Next Stop: Kuang Si Falls 🇱🇦
How far should tourism encroach on nature?
I'm a food and travel writer from the shores of Lake Erie, now based in Berlin. I attempt to send out weekly essays on my latest mishaps and travels around the globe and in the kitchen. If you would like to support my work, please consider sharing this newsletter with a friend or acquaintance (I’m not picky).
My friend Matt first told me about Kuang Si Falls a good four or five years ago. If I remember correctly, he was at the end of a stint teaching English in China and traveling around Southeast Asia before heading back to the US.
Of all the places he visited, Kuang Si Falls just outside of Luang Prabang in northern Laos was the one I remember him talking about the most. Laos in general, he said, was a special place. So, I marked it on my Google Maps and didn’t think about it again until Melanie and I started planning our own trip around Southeast Asia late last year. I remembered how excited Matt had been about Laos, about Kuang Si Falls in particular. I quickly became obsessed with seeing the falls and Laos for myself.
Cut to Luang Prabang. We’re a week into our Southeast Asia trip and it’s our second morning in the UNESCO World Heritage city. I’m already bummed that we can’t spend more time in town. But we packed a lot into our trip and already have a train to catch that night to Vang Vieng. Thankfully, time moves slower (in my mind) whenever I’m traveling. So the fact that we have the entire morning and early afternoon feels like more time than it is when the day is stuffed with meetings-that-could’ve-been-an-email and deadlines.
We get up early for the morning alms when locals and tourists alike give offerings of sticky rice to the Buddhist monks at sunrise. I’d always seen this experience painted as a quiet, reflective occasion. YouTube videos show travelers whispering to the camera about how peaceful it all is.
That’s not our experience. Large, white vans sped towards the morning alms route like a military convoy in the final minutes before sunrise. These vans are full of tourists who are escorted from site to site, missing the spaces between that are not designated as interesting for visitors. Melanie and I grab a seat on the sidewalk opposite those making an offering of sticky rice.
My presumption was that those making an offering would be devout Buddhists who saw the experience as spiritually enriching and not as a photo opportunity. I didn’t expect so much commotion prior to the monks starting their walk. Were the ‘95 Bulls coming out to play?
People gathered for photos, some placing their palms together in posed prayer. Others with larger cameras waited anxiously for the monks to come. When they did, they crowded them for the perfect shot. Some shuffled alongside the monks, trying to snag a selfie while they accepted an offering.
The spectacle left us feeling a bit queasy about the incursion of tourism on what I presumed was a sacred practice. We left with hopes that hitting the road early toward Kuang Si Falls would provide a bit more solitude.
After breakfast, we hopped on a rented motorbike and started the 40-some-minute drive west to Kuang Si Falls. Although at first skeptical of the motorbike when we used it to get around Ninh Binh in Vietnam, I started to properly enjoy it in Laos. Anthony Bourdain opened his Laos episode of Parts Unknown on the motorbike, saying it’s the best way to see that part of the world. I’m not saddling up in Hanoi anytime soon, but he’s not wrong when it comes to rural Laos. It’s a profoundly intimate experience: the wind, the warm smells, the Laotian countryside an arm’s reach away. The anti-motorist in me imagines I could’ve matched it with a nice road bike. But it nonetheless felt right to be on that motorbike with Melanie, on the road to Kuang Si Falls.
Then, the white vans started passing us. It felt like a scene out of a movie with Melanie and me playing the part of throwaway characters.
“What’s going on?” would be our only line before cutting to some military commander watching the whole scene via drone. Except instead of soldiers, these vans were transporting tourists, presumably ready to move on to the next thing after finishing the morning alms.
I lost track of how many vans passed us by. Well over 20 by the time we finally pulled into the parking lot for Kuang Si Falls. This was a pretty significant parking lot; the kind I might see outside a suburban shopping mall. I more or less expected to pull up to a ticket booth, pay, and start a modest hike up to the falls.
After handing over our kip (Laotian currency) for parking, we followed signs to pay for an entry ticket. The ticket included a QR code to be used at an adjacent turnstile before boarding an electric golf cart. Something about transferring to an EV golf cart felt strange and not in the spirit of approaching Kuang Si Falls for the first time. I think we both imagined a small jungle trek to more or less earn our right to visit this natural wonder.
“Can we walk?” Melanie asked the ticket attendant. They said we could and that it would take about 15 minutes.
15 minutes? I thought. Are the carts really necessary?
So we started our walk along the road up to Kuang Si with the occasional golf cart filled with six or so tourists streaming by. The route cuts through a quiet village with a smattering of makeshift restaurants. The menus were out, but nary a visitor was in sight. They were all in the golf carts.
I decided the EV vehicles must’ve been some sort of compromise with the village to let tourists drive through. Because if these were vans, the air would’ve been blackened and hovering over the village. Then there would’ve been the noise of the engines revving as the vehicles moved uphill.
After the advertised 15 minutes of walking, we arrived at the actual gate to Kuang Si Falls. Most tourists alighted from their vans here, but for reasons I couldn’t quite piece together, occasionally they’d open the gate and let a van through. That road, according to the map, led directly to the falls. Most on foot, ourselves included, followed a simple dirt path that paralleled the road but went into the surrounding jungle.
We were there at about 10 a.m. Two hours after the falls opened. You wouldn’t have guessed it was still early in the day based on the crowds, most of whom seemed solely interested in snapping a quick pic to prove they made it and leave for the next site. A handful smoked (smoked!) and tossed their cigarette bud on the ground despite being surrounded by trash cans.
The falls themselves were spectacular and unlike anything I had seen before in person. It’s not an enormous, thundering spectacle like Niagara Falls. Kuang Si is imposing, but majestic with several streams of water gracefully sliding down the rock face. It’s one of those natural spectacles that looks too perfect to have been created at random over 4.5 billion years.
Despite Kuang Si’s beauty, I felt distracted by the other spectacle––the tourists. I started asking myself questions, like “Should we all be here?” “Have we made it too easy to see these waterfalls?” “Who has the right to be here?”
I challenged myself at the same time, wondering if these questions themselves are exclusionary. Years ago, someone called me an ableist because I was involved in a modest movement protesting the creation of a skywalk from a parking garage (itself once a historic building) to the new casino. The creation of said skywalk would threaten the building housing the casino’s historic status. Not to mention, it purely catered to people driving in from the suburbs who didn’t want to interact with the city I called home.
Intellectually, I don’t think my opposition to the skywalk was ableist. The casino already had a shuttle service from the parking garage to the casino, literally a block away from one another.
Nonetheless, that attack has stuck with me to the point that I’m often hesitant to publicly express any dismay over how much humanity has encroached on nature in the name of making natural wonders more accessible. Would I be labeled an ableist or ageist for suggesting that the fact that people can fly into Luang Prabang and get whisked away to the foot of the falls without so much as moving their own thumb is perhaps a bit much?
These thoughts intensified a couple of days later in Vang Vieng at the end of a climb that led us to the Nam Xay viewpoint. Unlike Kuang Si Falls, there were just a few people at the bottom of the path selling tickets underneath a picnic pavilion––though there was no gate. Just a wooden sign pointing to the path. The path is steep and rocky, though whoever oversees the area took the time to lay some strategically placed bamboo to act as a handrail.
Nevertheless, not everyone would be physically capable of completing the climb to the Nam Xay viewpoint. I’m sure someone could figure out how to turn the path into easily manageable steps or build a funicular to do the climb for you. And that would make it all more accessible to everyone and sell more entry tickets.
But how much is too much? At what point does the damage of a tourist’s presence outweigh the benefits of their money?
The grouch in me thinks many of us have become far too coddled, myself included. For thousands of years, humans have found non-destructive ways to deal with discomfort. Now if we’re a smidge too hot, we flip on the AC. Too cold? We’ll turn on the heater before digging out a sweater.
We see it when we travel. As if the ability to fly across the world wasn’t enough, now we’re making it easier for people to see everything and anything they could possibly want to after we land on the ground.
I for one am okay knowing that there are certain things I am physically incapable of seeing. For instance, Everest looks plenty nice to me in the photos.
I don’t know where the line is. But I think it’s somewhere behind us.
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We're headed for Laos in a few months and Luang Prabang is high on our list. But I'm starting to worry that everything is going to be overrun with, well, tourists. Which of course, we are. It's a dilemma. As for those falls, I think I'd rather find something less perfect but that isn't mobbed by white vans.