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Innovative in Laos

IT WAS a tricky decision — sleep in, have a leisurely brunch and chill-out by the pool, or get up early, meet guide Fhan, drive for an hour then hike 20-30 minutes uphill in the sweltering tropical heat to see a waterfall.

It was the last day of an action-packed Innovative Travel tour of Laos and everyone was in need of some spare time. There were only two of us with our hands up for the optional excursion so it was going to cost a few extra kip, the Lao currency. Visions of pool loungers and smiling waiters delivering cool drinks competed with the postcard images I had seen of a remote and beautiful aquamarine waterfall deep in the rainforest.

Voices inside my head kept pounding away at me saying: “You’re here but once. If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it forever.”

OK, so the waterfall won. And I’m so thankful it did. I figured I could lie by a pool anywhere — albeit without our waiter with the dazzling smile — but I’d only ever get one chance to see Tat Kuang Si Waterfall.

The drive was only about 45 minutes and to reward us for our wise choice, dear Fhan added in some surprises along the way.

We met the cutest of babies, ‘Sang Noi Kiddu’ who lives with her mum Mae Kham Onh and 11 ‘aunties’ at Luang Prabang Elephant Camp, a sanctuary that is home to elephants rescued from a life of hard labour at logging camps. ‘Sang Noi Kiddu’ lives up to her name ‘Naughty Baby Elephant’ – she likes to steal food and has a very inquisitive trunk which she uses to investigate your pockets.

Communing with elephantsI was happy to just pat, feed and commune with the elephants and chat to the camp manager, elephant expert Tha Thao, but if you have time, you can ride an elephant, help the mahouts bathe them in the nearby river and even take a mahout course.

It’s often the unscheduled, spontaneous encounters that leave the most indelible imprints. When Fhan stopped at the modest little house of a local artisan, I thought he must have had mental telepathy. I’m an avid collector of scarves on my travels so I was thrilled to meet Pan, a talented young woman who picks cotton from the trees around her property, processes it by hand and weaves it into beautiful scarves, table runners and bed throws. I added three beautiful cotton scarves to my collection that day, a hug, and lovely memories of watching Pan convert puff balls into fine thread.

En route to the waterfall, Fhan told us the legend of the Tat Kuang Si Waterfall. Tat means waterfall, Kuang means deer and Si means dig. The waterfall miraculously began to flow when a wise old man dug deep into the earth to find water. A beautiful golden deer then made its home under a big rock that protruded from the falls. The sound of the water falling on the rock created an enchanting echo that drew people to the waterfall from as far away as China.

Just inside the entrance to Tat Kuang Si Waterfall, we came across another surprise — bears lying in hammocks, feasting on bamboo, lolling around in trees, roaming through the rainforest and playing in the streams. Thanks to Free the Bears, nearly 40 Asiatic black bears, who were once victims of an illegal trade in wildlife, now lead idyllic lives at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a huge enclosure within the waterfall reserve. They’re known as ‘moon bears’ because of the white crescent shape on their chests.

As we hiked up a well-trodden path through a rainforest of magnificent trees, Fhan was getting a little tired of my repeated questions about whether the waterfall we had reached was THE waterfall.

“You will know it when you see it,” he said with a wink.

A series of fallsTat Kuang Si is actually a series of falls tumbling down a giant staircase of limestone terraces, each more stunning than the one before. The steps create the most beautiful natural swimming pools ranging in colour from milky-green and powder-blue to deep turquoise. There were swimmers soaking in each pool and a few guys diving off rocks and doing Tarzan acts swinging on vines and dropping into the water. I was sorely tempted to join them but the hissing-roaring sound of the REAL falls drew me higher.

Then quite suddenly we were there, at the foot of the most magnificent many-tiered waterfall. It was so mesmerising, I stood on the bridge that spans the deep wide pool below the 60m falls and completely lost track of time. Poor Fhan had long since gone back to the air-conditioned van. He had seen the hypnotic effect of Tat Kuang Si many times before.

I might still be there if my friend had not dragged me back down the track to where swimming was allowed. I immersed myself in the refreshing cool water, feeling as though I was in some kind of paradise. I felt sorry for our travel-mates by the pool. They missed a day of sheer magic.

Back home in New Zealand, I often look at the images of the waterfall. It all seems like a dream to me now . . .

• Also en route to the waterfall is Kuang Si Butterfly Park. We didn’t have time to visit the park but others rate it very highly.






Tat Kuang Si is a series of falls tumbling down a giant staircase of limestone terraces.
Justine and friend Liza on the bridge at the foot of Tat Kuang Si Waterfall.
Justine cools off in a pool on the way up the track to the waterfall.
An Asiatic Black Bear or Moon Bear snoozing after feasting on bamboo at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre.
Sang Noi Kiddu — ‘Naughty Baby Elephant’ — at Luang Prabang Elephant Camp.
The steps create the most beautiful natural swimming pools ranging in colour from milky-green to powder blue.
Pan runs a little cotton weaving business from her home near Tat Kuang Si Waterfall, 45 minutes’ drive from Luang Prabang.