Pure water, bears and elephants make the waterfalls of Laos well worth the trek, writes Yvonne van Dongen.
Over the years I have learned to be sceptical about claims of outstanding natural beauty in foreign parts. I have been to the Lake District in England and heard the guide whisper, "Oh, but New Zealand lakes are so much more beautiful". I have travelled eight hot, bumpy hours in a van to get to a spectacular watering hole and tropical jungle spot in Guatemala only to find it was - well, okay. And I've gone barefoot on so-called pristine beaches in Asia with piles of rubbish behind me and scraps of floating plastic in the tepid water.
So when my friend suggested we visit the waterfalls not far from the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang in Laos, I greeted the idea with lukewarm enthusiasm. But eventually, after visiting every temple and every wat in the city, after walking the cobbled streets over and over and after becoming so familiar to the shopkeepers they were calling me by name, I gave in.
There are two major waterfall sites within an hour or so of Luang Prabang and each requires a day trip. They can both be reached by minivan or bicycle if you're particularly fit and don't mind becoming a waterfall of sweat yourself.
We opted for the Kuang Si waterfall first, because it's the largest and most well-known waterfall in Laos, and because it's also the closest, only 30km from the city.
The first thing we saw at Kuang Si was not a cascade of crashing water but the mournful shapes of caged black bears. Actually, that's anthropomorphising. They're probably pretty happy bears since they've been saved from the poacher's knife and live in a refuge at the foot of the waterfall.
It's their paws the poachers are after, essential ingredients for bear paw soup. So these are very lucky bears indeed, no doubt giving thanks daily to Perth woman Mary Hutton, who in 1993 was so moved by a television story about bears being milked for their bile that she began to campaign to free bears all around the world.
She's since established the world's largest sanctuary for Sun bears in Cambodia and been involved in numerous bear saving projects throughout Southeast Asia, including the refuge at Kuang Si.
There's a charge for walking to the waterfall but that's probably why the walk is so wide and well-groomed. It's not unlike entering a beautifully landscaped tropical resort with fluttering butterflies and preternaturally green and shiny foliage all seemingly polished to perfection.
Soon, we are passing the milky turquoise pools leading to the waterfall and before we see it, we can hear a crowd of young, fit thrill-seekers flinging themselves across the foaming water from a rope tethered to a tree. HQ for these folk is the tourist-oriented village of Vang Vieng where for not much money you can get stoned and go tubing down a frothy river and, when you're done, watch endless reruns of Friends on giant screens. If you want to. For sheer mind-numbing boredom I couldn't think of anything worse. But it was fun to watch their bodies arc and fall as I lay on my back in the warm water.
Tad Sae's waterfalls, where we went next, do not attract the same crowd and getting there is slightly more complicated. There's a longer minivan journey followed by a boat trip across a fast-flowing river with such a strong current that the boat seems to glide across like a leaf and bump into the opposite bank purely by accident.
We were hauled out of the rocking vessel, scrambled up the muddy bank and the first thing we saw through the trees were - by golly - elephants. It seems waterfalls come with added extras in Laos.
Tad Sae offers elephant rides and a swim in the water, which looked like fun until the elephant tried to drown its rider, which then became a lot more fun for everyone else. It's awful how much you can laugh at someone else's misery.
There are also displays of old implements such as rice crushers and a water wheel. But really Tad Sae doesn't have to try so hard. It is truly spectacular. Gentle tiers of blue-green water rolled toward us and in the middle of the water, clumps of saplings and trees rise up through the dappled light. There are dragonflies everywhere. Up one gnarly big tree is a tree house. Here, there is a wooden board, walk over the water and you find a seating area.
The water is soft and dreamy and an ideal spot to imagine future trips with friends and family who will thank us profusely for luring them to this magical spot.
Even New Zealanders - who generally do have the corner on natural beauty - will be awed. I was.
Getting there: Fly to Vientiane and then either fly to Luang Prabang (expensive) or take a bus (12 long but tolerable hours). Any tuktuk or minivan will take you to the waterfalls for about US$6.
Where to stay: Guesthouses are plentiful but, increasingly, so are guests. Luang Prabang has been cited as one of the hot destinations of 2012. Prices are climbing accordingly. You may still be able to get a decent place for US$20 ($24) a night but expect to pay more.
When to go: October and November are relatively dry and cool.
Yvonne van Dongen paid her own way to Laos.