Published/Last edited or updated: 3rd August, 2018
A quiet town 52 kilometres northeast of Phonsavan on Highway 7, Muang Kham is known for Tham Piew Cave, site of a war-time massacre where almost 400 civilians were killed.
On 24 November 1968, at the height of the Secret War, a US fighter plane fired rockets into a cave used by farmers from the surrounding villages for shelter. The first three rockets missed, but the fourth hit, killing all 374 men, women and children who were sheltering within the cave.
At the base of the rocky hill is a statue of a man bravely holding a dead child in his arms. The small museum contains a few raw, graphic and confronting photos from the war and UXO accidents. Displays like this are highly unusual in Laos, and unfortunately when we visited in 2018, the photos were very faded with no information given.
Heading up the hillside, the paved path passes a memorial shrine and signs marking the mass graves before a set of stairs lead to the cave entrance. Inside, the rock is still blackened with scorch marks. People come and build rock stupas on the ground, placing incense in them. Imagining the civilians cowering and holding each other at the arrival of those bombers is a sobering thought. To explore the cave past 20 metres you will need to bring a torch.
Tham Piew Cave is about six kilometres from Muang Kham: at Muang Kham’s main intersection (at the market), turn off of Highway 7 and head north for 3.5 kilometres, then turn left and continue for two kilometres. The cave is open daily from 08:00 to 17:00 and admission is 10,000 kip. There’s a handful of noodle soup/snack/souvenir stands and locals also like to come picnic/cool off in the stream.
If travelling on by motorbike/bicycle between Sam Neua and Phonsavan, Muang Kham is definitely worth the stop. It can also be done as a scenic daytrip from Phonsavan, either hiring a songthaew or renting a motorbike. Here’s some minor sights along the way to pad out the day.
Ban Nakhampheng is on Highway 7, 30 kilometres from Phonsavan in the direction of Muang Kham. This Hmong village uses scrap bomb shell casings for everything from fencing and fire pits, to vegetable planters and foundation pillars for pigeon houses. Spend 20-30 minutes walking around the village trying to spot the bombs—sometimes they are so well integrated they aren’t noticeable at first glance. We found the village to be welcoming. One local guided us around to point them out and wouldn’t accept the “beer money” we offered for taking the time.
To find it, after Ban Nong Phet, look for the sign for Ban Tajok-Nakhampheng. Follow the dirt lane to the village and look for the road leading left to a clearing/football pitch; at the back is a hard-to-miss house and its long fence of rusty metal shells. Go into the village, curve right and head to the back area. It’s a good spot to park and start walking around.
To see a vast bomb crater field, when returning back to Phonsavan, three kilometres past Ban Nakhampheng is the village of Nong Phet. At its main intersection, turn right (head north) then almost immediately turn left and follow the road northwest through the countryside for 8.3 kilometres to Ban Khai. Dirt tracks lead off the road into the dry, empty plain littered with bomb craters, an eerie sight.
Muang Kham is known for two hot springs which we’ve previously covered in detail. The Baw Nam Hon Noi or small hot spring is not worth a visit and the “Big Hot Spring” Baw Nam Hon Nyai is part of a resort/park/restaurant with government connections where visitors must pay to have the natural hot water piped into a private tub. The resort has illegal wildlife caged and on display, including a sad, poorly kept sun bear. Skip it.
Should you find yourself stuck in Muang Kham for a night, there are guesthouses and motel-type accommodation scattered throughout town along Highway 7 and near the market/bus stand. As of 2018, we think the best are Kinlalong Guesthouse (70,000 kip fan, 100,000 kip air-con) and Phoutpachan Guesthouse (80,000 kip fan, 100,000 kip air-con), both clean, modern with private bathroom and located directly on Highway 7, closer to the west end of town.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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