Facing the Challenges of Xe Bangfai River Cave Complex
Laos’ Khammouane Province is a beautiful mountainous wilderness that is a real paradise for adventure seekers keen to pursue outdoor nature activities, like rock climbing, trekking, cycling, or kayaking and rafting. In fact, the region’s vast network of clean and unspoiled rivers and streams makes it particularly ideal for kayaking and rafting, with some hair-raising rapids and spectacularly breathtaking cave systems to explore.
One such place is Xe Bangfai cave, also known as Tham Khuon Xe, located in the Hin Namno National Biodiversity Conservation Area, bordering on Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in eastern Laos. Xe Bangfai’s cave chamber, which measures an average of 76m wide and 56m tall, makes it one of the largest active river cave passages in the world. Although there were two 20th century explorations of the cave by the French in 1905, and more recently in 1995, the cave remained virtually unknown except to locals, until a National Geographic Society survey brought it to world attention through an expedition in 2008.
The cave is navigable by slow boat for about 2 km until a section of rapids, but with the right kind of raft – an experienced guide and a strong constitution – it is possible to navigate the rapids through to the other side of the cave. The grandeur of the limestone chamber, the spectacular natural rock formations, flowstones and cave crystals, provide an eerie beauty rarely experienced anywhere else.
The sheer size and structure of the cave is awe-inspiring, putting it in a special category of Laotian destinations that have earned a prominence as places of untouched beauty. The cave is also in a very remote area, where road conditions are poor and there are no quality accommodation options available, making it a great challenge for the super adventurous!
Your clients can try their hand at navigating the cave with two boat-ride adventure options: A half day tour (approx. 3 hours) will take you to the first set of rapids and back again, while on the full-day tour there’s no turning back as you ride the boat all the way through the cave complex to the other side. This requires a significant amount of rigorous paddling through rapids, as well as portaging between navigable parts of the river. Cave tours can be arranged with members of the local village, which has received support to develop the cave for tourism from several international development organizations.
Located in south-central Laos, approximately 170 km from Thakhek – the nearest town on the Mekong River – Xe Bangfai cave is close to an area known at the ‘loop’, a popular route for backpackers and motorcyclists. Thakhek has a few quality accommodation options and a distinct colonial charm about it. Across the river from Thakhek is Nakon Phanom, which has an airport with direct flights from Bangkok and a larger selection of accommodation options.
The best way to get to the cave is to drive through the town of Nongchan which is a 4-hour drive from Thakhek and about 20 km from the Vietnamese border. From there you drive through the Hin Namno National Biodiversity Conservation Area, known for scenic landscape, rugged karst mountains and pristine biodiversity. The road you take was once a part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail! You then make your way to the Xe Bangfai River and take a boat up-river. The relaxing, scenic boat trip takes you all the way to the cave – making for a fantastic all-round off-the-beaten-path adventure.