Photo: Shopfronts in Tha Khaek.

Route 12 Caves and Swimming holes

You can hire a tuk tuk from anywhere in town or head out on your own by motorbike.

Photo of Route 12 Caves and Swimming holes

Touring the route on a locally-rented bicycle can be a bit of a nightmare due to the distances involved, but if you've got a good bike of your own and know how to handle the dirt sections, it's doable but not without a battle. Take note that most of the caves are known by a dizzying variety of local names -- we've tried to list the most common names here.

Tham Xang
Km 3, on the right
Tham Xang is the first cave you reach as you exit Tha Khaek and begin your exploration of the area. It's a large open-mouthed cave that isn't very deep and doesn't require a torch. The main thing to see here are the various Buddhas and other statues placed in all sorts of nooks and crannies throughout the cave. Concrete stairs lead from the carpark right up to the top Buddha and it shouldn't be too difficult a climb for anyone. The views from the top of the cave over the surrounding countryside are quite impressive, save for a couple of electricity transmission towers.

To get here ride three kilometres out of town until you reach the sign pointing the way to Tham Xang, which is a further 1.5 kilometres down a dirt road towards the limestone mountains. Entry is 3,000 kip plus 3,000 kip for sarong rental if required.

Tham Pha Fa (Buddha cave)
Km 4, on the left
This place was only discovered in 2004, when a local stumbled across it looking for bats -- it's filled with Buddha images that are estimated to be hundreds of years old and has become a holy site for local Buddhists. It's an extraordinary cave buried into the side of a limestone mountain and represents the second cave on the Tha Khaek Loop. After a 200-metre walk from the car park you arrive at the base of the mountain where a lake leads through a dark cave. This cave can be explored with a boat and driver for 5,000 kip per person and is worth a look. Tham Pha Fa is located up the concrete steps and through a small crawl hole. The inside of the cave has been turned into a temple of sorts and is beautifully lit with hundreds of Buddhas sitting in front of the main praying area. The floors are covered with mats meaning bare feet don't get dirty. Various stalactites and other geological features combined with the Buddhist temple aspect make this cave an absolute winner.

The turn off to the cave is about 500 metres past the turn off to Tham Xang on the left. From the turn off it is a further eight kilometres along excellent dirt roads which have reportedly been earmarked for paving for more than half a decade, but as yet it is incomplete.

Admission to the cave is 2,000 kip, plus 2,000 kip to park a motorbike. There used to be nothing but a bamboo ladder leading up to the mouth, but now there's a sturdy staircase. No photography is permitted inside the cave. Women are not permitted to enter wearing shorts or slacks -- you'll be able to rent a sarong for another 2,000 kip.

Tham Phachan
Km 4, on the left
On the dirt road to Tham Pha Fa there is a turn off signed 16 kilometres to Tham Phachan which most visitors don't take due to time issues. This enormous cave is impressive with a stream running right through it to the other side. The massive cathedral also plays host to a Buddha and not a lot else. It's possible to climb the righthand side of the cave to take in the impressive views and explore some other chambers, although you'll need your own torch as there are no guides or sellers here.

Sadly, this cave is usually skipped by those sightseeing in this area, but we think it's good enough to dedicate an extra hour of your day to, although it would be a rush if you're doing a three-day loop.

Take the dirt road towards Tham Pha Fa and follow the sign to Tha Phachan at the fork. The road winds through wonderful karst scenery and becomes sandy towards the end where extreme caution is required. No admission fee charged.

Tham Xieng Liab
Km 11, on the right
This sizeable cave has a stream running through it year round. The cave is quite deep and during the dry season you can wander a fair way into it without getting too wet, although some paddling will be necessary. It's one of the least popular caves in the area because to be explored properly it requires a guide – a local kid will do the trick. It's a cave which does a kind of loop and it is possible to walk through to the other side. You'll at times be wading through thigh-high water and across slippery rocks.

The entrance is at about Kilometre 11 -- you'll spot some stalls on the sides of the road where the sign to the cave is. Simply walk past the right side of the small school and continue through the forest and alongside the river until you reach the cave. No admission is charged.

Tha Falang
Km 12, on the left
A further kilometre from Xieng Liab, Tha Falang is a scenic lake popularised by the French as a picnic spot during colonial times and it's still a popular spot, with foreigners and locals alike. This lake is a great spot to stop and take a break during your day and perhaps take a dip. The surrounding limestone mountains are special as the sun gets lower in the sky and a 16:00 swim here is simply perfect.

Getting here is easy these days with a great big sign pointing the way just down the road from the Tham Xiang Liab turn-off. It's approximately 500 metres of dirt road from the main road despite the sign indicating just 200 metres. Mr Ku from the Travel Lodge indicated to us that motorbikes and possessions have been stolen from here, and tales in the Travel Lodge log books appear to back this claim up, so do be careful.

Tham Pha Inh
Km 14, on the left
Tham Pha Inh is a spectacular cave just off the main road and as such shouldn't be missed. The main cavern has two paths. The one to the left goes past incredible rock formations that look exactly like massive melting candle wax. This leads to an upper level with Buddhist shrines and gives a great view over the cavern below.

The path to the right heads down to the aquamarine water below which is lit by light entering from a hole above. It's truly an incredible spot. Unfortunately no swimming is allowed due to the water's sacred nature, but a rest by its edge will rejuvenate you just the same.

The turn off to Tham Pha Inh is a further 500 metres up the road from Tha Falang and is well-signposted. No admission charge.

Tham Nang Aen
Km 16
Of the half dozen or so stops on this leg of the Tha Khaek Loop or daytrip from Tha Khaek, this one is arguably the best and it's worth setting aside an hour to fully explore. The cave extends a kilometre through to an opening on the other side and it's possible to hire a boat to take you through if you arrive well before closing time at 17:00.

For those exploring the cave by foot, the walkways extend about 150 metres into the mountain artistically lit by neon lights, giving an atmosphere that only Asia can provide. The balustrade staircases are Escher-esque and you'll feel like you're living in one the maestro's works of art.

The temperature in and around the cave is predictably cooler due to a breeze which wafts through the cave – very refreshing after travelling the hot road here.

Admission is a steep 20,000 kip, but we think it's worth it. The entrance is signposted two kilometres past Tham Pha Inh and 16 kilometres from the roundabout.

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Last updated on 11th April, 2013.

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