountains, half-hidden in the clouds

The temple was quite derelict and we were the only people on the hill which added to the eerie atmosphere.

A dilapidated, whitewashed and relatively simple Wat Chom Phet with four columns on the front stands on the top of a hill, with a mountain range in the background

A muddy path led us eventually to Wat Long Khoun. Another 10 000 kip entrance allowed us to see its beautiful murals.

Slightly faded murals presenting two life-size guardians flank the doors to Wat Lang Khuan in Xieng Men village

We were then led by a boy to the Wat Tham Sackkalin – a cave storage for Buddha statues, entrance to which was included in the fee. As the boy was a key holder, we already anticipated he’d like to get tipped for letting us in.

Dozens of small, golden, seated and standing Buddha statues inside a cave at Wat Tham Sackkalin in Laos

We entered the cave which proved to be much bigger (and wetter) than we expected. At first, we saw some Buddha statues and if we entered alone, we’d assume that there was nothing else to see. Yet, the slippery, muddy steps led further down. There were some small rock formations and the water was dripping from everywhere. We kept on going further down until we saw a pond. The guide suggested we could go through to get to the end of the cave. I let Sayak wet his sandals and just waited for him. There wasn’t much to be seen but due to wet season the exploration of the cave felt quite adventurous.

A tiny silhouette of a man on the top of a deep cave in Xieng Men village

Once we were out, we were asked for a tip. When I handed a 10 000 kip note, the boy asked for double the amount. Fair enough, he had to walk through the muddy and slippery cave in his slippers. If you don’t like the idea of being charged for something you already paid for, just refuse going to the cave in the first place.

PRACTICALITIES

Getting to Muang Si
There are no public buses to the falls and the 35 km, mostly upward road isn’t really an option for cycling unless you’re very fit. The cheapest would be sharing a songthaew-style truck.
[2019 UPDATE] There are also specialised mini-vans which run at set schedule and could be booked online for a similar price as a shared songthaew.
You could also hire your own tuk tuk – it makes sense if you’d like to stay at the falls longer.
Renting a scooter is the most expensive option as rental fee is high and you’d also have to consider petrol and parking fee.

Getting to Xiang Men
The boat landing is just behind the National Museum. You can choose between a small boat and a vehicle ferry (which you can take as a pedestrian as well). The ferries are very frequent.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of August 2018]:
200 000 renting a tuk-tuk (return) to Muang Si waterfalls
25- 50 000 shared truck (return) to Muang Si waterfalls
20 000 entrance to the Muang Si waterfalls
10 000 entrance to each of the wats in Xiang Men
10 000 one-way crossing on a small boat to Xiang Men
5 000 one-way crossing on a car ferry to Xiang Men

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