Get out there and explore
Published/Last edited or updated: 15th January, 2017
Of Khammuan Province’s three national protected areas, Phou Hin Poun NPA is the most accessible and open to tourists. Covering 1,690 square kilometres northeast of Tha Khaek and east of Route 13, it’s home to limestone peaks, blue lagoons, the once thought to be extinct Laotian rock rat and caves galore, the most notable being Konglor Cave.
Several of the caves, like Konglor and those accessible along Route 12, can be done independently. Others require a guided trek, and taking a walk, slowing down the savour the majestic otherworldly landscape is highly recommended.
The provincial tourist information office in Tha Khaek offers eco-guide services, with tour and trek programs ranging from day trips to overnight “community-based” trekking, which means staying in a village and involving the community in the running of the trip. Considering the state of other provincial tourism offices in the country, where the programmes are all but dead, Tha Khaek has enough volume of visitors to sustain a decent level of service and offerings.
We did the “Discover Phou Hin Poun” 2-day/1-night trek and highly recommend it for those who love walking in order to immerse in gorgeous natural and rural scenery and refreshing swimming holes. The walk takes you through pretty rice paddies and an immense limestone “forest”. At one point you’ll wade through a cave and emerge on the other side into an amphitheatre of karst, a flat valley surrounded 360 by layers of jagged peaks and ridges. There are idyllic swim stops on both days, in a cave on day one, Khun Kong Leng Lake on day two. These were also the site of our picnic lunch, prepared by the guide. The Lao are masters at throwing on a barbecue—the trip began with our guide buying ingredients at the market, and the fish were still flopping when we took our first steps. We were treated to a real Lao food jungle feast.
The walking is mostly flat though there are several water crossings, sometimes using makeshift log bridges. The terrain on the second day was more challenging with parts on an undulating trail through the forest.
The only weak aspect of the trek is the village stay. The trek has used this village for 15 years—it’s a logistical necessity to stay there—and the village has simply seen too many tourists to care. Don’t expect much interaction or a window into Lao village life, it’s simply a place to sleep rather than a highlight.
Groups stay in a traditional wooden house on stilts purpose built for visiting trekkers. Facilities are basic but adequate, with a separate wash house with squat toilet and bucket shower. A mat, mosquito net and sheet are provided. A torch, flip flops and your own sarong/sleep sheet are handy.
Khammuan’s two other protected areas, located at the eastern edge of the province bordering Vietnam, are harder to access. Nakai-Nam Theun NPA is one of the largest in Laos, home to three of the last five mammals to be discovered or rediscovered in the world including the saola, one of the rarest large mammals on the planet. Those on the Tha Khaek loop will traverse the western edge of the NPA as they ride along Route 1E from Nakai north to Thalang though the eerily beautiful drowned world of the Nam Theun 2 Dam. Stretching east of the man made lake is the Nakai Plateau, dividing hills, then the greater northern Annamites range, the spine of the Lao/Vietnam border.
Currently there are no outdoor activities available. On the fringes, the two guesthouses in Thalang offer boat trips on the newly formed wetlands. There is a tiny tourism information centre in Nakai, though information comes from dusty leaflets and not the staff, who are happy to see you but do not speak English. In any case, treks and any other tours are best arranged in Tha Khaek.
Located in the remote Hin Nam No NPA, Xe Bang Fai river cave was brought to international attention with a National Geographic expedition in 2008. What’s known is that the river, which originates from the Annamites, travels seven kilometres through the mountain, yet this is only scratching the surface. There’s speculation that Xe Bang Fai could be one of the largest active river cave passages in the world.
Xe Bang Fai is difficult to get to as road conditions are very bad and when you do reach it, it is only possible to take a boat up to two kilometres into the cave. The tourism office in Tha Khaek currently does not offer trips and they advised us against doing it independently on a regular motorbike because of the roads and the lack of infrastructure.
As of 2017, Green Discovery is the only company operating trips to Xe Bang Fai, and the cost of the three-day trip requires a large budget. We were quoted US$764 for one person, US$435 per person based on two, US$316 per person for three, US$264 per person for a group of four. It includes 4WD vehicle for road transport, camping, boat trip into cave and kayaking.
An independent trip to Xe Bang Fai is doable, ideal for those on off-road motorbikes and dry season only, approximately October to May — high waters in the cave during the rainy season make it hazardous. You need to get to Boualapha town, then 15 km on to Ban Nong Ping village, the gateway to the cave. Tourism is slowly developing and now there is a government rest house in Boualapha, a homestay in Nong Ping. At the village you can hire local guides and kayaks to go inside. Bring your own torch and dry bag.
There are two ways to reach Nong Ping, as outlined on the Hin Nam No website. Coming at it from the north: from Tha Khaek, travel to Mahaxay and Gnommalath (the same way to start the Tha Khaek Loop). At Gnommalath you leave the regular loop by turning and heading east to Langkang, then on dirt track south to Boualapha. The only difficulty is the river crossing — you should be able to find a boatman to take you across. The road is paved all the way to Langkang. Thanks to the Motolao blog for this Xe Bang Fai trip report.
It’s a lot of dirt road to cover coming at it from the south. The way is unpaved once you leave Mahaxay.
And if you’re up for a real challenge, this blog trip report from 2015 had the tourism office help this pair get on the local songthaew to Langkang and arranged for private transport to meet them, which never materialised. A sense of adventure, patience and humour are required if you want to try this method.
We received the contact information for the tourism consultant for Xe Bang Fai/the Hin Nam No. We tried the email and received no response. If you want to try, it is Ms Vanhxay (aka Noy) firstname.lastname@example.org
Khammouane Tourist Information Centre is located two kilometres from Tha Khaek’s central square. The easiest way to find it from the river/town centre: head north on the river road and at Hotel Riveria, 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. Open Mon-Fri 08:00-16:00, high season open daily.
The front staff don’t offer information beyond what is already printed on posters and the tour book. If in need of more details, get to the manager, who speaks good English. In high season there’s an excellent chance to join with other people to reeduce the cost per person. The price generally includes an English speaking guide, local village guides, meals and drinking water while on trek, all transportation, bedding and fees such as village fees.
Green Discovery also offers treks. The company pioneered outdoor adventure tourism in Laos but in recent years have coasted on reputation and lack of competition. Expect disinterested service at their booking desk in the lobby of Inthira Hotel. They list upcoming booked trips in a calendar on their website, helpful in finding trips to join. They are currently the only option in Tha Khaek for kayaking and trips to Xe Bang Fai.
Tha Khaek trekking is available all year. The best time is during November to February when temperatures are cool. Dry season runs from November to May, rainy season June to October. The rice paddies that surround the limestone mountains are absolutely stunning during this time, especially when they are full of vibrant green stalks nearing harvest in September/October. Expect high waters and muddier conditions. The good news: according to our longtime guide, there are no leeches in this area of Laos.
Green Discovery Chao Anouvong Rd, in lobby of Inthira Hotel, Tha Khaek. T: (051) 251 390. https://www.greendiscoverylaos.com Open daily 08:00-21:00
Khammouane Tourism Centre Open Mon-Fri 08:00-16:00, open daily during high season
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.