CENTRAL LAOS: CAVES, BUDDHAS, NATURE SPOTS AND MORE CAVES

CENTRAL LAOS

CENTRAL LAOS includes the provinces of Bolikhamxay, Khammouane and Vientiane Provinces and the capital city of Vientiane. The ethnic group of the central region consists mostly of lowland Lao groups, such as the Lao and the Tai Phuan and some ethnic minorities including the Hmong and Khmu. Handicrafts and traditional weaving is produced in many villages throughout the region and is available in market, such as the Talat Sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane. Some of the most colorful festivals in the country can be seen here as well, such as the Boat Racing and That Luang festivals in Vientiane and the Bang Fai Phayanak (Naga Rocket Festival) in Bolikhamxay.

This region is a land of karst mountains, plateaus, meandering rivers and biologically rich forests. The stretch of the Mekong River between Vientiane and Bolikhamxay offers excellent sunset views and relaxing locations for picnic and dining.The Nam Lik (Lik River) and the Nam Ngum (Ngum River) are good places for rafting and kayaking enthusiasts. The karst mountains found in Vang Vieng, Bolikhamxay and in Khammouane Provinces are stunning. Inside Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area (NPA) are a variety of ecotourism attractions including Tad Xay (Xay Fall) and Tad Leuk (Leuk rfall), camping, trekking, and wild elephant watching. The Nam Kading NPA in Bolikhamxay also has plentiful wildlife and great potential for nature tourism.

SAYABOULY PROVINCE

SAYABOULY PROVINCE (west of Vientiane) is situated in the northwest of Laos, sharing borders with Vientiane Province and Luang Prabang Province in the east, and Thailand in the west. This mountainous province has several peaks with altitudes of more than 1,000 meters. Travel to this rugged landscape will reveal many beautiful mountains and flower gardens. The local people earn their living via agricultural products such as growing rice, cucumbers, cotton, cabbage, beans and sugarcane. Elephant continue to be used for loading and transporting heavy items.

Sayabouly Province covers an area of 16,389 square kilometers and has a population : of 330,000. Its 10 districts are: Sayaboury, Khop, Hongsa, Neun, Xienghone, Phiang, Paklai, Kenehao, Botene and Thongmyxay. The capital is Sayaboury. The art of Tai Lue weaving is still practiced in many Tai Lue villages throughout the province. Villages can be visited to learn about the production process and to purchase textiles. Many villages also work in cotton, organically grown in the province. Don’t miss the scenic waterfalls Nam Tok Na Kha, Nam Tok Ban Kum, and Tad Ham found in the southern part of the province

The province is also an important agricultural producer of rice, cotton, peanuts, sesame, maize and oranges. The Malabri, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia inhabit the forests in the province’s western region. Other ethnic groups located in the province include the Khmu, Tai Dam, Tai Lue, Htin, Phai, Kri, and Akha. In Muang Ngeun District are ethnic Tai Lue villages, which still build traditional houses constructed with characteristic high-sloping roofs. Muang Ngeun’s old Tai Lue style temples include Vat Ban Khon with its unique natural fiber murals and decorations, and Vat Salibun Nyeun with its charming view of the town.

Sayabouly has the largest number of elephants in Laos, which are commonly used to carry heavy items to and from fields and forest. In Hongsa district, elephant riding tours can be arranged and a visit to the Lao Elephant Conservation Center is a nice half-day trip. Also of interest in Hongsa is Vat Simungkhoun with its astonishing collection of Buddha images and the old city walls of an ancient settlement whose history is shrouded in mystery. In Sayaboury town, located on the banks of the Nam Houng River, and a beautiful backdrop of green fields and the Pha Xang Mountain range. are Vat Si Boun Heuang with its ancient foundations dating back to the 16th century or perhaps earlier; Vat Si Phan Don with its unique diamond-shaped stupa and Vat Sisavang Vong. Between Vientiane and Sayaboury town is Pak Lay, a small town located on the Mekong River banks with French colonial buildings, traditional Lao-style wooden houses.

Nam Phui National Protected Area (Sayabouly Province) covers 1,912 square kilometers. Among the animals found there are: Substantial elephant population estimated at 350 wild animals, Lar gibbon, gaur, tiger, dhole, serow, silvered langur and Asiatic black bear. There is evidence that Sumatran rhinos may still exist here. Habitat: Steep and rugged ridges mostly of Mesozoic sandstone and shale. Summits along the Thai border reach a maximum of 1,790 meters. Three rivers drain eastward to the Mekong: Nam Phui, Nam Phoun and Nam Lai. The majority of the NPA is mixed deciduous forest dominated by bamboo as a result of regular burning. Afzelia is dominant in upper canopy. Teak is also present at lower elevations. There are at least 33 mineral licks scattered throughout the NPA. Getting There: From the main Sayaburi-Paklay highway, there are roads leading in to the NPA southwest from Ban Nam Phui via Pak Song to Ban Navene, and westwards from Pak Lay to Thong Mixai.

BOLIKHAMXAY PROVINCE

BOLIKHAMXAY PROVINCE (east of Vientiane) is located in central Laos and is not far from Vientiane. It is a center for Ecotourism activities with its two national protected areas and extensive system of wetlands. The journey from Ban Khoun Kham to Lak Sao on Route 8 offers spectacular scenery of karst mountain landscapes and is considered to be one of the most impressive passages in the country. Vat Phabath, located on the road between Vientiane and Paksan is an important pilgrimage site and sacred temple that houses a shrine containing a giant footprint of the Lord Buddha (phabat). It is believed that all travelers passing by the temple should stop and pay their respects to the spirits for a safe journey and strong health.

Bolikhamxay Province covers 14,863 square kilometers. It has a population of 190,000. There are six districts: Pakxan, Thaphabath, Pakkading, Borikhanh, Viengthong and Khamkeuth. The Capital is Pakxan. Bolikhamxay was established in 1967 during the Lao revolution period, when t was separated from Vientiane and Khammuane Province. Highlights in Bolikhamxay Province: 1) Elephants in Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area; and 2) the boat ride to Nam Kading to impassable rapids, and hike to a 100 meter tall waterfall.

Ban Na Village and its Wild Elephant Observation Tower (80 kilometers from Vientiane on Route 13) is an easy day trip from Vientiane. The tower is a short trek from Ban Na village. It overlooks a saltlick and stream that attracts wild elephants in the evening. Though there is no guarantee you’ll see one, but over the years, visitors have reported spotting herds of up to 40 pachyderms including an old tusker, though groups of five to 15 are more common. You can also sign up for a trek to the Nam Hi River, Tad Luang Waterfall, or more distant 40 meter high Tad Fa. Homestays are available in Ban Na village.

Vat Phabath and Vat Phonsane overlap Route 13 near Ban Na, and present two of Bolikhamxay’s most remarkable attractions. In 1993, locals discovered a 2.4 x 1.2 meter Buddha footprint, and built Vat Phabath around it. Over the decades, journeyers make merit by placing gold-leaf on the phabath (Buddha footprint), and every year in mid-January, the temple holds a festival to pay respect to the phabath. Vat Phonsane sits on sprawling green Mekong Riverside grounds, and is believed to be a sacred place where Buddha once took his meals. The temple is also known for the annual Bang Fai Phayanak Festival during October’s full moon, when the Mekong launches mysterious colored fireballs.

Be among the first to explore the trail along the Yong River’s rapids and overnight at the ethnic Meui village of Ban Yang Kheua at kilometers 99 on Route 13 South, where the New Zealand CBT-SED project is building a lodge. From here a tractor ride delivers you to the Yong River and its endless rapids racing over a stone-slab bed. A trek follows the river, and sometimes crosses it, allowing you to inspect the perfectly round craters, and infinite small channels gushing between the rocks. The walk ends at a wide set of short falls, where you can swim in a clear pool. From here, a boat connecting to Ban Yang Kheua.

Nam Kading Cruise (40 kilometers south of Pakxan) is a river cruise few have experienced. After Nam Kading Bridge things begin to get interesting as longboats putter along he lazy river and vanish into the mountains. A few kilometers along, long-tails at a makeshift port sit ready to take you up the Nam Kading. The once-calm water begins rumbling as the river rushes through a rocky canyon, until the Tad Vang Fong Falls completely block the way. You can anchor at the Nam Kading Protection Center and trek to more rapids by foot. The center also offers a lodge and camping equipment for a stay one the grounds.

Napong’s Waterfall Trek (about 15 kilometers from the junction of Route 8 and Route 13) is situated near the “Karst Corridor” of Route 8 near a large elephant-shaped out-crop, Pha Xang. Ban Napong and ethnic Toum village are launching point Tad Thone Waterfall treks. They offer basic homestays. The 7 kilometers morning trek to Tad Thone kicks off with a walk through rice fields to an old-growth forest. The trail traverses streams, before the going gets rigorous, with bursts of steep inclines and precarious ravine crossings. But after about 3 hours, Tad Thone appears, shooting over two ledges before a final plunge approaching 100 meters. You can then descend to the fall’s base, and an avalanche of massive boulders

Nam Kading National Protected Area (accessible from Route 13 south and Route 8 in Bolikhamxay Province) covers 1,690 square kilometers. Among the animals found there are: Elephant, gaur, giant muntjac, gibbons, sooty babbler and rufous-throated fulvetta, river lapwing, wreathed and great hornbills and large otters. Habitat: Mostly dry evergreen/semi-evergreen forest on high relief terrain (500 meters -1200 meters) with some areas of mixed deciduous. The Nam Kading valley is dominated by broadleaf evergreen forests with a high density of large trees. Forest shows high species diversity with 83 tree species recorded in a sample of 428 individuals from two areas. Getting There: Route 13 south and Route 8 skirt the southern and southeastern boundaries. There are no roads within the NPA and the rivers are not navigable. Steep, often precipitous slopes mean that access to most areas is only by foot and arduous.

KHAMMOUANE PROVINCE

KHAMMOUANE PROVINCE (southeast of Vientiane) is located in central Laos and covers 16,135 square kilometers. Home to only 330,000 people, most of them peasant farmers, it borders Bolikhamxay Province to the north, Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east and Savannakhet Provinces to the south. The Mekong River Valley in the west forms the border with Thailand. The Annamite Mountain Range which separates Khammouane from Vietnam to the east. The capital is Thakhaek. It is situated across the Mekong from Nakorn Phanom, Thailand. The nine districts of Khammouane. are: Thakhaek, Mahaxay, Nongbok, Hinboun, Nhommalath, Bualapha, Nakai, Xebangfay and Xaybouathong.

Inhabiting mainly lowland river valleys the Lao, Phouthai and other Tai-speaking peoples are the main ethnic groups in Khammouane. There are also Mekong or Bru people, a Mon-Khmer-speaking ethnic minority that make up 13 percent of the provincial population. In smaller numbers are the Kri, Nguan, Atel, Themarou, and Maleng who are mainly found in the mountainous eastern part of the province. There are nine ethnic groups tribes living in the province, representing three language groups. The Lao-Tai language group has four member groups: the Lao, Tai, Phouthai and Xaak tribes. The Mon-Kmer language group also has four groups: the Makong, Tree, Gnuan and Kree tribes; while the Hmong-Ewmian language group has the Hmong tribe at Tadthong Village, in Thakhek District.

Fertile land here is well suited to plantations of rice, cabbage, sugar cane, bananas, etc. A total population is made up of lowland and up-land Lao groups: Phuan, Tahoy, Kri, Katang etc. Thakhaek is the provincial capital, situated across the Mekong from Nakorn Phanom in Thailand. It also has much well preserved French colonial architecture similar to that found in Vientiane. The vast forest of the Nakai-Nam Teun National Protected Area are an important watershed that feed many Mekong tributaries as well as form the catchment area for Nam Teun 2, the largest hydropower project in Laos.

Locally made products include handmade incense sticks, naturally dyed cotton and silk weavings produced in the Kong Lo area.The province’s favorite snack, khaonome parn, is a soft sticky green and black colored sweet wrapped in banana leaves made with yellow soy beans and coconut in the middle. This treat was originally brought to Laos generations ago by Vietnamese settlers. Today, whenever Lao people visit Khammouane they are obliged to bring back a bag of khaonome parn to their friends and family.

Khammouane Tourism Office: Address: Ban Lao Phaxay, Khammouane, Laos; Tel: 856-51-212512, Fax: 856-51-212512, http://www.khammouanetourism.com

Khammouane History: Khammouane, meaning “happy gold”, is believed to have been named after the gold deposits found in the area hundreds of years ago. The province’s history dates back as early as the 6th-8th centuries when the region was part of the Sikhottabong Kingdom. Remnants of the ancient civilization include the Great Wall (Kampeng Nyak), Meuang Phone Stupa, and Sikhottabong Stupa-one of the most sacred in Laos. The province has many remaining buildings that date to the colonial period, especially in the provincial capital of Thakhaek. There is an abandoned railway track that was originally planned to connect Laos with Vietnam but never finished, today the only evidence of this endeavor is an old railway bridge over the Nam Done River.

Khammouane is a land of rugged karst mountains which were once the refuge of a succession of ethnic groups fleeing the Haw invasions in the north during the 19th century. The famed Mu Gia pass at the end of route 12 was one of the main transit points of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. This dreamlike landscape has served as a sanctuary for a number of wild animals that were unknown to scientists until the 1990s.

KHAMMOUANE PROVINCE SIGHTS AND FESTIVALS

Khammouane Province Sights: The Limestone Mountains are honeycombed with countless caves, some of which for ages concealed forgotten treasures. The Buddha Cave (Tam Pa Fa) was just discovered in 2004 and houses 229 priceless Buddha images. Kong Lo Cave is perhaps the most well-known in the province. It is 7.5 kilometers long and as high and wide as 90-100 meters in some places. The province has three national protected areas (NPA) that cover an enormous area about 6,295 square kilometers in total. Phou Hin Poun NPA encompasses much of the limestone Forest and has 43 recorded species of bats. The Hin Namno NPA is located in the area where the Central Indochina Limestone meets the Annamite Chain, and as a result, has prominent limestone escarpments and caves. The most important area in terms of biodiversity. However is the Nakai-Nam Teun NPA with its complex range of habitats and newly discovered species of mammals such as the saola, giant muntjac, and Indochinese warty pig.

Khammouane Province Festivals: 1) During the full moon in February (or the third lunar month of the Lao calendar) the spectacular Sikhottabong festival is celebrated over severaldays. This is a special time to pay homage to one of the most sacred Buddhist stupas in the region. Pii Mai Lao, celebrated during the week of 13-15 April features the Nang Sangkhan Parade and many days of festive water splashing and house-warming parties.

2) Boun Souang Heua (boat racing festival) is colorful event usually occurring in October is one of the first festivals after the end of Buddhist lent (Ork Phansaa) and is the exciting start of the festival season. In Thakhek, the boat racing festival is a major event and very colorful and competitive. Boat races are held on the Mekong River with teams from Thailand and other Lao provinces competing every year.

3) Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival): Villagers make rockets from bamboo and homemade gunpowder, dress decadently and parade their rockets noisily around the village before competing with each other to “unleash the monsoon rains” by blasting their rockets into the sky. This festival often occurs in May before preparing the rice fields for the new growing season.

4) Boun Kong Khao, or Boun Khai Patou Lau (opening of the rice store) usually happens after harvest in November, although some villages store newly harvested rice until February and then celebrate. In this festival various households host a progressive dinner with eating, drinking and much loud music and dancing.

KHAMMOUANE PROVINCE’S WILDLIFE AND PARKS

Of Khammouane Province's total land area of 16,135 square kilometers, 6,295 (39 per cent) falls inside three interconnected National Protected Areas (NPAs): Nakai Nam Theun, Phou Hin Poun, and Hin Namno. Three of the world's five most recently discovered or re-discovered large mammals –the saola, giant muntjac, and Indochinese warty pig – make their homes in Nakai Nam Teun NPA’s 353,200 hectares of sandstone formations, complex habitats, and mountainous elevations ranging from 500-2,200 meters. You can reach the heart of Nakai Nam Teun NPA from Route 8B.

Phou Hin Poun is the most popular of the province’s three NPAs, as is easy to access from Thakaek Town or from Ban Na Hin (Ban Khoun Kham) on Route 8. The NPA’s 150,000 ha are characterized by limestone karst mountains and several caves, the largest being the 7.5-kilometers Konglor Cave. The Provincial Visitor Information Center offers a range of nature-based adventure activities in Phou Hin Poun including trekking, rafting, kayaking, and caving. Least accessible of the three NPAs is the 82,000-ha Hin Namno, which also features dramatic limestone escarpments and caves, due to its location where the Central Indochina Limestone Mountains collide with the Annamite Chain. You can reach Hin Namno by taking Highway 12 to Muang Boualapha.

Khammouane’s dominant forest types include semi-evergreen, with stands of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees. Most of the forests you see growing around the limestone mountains are semi-evergreen, with unusual stunted vegetation on rocky outcrops and cliff faces. The Nakai Plateau features vast stands of mixed evergreen and pine forests. The southwestern monsoon dominates Khammouane's weather, as it brings heavy rains from May-October, though storms from the South China Sea and Vietnam supplement the monsoon in Nakai Nam Theun NPA’s mountains. The rains keep the area wet for nine months of the year and support the dense forests needed to sustain rare wildlife species.

The Annamite Range’s high forested mountains at the Vietnam border and the steep rugged cliffs and caves in Phou Hin Poun NPA have an abundance of rare and unique animals. Recent discoveries concealed in the cliffs, caves, and forests of Khammouane have astounded scientists. Beside tigers, elephants, gibbons, and the douc langur, there are a number of other remarkable species in the province, many of which were recently discovered. The saola is an ox-like mammal that scientists first described in 1994, and they discovered the giant Muntjac, a deer-like mammal, at about the same time. In 2004, scientists found a new rodent species, referred to by villagers as kha nyou, which looks like a cross between a rat and a squirrel. The kha nyou, which lives in limestone-mountain crevices, is so unique that it has been classified as a new mammalian family, making it the first new family discovered since the 1970s.

The sooty babbier (Stachyrisherberti) is a unique bird species found only in the limestone mountain areas of Khammouane and Bolikhamxay Provinces and in the adjacent Phoung Nha Reserve in Vietnam. The medium-sized, dark colored birds makes their homes around deep forested gullies, and are usually seen foraging in the low stunted vegetation and playing in groups near cliffs and boulders. To identify this bird, look for a pale bill and characteristic eye ring. The bald bulbul was just recognized as a species in 2009, and is relatively easy to spot near Ban Na Hin (Khoun Kham Village) on Route 8.

THAKHAEK

Tha Khaek (five hours from Vientiane, 100 kilometers north of Savannakhet) is a town with 70,000 people across the Mekong River from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom. There is not much to see. The main attraction of the town is access to some impressive caves, the most extraordinary of which is That Lot Kong Lo, a four-kilometer-long tunnel that can be traversed in about an hour by boat. There are frequent ferries to Thailand.

Thakhaek is Khammouane Province’s capital. Situated across the Mekong River from Nakorn Phanom, Thailand, it is charming place with a number of early 20th century French colonial buildings in its Old Town. The town's name literally means "guest landing" in Lao, a reference to its earlier role as a boat pier for foreign traders. The center of Old Town can be found around the fountain square near the river, where many old buildings remain.

Sights include the French provincial architecture in the center of the old town and the 16 meter-high “Kamphang Nyak”(Great Wall), built in the 8th century. Twenty-nine meter-high, golden-tipped Sikhottabong Stupa is one of Laos’ most sacred sites. Located just south of town, it was originally built in the 6th century to keep relics of Lord Buddha.

Third Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong is a bridge that connects Nakhon Phanom Province in Thailand with Thakhek, Khammouane in Laos. The bridge's foundation stone was laid on March 6, 2009, and it opened for traffic on November 11, 2011. The bridge is 1423 metres long and 13 metres wide. The name "Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge" was previously also used to refer to the planned bridge from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos, but this bridge is now known as the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Transportation in Thakhaek and Khammouane Province: From Vientiane, you can reach Khammouane by bus in 5-6 hours. Travel agents in Vientiane can arrange transportation. For independent travelers, go to the Southern Bus Terminal and take either a direct bus to the province or board any bus heading south to Savannakhet or Champasak Province’s and ask to get off at Thakaek. You can also enter Thakaek from Thailand’s Nakhon Phanom Province via the Friendship Bridge. Visas on arrival are available.

Tuk-tuks, motorized tricycles (lot-sam-lo) and “jumbos” (pickup trucks with benches) are available all over town and offer an easy way to get around. You can hire taxis, mini-buses, and riverboats through guesthouses, hotels, tour operators, and the provincial Visitor Information Centers in Thakhaek and Khoun Kham. You can also rent bicycles for about $1 or $2 per day. For guided tours, contact the Khammouane Visitor Information Center on Vientiane Road near the Governor’s Office or one of the larger tour operators in town or Vientiane.

Kampaeng Yark (The Giant Wall) (8 kilometers north of Thakaek on Route 13) is 15 kilometers long and up to 16 meters high. According to legend, the Sikhottabong Kingdom erected this giant wall in the 9th century, though some experts say it is a natural sandstone formation which was incorporated into the civilization's defense system. The best place to see the Giant Wall is 8 kilometers north of Thakaek on Route 13, where an unbroken 75-meter-long section reaches 16 meters in height. Also at this location, the French constructed a small shrine that contains a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Sikhottabong Stupa (6 kilometers south of Thakaek on the banks of the Mekong) is a 29-meter-high, golden-tipped stupa. One of Laos’ most sacred sites, it was originally built by the Sikhottabong Empire to keep relics of Lord Buddha around the 6th century at the same time That Ing Hang Stupa in Savannakhet and That Phanom in Thailand were built. The Khmer Empire renovated the stupa in Hindu style soon after. During the 1500s, the Lan Xang Kingdom’s King Phothisarat and King Saysethathirath refurbished the icon to its present form. Every year during the full moon of the third lunar calendar month (usually in February), locals celebrate the That Sikhottabong Festival to pay homage to this hallowed religious site.

Tha Falang (15 kilometers east along route 12 from Thakeak) is a swimming spot in the Mekong River that can somewhat disappointing in the dry season. It is not signed in English so you will need to turn off to the north, down a sandy track second after the bridge before the road bends around to the right between two cliffs.

CAVES ACCESSIBLE THAKHAEK

Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area (accessible from Thakaek) features limestone karst landscape, crystal clear lakes, caves and cliffs, and the forest home of rare wildlife. Homestays are available in Phontong Village, where local families a welcome visitors with a baci ceremony and traditional Lao dinner. A challenging day-long trek leads to Nakeu Village and a swim in bright turquoise Khun Kong Leng Lake. A motorized oxcart ride will take you to Khone Keo rapids. Other ecotourism activities include rafting, kayaking and visiting caves.

Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area covers 1,690 square kilometers. Among the animals found there are: Francois’langur sub-species called laotum, Assamese macaques and gibbons, Asian elephant, gaur, tiger, serow, 43 species of bat, sooty babbler and limestone leaf warbler.

Habitat: Semi-evergreen, mixed deciduous, bamboo and dipterocarp forest covering predominately limestone karst ranges with steep slopes, cliffs, bluffs and caves to 1,500 meters.Flat bottomed enclosed valleys ranging from a few hundred hectares to 40 sq kilometers. Many of the rivers flow through underground caves. The largest is 7.5 kilometers between Konglor and Natan village on the Nam Hinboun and is navigable by boat.

Getting There: The gateway to the Phou Hin Poun NPA is Thakhaek town and Ban Na Hin on Route 8. A two-day trek takes in the Limestone Forest, Tham Pa Chan and Tham Kainao Caves, Muang Pone Stupa, Kuhn Kong Leng Lake and the Kon Keo rapids, with overnight stay in a remote village.

Xebangfai Cave (15 kilometers northeast of Bualapha District in a remote corner of Khammouane Province) is one of the most spectacular caves in the area. It embraces a 9.5-kilometer-long underground segment of the Xe Bang Fai River. Contact the Visitor Information Center in Thakaek.

Tham Heup Cave (near Ban Nakhok Village) can be reached by crossing the Hinboun River and walking for about 1.5 kilometers. You can walk right through the large and impressive Tham Heup, which penetrates 1.1 kilometer into the mountain and features some beautiful rock formations, a pond, and a beach. The entrance is 20 meters wide and 15 meters high, with a interior ceiling that varies from 10 to 30 meters high. During the rainy season (May-October), you can boat to the cave by boat along a branch of the Hinboun River near Ban Nakhok. You can also walk in a sacred forest and inspect an abandoned temple about 3-4 kilometers southeast of the cave. A local guide is required and can be arranged in Ban Nakhok or the Visitor Information Center in Thakaek.

Nam Don Resurgence (Khoun Nam Don) (90 minute drive from Thakaek on Route 12) is a beautiful spot with a river lagoon and or swimming hole beneath a shady forest near limestone cliffs. A small Buddhist shrine sits on the other side of the river. As the Nam Don River emerges from a cave below a 300-meter-high cliff, it creates a lagoon from where you can take a boat for about 20 meters before the river disappears into an extensive underground labyrinth that penetrates 3 kilometers into the mountain. In 1998, a French survey team discovered a new genus of blind cave fish living 150 meters inside the cave at a depth of 23 meters. This small, pale fish and has no eyes, which would be useless in the total darkness.

You can swim into the cave or ask a local fisherman to take you by canoe. During the rainy season (May-October), the Nam Don River rises considerably and becomes navigable by boat. Fishermen sometimes place nets in the lagoon outside the cave, so be careful when swimming. It is recommended that you hire a guide at the province’s Visitor Information Center or through a local tour operator to find this cave.

Tham Phi Seua Cave (Tiger Spirit Cave/Butterfly Cave) (near Ban Phon Ton Village) is a sacred cave that locals believe is inhabited by spirits. To access the cave, you walk through rice paddy fields for about 2.5 kilometers from Ban Phon Ton Village, and continue through a pleasant forest. The trail then climbs a short slope, which leads to the cave’s mouth about 15 meters above the valley floor.

The entrance is an impressive arch about 40 meters wide and 25 meters high, with a rocky, slanting trail and pools on the right side. The cave's main trail leads down to a junction, where you take the path on the left past some large boulders to a 40 x 40-meter chamber. Wildlife around this cave includes Francois langurs, macaques, serows, and kha nyou.

Tham Pha Chan Cave (Sandalwood Buddha Cave) ((90 minute drive from Thakaek on Route 12) is one of the most impressive caves in the province. The cave is actually a tunnel that cuts about 600 meters through a limestone mountain and has a 60 x 100-meter entrance shaped like a giant dome. A stream flows through this tunnel, and in some spots, logs and forest debris have washed downstream into the cave. A major fracture in the cave’s roof can be seen and most likely caused the development of its large cathedral-like structure.

As you enter the western portal, look to the left for a ledge 15 meters above the cave floor, where you can see a small monastery with several Buddhist images. One of the images is made from sandalwood (mai chan), hence the cave’s name. About half-way through the cave, look on the right-hand (south) side for a passage where long-eared bats roost in crevices. Please do not disturb them.

The cave was once inhabited by monks, but villagers now use it for meditation. During the Lao New Year Festival in mid-April, hundreds of local people visit the cave to sprinkle water on the sandalwood Buddha’s head and to get wet in the cave's stream. During the rainy season (May-October), the cave’s waters can rise about 3 meters, and it may be impassable by foot. It is recommended that you hire a guide at the province’s Visitor Information Center or through a local tour operator to find this cave.

Tham Pha Nya In Cave (17 kilometers northeast of Thakhaek on Route 12) is a

little-known cave named after Pha Nya In, an archangel featured in many Lao stories as the link between humans and gods, and is well worth visiting. You first climb up a cement stairway, and then enter a small passageway on the left that leads to two Buddhist shrines with several Buddha images. Do not forget to bring a flashlight. You can also carefully climb down into the cave to view a 75-meter-long underground lake of unknown depth that leads to another cave on the far side. Swimming or washing in the lake is prohibited as the water is considered holy and is said to have magical powers used to treat the sick. The cave is located 17 kilometers northeast of Thakhaek on Route 12. There is no sign, but turn left through a blue cement gateway and travel 400 meters to the cave.

Tham Nang Aen Cave (Sitting and Flirting Cave) (18 kilometers northeast of Thakaek on Route 12) is a favorite weekend destination for Lao and Thai people, and is a great place to cool off from the heat, as the cave's “natural air conditioning” blows a constant cool breeze. The cave is up to 30 meters high in some places and over 1.5 kilometers long, and it contains a small underground lake and impressive limestone formations. The well-lit cave features cement walkways and steps for your safety. You enter the large cave through a wooden ceremonial structure built in 1987 for a visit from a Thai Princess. On the grounds just outside the cave is a simple zoo with several animals and a very large mai kaphoung tree (Tetrameles nudiflora).

The legend of Tham Nang Aen is linked to Xieng Liab Cave, where Xieng, the former novice, who went looking for the beautiful daughter of the hermit at Tham Xieng Liab. He finally met her at the entrance of Nang Aen Cave. Here the two lovers sat (nang) and flirted (aen kan), hence the name Tham Nang Aen (Sitting and Flirting Cave). The cave is located 18 kilometers northeast of Thakaek on Route 12. Turn right at the sign to the cave and go 700 meters along the access road, fording a small river along the way. If the river is flooded you can cross using the small foot-bridge. There is small entrance fee, and restaurants are open in the dry season (November-April).

Xieng Liab Cave (14 kilometers northeast of Thakaek on Route 12) received its name after a “former novice monk” (Xieng) who was “sneaking around” (Liab) in the cave to catch a glimpse of the daughter of a mountain hermit, with whom he was in love. The entrance to this cave sits beneath a 300-meter-high cliff, but is partially blocked due to a large rock landslide. The Houei Xieng Liab Creek flows through the cave, and can be navigated by boat during the rainy season (May-October). You can also carefully walk through the cave in the dry season (November-April) to explore the scenic valley beyond. Swimming is possible at the far end of the cave.

Xieng Liab Cave is approximately 200 meters long with impressive limestone formations on its ceiling, and some say it contains many ancient drawings. You do not need a flashlight to find your way around, as enough natural light penetrates the cave, but be prepared to get your feet wet. The cave is home to paa faa (soft-shelled turtles) and bats, and the cliffs around the cave protect the rare Francois langur and the recently discovered kha nyou (Laotian rock rat). Villagers traditionally use the cave to escape the heat, but request that people do not sleep inside.

Getting There: Xieng Liab Cave is located 14 kilometers northeast of Thakaek on Route 12 near Ban Songkhone Village, and can be reached by tuk-tuk. From the bridge over the Houei Xieng Liab Creek, you can walk or ride a boat to the cave. There are several kiosks on the road, and a 400-meter dirt track on the right-hand side that leads to the cave.

Tham Xang Cave (Elephant Cave) (9 kilometers northeast of Thakaek) was once feared by locals due to a limestone formation inside that resembles an evil monster's head. It was even taboo to drink the water flowing from the cave. In 1956, when poor health spread through Ban Tham village, the residents decided to destroy the "evil head" forever, and demolished it with dynamite. Soon after, an elephant head miraculously formed in a different site in the cave, and the health of the villagers improved. Since then, the elephant head has been revered, and the cave has become an important Buddhist shrine.

Pilgrims visit the site every year, usually around the Lao New Year in April, to sprinkle water on the elephant head and pray for good health. To find the elephant head, use a flashlight and follow the small passage at the top right-hand corner of the cave behind the large golden Buddha. Village elders believe it is taboo to hit the elephant’s head, hunt for bats, or consume alcohol in this cave.

The steep stairs to the cave offer fine views of the plain stretching to the Mekong River. Interesting Buddhist items, including several Buddha images and a small black box containing Buddhist literature, decorate the cave. It is worth noting that Japanese soldiers used the bat droppings from this cave to make gun powder during World War II, and in the 1960s and 1970s, locals used the cave for shelter during the Indochina War.

Getting There: Located 9 kilometers northeast of Thakaek, Tham Xang is the closest cave to the provincial capital, and can be reached by tuk-tuk. You can see it from a considerable distance as you approach Ban Tham (Cave Village). Follow Route 12 east towards Mahaxay until the road splits at kilometers 7. Stay to the right and you should be able to see the cave entrance in the distant cliff directly ahead. Cross the small river by foot and continue past vegetable patches to reach the cave. Visiting the cave is difficult during the rainy season (May-October) due to flooding by the river. Alternatively, you can continue along Route 12 to the bridge, then turn right and follow the dirt road that passes by the cave. Tuk-tuks in Ban Tham Village can take you back to Thakaek.

KONG LOR CAVE

KONG LOR CAVE (six hours by minibus from Thakeak) is a 7.5-kilometer-long natural tunnel penetrated by the Nam Hinboun River that can be explored in a long-tail boat. The river runs about 30 meters wide with a limestone ceiling up to 100 meters high, and it flows by sandy beaches and rock formations named for their shapes: “Buddha”, “frog”, “owl”, “soft-shell turtle”, and “fish trap”. According to local lore, five Konglor villagers first navigated the tunnel to Ban Natan in the 17th century. Today, the villages offer boat excursions through the cave year round, overnight lodge stays, and trekking options inside protected areas, including a hike to the 70 meter-high Nam Sanam Waterfall.

Konglor Cave can be reached by a 40 kilometers overland trip from Ban Khoun Kham (also known as Ban Na Hin, the “Gateway to Konglor”) or by taking a slightly longer but more adventurous boat trip up the Hinboun River beginning in Naphouak village. There are two main routes to reach to Konglor Cave from Vientiane: 1) Head south on Route 13 for about 160 kilometers to Hinboun, and then take a boat along the Hinboun River for about 120 kilometers. 2) Head south on Route 13 to Ban Laow Village, and turn left onto Route 8 towards Lak Sao. Pass the Theun Hinboun Reservoir, and at kilometers 37 (Ban Khoun Kham) turn right and travel about 38 kilometers to Ban Konglor Village.

Tour operators in Vientiane offer excursions to Konglor Cave, or you can arrange a tour at the Visitor Information Center or with local tour operators in Thakaek. The 7.5 Konglor Cave, through which one can paddle, is the prime attraction of this quiet river that flows through the Khammoune Range located south of Vientiane. Downriver, towering limestone karsts provide constant scenic variety. Villages are few and far between which keeps the journey interesting. Best done October to March. Homestays are available in Kong Lor or Natan villages.

A three-day trek in the area goes like this: Day 1) Ban Na Hin and Forest Walk: Depart Thakhek for the three hour trip to Na Hin village, the gateway to Kong Lor Cave. Check into the local guest house and go on a hike in a protected forest to That Mouang and That Namsanam Waterfalls. Day 2) Kong Lor Cave and Village Home Stay: Travel three hours by local transport to Kong Lor village. Walk to the cave entrance, and catch a boat for the 7.5 kilometers ride through the cave to the valley beyond. Following a picnic lunch, continue to Ban Natan (or return to Kong Lor) for an overnight home stay with ample time to wander around the village and observe traditional activities such as weaving and rice polishing. In the evening, the villagers organize a traditional baci ceremony. Day 3) Return to Ban Na Hin or Thakhek, Booking: Tours to Kong Lor and Na Hin can be arranged in Thakek through the Khammouane Guide Service Unit at +856-51-212-512 You may also contact Mr. Southep PHOOCHANA, advisor in Khammaoune, at southep@hotmail.com . Alternate Approach to Kong Lor: The Konglor Cave can be reached via a 40 kilometers trip from Ban Khoun Kham or by taking a slightly longer but more adventurous boat trip up the Hinboun River beginning in Napouk Village.

THAM PA FA CAVE (BUDDHA CAVE)

THAM PA FA CAVE (a couple hours from Thakaek, near Na Khang Xang Village) is named after Nong Pa Fa Lake (Lake of Soft-shelled Turtles) at the foot of the cliff. Tham Pa Fa made the news in April 2004 following the discovery of 229 Buddha statues in the previously unexplored cave by a local villager, Mr Boun Nong. He noticed bats entering the cave and climbed a 15-meter-long vine to enter the small opening with the intention of collecting bats, a local delicacy.

Passing through the cave’s entrance, he looked into the cavern below and to his amazement saw a large Buddha statue. Proceeding into the cave, he realized that there were more than 200 Buddha statues ranging in height from 15 centimeters to over 1 meter. Mr Boun did not tell anyone in the village about his find for one week, as he did not believe what he had seen. He thought it might be his imagination, but finally returned with a group of nine villagers to investigate. Word about the new discovery soon spread, and the cave has since become one of Khammouane's most visited attractions. The villagers guard the cave and its sacred Buddha statues 24 hours a day.

Today visitors can climb a 20 meter ladder to the upper Nong Pa Fa Cave, where the 229 bronze and gold-plated Buddha images have been sitting on naturally formed, terraced rock rims for up to 600 years. Easy to access by road from Thakhaek or on a one-day community-based trek, “Buddha Cave” also houses palm-leaf pages written in ancient scripts, and petrified eggs laid on the cave’s ceiling many years ago by an unknown type of lizard. Nong Pa Fa (soft-shell turtle lake) sits at the entrance to the lower cave, which can be explored by boat.

According to historians, the Buddha images are a collection from the Sikhottabong and Lan Xang eras, and some are thought to be of Khmer and Vietnamese origin, but no one knows for certain how these treasures got into the cave. Alongside the images are palm leaf manuscripts written in ancient Lao and Khmer scripts and Lan Xang, Lanna, and Pali dharma. Visitors must pay a small entrance fee. Please note that photography is prohibited in this cave. Close to the cave are stalls selling snacks, drinks, seasonal fruits, and incense produced in Na Khang Xang Village.

A forested trail through a cave and along a lake leads to another cave—Tham Nong Paseum Cave—where you can swim into the 400-meter-long cavern and explore its dramatic stalactites and stalagmites. In the area you can see the bald bulbul, a bird species that was just recognized in 2009, after being spotted in Khammouane. According to Mr. Singphet, owner of the Phamaan View Guesthouse in Ban Nahin Town, “the bulbul can be found on the roadside (Route 8), and tourists can see this bird almost every time they visit.” He said the best months for viewing are from October to May, and added “in the Nahin area there are approximately 180 species of birds, and the bulbul is the most popular one.” Phamaan View provides a free map that show where to spot he various species including the bald bulbul.

NATURE SPOTS ACCESSIBLE THAKHAEK

Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area (accessed from Thakek via Route 12 and then Route 8 B to Nakai District Town) is the largest national park in Laos. Covering 3710 square kilometers and 90 percent covered by forests, it is home yo one the one largest herd of wild elephants in Laos as well as giant muntjac, gaur, banteng, Asian black bear, Malayan sun bear, clouded leopard and most extraordinary of all, saola, (Vi Quang ox), the species that wasn’t discovered until 1992. The park is difficult to get and even more difficult to explore.

Three of the last five large mammals to be discovered or rediscovered world-wide occured in Nakai. The most distinct of these remarkable discoveries is the Saola. Other newly discovered species are a small dark muntjac and Giant Muntjac. The Indochinese warty pig was recently rediscovered in 1997 after being considered extinct. At least nine species of primates occur including pygmy loris, douc langur, Francois’langur and white-cheeked gibbon.

Habitat: There is a complex range of habitats in the protected area which include evergreen forest, montanefagaceous forest, cloud forest, riverine forest and everwet forest'. Dominant geographic features are the SaiPhouLouang (Annamite) Mountains with in the NPA running NW-SE dissected by NE-SW oriented river valleys forming the bulk of the NPA. As these rivers emerge through gorges in the Dividing Hills onto the Nakai Plateau, the five main rivers (Nam Sot, Nam Mon, Nam Theun, Nam Noy and Nam One) widen and meander, creating rich riverine forest habitat. The Dividing Hills are a NW-SE oriented range up to 1,000 meters in height that separate the Nakai Plateau from the northern and central mountain area. The Nam Theun leaves the plateau at its north western end, turns to the west and eventually joins the Mekong River as the Nam Kading. Elevations in the NPA range from 500 - 2,200 meters,500 - 580 meters on the Nakai Plateau, 600 -1,100 meters in the Dividing Hills, and 600 - 2,200 meters in the central and southern mountains

Getting There: There is only one main road which enters the heart of the NPA, and it is via Route 8B (around Ban Kengdaeng, Khamkeut District) to Ban Thamuang (on the Nam Sot) to Ban Navang (on the Nam Mon). The Nakai Plateau can also be accessed from Thakek via Route 12 and then Route 8 B to Nakai District Town and the Nakai Plateau.

Nakai Plateau (near Vietnam) is a massive flat-topped mountain in central east Laos. It is embraced by Nakai-Nam Theun. Xe Bang Fai is a quiet river runs across the Nakai Plateau along the Lao-Vietnamese border. Its highlights include a long cave into which one can paddle, and remote villages. The best time to visit is October to April.

Hin Namno National Protected Area (Khammouane Province, Highway 12 to Muang Boualapha) covers 895 square kilometers. Among the animals found there are: Douc and Francois’s langur, giant muntjac, fruit bat, harlequin bat, great evening bat, wreathed and great hornbills and the sooty babbler. Habitat: Evergreen, mixed deciduous, dipterocarp forest. HinNamno is an area where the Central Indochina Limestone meets the Annamite Chain. As a result, this area has prominent limestone escarpments and many caves, including a 5 kilometers cave along the Xe Bangfai River.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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