Cave exploration by kayak: Xe Bang Fai Cave

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… .

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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.

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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.

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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!

Thx Adelia

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Laos- easypeesy flow meets native countryside

After spending the ultimate days of our Cambodia tour in Siam Reap, we looked forward to arrive in a more quiet and natural surrounding. We chose Don Det as a destination, this is one of the 4000 islands in the southern part of Laos. After we crossed the border, our lao adventure directly begun: Instead of driving in a normal bus, we were “loaded” on a truck with an open passenger hub and drove nearly half an hour to the port of Ban Nakasang. As everything takes a little more time here than usual, the sun set already and with a very small wooden boat we continued to the island.

Happy to finally arrive, we found a nice homestay on the sunrise side of the island right next to the Mekong although we had no reservation and the next day we cycled over the island. The vibe is very relaxed here and you can see some people smoking Marihuana at the riverside. Special attention lay on the citizens as they were very friendly waving and smiling all the time as the islands were not that highly frquented by foreigners until only some years ago. Passing by the waterfalls of Don Khon, we found an idyllic little oasis with a cute café and hammarks right next to the imense falls. There is also a beach to take a bath but as we saw an imense water snake the first day we were not to much into jumping to the waters. Also here, there were not too many people and everything still seemed very original, only a little wooden fence divided the steep cliffs of the river of the walking ground- a nogo for european circumstances but this is what makes the charme of Laos- the nativeness of the landscape and also the people. Another example?  We passed by a house where a father and his son just had dinner at the patio and suddenly the little kid got of his chair, went to the balustrade and peed on the dusty path were we stood- we were lucky enough not to cross his direction:op

The next day it was time to head north to Pakxe. It took us approx. 4 hours by minibus (when we hear this word, there are some really bad experiences tied with this kind of transportation because it is very common that the operators promise a pickup at the hotels… at the various hotels… so pretty often you spend the first hour just driving from hotel to hotel watching the bus get fuller and fuller). Trying to organise a tour to the numerous waterfalls nearby, we were disappointed because as there are only a few operators every tour was quite expensive and we missed the good travel infrastructure of Vietnam a bit- but if you want to visit the abandoned places, of course there are not too many providers what turned out to be our luck: we rented a semiautomatic motorcycle, initially for one day, grabbed a selfdrawed map and started our private tour to the Bolaven Plateau, famous for endless coffee plantations, beautiful landscape, native villages and- surprise- waterfalls! After a short introduction of how to drive the semiautomatic transmission (pretty easy), we dared the adventure! Driving north, our first stop was Tad Pasuam- a little bit of a tourist trap beacause the waterfalls were not that big at this time and in the village itself was not idigenous at all. Following the recommendation of the scooter rental, we took another stop at Mr. Vieng, an organic café . It was our luck that a group of dutchies, italians and kiwis arrived there at the same time because from then on, this was our lovely travel entourage and what was planned to be a day trip turned out to be a 3-day- discovering tour!! At the end of day 1, we ended up in Tad Lo, about 80 km away from Pakxe. Our homestay there was one of the cheapest we ever stayed in, for 1,5, we had a 16-dorm, veerry basic with just a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. We had some beers and went to bed early to be prepared for the next day as we had about 100 km on our way to the next destination- wich we didn´t know by then:op

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Tad Pasuam waterfalls

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Tad Pasuam waterfalls

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Cock fight at Mr Viengs cafe in the backyard

So after breakfast we went east to Kok Poung Tai, the town of “Captain Hook” according to our motorcycle rental. Not sure what to expect we entered the village and immediately we were surrounded by many (half-) naked children who begged for food or little presents. Meeting captain Hook, we found a small guy in his 30s, showing us his selfmade tattoo (the writting Captain Hook of course!) explaining that many years ago americans came to his town to do some research and teaching english to him. Walking around the little village and visiting the coffee planttions and herb gardens, he explained us many facts about his town:

Consisting of 724 people, the leaders of Ko Poung Tai are the guru and the shaman. The villagers stay for themselves and it´s not allowed for other people to constantly enter there. Men can have several women and if a woman gets a baby, she leaves to the forests around. After some days, she brings the newborn to the shaman who decides if it has a good or bad spirit (based on the dreams of the woman). In case of a bad spirit, she has to return to the forests:o/ ear, a little puppy is sacrafied to keep the bad spirits away and as a reward, the villagers get a new water buffalo. As everybody in this world sees the same sun, differences in time are a lie- if the sun shines in Laos, it shines everywhere! And differences in skin colour appear because of drinking too much of “blue” or “red” waters- so I drank too much blue water, Captain Hookwas explaining.

A little confused, we left the town and continued to the next waterfall in Tad Faek.

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these needles are used for tattoos

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Captain Hook in his coffee fields

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a venomous spider on our way- omfg!

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playing

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our posse

After a short lunch break, we continued to Tad Tayicsua, the most beautiful part of our trip as the landscape was overwhelming! We even saw the sunset… wait, the sunset?? We still had a little bit of a way upcoming to the waterfalls and… one moment. was this tiny path over there the actual way to the waterfalls?! Okay, no excuses- let´s go! We found ourselves on a dirt road, it was about to go dark and we didn´t even know if we´ll find a homestay but we were keen enough to try- and we had no other options:o) luckily, we found a nice stay in a natural hut and had the best preconditions to explore this beautiful area in the early morning next day!

Waking up in the middle of nowhere we were very excited to leave. After an 20 minute hike, we found an awesome waterfall and even a place to swim! It was so worth th go there and we got in some kkind of an adrenaline rush. I even could enter the water right under a waterfall and let myself float in the river for some meters, that was really huge!! Energized by this adventure, we continued west to finish our 340 km loop by the end of that day. At Tad Yuang we took another brief stop and saw two enormous waterfalls.

Arriving back in Pakxe we enjoyed a last common dinner with our new travel buddies before we continued our journey further north on the next day. Our new destination was Thakek, where we went with a local bus- again it was very intersting to watch some local habbits: every half an hour we stoped in small villages and about 5-7 roughlooking women entered the bus with food, mostly speard on a stick: whole chicken, fish or sweet sugar balls… and if some of these touched a seat or a shoulder, nobody even cared… it seams like the 3-second-rule is also locally adabtable and in Laos there is a very flexible interpretation of it:oP

We really enjoyed our stay in Laos, the silence at night and the calm spirits of the people.

Read in our next post how we nearly drowned in the Xe Bang Fei cave and how we made it from Laos to Thailand in just half an hour.