Tim Roxborogh on the joys of moaning about your holiday
The littering monks of Laos
I don't think I really had a concept of a naughty monk until that day at the Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang in Laos. It was the year 2010 and rumours were rife on the Southeast Asian backpacker trail of a stunningly beautiful series of secret pools and waterfalls as part of Laos' famed Kuang Si Falls. The falls were a must-visit irrespective of the secret area, but wow, the added allure of something being forbidden was irresistible.
Luckily I made notes. Pre the days of smartphones, you couldn't just Google how to find something like the secret area of a Laos waterfall complex. The dog-eared Southeast Asia On A Shoestring Lonely Planet I'd been lugging around for three months didn't mention it, so all I had to go on was a folded piece of paper in my wallet. My scribbled notes read:
KUANG SI FALLS
-Take the trail at the left at the bottom of the falls, NOT the trail on the right.
-Go about three-quarters of the way up.
-When you reach a sign saying "Don't leave the path", leave the path.
-The secret area is close by.
You'd hear stories about this mythical part of the falls at backpacker bars, on bus trips and around beach campfires everywhere from Bali to Bangkok. Time and time again, if Luang Prabang was mentioned, so too the search for the hidden part of the Kuang Si Falls.
Usually it was a case of the person telling the story having failed to find what they were looking for. "I searched for two hours to find the secret part and had to give up! Damn those secret falls!"
Hence why I decided to write down some basic instructions from someone who'd succeeded in this most epic and mysterious of missions. Several weeks later, having made my way through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam and finally, Laos, I arrived in Luang Prabang with the scribbled note still safely in my wallet.
Sure enough, I didn't read the instructions properly and set off on the jungle trail up the right-hand side of the falls instead of the left. Where I was, was amazing enough, with the main part of the Kuang Si Falls resembling the long-gone Pink & White Terraces of New Zealand, except with teal waters and with teeming tropical rainforest all around.
Walking for about 45 minutes, I passed a sweaty, exasperated tourist coming back down the hill. Sure enough, he was searching for the secret area, but was giving up. At that moment I thought maybe it was time to check the note in my wallet again.
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Argh! The wrong side!
Slogging my way up the hill once again, my jandals slipping with perspiration in the tropical heat and humidity, me and an English couple found the sign saying "Don't leave the path". Tentatively, we left the path, but it wasn't immediately obvious where to go. Then I heard a splash. Then we saw a trickle of water. And then suddenly, only a minute or so off the path, but obscured by the density of the trees, we were there.
Like some kind of dream sequence, before us were a series of cascading pools with ridge lines from which to jump into the pools below. The biggest pool had a deep lip that meant you could swim right to the edge of the waterfall without (too much) danger of being tossed off the side of the mountain yourself. Outrageous. Laos really is so spectacular; so serene too.
So I went back the next day. And the next day after that. Two days of swimming and jumping in this unreal landscape wasn't enough, so yes, three days in a row I boarded a tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang and marched myself up the hill and past the sign reading, "Don't leave the path".
But the third day was different. The secret pools were teeming with monks who'd adjusted their bright robes into pseudo swimming trunks. They were dive-bombing everywhere, but once the novelty of naughty monks ignoring warning signs wore off, I realised they were doubly naughty: they were littering everywhere!
Yes indeed, the monks were tossing used bottles of water and empty Pringles packets into the jungle. "Naughty monks!" I yelled, wagging my finger at the little scallywags. Except I didn't. But I thought about it!
• Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective and blogs at RoxboroghReport.com