Xebangfai Cave – update 2017
The following report is on a trip to Xebangfai Cave, completed in November 2017.
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 nights outing which also includes the full traverse of the cave river in kayaks on day 2. NOTE: the manager of Wang Wang Motorbike Rental, Thakhek, is offering a cheaper trip to Xebangfai Cave but he does not have the inflatable kayaks required to make the full traverse of the cave. There are five sets of rapids inside the cave which require manual handling of the kayaks over jumbled masses of rocks, to go from one level to the next. It is not possible to do this using the wooden canoes the locals at nearby Nong Ping Village have available for use.
Some key points to consider before committing to the trip:
Transport: The Xebangfai Cave site is approximately 148 km from Thakhek. Ninety five km of this distance is over a very rough dirt road, full of potholes. The final 14 km (from Bualapha to Nong Ping Village) is over one of the worst stretches of track I’ve ever traveled on. Getting there is only possible by four wheel drive vehicle, or a 250 CC motor cross bike.
Equipment: 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, and a back-up compliment of spare batteries.
Caving guides: 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.
Physical fitness: The full traverse of the cave (the return trip from the downstream entrance to the upstream entrance, and back) takes approximately eight to nine 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 option 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, within this first 1.7 km. However, as already mentioned, it’s not possible to do the full traverse of the cave in wooden canoes. NOTE: it is highly recommended to avoid using wooden canoes within dark zones of caves as they are narrower than the inflatable kayaks, and therefore much less stable (previous trip reports by independent travelers to the site have mentioned the wooden canoes capsizing within the dark zone of the cave). There will also be an issue with the accommodation at the village. In times past the locals were given the responsibility of running the only guesthouse at Nong Ping Village but due to their inability to provide the required standard of upkeep for the premises, the control has now been handed over to the government tourism office in Bualapha. NOTE: any individual traveler wanting to stay in the guesthouse will need to get approval (and pay a services fee) from the government office in Bualapha. Green Discovery Laos plan everything correctly and by the time you arrive in in Nong Ping Village the government tourism representative will have arrived at the guesthouse and will be organising things (bedding and cooking arrangements) to ensure a comfortable stay for each guest.
The trip through the cave:
As mentioned, the round trip through the cave will normally take 8 – 9 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 high 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 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 “Balcony” and has actually 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. NOTE: 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: 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. 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.
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, 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 70 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 80 meters in height, is almost one kilometer 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.
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.
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 40 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 “moonscape.” 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.
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.”
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. 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. 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.
The distance to the next set of rapids (number 3) is the longest (approx. 2 kilometres) but at somewhere near the midpoint of this section of the paddle upstream, the guides will pull over for a lunch break. This is actually close to the midpoint (aka “The Oxbow”) of the cave 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. NOTE: the largest “rim pool” in this location is considered the world’s largest. 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.
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 had 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 to nine 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 wet 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: Xe Bangfai River Cave (aka Khoun Xe Cave) – currently listed as one of the world’s largest cave rivers.
Location: On the Xe Bangfai River, Khammouane Province, Laos
Starting/staging point: Thakhek, Central Laos.
Distance from Thakhek to Khoun Xe Cave: 148 kilometers approx. NOTE: this distance includes 95 km of very rough dirt road.
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.