The provincial capital of Khammuan province, Tha Khaek sits on the banks of the Mekong River across from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom. While Tha Khaek is not the most exciting town in Laos, it’s on the tourist map as the jumping-off point for explorations of the province’s mesmeric landscape and stirringly beautiful natural wonders, the highlight being Konglor Cave.
Tha Khaek means “guest landing”, a reference to the town’s past as a pier and trading post, a role that continues to this day as host to the third Thai-Lao Friendship bridge, just 13 km north of town; Lao visas on arrival are available and the border is easy to cross by public bus.
With the bridge, good roads connecting to Vietnam and hydroelectric projects dotting the province, the town is establishing itself as a commercial centre (and a notorious hub for the illegal wildlife trade). Sadly tourism isn’t the main priority, and one need only drive a few kilometres east along Route 12 to understand Tha Khaek’s enormous tourism potential.
Flat farmlands and rice paddies are littered with jagged cliffs that appear like black teeth jutting from the earth. Within those limestone karst is another world—the first 20 kilometres of Route 12 is “cave alley” where visitors can explore caves filled with Buddha statues, underground rivers and eerie formations.
Route 12 is also the start of the “Tha Khaek Loop”, a multi-day motorbike journey popping up on Southeast Asia-backpacker bucket lists, though it will never feel crowded. There are long, lonely stretches where you will pass no village or see another soul for miles. The loop takes a minimum of three days, driving around the edges of Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area and to Konglor cave, where a thrilling boat ride on an underground river awaits.
It’s hard to describe the 7.5 km cave and the drive without falling into cliches like “jaw-dropping” and “breathtaking” — the scenery truly is all that and more. Prepare to be dazzled. The greatest barrier to the trip was once the horrendous road conditions. As of June 2016, the entire loop is now sealed and we foresee it increasing in popularity. See our dedicated Tha Khaek Loop guide for full details.
Doing the loop would only be scratching the surface of what’s possible and the great outdoors shouldn’t only be seen on the seat of a motorbike. It’s well worth setting aside more days to experience nature under your own steam—and at great heights. Green Climbers Home has put Tha Khaek on the map for rock climbing, offering courses for beginners to advanced climbers during dry season (October to May).
The Tourism Office has a number of affordable tours and treks with English speaking guides. If you like swimming in waters the colour and clarity of a sparkling turquoise gemstone, recommended is their “Discover Phou Hin Poun” 2-day/1-night trek which features two blue lagoons. Visit and book directly at the Tourism Office. Green Discovery also offers outdoor adventures and kayaking. They are the only outfitter to operate trips to Xe Bang Fai, a river cave in Hin Nam No NPA. It’s seven kilometres long, though future expeditions could reveal it to be the largest active river cave passages in the world.
The town is sandwiched between the Mekong River (the border with Thailand) to the west and the main highway Route 13 to the east. A main road connects the two, with a roundabout and market known as km-2 market (talat lak-song) in the middle. The old town centre is at the Mekong, a little square surrounded by Inthira Hotel, Wang Wang’s motorbike rental and a few eateries. Sadly only a few of the French colonial structures remain. Don’t expect much activity here in the daytime but things pick up at sunset when the square becomes a food night market and eateries along the river come to life.
Generally, budget accommodation is inconveniently scattered throughout the town. Thakhek Travel Lodge, the longstanding favourite place to stay for backpackers, is located 500 metres from the km-2 market roundabout.
It would make sense for the Khammouane Tourism Information Centre to be at the tourist centre. Unfortunately it’s 2 km away. The easiest way to find it from the river/town centre: head north on the river road and at Hotel Riviera, turn right and follow this road. After a kilometre, immediately after a bend in the road, the office is on the left hand side. Coming from the direction of Route 13 or Thakhek Travel Lodge: at the fork at KM-2 market roundabout, take the street veering right.
Tours can be booked directly at this office. Read through the posters and tour book; if the staff can’t answer your questions, find the manager, who speaks good English and is helpful in describing the treks and tours. Compared to other destinations in Laos, where tourism offerings are stagnant or non-existent, Tha Khaek has a steady volume of visitors so there are a handful of good programs available and reasonably priced. In high season there’s an excellent chance to join with other people to make the cost cheaper. Open Mon-Fri 08:00-16:00, high season open daily.
WiFi is available at accommodation and cafes. Lao Telecom 4G service is available in town. Thai networks can still be picked up along the Mekong.
Money exchange can be found along Kuvoravong Rd (the road running from the town centre to the roundabout). There is also a Lao Development Bank next to the roundabout.
The Hospital is located 600 metres south of the central square along the river road.
Revered Wat Pha That Sikhottabong is a 29-metre tall riverside temple/stupa located 8 km south of town. The site, which dates back to the 6th-century, is host to a major festival held every year during the full moon of the third lunar month (usually February).
By Cindy Fan . Last updated on 14th January, 2017.