There is nothing quite as exhilarating and awe-inspiring as standing in front of a waterfall. Is it the fact that it makes you feel so insignificant in the face of the awesome power of nature? Is it the way it totally fills all of your senses whilst being simultaneously both invigorating and relaxing? We may never know the answer, but the fact remains that humans have always been drawn to waterfalls, and still today millions of people flock to visit them each year.
When trying to think of the biggest and most impressive waterfalls in the world, most people would call to mind the great American falls: Niagara Falls of North America; Angel Falls and Iguazu Falls of South America; or perhaps the magical ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ Victoria Falls in Africa.
Rarely mentioned would be the Khone Phapheng Falls (known as Chutes De Khone in French) in southern Laos, yet it consistently appears on lists of the world’s largest waterfalls and holds the title of the widest waterfall in the world.
While it might not be one of the tallest waterfalls, it is the largest waterfall by volume in Southeast Asia, and the sheer magnitude and brutality of it make The Khone Falls undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and impressive natural spectacles in the region.
Forming part of the border between Laos and Cambodia, The Khone Falls has historically been considered the barrier between the Upper and Lower Mekong River. The two banks connect the provinces of Champasak in Laos on the northeast side and Stung Treng in Cambodia on the southwest side. The falls transform the easily navigable Upper Mekong into a muddled six-mile wide raging torrent, as the river fractures into countless foaming waterways and plunges down over the jagged bedrock.
The incredibly powerful waterfalls and rapids are completely impassable for boats and are the main reason that the Mekong River can’t be navigated by ship all the way downstream from China through Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. The splintered river extends across a huge area and has formed a tangled network of thousands of small islands nestled amongst the surging rapids. The area is known as Si Phan Don – which translates as ‘The 4,000 Islands’ – and contains many inhabited islands and settlements.
The Khone Falls has been a thorn in the side of sailors, traders, and travelers trying to navigate the Mekong for generations. Many repeated attempts have been made over the years to find a traversable route through the labyrinthine rapids without success. At one stage when the area was part of French Indochina in the 19th century, the French colonialists engaged in numerous somewhat comical efforts to scale the falls in steamer boats in an attempt to create trade links with China along the Mekong.
The boats labored upstream with many people standing on the banks with planks and pulleys as the roaring engines of the steamboats struggled against the relentless torrent of the waterfalls, before inevitably either breaking apart or spinning out of control back down the falls.
Eventually, they were forced to admit defeat and bypassed the falls by building a narrow-gauge portage railway across the islands of Don Det and Don Khone, the bridge of which still stretches across the river and links those islands today. This railway was operational up until the 1940s, and eventually, the growth of infrastructure and roads in the surrounding area made travel by the Mekong River and traversing the Khone Falls less crucial. The falls are now one of Laos’ most popular tourist destinations and draw in visitors from all over the world – and with good reason!
You can hear the roaring cataracts of Khone before you see them. Or perhaps ‘feel’ would be a better word. The deep thundering generated by millions of cubic feet of water crashing over the rock creates a stirring in the pit of your stomach, making the whole area feel alive and charged with magical energy. It’s easy to see why, as with many great waterfalls of its kind, The Khone Falls holds a special spiritual and cultural importance to the local populace, who believe that Khone Phapheng was a natural protector who kept evil spirits at bay.
The area also contains a very interesting story of the sacred Manikhot Tree. According to legend, the Manikhot or Manikhoth is a holy tree from the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana (known as Phra Lak Phra Ram in Lao). It is said that eating fruit from the first branch of the tree will grant eternal youth, eating fruit from the second branch will bring great power and fame, but being overly gluttonous and eating fruit from the third branch is said to transform you into a monkey – so trying this is not advised.
This treasured tree, once standing proud at the top of the falls and believed by locals to be over 500 years old, was sadly destroyed in a storm in 2012. However, visitors to the Khone Falls now are sure to notice a specially built shrine containing the sacred shrub, which was successfully recovered from the water in early 2013. The legend certainly seems to live on, with the shouting of hordes of barefooted children creating a counterpoint to the rumbling of the waterfalls, as they try to sell hand-drawn pictures of the revered Manikhot Tree to embattled and bewildered tourists.
The idea of Khone Phapheng as a natural spiritual protector seems profound and resonates with the history of the waterfall, as the falls’ treacherous cascades blocking the commercialization of the Mekong as a viable trade route has preserved the vitality and diversity of the local ecosystem. This means that Khone Falls is one of the main reasons the Upper Mekong remains so wild and untouched, and nature has been allowed to thrive. The falls are surrounded by wide expanses of forest and lie in the tropical climate of south-western Laos, so it’s a perfect place for nature enthusiasts to enjoy the diverse and abundant wildlife.
Nearby if you are lucky, you can see a small pod of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. The falls are also home to the fabled Mekong giant catfish, a species of catfish believed to be the largest freshwater fish in the world (a specimen weighing a massive 340lbs was caught at Khone Falls in 2005!), as well as home to a rare species of hillstream loach or ‘lizardfish’.
This area was historically part of the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (literally Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol) and whilst sadly you would be very lucky to spot an elephant at the falls today, the surrounding area is a designated IBA (Important Bird Area) and contains many species including the grey-faced tit babbler, the rare green peafowl, red-collared woodpecker and Siamese fireback.
The settlements surrounding the Khone Falls and on the islands of Si Phan Don are primarily fishing villages. The locals tend to travel around in longtail boats and the tenacity, inventiveness and bravery of local fishermen is a sight to behold. You can find them using many of the impossibly ramshackle bamboo platforms typical to all waterfalls in the area, or standing waist-deep in the rapids hurling nets into the foaming torrent.
Reports vary as to which is the best time to visit the Khone Falls. Some say it is best to visit in the dry season because in the rainy season the river swells considerably and many of the falls and rapids disappear under the water level. However, in the rainy season when the river is at full flood the larger falls are more impressive.
Laos has a primarily tropical monsoon climate, with a pronounced rainy season from May to October, a cool dry season from November to February, and a hot dry season through March and April. During the rainy season, the falls and surrounding area will be more lush, fertile and green, and river travel on the Mekong is much easier, but humidity levels will also be higher which many people may find uncomfortable.
The weather will be the most pleasant in the dry season between October and April, but therefore it is likely that there will be more tourists around during this time. So the best time of year to visit the falls really is down to individual preference.
The best time of day to visit is in the morning before 11 am when more tourists begin arriving. At this time you may be lucky enough to catch a rainbow in the mist above the falls as you sit and take in the picturesque beauty of the surrounding vista.
Infrastructure at the falls and in the surrounding area is very good. There are buggy-type shuttle cars to carry you around the area if your legs need a rest, and there are viewpoints and large, well-maintained observation decks with benches that give fantastic views over the falls. Most of the signage and information boards contain English translations and there are also many restaurants in the area.
Predictably the main dishes here consist of fresh fish from the Mekong, be it grilled, fried or steamed, but the food is delicious and diverse. Another notable attraction is a coffee shop claiming to serve the best coffee in the whole of Laos, and why would they lie about something like that? There are also many stalls where you can buy souvenirs and handicrafts, and don’t forget to buy a hand-drawn picture or three of the Manikhot Tree from the children!
Visiting The Khone Falls is an absolute must for anyone visiting the area. While it may not have the grandiose majesty of some of the world’s more famous waterfalls, it is truly an awesome sight to behold. You can certainly feel the magic and spirituality in this place where nature and humanity meet. You can feel it in the thundering of the falls, the fresh sting of the spray hitting your face, in the calling of the birds as they soar above, the rickety bamboo platforms used by the brave local fisherman, and the sharp tang of Laos’ best coffee. It’s well worth a visit.
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