Thakhek was our destination after an 11 hours drive (but only about 300km distance, with an estimated time of 6 hours) with a local bus from Pakse (80k kip) . As we already mentioned everything is taking a bit longer in Laos than usual 🙂
Our local bus was stopping at every corner to buy food or either take the opportunity for pass by for something thats close to an outhouse or just stopping for i dont know what!
Anyway we arrived just before sunset and the bus stopped in front of “the” backpacker hostel ever. And we stayed there for a night. It was cheap but everything than clean. The sheets were full of stains, but as i already mentioned it was cheap. The city us not really nice but there is a kind of feeling of lots of adventure when you get there. Many off road cars spread the feeling of departure.From here many travellers are getting ready for ” doing the loop” around the Lak Sao Road, passing by giant caves such as the famous Kong Lor Cave and the tribe villages. So that was actually our itenerary. But arriving at Thakhek there was no way we rent a scooter again (especially after being exposed to pictures of a deadly accident on the road of a foreign couple) and we also did not want to join a mass tourism group to explore the nearby caves.
After some research a found an article about the Xe Bang Fai Cave (Tham Khoun Xe) which is close to the vietnamese boarder
When i first saw the pictures i knew i have to go there no matter what the cost. And in fact there was not much choice. Green disvovery is the only operator. Going by your own makes no sense, as the road is pretty bad (dirt road). You have to cross even rivers and you definitely need a 4 WD. In rain season its even not possibly to access this cave at all. Even if you get there by your own (we met some dudes, which were bagging to share our kayaks) the only thing you can do is see the cave from outside and rent a wooden boat from a local to go for the first kilometer inside the cave an thats pretty much all you can do. Going further you need an inflatable kayak as you go upstream inside the cave. There are 4 significant rapids you will pass and each time you get off the boat and you carry the kayaks along the rapid… .
But to start the story from the beginning: we asked for information at Green Discovery and a 2d/1n trip was about 380$ us dollar each of a group of 2. Price would drop to 260$ each by 4 people. There was just Melanie and i, so we decided to wait till the evening. Maybe there will come more people for that trip. Unfortunately no one came, but however we managed to drop the price a lot (i ll get in trouble if i tell you how much we spend at the end 🙂 ) by skipping some points of the itenetary.
Cave history: the cave supposed to be the largest river cave in the world with a lenght of 9,5 km.It was first discovered in 1905. Almost 100 years later she was rediscovered and in 2012 (recording the agency and locals) she was opened for tourism. In 2008 the cave received public attention after being explored by the caver John Pollak for National Geographic.
Day 1: the very next day our tourguide “Dick” and the driver “Phun” picked us up at 8 am. First stop was this big market in Thakek where we bought our food supplies for the next day. Everything was fresh (herbs, fruits, rice,vegetables), so fresh that a few ingredients very still alive (fish) after we left the market.
For the next 3,5 hours we ve been driving mostly a dirt road passing by beautiful limestone scenery of Khammuan province. We ate lunch in front of huge limestones and stoped a few times to make some pictures
Arriving at the river by 3pm we had to get the kayaks prepared and get everything out of the car(tents, lifejackets food…) as we were about to tent on an island in front of the cave. Melanie and i were eager to try to kayaks so we decided to take care of our kayak and paddle alone as it was not far at all. Thats where we realized how exhausting it is to paddle upstream. None of us has much experience in kayaking and none of us was doing a caveexploration before.
After setting up a camp we took a bath in the river, while the dinner was prepared by our tourguide. At least we helped them by making the campfire.
Imagine you sit at the beach in front of turquise water and a giant black hole in the rocks: the cave, and you know you ll spend the whole day inside without any daylight. Retrospectively it still gives me goosebumbs. Some poeple from the village joined us for the campfire, they couldnt speak any english but they obviously liked the company of strangers as not many come along 🙂 they even slept near the campfire to “make sure” we will be safe. Lovely people. At 3 am i put the alarmclock as i wanted to see the stars, so i woke up and there was this stunning sky with so many stars.
Day 2: We started at 8 am after a great breakfast at the campfire. We paddled to the cave entrance, carried the kayaks and equipment along the rocks and put them back inside the river to finally start the tour. Going further inside the cave meant going into completly darkness. Receding more and more from the entrance means getting used to the darkness. But after a few minutes you get used to it, unfortunately neither my gopro nor my waterproof camera were able to make proper pictures inside the cave. After arriving the first rapids we had to go off the kayak and carry it to the other side, this was very exhausting but necessary. There is no way you can paddle upstream at this point. The rocks very huge and we had to take care of our steps as there were huges descents where you can fall in for a few meters. Some rocks were also slippery and i actually fell one time badly on my wrist. It was also very hot inside the cave, or i felt this way because of the excercise. Any time we got in water i was really happy about the refreshment 🙂
You get hungry quick? You are afraid of not getting enough food on this trip? Dont worry every time you get off the kayak and breath you ll get enough insects in your mouth to fill you empty stomach in seconds.
Continuing to the other side of the river we passed in total 4 rapids, each was the same procedere: get of the kayak, carry it and equipment to the next side. It took us more than 3 h to get to the other side of the cave. According to the agency it must be a distance of about 6 km to the opposite entrance, but inside the cave i totaly lost my relation to time and distance. I was really concentrated to stare at the cave wherever i could. Thinking of being alive just because of a few headlamp pumps so much adrenalin in your blood … living on the edge as we use to kid around at our juvenelity 🙂
Arriving on the other side (of the rainbow) we set a campfire and had a lunch on the rocks. We swam to the rocks, climbed around and explored the area. The knowledge of being so far from civilisation is a feeling you wont forget that quick! Everything depends on you. Heading back was easier as you follow the stream. The first rapid we passed with the kayak which was really fun. The other 3 rapids the same procedere as usual. Sometimes we stopped at some sandbanks to explore the cave and at the last rapid we even kind of lost control of our kayak which ended up being stocked between some rocks. Scary situation but with hard work of our tourguides we managed to pull the kayak out of the rocks again. We stopped for another exploration close to the exit. There is a “balcony” where you have a stunning overview of the cave entrance. After 9 hours of hard exercise we were so happy about us mastering the cave exploration. Dick told us we where the first ones in this season who managed to go to the other side, the previous custumer gave up after a few kilometers. What a compliment.
The drive back we were pretty tired as you can imagine. We stopped for dinner at a local restaurant and after arriving to the hotel, which we havent booked in advance as always, we fell asleep within seconds.
Tips: bring some sneakers which can get wet or proper watershoes, shorts and a sleeve are enough to wear but bring some changing clothes, ask everybody to turn off all lights in the cave…thats so creepy, wake up in the middle of the night to see the stars when the moon is gone and ASK for discount at Green Discovery it is more affordable than you think!