One Giant Cave and the Path Less Traveled

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“One of the World’s Largest River Caves” is what Xe Bang Fai Cave in Central Laos is sometimes referred to. Having passages as large as 120 metres in width and 200 metres in height, while covering the Xe Bang Fai river for seven kilometres, is pretty big indeed — in fact, it’s so big that for many years, the villagers assumed the cave as the source of the river. Based on local beliefs, ‘Tham Khoun Xe’ (‘tham’ meaning ‘cave’) is also the living place of the ghost protector to protect the villagers. It was only in 2008 where this giant river cave had been fully discovered by a National Geographic team and subsequently made accessible to the public. Due to its remoteness, about a half-day trip from Thakhek and close to the Vietnamese border, it’s definitely on the path less traveled. Around 50 kilometres have to be completed off-road through the countryside to reach the entrance of the cave. This sounded like an adventure!

The day before leaving off to the cave, I talked to some expats living in Thakhek about the route. They advised me to take the main road first and only do half of the off-road path to the first river crossing, and from there hire a boat to the cave, which would take another hour. Upon crossing the river, it would be possible to reach close to the cave entrance, but the remaining part of the track was said to be rather gnarly and to have some steep ascents. I would see!

I started in the morning in Thakhek, and the first two hours were just driving on a major connecting road towards Vietnam. This road featured a few trucks and stunning sceneries already. At one point, I took a right and proceeded on a red-coloured track. I enjoy riding off-road, especially if the track is well prepared, which was the case for most parts. The remoteness, the sceneries, and the kids in the villages, happily greeting and running next to the motorcycle, made it even more enjoyable. This seemed to be the core of motorcycle traveling: Having all the essentials with you on two wheels, being immediately exposed to your surroundings, being able to cover a good distance within one day and to go places that can’t be reached by regular four-wheeled vehicles. Is there something coming closer to (physical) freedom?

When I reached Xe Bang Fai River, the one connecting to the cave, I had to decide whether to leave my bike behind and take the boat, or try to keep going. I decided for the latter, to hopefully reach the camp site next to the cave entrance. At first, I needed to cross the river — needless to say there was no bridge in this area. Getting to the other side should be an adventure of its own: there was a small ferry boat for carrying small motorcycles and passengers, but I wasn’t sure whether it would be able to handle the weight of my motorcycle. Maybe I would rather wait for the other, bigger ferry which was on the other side right now. As the operator for the small ferry saw me, he waved me to come. He probably knows better than me, right? “Come, come! It’s fine!” In the moment I rolled on the tiny boat, it started swaying. What if the boat guy was just too relaxed, or mindless about the actual weight of my bike? I turned around to the lady at the back of the boat who helped paddling. She gave me the critical look. This boat was litterally a one-way and it was too late to turn around.

Crossing Xe Bang Fai river on a small ferry boat wasn’t the most stable experience.

We were setting off, and I was concentrating to balance the boat as good as I could — with me on top, the boat was rather top-heavy. “At least, I should take a picture”, I thought, handing my phone to the boat man. The boat again started swaying, not to think about us tipping over and this journey ending in the Xe Bang Fai river. We eventually made it, the biggest achievement of this day. Villagers on the other side gave me the thumbs-up. The remaining stretch to the cave had another small river to go through, some washboard and very dusty stretches — but really nothing too bad. When I reached the campsite next to the cave, it was already getting dark, so I pitched my tent on the campsite. Some villagers invited me for dinner, a very local one with sticky rice, duck meat and beers. Truly an appropriate meal for such a day!

Getting invited by some friendly Laotians in Nong Ping, the village next to the cave. There was duck, sticky rice, and lots of beer.

In the next morning, I saw I was the only visitor on the campsite, along with some guys who seemed to work in the conservation area. The fee I payed for the campground and a local guide bringing me into the cave was 93 000 Kip, less than ten Euros. With my guide, I hiked another 500 metres, while looking onto the pool of crystal-clear water emerging from the cave. Finally seeing the entrance was spectacular! It was massive. We climbed down towards the water, sat down in a canoe, the guide gave me a headlamp and we were off into the cave.

The camp site — pretty empty this day
The massive gate leading into the cave. Inside, there would be no lights or electricity installed
Off we go. From the first bend, everything turned dark.

The light grew dimmer up to complete darkness: Nothing to see apart from two spotlights on the far-away walls of the cave. It was like going into another world. There was no sound apart from the paddle in the water. Then I started hearing a sublte sound, gradually becoming louder, what must have been hundreds and hundreds of bats. I pointed my headlamp towards the ceiling of the cave and I saw it was full of them. Every now and then, I could hear a bat passing our boat — you don’t hear them flying unless they are really close.

Being in these surreal surroundings, I had lost track of time — it must have been 30 or 45 minutes until there was the sound of some strong currents, which was about two kilometres into the cave and the point of return. The sound of the currents came back to complete silence and on the way back, there was a point where we could do a small exploration on foot. I usually don’t feel too impressed by the formations within caves, however these were really big. Back on the boat, finally seeing the light of the entrance felt like coming back to life.

Just a glimpse of what must have been thousands of bats.
Some of the formations, illuminated by our headlights.
Back to life: view from a platform towards the entrance of the cave
The river pool in front of the cave is very clear and has some banks to take a swim.

Before I drove off and back towards Thakhek, I took a dip into the clear water below the campground. I hadn’t exactly brought swim shorts, but not a problem since I had the pool just for myself. The best feeling, especially after a night of camping!


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