Thakhek

Thakhek is in Khammouane Province, Central Laos. In some respects, compared to other more well-known destinations in Northern Laos, it’s a bit of a back-water. But, as more travelers begin to make their way there, the word is out Khammouane Province is the best caving area in the country. The town is also the starting point for the highly regarded “loop” trip of Central Laos. The loop is roughly a 400 kilometer circuit (beginning and ending in Thakhek and normally completed on locally rented motorbikes) which takes in a number of attractive sites including the renowned “Konglor Cave.” If you have a couple of days to spare before moving on there are also some interesting sites – mainly caves – doable as easy day trips on rented motorbikes.

Getting to Thakhek is relatively straight forward. If you’re already in Laos then it’s an eight hour bus ride South on Highway # 13 from Vientiane, or North on Highway # 13 from Savanakhet. The quickest way to get there, if you’re coming from an overseas destination, is to make your way to Nakhom Phanom in Thailand then take a bus across Friendship Bridge Number Two into Laos. Thakhek and Nakhom Phanom sit directly opposite each other on the Mekong River. Nok Air –a Thai budget airline – normally has two flights per day from Bangkok to Nakhon Phanom: http://www.nokair.com/nokconnext/aspx/index.aspx  Once you arrive at Nakhon Phanom airport it’s simply a matter of taking a taxi to the bus station and then boarding a bus to Thakhek. Busses depart every hour, on the hour, and the trip is currently 75 THB each way. The ride is normally an hour from Nakhom Phanom (Thailand) bus station to Thakhek (Laos) bus station. The journey also includes stops at immigration check points at each end of the bridge. A one month entry visa for Laos can be purchased for 30 USD when you arrive on the Laotian side of the bridge. NOTE; it’s advisable to have the 30 USD in the correct amount to speed things up. One passport photo is also needed for the visa. After arriving at Thakhek you will then need to get transport to the traveler’s accommodation area of town. This is approximately five kilometers from the bus station and the only transport that is readily available is the nefarious three wheeled tuk-tuk. I say nefarious because the tuk-tuk operators understand they are the only means of transport available and take advantage of the situation by over-charging for the five kilometer trip to the town center. The correct fare is 30,000 Laotian Kip but these guys will often quote double, or triple, upon initial enquiry.

The majority of traveler’s hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants are situated along the river front and around the town center. A popular choice for many coming to Thakhek – due to comfortable rooms, good food, free WIFI and a relaxed ambience – is the Inthira Hotel. The river front, with its many roadside vendors and open air beer bars overlooking the Mekong, is just a just a short walk from the Inthira as well. The junction the hotel sits on is the main staging point for travelers arriving and leaving. It’s also the place where motor-bikes can be rented for the Loop trip and day trips to the nearby surrounds of Thakhek. For those content just to chill out in Thakhek for a couple of days the riverside, open air bars are a great spot to enjoy a couple of cold Beer Lao’s as the sun drops towards the horizon across the Mekong. If you’ve got an interest in Buddhist Temples there’s one worth a look; to the right of the town center and a few hundred meters along the river front road.

Along the river front road - Thakhek, Laos

Along the river front road – Thakhek, Laos

The main Buddhist Temple on the river front road in Thakhek

The main Buddhist Temple on the river front road in Thakhek

The Loop circuit including the detour off highway # 8 to Konglor River Cave

The Loop circuit including the detour off highway # 8 to Konglor Cave

Most of the day trip sites – mainly caves – are within easy reach of Thakhek and can be done in a single day or, as some do, as part of the Loop trip. In no particular order the most popular locations are:

  • Buddha Cave
  • Nang Ean Cave
  • Pa Chan Cave
  • Kong Leng Lake (not shown on the map)

 Pa Chan Cave and Buddha Cave

There is a number of interesting cave sites along Highway # 12 – within forty five minutes ride from Thakhek. All sites are well sign posted in English and require a detour off the main road, and onto dirt roads of varying distances, before arriving at the cave entrances.  Pa Chan and Buddha Caves are down the same side road, the turn off approximately 12 kilometers from the town center. The most popular single day destination seems to be the Buddha Cave. Why this is I’m unsure because, compared with other nearby caves, it’s the least impressive in the area. Perhaps its popularity amongst sightseers is simply down to it being the easiest to get to.  This is a shame really because just twenty one kilometers further on, along the same dirt road, is the far more imposing Pa Chan Cave. Perhaps it’s the extra distance, or the rough state of the road, which deters people from venturing further. Whatever the case, the journey on to Pa Chan Cave is well worth the perseverance as you’ll be rewarded with a trip through a massive natural tunnel, some five hundred meters end to end. The final two kilometers, from the last sign post, is over an open landscape of rutted, crisscrossed tracks with little indication of where you’re actually heading to. Never mind though as cave entrances are usually at the base of limestone escarpments. Beyond the open expanse of ground you’ll see some high cliffs above the tree line and, as you get closer, the apex of the entrance of Pa Chan Cave will come into view. When you see it just keep heading in that direction and eventually you’ll find a trail skirting the small river which flows from the cave. The locals have built a large, raised concrete platform on the left side of the entrance, where two large bronze Buddha statues have been placed. There’s a cement stairway up to the platform which sits approximately fifteen meters above the cave floor.

The impressive Pa Chan Cave, just 21 kilometers beyond the Buddha Cave

The impressive Pa Chan Cave, just 21 kilometers beyond the Buddha Cave

The Buddha statues on the raised platform at the entrance to Pa Chan Cave

The Buddha statues on the raised platform at the entrance to Pa Chan Cave

Note: There is a trail through the cave but some sections are pitch black. To penetrate the full length you’ll need a torch/flash light and you should, preferably, do it with a buddy as some parts of the trail twist and turn, rise and fall, through an obstacle course of large boulders. There’s a definite risk of injury if you take a tumble from the top of one of the boulders. Be safe; take a flashlight and don’t try to do it alone

Nang Ean Cave

Nang Ean Cave is approximately eighteen kilometers from traveler central in Thakhek.  Continue on along Highway # 12, past the turn off to Buddha Cave, and you’ll eventually see the turn off to Nang Ean Cave on the right. The entrance to the Cave is much closer to the main road than Buddha Cave – less than a kilometer. At base of the cliff face there’s rest area for those wishing to partake of a cold drink, or some local food, at one of the small restaurants tucked into the shade provided by the large stand of trees. Because of its ease of access and proximity to Highway # 12 Nang Ean cave, obviously, has a lot more sightseers than one would encounter at Pa Chan Cave. According to a website providing information about Khammouane Province: “this cave is a favorite weekend destination for Lao and Thai people and is a great place to cool off from the heat because of the cave’s natural air conditioning; there is a constant cool breeze blowing out of it. The cave is up to 30m high in some places and over 1.5km long. It contains a small underground lake and impressive limestone formations. The cave is well lit and cement walkways and steps have been constructed for your safety. The large cave entrance is accessed through a wooden ceremonial structure built in 1987 for the visit of the Princess of Thailand. On the grounds just outside the cave is a simple zoo with several animals and a very large Mai Kaphoung tree (Tetrameles nudiflora). The cave is located 18km northeast of Thakhek on Route 12. Turn right at the sign and go 700m along the access road, fording a small river along the way. If the river is flooded you can cross using the small foot-bridge. Restaurant facilities are available in the dry season. There is small entrance fee.”

Well-constructed stairways providing safe access into Nang Ean Cave

Well-constructed stairways providing safe access into Nang Ean Cave

There is a wide, low hanging cliff face at the top of the stairs which, as you walk beneath it, opens up to reveal a large entry chamber. Nang Ean Cave has been developed for mainstream tourism. Properly constructed cement stairways and paths provide safe access into the inner reaches of the cave. There is also plenty of internal lighting, some of it multi-coloured, to highlight the myriad of beautiful formations within. A solid stairway ascends from the floor of the entry chamber to a plateau fifteen meters, or so, above. On the plateau above the entry chamber there is another large cavern with a myriad of interesting formations (stalactites) hanging from the roof. The soft blue and red lights, placed behind some of the major features, provide beautiful highlighting within the chamber. Towards the front a smaller chamber branches off and leads to a narrow exit point above, and to the right, of the main cave entrance. At the rear of the plateau chamber a cement path drops down and leads on into the inner reaches of the cave. This inner cavern is probably the most spectacular part of the cave system as the zig-zag stairway wends its way through bigger, more impressive formations and massive rock piles. Below, the aquamarine of the small cave river snakes its way into the blackness of the inaccessible inner sanctums. The path eventually ends, some five hundred meters into the cave, at a small cement platform perched twenty meters above the river. A solid concrete handrail provides a safe barrier for those wishing to get some shots looking back along the river below.

Plenty of lighting to highlight the impressive formations within Nang Ean Cave

Plenty of lighting to highlight the impressive formations within Nang Ean Cave

 

The end of the trail; the inner sanctum of Nang Ean Cave

The end of the trail; the inner sanctum of Nang Ean Cave

Kong Leng Lake

Kong Leng Lake is approximately 55 kilometers from down town Thakhek. After completing the trip in 2012 my advice, at that time, to anyone considering going there was “not to.” Major sections of the 21 kilometers of dirt road, branching off Highway # 13, were being upgraded and there were earthworks in progress which turned the road into little more than piles of sand. Two years on the road condition may have improved but it’s probably a good bet that some parts are still tough going; and even more so in the rainy season. For those willing to give it a go, a dirt bike would be a far better choice than one of those 110 CC street bikes available for hire in Thakhek.

Aside from the issues with the dirt road getting there is fairly straight forward. Go North from Thakhek on Highway # 13 and approximately 33 kilometers out of town you’ll see a sign posted turn off on the right hand side of the road. After that just follow more directional signage and don’t get too worried when parts of the track begin to resemble a goat trail; you’re still on the right track. Eventually, perhaps 5 kilometers from the lake, you’ll come to a T-Junction with another dirt road branching off to a village on the left. Disregard that and keep going straight. A few minutes later you’ll arrive at a bright blue spring fed lake. To be honest it’s probably not worth the one hour of bone jarring ride to get there but, if you do make the trip, it’s a nice spot for a swim and some lunch. Take a while to relax and wash off the dust from the ride. Being spring fed, the lakes a bit nippy but refreshing all the same.

Blue, spring fed waters of Kong Leng Lake

Blue, spring fed waters of Kong Leng Lake

NOTE: According the guy I hired my motorbike from, in Thakhek, Kong Leng Lake is very close – approximately 3 kilometers – to Pa Chan Cave. He mentioned something about there being a trail from the cave to the lake which bypasses a village. For those visiting Pa Chan Cave, and with some time to spare, it might be worth following up if you want to see the lake but don’t feel like the arduous ride over the dirt road. BE SAFE, DON’T GET LOST: if you decide to do this get some good local info first, get a map and take a compass, and remember  this area is truly off the beaten track.

Further Afield:

Konglor Cave: is the current hot spot and number one destination for those visiting Central Laos/Khammouane Province. Most do it as part of the “Loop” trip but for those on a tight schedule, and a not so tight budget, there’s an outdoor adventure tour company – with a booking desk at the Inthira Hotel – which does single day tours to Konglor. Transportation, to and from, is by way of minibus and prices are dependent of the number of people going for the day. Whichever way you choose to do it, it’s certainly a trip to remember.  The full trip through the 7.5 kilometer cave is done in a long tail boat. During the dry season (December – April) the river can be quite shallow in places and you may be required to get out and wade for a few meters while the boat team push the boat across sections they’re unable to motor through;  wear shorts and sandals or footwear you can afford to get soaked.

Distance from Thakhek to Konglor Cave: 186 kilometers via highways # 13 and # 8

Approximate travel time on a motorbike: 5 – 6 hours

Approximate time for cave tour: 2 – 3 hours

Floor to ceiling formations (flowstones) formed, one calcified drip at a time, over eons

The magic of Konglor Cave

Khoun Xe Cave (on the Xe Bangfai River) – Those who make it to Konglor are visibly impressed and can be forgiven for thinking “it doesn’t get much better.” Let me assure you it can and it is. In the far South Eastern corner of Khammouane Province, in one of the remotest areas in Laos, there’s a river cave which dwarfs even Konglor. Twice as long and twice as big inside, Khoun Xe Cave is currently listed as the world’s biggest cave river. 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. A local tour operator, in Thakhek, runs 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.

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

Beyond the freshwater lagoon, the entrance to Khoun Xe Cave

Beyond the freshwater lagoon, the entrance to Khoun Xe Cave

 

Thakhek travel info

Location: Khamouane Province, Central Laos

Getting there from Vientiane: South on Highway # 13

Getting there from Savanakhet: North on Highway # 13

Getting there from Thailand: From Nakhom Phanom and across Friendship Bridge # 2

Best travelers accommodation/restaurant in town: The Inthira Hotel

ATM machines: Directly across the road from the Inthira Hotel

Motor bike rentals: 50,000 – 70,000 kip per day

Average time to complete the Loop: 4 – 7 days

Shortest distance from Thakhek to Konglor Cave: 186 kilometers on Highways # 13 and # 8

 

And, finally:

A cold beer Lao sundowner while looking out over the Mekong

A cold beer Lao sun-downer while looking out over the Mekong

 

Safe travels,

MEGA

 

 

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