Xebangfai Cave – Update 2018
One of the world’s most visually impressive river caves
The following report covers three trips to Xebangfai Cave, completed between the months of November 2017 and January 2018.
As with my previous trip to Xebangfai Cave in 2014, the start and finish point is Thakhek, Khammouane Province, Laos. For further information on Thakhek, please check this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/thakhek/
A trip to Xebangfai Cave is a fantastic outdoor adventure but due to the remoteness of the location, the difficulty of getting there, and the arduousness of exploring the cave, proper planning and preparation is essential to ensure individual safety at all times. As of November 2017 the only tour operation able to provide a properly planned tour, experienced guides, reliable transport, and the correct equipment for the trip, is Green Discovery Laos: https://www.greendiscoverylaos.com/
The head guide at Green Discovery’s Thakhek office, Ola, is very experienced, knowledgeable, and has made a number of trips to Xebangfai Cave over the past 10 years. The standard trip they offer is a 3 day/2 night outing which also includes the full traverse of the cave river in kayaks on day 2.
NOTE: Trips to Xebangfai Cave are normally done during the dry season (November – May) when the river level is down and the cave is safe to negotiate. Trips during the rainy season are not normally conducted as the river level through the cave can be up to 15 meters above its dry season height and as such, the flow from the cave (downstream entrance) is impossible to negotiate.
Some key points to consider before committing to the trip:
Travel to the cave site:
The Xebangfai Cave site is approximately 148 km from Thakhek and there are two options for road travel. The first and more difficult is to travel on route #12, turn right at Mahaxay (approx. 40 km east of Thakhek) and go on to Bualapha. This is the more arduous route as 95 km of this distance is over a very rough dirt road, full of potholes. The second is to travel along route number # 12, past Mahaxay and on towards the Vietnamese border. Approx. 127 km east of Thakhek there is a small town called Langkhang. Turn right at Langkhang and follow the dirt road on to Bualapha. Both routes lead to Bualapha but the route via Langkhang has significantly less dirt to to travel over (This is also part of the Xebangfai Loop Trip). The final 14 km (from Bualapha to Nong Ping Village) is over one of the worst stretches of track I’ve ever traveled on and involves a number of small river crossings. Getting there is only possible by four wheel drive vehicle, or a motor cross bike.
NOTE: On the section of road between Langkhang and Bualapha there are two significant river crossings. One of them, the Xebangfai River, requires the use of raft or canoe transfer from one side to the other. The fee for a motorbike transfer is 5000 LAK (approx. 60 cents)
Green Discovery Laos will provide fully equipped, inflatable kayaks for each two man team, including spare paddles, life jackets, and an extra kayak in case of puncturing of a team kayak. They will also provide caving helmets with attached powerful headlamps, with a back-up compliment of spare batteries.
Green Discovery Laos have been making traverses of the Xebangfai Cave for the past ten years and are the most experienced, and knowledgeable, operators in the region.
NOTE: they will normally provide one experienced guide from Thakhek with an assistant, from Nong Ping Village, joining the group on arrival at the cave site.
The full traverse of the cave (the return trip from the downstream entrance to the upstream entrance, and back) takes approximately eight hours. Except for the initial time entering the cave, and the few minutes spent at the upstream entrance, you will be in a dark zone continually. A reasonable level of fitness is essential to be able to paddle the kayak (total distance is approximately 13 km), climb in and out of the kayak multiple times, wade through knee deep water and mud, and climb over piles of jagged, jumbled rocks.
NOTE: the effort to paddle the kayak on the first leg of the journey is substantially more due to the current encountered while paddling upstream.
The tour price:
I’ve seen comments on other travel websites, such as TripAdvisor, saying Green Discovery Laos’ prices are expensive. The bottom line, when considering a safe adventure experience, is that their prices are relatively inexpensive on a world-wide standard. There are cheaper options available, such as renting a motocross bike in Thakhek and traveling to the cave site independently, but this has its limitations. The locals at Nong Ping Village can provide wooden canoes for you to enter the initial 1.7 km of the cave (as far as the first set of rapids) and a tour experience to a side passage on the right hand side of the main passage. However, it’s not possible to do the full traverse of the cave in wooden canoes. Another option is to travel independently (on the Xebangfai Loop Trip) and stay at a guesthouse in Bualapha, a town which is 14 km from the cave entrance, and then do a day trip to the cave. The locals at Nong Ping Village have set up an area (just a 700 meter walk from the cave entrance) for day trippers which include toilets, secure parking, and canoe hire.
NOTE 1: If you are not doing an arranged tour with Green Discovery Laos, any individual traveler wanting to stay in the guesthouse at Nong Ping Village will need to make a booking through the SABAIDEE THAKHEK Restaurant to arrange accommodation and meal requirements, prior to departure from Thakhek. This is necessary to ensure a comfortable stay for each guest.
NOTE 2: A wooden canoe with a local guide can be hired for 100K LAK for the day which also includes life jackets. Lights are extra. There is also a National Park Entry fee, payable by each sightseer, of 30k LAK.
The trip through the cave:
As mentioned, the round trip through the cave will normally take around 8 hours (including a 30 minute lunch break at approx. the half way point on the way in) but due to the current encountered when paddling upstream, the inward leg will take almost twice as long as the outward leg to complete. There are five sets of rapids to negotiate on the trip with the first two being the more difficult. The distance from the initial cave entry point to the first set of rapids is 1.7 kilometres. In this first section of the cave is the largest internal volume and there are three areas of interest for those wanting to alight from their kayaks and climb up into side passages and higher ledges.
NOTE: it is recommended that sightseeing into side passages is done on the way out as too much time and energy is used up if doing so on the way in.
The Dragon Passage:
The first side passage is on the right and only a short distance into cave (around the first bend to the right). This passage is commonly known as the “The Dragon Passage” and also includes the “Dragons Balcony.” It has been developed by a German company, in conjunction with the locals from Nong Ping Village, for short trips into the first section of the cave in wooden canoes. A cement stairway and path has been put in place to give better access and a degree of safety for sightseers. The trail has some nice features including the “Alien Eggs” and eventually opens to a balcony giving a spectacular view of the main entrance and river below.
NOTE 1: at the end of the rainy season (November) much of the passageway will still be covered in a layer of mud, including the pathway, and caution is advised with foot placement on the trail.
NOTE 2: according to the locals, the layer of mud and large sand deposit encountered is due to the fact the river, during the rainy season, rises so high it actually floods this passageway.
Another interesting sight along the cave ceiling is the hundreds of thousands of bats hanging there. As you paddle along the river your headlamp lights attract small bugs. This in turn attracts the bats which swoop down from above and skim over the river, illuminated by the artificial light. If you are fortunate enough to exit the cave just after sunset, swarms of bats can be seen flying out into the surrounding jungle to begin their nights hunt for insects.
Bing Cave (aka Tham Bing):
As mentioned, this first section of the cave has the largest internal volume. At approx. 1 km from the main entrance is the highest part of the cave ceiling, some 120 meters above the river. Joining the main passageway is another massive passage (Bing Cave), a second cave, which has its opening to the left and high above the river. The external entrance to this massive adjoining tunnel is actually high up on the cliff face and to the left of the main cave entrance. A sightseeing trip to this cave is a half-day expedition in itself, as it’s not possible to access it from the river. Getting up to the external entrance is an arduous undertaking which involves a hike up the cliff face, through jungle and over jagged rocks, before dropping some 50 meters down to the floor of the cave. The exertion of battling through the steep jungle is well worth it though as this massive natural tunnel, some 50 meters in height, is approximately 600 meters in length and is filled with huge, spectacular formations. At the end it opens into the main cave passage and gives a wondrous view out over the river below. If you don’t feel like paddling the length of the main cave, a journey to this second cave is actually a very good alternative as it has larger and more spectacular formations.
Stairway to Heaven:
Just before arriving at the first set of rapids there’s another area of interest for those who have the energy levels to scale a 20 meter high, rock strewn cliff. High above the river on the left side of the cave is a wide plateau, with many amazing and diverse cave formations, called the “Stairway to Heaven.” Exploring here is almost like being on the moon with massive, multi-coloured formations, rim pools, and small, flat topped domes filled with thousands of incredible cave pearls.
The Pillars of the Earth:
After successfully negotiating the first set of rapids it’s a relatively short paddle to the next, only 700 meters. Before pushing off from the upper side take some time to check out the incredible formations high up on the left hand side of the cave – almost directly in-line with the first set of rapids. The cave wall here, once again, is rock strewn and rises steeply to the ceiling, some 100 meters above. Halfway up the sharply angled wall is a group of massive stalagmites, perhaps some of the biggest in the cave, with one a complete 40 meter column rising all the way to the cave ceiling. I’ve named this area “The Pillars of the Earth.”
NOTE: For anyone contemplating climbing up this section of the cave, extreme caution is advised due to the steepness of the ascent and the fact a lot of the terrain consists of loose soil and rubble.
As mentioned, after the first set of rapids it’s only a relatively short distance (just 700 meters) to the second set. Negotiating these will also involve portage of the equipment and kayaks over jumbled masses of rocks. At many points along the vertical sections of the cave walls impressive “drapery formations” can be seen. These often take the shape of small “rim pools” and have a beautiful mix of brown and creamy white colouration.
NOTE: in all instances where you are required to alight from the kayak and walk or climb, care should be taken as many surfaces are mud coated and slippery, and the rocks are often jagged with sharp edges.
The “Rim Pools” area:
The distance to the next set of rapids (number 3) is the longest (approx. 2 kilometres). This section is also where the cave ceiling is at its lowest. Because of this paddlers will encounter a noticeable breeze being funnelled through this narrow section of the cave tunnel. Accordingly, it has been named the “Wind Tunnel.” Another feature of this lowest section of the cave is the watermarks, from the river flow, which can be seen right up at the apex of the ceiling. This is another indication to the height of the water during the monsoon season and why kayak trips are never conducted at that time of year. At the end of the wind tunnel the river takes a hard turn to the left, and around some massive grey coloured rocks, and opens out into one of the widest parts of the cave. This is somewhere near the midpoint of the cave and the location the guides will pull over for a lunch break. This section of the cave is known as the “Oxbow” and also has a couple of very interesting features, namely the biggest set of “Rim Pools” in the cave, and one massive column which rises an amazing 30 meters to the cave ceiling. The location where the lunch break is taken is relatively flat, compared with the rest of the cave, and the climb up to the “rim pool” area is fairly easy due to natural steps created at the lower section by many smaller pools. Similar to steps, the rim pool area has a cascading elevation of smaller pools, which rise up from the flat area near the river, and end at the largest pool (some 60 meters in length) which in turn is flanked by a massive flow-stone wall above.
NOTE 1: the biggest rim pool in this location is considered the world’s largest.
NOTE 2: Having done four trips in to Xebangfai Cave I would say that the “Rim Pools” along with “The Stairway to Heaven” are the most visually impressive parts of the cave.
To the upstream entrance:
Rapids number 3 and 4 are very close together (perhaps only 200 – 300 meters apart) and after clearing both it is then a fairly short paddle (approx. 1 km) to the final set. Actually the daylight coming through from the upstream entrance can be seen well before arriving at the final set of rapids. If the river is still high, the last set of rapids (only 300 meters from the rock fall of the upstream entrance) is extremely difficult to negotiate. If the water flow is too strong, the guides will park the kayaks behind a large rock on the left hand side of the cave, and sightseers will need to climb up onto a high point to get a clear view of the waterfall which flows into the river. NOTE: if the water flow through the cave is still fairly high (early November) it is extremely important to keep life jackets on at all times as falling out of the kayak near the rapids creates the risk of being swept into rocks. The paddle back through the cave (downstream) will be less strenuous, due to going with the current and not against, and will only take half the time of the trip upstream.
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 12.8 kilometer round trip traverse is approx. eight hours. Take it as a give you’ll get sweaty, wet, and covered in dirt and mud. If you’ve got camera gear, take a dry bag because you’ll be hopping in and out of the kayaks regularly and most of the gear you carry will get wet. The tour company provides helmets and one caving light per person. BE SAFE: take one or two of your own lights for back-up.
Attraction: Xebangfai River Cave (aka Khoun Xe Cave) – currently listed as one of the world’s largest cave rivers.
Location: On the Xebangfai River, Khammouane Province, Laos
Starting/staging point: Thakhek, Central Laos.
Distance from Thakhek to Xebangfai Cave: 148 kilometers approx.
Type of tour: Caving/kayaking/adventure.
Tour booking office: Green Discovery Laos, at the Inthira Hotel, Thakhek.
Tour duration: 3 days/2 nights – inclusive of guides, transport, accommodation, kayaks, life jackets, caving helmets, headlamps, 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.