Cooling down in Laos

Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang is an all-time favourite for both local and foreign tourists

Above  The beautiful scenery of Kuang Si Waterfall.

When tourists go to the Unesco World Heritage town of Luang Prabang in Laos, many immediately think of Buddhist temples, such as Phra That Phou Si, and the simple yet beautiful way of life evinced in traditions like sticky-rice almsgiving. As a matter of fact, Luang Prabang has numerous natural attractions, such as waterfalls and Tham Ting (Pak Ou Cave) for visitors to enjoy. One of the most popular spots is Kuang Si Waterfall.

Nestled in a tropical forest about 30km from the town centre, Kuang Si Waterfall has water all year round. In the rainy season, from April until mid-October, the water is deep green and people can hear the sound of the falling water from a long distance. In the dry season, from November until March, the water is bluish due to the presence of minerals such as copper.

Phaen din yen (Aglaonema costatum) is a poisonous plant.

A large number of tourists, both Lao and foreign, enjoy themselves at the waterfall. Many like to swim and soak themselves in the fall's natural pools. Jumping must be done with extreme caution while diving is prohibited there. Wearing bikinis and very revealing swimwear should be avoided.

Along the trail, visitors should look at the forest floor to see numerous kinds of plants, some of which are so interesting that signs were installed beside them for reading. One of them was phaen din yen (Aglaonema costatum), a poisonous species whose stems and roots are used in traditional medicine against fever. The forest floor is the most active layer. It also acts as a bridge between the living and the dead by returning nutrients to the soil.

The canopy layer is also important. The canopy absorbs much of the sunlight in forests. It also acts as an umbrella by keeping moisture in and lowering the temperature. A sign at the waterfall encourages visitors to conserve forests by using sustainably managed wood for construction.

Covering an area of 236,800km², Laos is dominated by mountains and forests. About 50% of the land is covered by forests, including evergreen, deciduous, pine and subtropical. More than 8,000 plant species have been recorded in Laos.

Kuang Si Waterfall is also the habitat of animals, such as snakes, lizards, freshwater crabs, squirrels, slow loris, pygmy loris, leopard cats, bamboo rats, tree shrews, wild pigs, lesser mouse deer and bears. Some kinds of birds are also found along the trail. Some villagers say they have seen tiger-paw prints. Visitors are warned against hunting, buying wildlife products and littering.

After swimming and strolling, tourists can visit the Bear Rescue Centre at the Kuang Si Waterfall. Entry is free. There, visitors can see a number of rescued moon bears and sun bears near the waterfall, as well as observe and photograph them walking, sleeping, eating and playing. One can also support a movement to protect wild bears in Laos through studies and donation. Like tigers, moon bears and sun bears are an umbrella (protected) species in Laos. Poaching or killing umbrella species badly affects the balance of forests.

At the centre, tourists can learn from models and an exhibition about "Bears Of The World", which include the Malaysian sun bear, moon bear, giant panda, sloth bear, Andean bear, American black bear, brown bear and polar bear.

Moon bears hold the vulnerable status because people still believe bear bile makes them stronger or cures illnesses. So do sun bears. Threats are habitat loss and a human belief that eating body parts of bears, especially paws, is good for health. Bear-bile extraction is the biggest threat to wild bears. Living in forests is the best way of life for them. Unfortunately, poaching and wildlife trade ended that way of life for bears in Laos. However, a number of poachers were caught and these bears were saved from death and other horrible fates.

At the end of the day, tourists will leave the waterfall with a relaxed body and further knowledge about forests. If they have more spare time, they may want to visit a nearby butterfly park before going home.

Above  The beautiful scenery of Kuang Si Waterfall.

People enjoy swimming in Kuang Si Fall.

The Bear Rescue Centre.

The centre's 'Bears Of The World' exhibition.

Kuang Si Waterfall is open daily, 8am-5.30pm. Admission is 20,000 kip (76 baht) per person for adults and free for children aged under 12. For more information about tourism in Luang Prabang, visit www.tourismluangprabang.org