Nothing is as exhilarating and awe-inspiring as standing in front of a waterfall. Is it the fact that you feel so insignificant in the face of the mighty power of nature? Is it the way it fills all of your senses while being invigorating and relaxing at the same time? We may never know the answer, but the fact remains that people have always been drawn to waterfalls, and millions of people still flock to visit them each year.
When trying to think of the largest and most awe-inspiring waterfalls in the world, most people would think of the great American waterfalls: Niagara Falls in North America; Angel Falls and Iguazu Falls in South America; or maybe the magical Victoria Falls “The Smoke That Thunders” in Africa.
Seldom mentioned are the Khone Phapheng Falls (known as Chutes De Khone in French) to the southLaos, yet it regularly appears on lists of the world's largest waterfalls and holds the title of the world's widest waterfall.
While it may not be one of the tallest falls, it is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia by volume, and its sheer size and brutality undoubtedly make the Khone Falls one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring natural wonders in the region.
At the waterfalls
Stuck between a rock and… well, another rock
Part of the border between Laos and Cambodia, the Khone Falls were historically considered a barrier between the upper and lower Mekong. The two banks connect the provinces of Champasak in Laos on the northeast side and Stung Treng in Cambodia on the southwest side. The waterfalls transform the easily navigableUpper Mekonginto a tangled torrent six miles wide as the river bursts into myriad foaming waterways and tumbles over the jagged bedrock.
The incredibly powerful falls and rapids are completely impassable for boats and are the main reason the Mekong is not navigable by boat downstream from China through Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. The splintered river covers a vast area and has formed a tangled network of thousands of small islands nestled in the raging rapids. The area is known as Si Phan Don - which translates to "The 4,000 Islands" - and contains many inhabited islands and settlements.
For generations, the Khone Falls have been a thorn in the side of sailors, traders and travelers attempting to navigate the Mekong.Many repeated attempts have been made over the years to find a navigable route through the maze-like rapids, without success. At a time when the area was part of French Indochina in the 19th century, French colonialists made numerous, somewhat comical attempts to climb the falls in steamboats to establish trade links with China along the Mekong.
The boats struggled upstream, with many people standing on the banks with planks and pulleys while the roaring engines of the steamboats struggled against the relentless tide of the falls, before inevitably either breaking apart or hurling themselves uncontrollably down the falls.
Eventually defeated, they bypassed the falls by building a narrow-gauge transport railway across the islands of Don Det and Don Khone, the bridge of which still spans the river connecting these islands. This railway operated until the 1940s, and eventually the growth of infrastructure and roads in the area made traveling along the Mekong and crossing the Khone Falls less important. The cases are now one ofThe most popular travel destinations of Laosand attract visitors from all over the world - and with good reason!
Quite a lot of rapids
Top 5 facts about the Khone case
- The Khone Phapheng Falls is technically the widest waterfall in the world with a gigantic average width of 10,783 meters (35,376 feet). In terms of girth, this is nearly twice the width of its closest competitor - Venezuela's Pará Falls at 5,608 meters (18,400 feet).
- Although not one of the tallest falls, with a total height of 70 meters and a maximum individual case of 21 meters, it is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world with an average flow rate of 11,610 cubic meters per second and the highest flow ever recorded of 49,000 cubic meters per second. This is considered the second largest volume of any waterfall in the world and is more than twice the power of Niagara Falls!
- The rapids stretch a total of 6 miles along the Mekong River and are home to many rare species of flora and fauna.
- Many of the islands along the rapids are inhabited, and the largest of these is Don Khong. Former Laos President Khamtai Siphandon has a residence on the island, which may explain Don Khong's quality infrastructure compared to the surrounding area.
- The falls are formed by the Mekong flowing over a resilient bed of hard basalt, believed to be an ancient fault line on the Sunda tectonic plate, which falls in a curvilinear fashion, forcing the flow with impressive force and speed to flow through.
Why should I visit?
You can hear the roaring cataracts of Khone before you see them. Or maybe‘feel” would be a better word. The low-pitched thunder generated by millions of cubic feet of water tumbling over the rock sends a churn in the pit of your stomach, making the entire area feel alive and charged with magical energy. It's easy to see why the Khone Falls, like many large falls of this type, holds special spiritual and cultural significance for the local population, who believe that Khone Phapheng was a natural protector, keeping evil spirits at bay.
The area also contains a very interesting history of the sacred Manikhot tree. According to legend, the Manikhot or Manikhoth is a sacred tree from ancient Sanskrit epicRamayana(known asPhra Lak Phra Ramin Laos). It is said that eating fruit from the first branch of the tree bestows eternal youth, eating fruit from the second branch brings great power and fame, but if one is overly gluttonous and eats fruit from the third branch, one should turn into a monkey Transform - so it's not advisable to try.
This precious tree, which once stood proudly at the top of the falls and is believed by locals to be over 500 years old, was sadly destroyed in a 2012 storm. However, visitors to Khone Falls are now sure to notice a purpose-built shrine containing the sacred shrub that was successfully recovered from the water in early 2013. The legend seems to live on, as the screams of hordes of barefoot children provide a counterpoint to the rushing of the falls as they attempt to sell hand-painted images 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 falls' history as the treacherous cascades of the falls blocking the commercialization of the Mekong as a viable trade route have preserved the vitality and diversity of the local ecosystem. This means that the Khone Falls are one of the main reasons the Upper Mekong remains so wild and unspoiled and nature has been able to thrive. The falls are surrounded by vast expanses of forest and located in the tropical climate of south-west Laos, making it a perfect place for nature lovers to enjoy the diverse and abundant wildlife.
If you are lucky you may see a small herd of the endangered species nearbyIrrawaddy-Delfin. The falls are also home to the fabled Mekong giant catfish, a species of catfish believed to be the world's largest freshwater fish (a specimen weighing 340 pounds was caught at Khone Falls in 2005!), as well as home to a rare one Catfish species of mountain stream loaches or "lizard fish".
This area was historically part of the Lan Xang Hom Khao Kingdom (literally Kingdom of the Million Elephants under the White Parasol) and although today you can unfortunately be very lucky to see an elephant at the falls, the surrounding area is a designated IBA (Important bird area) and contains many species including the grey-headed titbabbler, the rare green peacock, the red-necked woodpecker and the Siamese fireback.
The settlements around the Khone Falls and on the Si Phan Don islands are mainly fishing villages. Locals tend to travel around in longtail boats and the tenacity, resourcefulness and bravery of the local fishermen is a sight to behold. You can find them on many of the incredibly ramshackle bamboo platforms typical of all waterfalls in the area, or standing waist-deep in the rapids and flinging nets into the foaming torrent.
When should I visit?
There are differing accounts as to when is the best time to visit the Khone Falls. Some say it is best to visit in the dry season as the river swells significantly in the rainy season and many of the waterfalls and rapids disappear below the waterline. However, in the rainy season, when the river is stagnant at high tide, the larger falls are more impressive.
Laos has a predominantly tropical monsoon climate, with a distinct 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 are more lush, fertile, and greenRiver cruise on the Mekongis much easier, but the humidity is also higher, which many people find uncomfortable.
The weather will be most pleasant during the dry season between October and April, but as a result, more tourists are likely to be out during this time. So the best time of year to visit the falls really comes down to individual preference.
The best time of day to visit is in the morning before 11am when more tourists arrive. At this time, you may be lucky enough to catch a rainbow in the mist over the falls as you sit and take in the scenic beauty of the surrounding views.
Top tips for tourists
The infrastructure at the waterfalls and in the surrounding area is very good. There are buggy shuttle cars to transport you around when your legs need a rest, and there are lookout points and large, well-maintained viewing platforms with benches that offer fantastic views over the falls. Most signs and information boards have English translations and there are also many restaurants in the area.
Predictably, the main dishes here are fresh Mekong fish, whether grilled, fried or steamed, but the food is delicious and varied. Another notable attraction is a coffee shop that claims to serve the best coffee in all of Laos, and why would they lie about something like that? There are also plenty of stalls to buy souvenirs and crafts, and don't forget to buy the kids a hand-drawn picture or three of the Manikhot tree!
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 most famous waterfalls, it is truly an awe-inspiring sight. You can surely feel the magic and spirituality in this place where nature and humanity meet. You can feel it in the thunder of the falls, the fresh sting of the spray hitting your face, the calls of the birds as they soar overhead, the rickety bamboo platforms used by the brave local fishermen and the pungent smell of Laos ' best coffee. It's worth a visit.