Xe Bangfai River Cave (aka Khoun Xe Cave)

According to the limited amount of on-line information available about Khoun Xe Cave, the first foreign exploration of the site occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. Local Laotians had known about the cave for hundreds of years but the first foreigners began venturing into the vast underground river system at the beginning of the 1900’s. In 1905 a French team, led by Paul Macey, traversed the length of the cave on bamboo rafts. From the small amount of on-line literature available it seems further exploration didn’t occur until another 100 years later. Limited visitation to the site is mainly due to its remote location and accessibility. These days getting to the cave is still a time consuming undertaking with long stretches of dirt road making it a patience testing exercise. For those willing to endure the 140 kilometers, or so, of bumping, dusty roads the trip is unparalleled in terms of cave exploration and sightseeing.

Khoun Xe – the world’s largest cave river

Khoun Xe – the world’s largest cave river

Further Information(taken from Wondermodo website):

One of the major caves of the world is the comparatively little known Khoun Xe Cave, which contains some of the largest cave rooms in the world and the most spectacular known cave river in the world.

Khoun Xe Cave is located in a remote corner of Laos, in Nakhai Plateau, which in this location is formed from massive carbonate layers. The cave is formed and traversed by Xe Bang Fai River. It is large, some 70 m wide river already before entering the cave, with a 1,100 km² large basin before the cave and length over 100 km. It starts near the border with Vietnam and flows towards the Mekong River. The cave is well known to the local people since ancient times. Laotians believe that in this giant cave are living spirits of the caves and waters – Phe Thame and Phe Nam. They are afraid of these supernatural beings and do not pass through the cave. Villagers living down streams from the cave consider that the cave is a source of the river. This remote area is rather hard to access, especially after heavy rains. Nakhai Plateau suffered heavily during the Vietnam War and there are many unexploded ordinances in this area.

One of the most impressive caves in the world

Length of the measured cave passages is 13,600 m, length of the cave river – 6.5 km. There certainly are remaining numerous unexplored side passages. Already the entrance (lower end) of this cave is imposing. The force of flash floods has formed a large, 240 m long basin in the Xe Bang Fai River. As one is crossing it, he approaches a magnificent, 150 m tall limestone cliff with a 60 m tall arch – entrance in the cave. Boats with visitors entering the cave look like small water bugs. The most impressive here is the gargantuan size of passages, which are up to 120 m tall (like a 30 floor building) and up to 200 m wide. Average width of passage is 76 m, height – 53 m. The other – upper entrance has two branches. These are smaller, but nevertheless have impressive size.

The largest cave river in the world

The cave is traversed by Xe Bang Fai River – a large stream. Average discharge of this river in the cave is 68 m3 – a bit more than in Thames in London. During the monsoon rains (August – September) it may reach even 1 000 m3. The river takes most of the floor area in the cave – for most part it is as wide as the cave – some 70 – 80 m and 4 – 12 m deep. There are eight distinct rapids in the cave – rafters should bring their rafts around them. Numerous species of fish travel along the river up to the cave, including lots of catfish, eels, even stingrays. It is known that in the cave also live many fishes. According to local legends, some of the cave fish reach giant size.

Largest rim stone pools in the world?

Large cave needs large decorations – Khoun Xe Cave certainly has them. The cave is adorned with unusual, oversized speleothems and due to this looks like an eerie fairytale land. Already at the entrance awaits a giant, spectacular stalagmite. Many stalagmites here are more than 20 m high. In several locations here are located amazing cave formations – gours or rimpools. These beautiful formations are formed by a calcareous water slowly seeping and depositing travertine in a form of oversized pans.

The largest rimpools in this cave and most likely – in whole world are located in Oxbow – an up to 140 m wide part of the cave. The largest of these rimpools – Giant Gour – is more than 60 m long and 5 m deep.

In the rimpools of Oxbow are found numerous cave pearls, including world’s largest – hexagonal pearls with 32 cm diameter. One more flowstone cascade with rimstone pools is located in another side passage – the 120 m long Bicentennial Skyway, which finally leads out of the cave. Enormous is a side passage named the Stairway to Heaven. This is steeply ascending room with many giant stalagmites. This gargantuan cave room is 400 by 230 m large. The floor of this room rises up to 160 m above the level of river. One side passage contains a pool with weird egg-shaped speleothems. It resembles alien egg chamber from the movie “Aliens” and has been named after them.

The largest spiders in the world?

Explorers in 2006 noticed many small piles of mysterious, brown spikes, 10 – 12 cm long. Their origin was unclear until they reached the upper parts of the cave and noticed giant, incredibly fast spiders. These spikes were… limbs of their legs. These spiders have 30 cm large leg span – they are as large as dinner plates. Bodies are up to 4.6 cm long. These were the recently discovered giant huntsman spiders (Heteropoda maxima) – the largest spiders by the leg span in the world.

The impressive formations of Khoun Xe Cave

The impressive formations of Khoun Xe Cave

The only commercial operation presently offering organised trips to Khoun Xe is Green Discovery Tours and the staging/starting point is Thakhek, Khammouane Province, in Laos. Green Discovery offer a 3 day/2 night expedition to the cave which involves camping out in the wilds and a full day of kayaking through the 11.5 kilometer length of Khoun Xe. It’s a true Indiana style adventure and even at USD 850 for a solo sightseer – inclusive of everything and two local guides – it’s the caving trip of a life time. Be warned though, this is truly an off the beaten track experience. A four hour grinding drive over 100 kilometers of outback dirt road followed by a two hour ride down the wild reaches of the Xebangfai River will eventually bring you to the entrance of Khoun Xe Cave. I was fortunate enough to be able to do the trip in February 2014. The following is an account of my trip.

 Day One

At just on eight am, the arranged pick up time with Green Discovery Tours, a slightly battered looking mini-truck was pulling up in front of the hotel. I’d got up early, in anticipation of my trip into the Laotian wild interior, but unfortunately I’d be the only paying customer for the three day adventure. The tour team consisted of a driver and two guides. The senior guide, Nyai, spoke reasonable English which would be a welcome relief when it came to communicating any problems which may arise on the trip. As I dropped my bags into the back of the truck I noted it was packed with all the equipment needed for the adventure; camping gear, caving gear, inflatable kayaks and, most importantly, plenty of food supplies and drinking water. After a short stop at the Inthira, to drop off one my bags, we were on our way. Nyai informed me it would take four hours to reach the Xe Bangfai River; the location where we’d transfer to the long-tail for the two hour run up the river to the campsite. But first there were the 140 clicks of rural road to negotiate.

Loaded up and ready to go; the transportation

Loaded up and ready to go; the transportation

The first part of the trip saw us retracing the stretch of road I’d been on the day before – Highway number 12 – and then further on to the town of Mahaxay. Mahaxay, a standard Laotian rural town, is approximately 49 kilometers from Thakhek. At just on an hour after leaving the Green Discovery tour office we were in Mahaxay and looking for the turn off, which would take us onto Highway 122, to begin the 76 kilometer ordeal of dirt road to the township of Bualapha. After finding the turnoff the driver motioned to wind up the windows, as he turned on the air-conditioning. A couple of kilometers on I understood why; the dust was chokingly thick.

The red parched terrain of outback Laos

The red parched terrain of outback Laos

To be honest the stretch of dirt highway down to the Xe Bangfai River crossing, at just over 80 kilometers, is not all that far but it’s still a patience test. The best way of dealing with it was to try to enjoy the surrounding scenery as the vehicle bumped relentlessly along the dry, pot-holed road. At just on an hour after turning off, at Mahaxay, we were slowing down at a junction with red tinged, plank buildings lining the corners. A later check of Google maps revealed the place wasn’t even indicated. It was just some parched, out back town in the middle of nowhere. The driver made a hard turn to the left and we were on our way again. “Bualapha ik hock sip na ti (another 60 minutes)” he said as we ploughed on over the bumps. The further we drove the worse the road became with some stretches resembling little more than dust filled tracks. There were isolated villages dotting the landscape and eventually some low rise buildings came into view. “Bualapha,” nodded the driver enthusiastically as we hit some tarmac on the outskirts of the town. According to Nyai the Xe Bangfai crossing, and its associated village, was only another 10 kilometers further on. We’d stop there for lunch before starting the boat trip up the river to the cave site. The final stretch of road down to the river was the worst and seemed to take an eternity as we slowly bumped our way along the rutted, pot-holed track. Eventually more dwellings came into view and we drove through a small village to arrive at the edge of the Xe Bangfai River. The driver parked the truck right next to a shop with an outdoor seating area. We’d be having a quick lunch of barbecued pork and sticky rice before setting off on phase two of the journey to the cave site; the two hour ride in a long tail boat up the Xe Bang Fai River.

Departure point for the two hour run up the Xebangfai River

Departure point for the two hour run up the Xebangfai River

Over the next three days the meals would be more of the same; big helpings of sticky rice and barbecued pork. With lunch out of the way it was time to begin the two hour river trip to the cave site. The driver and Parn, the junior guide, would take the truck, and all the gear, by road to a village near the cave. Nyai and I would ride the long tail boat up the Xe Bangfai River. I grabbed my camera bag, donned a life jacket and, without further ado, we were on our way. The trip up the Xe Bangfai was highly memorable. It’s not often one is able to go into an untouched, remote part of the world like this where the locals live their lives almost unaffected by any form of modernity. As the long tail moved at a steady rate along the picturesque waterway villagers were to be seen going about their daily lives, as they had for time immemorial; men fishing from canoes, woman washing clothes at the river banks and children bathing in the clear, unpolluted waters. There were also, on many of the bends in the river, herds of water buffaloes taking a cooling dip in the midday heat. As the river snaked through the landscape I settled in to enjoy the beautiful, rugged scenery. The surrounding terrain, during the first hour, was predominantly flat agricultural land. As we got nearer to the cave site, and further from our departure point, imposing limestone peaks came into view. This of course goes without saying as river caves are normally always in karst regions. The source of the Xe Bangfai was the rugged mountainous area bordering Vietnam and Khoun Xe Cave was in a section at the very edge of that area. The flowing water, over millions of years, had eroded a tunnel through the 11.5 kilometers of jagged limestone to create one of the world’s largest river caves. The section of the river I was now travelling along was an extension of the water which flowed through the cave and from the mountainous terrain beyond. The following pictures tell the story of life on the Xe Bangfai.

The standard mode of transport in this remote part of the world

The standard mode of transport in this remote part of the world

Water Buffaloes enjoying a cooling dip in the heat of the day

Water Buffaloes enjoying a cooling dip in the heat of the day

The wild beauty of the Xe Bangfai River

The wild beauty of the Xe Bangfai River

Eventually the flat terrain gave way to vertical limestone cliffs along the river’s edge and I knew the cave wasn’t too far away. We rounded a final bend in the river and Nyai said “Khoun Xe, not far to go.” We entered a narrowing stretch in the river with high cliffs to the right. The driver slowed up and pulled the long-tail into a small beach under a large enveloping tree. We were on the edge of a wide sand bank, the size of a football field. Beyond was a pristine freshwater lagoon, created by the outflow from the cave, and then more surrounding cliffs with the gaping maw of Khoun Xe right in the middle. It was an impressive sight to say the least as I stripped down to my underwear and made a dash for the cooling waters of the lagoon to rinse off the sweat from the boat ride. As I lay back in the clear, unpolluted water, and surveyed the imposing landscape, I felt fortunate, and privileged, to be able to visit an untouched, almost primitive, part of this world. On the far side of the lagoon a herd of buffalos were also enjoying the soothing effect of the cool water. Nyai took off back along the river to meet the truck at a nearby village and I was left to my own devices to wander about with the camera.  An hour later Nyai and Parn were back with the inflated kayaks and all the camping gear. As the sun dropped behind the peaks we got to work setting up camp. Before long we had the tents up and a fire burning brightly as the boys set about preparing the evening meal. As dusk enveloped the landscape the howler monkeys, in the surrounding tree tops, exchanged their final calls for the day. I leaned back on a large log I’d positioned next to the fire and felt satisfied I’d made the effort to get here. I was looking forward to the trip into the cave, the following morning, and, as hoped, it would prove to be an adventure to remember.

Beyond the freshwater lagoon, the entrance to Khoun Xe Cave

Beyond the freshwater lagoon, the entrance to Khoun Xe Cave

Day Two:

I was awake at first light in eager anticipation of the coming day’s adventure. It’s often said “age shall not weary them” but I had to admit this camping lark was hard going when it came to getting a good night’s sleep. I’d been provided with a rubber ground mat but was still as stiff as a board and it took me a few minutes of easy stretching to loosen up after rolling out of the tent. Nyai and Parn had been up a good thirty minutes earlier to start preparing breakfast. As I joined them around the fire the howler Monkeys were in full chorus again. Nyai handed me a steaming mug of coffee, made from water boiled on the fire, as Parn dropped a load of omelet mix into a hot pan. The morning was cool but with the first rays of sunlight beginning to pierce the clear sky I knew it was going to be another perfect day’s weather in the wilds of Laos. As I stood there savoring my coffee I took a moment, once again, to reflect on how good it was there were still un-commercialized places, such as this, left in the world one could come to. It wasn’t going to last though as Nyai had already told me the nearby village had a guest house which would open next month. A few minutes later the boys had breakfast ready. It was another big helping of sticky rice to go with the plate full of vegetable omelet. With breakfast out of the way it was time to gear up for the caving trip. The boys had the kayaks already inflated so it was simply a matter of getting our own personal kit in order. I had my own caving helmet, with attached high powered light, and strapped that in place. I also had a number of other powerful hand held, LED lights so I affixed them to the life vest I was required to wear. I placed the camera flash in a “fanny pack” and last, but not least, attached the camera, with wide angle zoom lens, to a self-made bandoleer slung across my left shoulder.

Local guide Parn, ready to begin the full day of paddling through the cave

Local guide Parn, ready to begin the full day of paddling through the cave

Nyai had arranged for a local to come up from the village and stand guard at the campsite for the day. He arrived shortly after breakfast and by 8.30 am we were prepped and ready to go. Even though I was the only paying customer for the tour Green Discovery, in the interests of safety, had provided an extra kayak. I would be in one kayak with Nyai and Parn would be free to roam about in the other while I took photos. According to Nyai there were numerous sets of rapids to negotiate along the traverse of the 11.5 kilometers of Cave River. At each set of rapids I’d need to alight from the kayak and climb over the rock strewn barriers while the boys dragged the kayaks over the same, as well. The first set of rapids was at the cave entrance and a short paddle across the lagoon saw me hopping out of the kayak and following a precarious trail, along the river’s edge, and into the mouth of the cave. The local villagers had done some work to develop the site. To provide slightly better, and safer, access bamboo walkways had been put in place where the going was more difficult. Even so one had to be careful as bamboo isn’t known for its longevity after being harvested. A couple of seasons out in the weather will see rot quickly setting in. A few minutes later I was across the large rock fall, at the caves entrance, and greeted with a truly spectacular sight; a massive entry cavern filled with an emerald pool. Instead of immediately dropping down to the river’s edge, I waited on an elevated vantage point. Below Nyai and Parn were dragging the kayaks across the jagged limestone. Even more remarkable was the fact they were going about it in bare feet. I’d earlier asked Nyai why they were using inflatable kayaks instead of hard shell. Apparently the inflatables were more resilient when being dragged over the rocks. Hard shells would damage more easily on the hard, jagged surfaces. His assessment seemed reasonable although I surmised the inflatables might be prone to puncturing.

The entry chamber just above the rock fall at the cave entrance

The entry chamber just above the rock fall at the cave entrance

The boys eventually worked their way into the entry cavern and, as Parn scooted about on the large pool, Nyai came across to a small, muddy beach to pick me up. Climbing on-board would prove a more difficult exercise than anticipated as I sank, up to my calves, in the gooey mud at the river’s edge. After flopping in, and making myself comfortable, I attached the flash to the camera and we were on our way. With Parn leading the way we rounded the first bend and began moving away from the natural light zone and into the dark. As the natural light faded behind us we turned on our headlamps. I also had a powerful hand held light and with Nyai moving the kayak steadily forward I shone it into the roof of the cave. It was massive. According one website the internal height, in some sections of Khoun Xe, is 120 meters above the waterline. We stopped for a moment to appreciate the sheer vastness of the tunnel we were in. Up to our left there was a chamber leading way up into the roof of the cave. Before we came in Nyai had pointed out a small hole in the cliff face above, and to the left, of the main entrance. The chamber, way above us, led to that hole in the cliff face. We moved on again and about one kilometer into the cave Nyai called a halt. We were well into the dark zone and he suggested getting the feel of total blackness for a couple of minutes. On the count of three we turned off all our torches. Even on the darkest of nights, in the outside world, there is still some light that the eyes can pick up and adjust to. In here there is not. It was total and overwhelming blackness. Even after a couple of minutes the eyes do not adjust as there’s not one skerick of light anywhere. We turned on our torches and moved on. The next set of rapids wasn’t too far ahead as we began to pick up sound of running water.

Parn, paddling into the vastness of the tunnel ahead

Parn, paddling into the vastness of the tunnel ahead

The sides of the vast tunnels were lined with massive rock falls, the debris of the collapse of the cave ceiling in millennia past. Dotted along the rock falls were incredible formations; stalactites, stalagmites, rim pools, flow stones and full columns. It was as if this cave was the place where every possible type of formation could be seen on a grand scale. It was something akin to entering the lost world due to the fact some of the formations had to be hundreds of millions of years old. To appreciate just how old it’s worth considering the growth rate – one small drip at a time – for any formation is .001 of a millimeter a year; truly astonishing when assessing the size of the massive formations within Khoun Xe Cave. At approximately three kilometers, or an hour’s traveling time, we were at the next set of rapids. Nyai nosed the kayak into a small, muddy beach for me to alight. After easing my way through the ankle deep goo, and onto solid ground, he pointed to the route I should follow to work my way across to the far side of the barrier. The rapids were created by another roof collapse and, as I worked my way onto higher ground, I caught a glimpse of more massive formations on a plateau approximately forty meters further up the cave wall. I decided it was an opportunity for more time exposure photography so as soon as the boys had the kayaks across the rock fall I mentioned as such. Nyai had done several previous trips with professional caving teams, including photographers, so he had a reasonably good idea what I wanted. After setting up the tripod I gave him three torches to position at the base of the formations. A few minutes later the white torch light was angled up the length of the formations and I got to work with the camera.

The boys dragging the kayaks across the rock fall at the 2nd set of rapids

The boys dragging the kayaks across the rock fall at the 2nd set of rapids

20 meter high formations above the 2nd set of rapids

20 meter high formations above the 2nd set of rapids

It probably took me a bit longer than anticipated to get the shots I wanted due to a cloud of bugs swarming about my headlamp when I had it turned on. In the end I realized the only way to eliminate the white splotches, caused by the bugs, on the shots I was trying to take was to set the camera for the shot, turn off the head lamp, then wait a few seconds for the bugs to clear out. Once we got back in the kayaks and under way again, Nyai mentioned we were running behind schedule. According to his estimation it normally took about four hours to cover the 11.5 kilometers to the end of the cave. We were running late by nearly an hour. I told Nyai to speed things up a bit and that, unfortunately, was probably the reason for one of the kayak’s being punctured on the next set of rapids. As mentioned the rapids along the river were formed by large rock falls from the caves ceiling and even though the way across them was easy enough to negotiate, caution was needed due to the many sharp angles and jagged edges of the rocks. Nyai had already explained Green Discoveries reasoning for using inflatable, instead of hard shell, kayaks but puncturing was still a significant risk as the boys dragged the kayaks across the rough terrain. Unfortunately for Parn, that is exactly what happened as his kayak snagged a sharp edge. I was standing nearby and knew immediately what had happened; I heard a pop followed by the hiss of escaping air. It was rotten luck to say the least as we watched one half of his kayak rapidly deflate. Regrouping on a muddy bank on the upside of the rapids we discussed our options. Nyai mentioned we could still go on, albeit the three of us in one kayak. From a safety aspect I said “I wasn’t all that keen to try and complete the traverse, time restraints not-withstanding.” If our only serviceable kayak was also punctured we would, quite literally, be “up the creek without a paddle” or a kayak for that matter. I decided it was time to change the objective of the trip.

Rotten luck; a punctured kayak at the 3rd set of rapids

Rotten luck; a punctured kayak at the 3rd set of rapids

According to Nyai the Gour (Rim) pools were only another one kilometer on from our position and we were presently at the mid-point of the traverse; roughly about six kilometers in. Instead of going all the way to the end I told the boys we’d just go as far as the Gour Pools, do some more photography, have lunch and then turn back. In the interests of safety both agreed it was the best option. Without further ado we all climbed into the remaining usable kayak and were on our way again. One of the amazing things about Khoun Xe, due to its vastness, when compared to other cave systems I’ve been in is the size of the features and formations within. Everything seems to be a lot bigger than anything I’ve encountered in other caves. And so it was with the Gour (Rim) Pools. Even though the information provided by a couple of websites had mentioned Khoun Xe having the world’s largest Gour Pool the size, and spread, of them was truly impressive. The only disappointment was most of the pools were dry and even the larger pools looked as though the tide was out. Nyai explained it was due to being well into the dry season, that the rains had stopped some three months previously and the best time to see the pools was at the end of November; when they were still full. After getting plenty of shots of the empty, but still impressive, pools Nyai led me on to one of the main features of the cave; one which most visiting stop to photograph. A trail leading away from the far end of the Gour Pools ran across the face of more calcium deposits to one of the largest columns I’d seen in any cave. A column is formed when a stalactite joins with a stalagmite to create a complete floor to ceiling formation. The impressive, and beautiful column, was at least twenty meters in height and, no doubt, had taken millions of years to complete. I set up the tripod for more time exposures as Parn got in front of the feature to show its immense size in comparison.

Nyai, with Parn in the distance, at the world’s largest Gour (rim) Pool; 60 meters in length

Nyai, with Parn in the distance, at the world’s largest Gour (rim) Pool; 60 meters in length

Time exposure on a beautiful column above the Gour pools at Oxbow

Time exposure on a beautiful column above the Gour pools at Oxbow

Twenty minutes later we were back down at the river’s edge chowing down more large helpings of sticky rice and strips of barbecued pork. It was Spartan to say the least but well appreciated after the past five hours of hard slog inside the cave. Caving, or spelunking, as the more educated like to call it is hot, sweaty, muddy work. It’s a combination of canyoning, rock climbing and, in caves like this, river wading. For the more adventurous, it can also involve abseiling. I was covered in mud, and grime, and there was more to come as we had to work our way back to the main entrance. Lunch was washed down with a warm bottle of mineral water and we were on our way again. Thirty minutes later we were back on the muddy bank where we’d left the punctured kayak. Nyai and Parn got to work re-inflating the half of it that was still functional and then attached some small inflated buoy’s to keep the other half afloat. As soon as the running repairs were completed Parn launched the damaged kayak into the river to test its flotation. It was functional so we continued on down the river towards the second, and larger, set of rapids. Once we cleared them with a minimum of fuss we were into the final leg back to the cave entrance. Before clearing the cave though we had one final stop; a large, dry chamber above, and overlooking, the main entry chamber. With many features to look at it was one of the main attractions in Khoun Xe. All who visited made a point of checking it out as it provided a spectacular vista out across the main entry chamber. Nyai had also spoken of another unusual, and perhaps unique, feature to be seen there; the “Alien Eggs.” According to Nyai there was a series of small Gour Pools with oval formations, resembling Alien Eggs, within. I was keen to get a look at this. Well into the afternoon, and with the exit not too far away, the boys pulled the kayaks into another muddy beach along the cave wall. Parn was going to remain with the kayaks so Nyai and I hopped out into mud and squelched our way onto firmer going.

Parn paddling the punctured kayak with running repairs to keep it afloat

Parn paddling the punctured kayak with running repairs to keep it afloat

The firmer going soon gave way to soft, dry scree on a steep incline to the upper reaches of the cave. A few minutes later we were on a firmer track which leveled out and we began zig-zaging through a trail of more huge formations and large boulders. The large dry chamber was actually a series of chambers which progressed to an open plateau high above the main entry chamber. I stopped to do more time exposure shots with some of the beautiful formations lining the chamber walls. Eventually Nyai led me to the Alien Eggs. It was a bit of a disappointment to say the least but I should’ve expected as much after seeing the dry Gour Pools earlier in the day. Instead of oval formations sitting pristinely in a clear pool of water they were enveloped in a bed of sand. After getting a few shots with the flash we pushed on to our final objective for the day; the view point. The chamber with the alien eggs opened out to a flat expanse high above the river. As we walked towards the edge the light from the main cave entrance provided a welcome sight after eight hours of darkness and artificial light. The position we were in was good but there were better shots in the offing from a smaller plateau a few meters below us. Getting down there though involved a precarious, angled ten meter drop. Nyai lead the way by sliding down on his backside. No doubt this was probably the safer option but, because I had the camera swinging from my side, I decided to try and climb down. Bad move as a piece of rock I had hold of came loose and I lost my footing. Luckily I managed to grab another outcrop to arrest my fall. After dropping about three meters I took a bit of time to compose myself. Tiredness, causing a lack of attention, was setting in. It was time to slow down and move with more care. I turned around and slid to the bottom on my backside. The view out across the entry chamber pool was spectacular. We were right at the edge of a sheer drop to the river, some thirty meters below. To get a size differential I got Parn to position himself right in the middle of the body of water.

 

The beauty of the formations at in the large dry chamber above the cave entrance

The beauty of the formations at in the large dry chamber above the cave entrance

Appreciating the sheer size of Khoun Xe’s entry chamber; Parn, and kayak, in the distance

Appreciating the sheer size of Khoun Xe’s entry chamber; Parn, and kayak, in the distance

After getting a few more good shots it was time to head back to camp for a swim and a beer. It had been a great day’s adventure – perhaps the best day of caving I’d ever done – and by the time we paddled clear of the final set of rapids more than nine hours had elapsed since embarking on the journey into Khoun Xe Cave. But still I couldn’t help but feel, as good as it was, it was an adventure unfinished. I hadn’t made it all the way to the end. I didn’t get to see any cave spiders; reputedly the biggest in the world with their 30 cm leg span. I hadn’t ventured up into many of the side chambers and I hadn’t seen the Gour Pools full of water. For those reasons alone I knew I’d be good for a return visit, albeit at the end of November – the end of the rainy season – when there’d be more water about.

Day three:

After another restless night’s sleep on hard ground I was up just after sunrise to help the boys pack things up for our return to Thakhek. Because this part of Laos pushes up against a mountainous area of Vietnam, the weather is unpredictable. A cold front had moved in overnight and with it, intermittent showers and a substantial drop in temperature. Luckily I’d brought a jacket with me but, as I busied myself packing up the tent, the brisk wind blowing down the gorge was still cold enough to chill the fingers and toes. Nyai and Parn, after getting a decent fire going, were busying themselves with our final breakfast. A few minutes later I had a plate full of vegetable omelette and sticky rice sitting in front of me. We downed it with a steaming mug of coffee and by 9 am were packed, in the kayaks and paddling towards the waiting truck, some two kilometers back along the river.

The trip back was largely uneventful. We had a lunch stop in Bualapha to break up the grind of the bumpy road and by 3 pm I was back at the Inthira Hotel enjoying a cold beer and sharing my exploits with some travelers who’d just been to Konglor but were completely unaware an even better cave exists in the same area.

Note: Khoun Xe Cave is right up on the border of Vietnam. During the dry/cool season night time temperatures can be rather cold; take a jacket. The trip through the cave can be physically challenging. With a number of stops required to climb across cave rapids it’s recommended you use solid footwear as a lot of the rock falls have sharp edges. Approximate time inside, to complete the 11.5 kilometer traverse end to end, is nine hours. Taken it as a give you’ll get hot, sweaty and covered in dirt and mud. If you’ve got camera gear, take a wet bag because you’ll be hopping in and out of the kayaks regularly to make trips up into the cave side chambers. The tour company provides helmets and one caving light per person. BE SAFE: take one or two of your own lights for back-up.

Travel information

Attraction: Khoun Xe Cave – currently listed as the world’s largest cave river

Location: On the Xe Bangfai River, Khammouane Province, Laos

Starting/staging point: Thakhek

Distance from Thakhek to Khoun Xe Cave: 140 kilometers approx.

Type of tour: Caving/adventure

Tour booking office: at the Inthira Hotel

Tour duration: 3 days/2 nights – inclusive of guides, transport, camping gear, kayaks, caving equipment, food and water

Approximate cost: varies with the numbers joining – solo price = USD 850

Recommended personal items: solid footwear, extra caving lights, a wet bag, a change of clothes, and a jacket for the colder months

Safe travels

MEGA

 

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