Published/Last edited or updated: 15th January, 2017
The first 20 kilometres of Route 12 east of Tha Khaek is packed with interesting caves and pause-a-while swimming holes. This is the same route that launches day one of the popular Tha Khaek motorbike loop. Whether you are doing the loop or a day trip, here’s how to tackle cave alley.
Route 12 is a smooth sealed road flanked by impressive karst, making for a memorable, photogenic ride. However, the side roads to the sites are not paved and can be quite challenging. Travelling independently on a motorbike or going on a tour with tuk tuk/minivan are the best options.
If you’ve got a good motorbike and know how to handle dirt track, it’s doable but not without a battle. It would be a full on war in rainy season so consider carefully. Given the distances involved and the road conditions to the sites, bicycle is the least appealing option. Unless you can get a hold of a great mountain bike, we wouldn’t recommend pedalling all of the following.
Take note that some of the caves have several different local names or spellings. Turn offs for each cave are signposted, though often only on one side of the road facing one direction.
Some of the sites are without entrance fee or paid parking. Without paid parking, there is always a risk of the motorbike being stolen. Try parking in a visible area (not behind a building or a tree), lock the steering and use the extra wheel lock provided by the rental shop.
Km 3 from Route 13, on the right
Tham Xang, meaning “elephant cave”, is the first cave once you depart Tha Khaek, cross Route 13 and head east along Route 12. Once feared by locals because of a formation inside that looked like a monster’s head, in 1956 the villagers decided to end a bout of bad health by dynamiting the monster. According to local lore, an elephant head formed in a different part of the cave which brought good health and since then, the cave is a revered Buddhist shrine.
The elephant head is visited every Pi Mai (Lao new year) and blessed with water to bring good luck. A pamphlet from the Tourism Centre writes that during World War II, Japanese soldiers collected bat droppings from the cave to make gun powder, and locals found shelter in the 60’s and 70’s during the Secret War.
Tham Xang is a large open-mouthed cave. It isn't very deep though a torch is necessary to locate the elephant head—follow the passage at the top right corner of the cave and look behind the large Buddha. The other thing to see here are the various Buddha statues placed in every nook and cranny throughout. Concrete stairs lead from the carpark right up to the top Buddha. The views from the top over the surrounding countryside is 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. Being a Buddhist shrine, no alcohol is allowed, don’t touch the elephant head and ladies will need a long skirt. There are sarong rentals if required.
Tham Pha Fa (Buddha cave)
Km 4, on the left
In 2004 local villager Mr Boun Nong was hunting for bats and scrambling up a cliff, he discovered a cave with 229 Buddha ancient statues. Some of the Buddhas are believed to be from the Sikhottabong and Lane Xang eras, a few possibly of Vietnamese and Khmer origin. Today it’s a site of pilgrimage and is primarily of interest to domestic tourists. For foreign travellers, the eight kilometres of bad dirt roads is a barrier to visiting.
If you can manage the road, then it’s an extraordinary cave considering its location buried in the side of a limestone mountain and its discovery story. Park in the lot (3,000 kip for a motorbike) then walk down the dirt road to the booth. It’s 5,000 kip entrance fee and it being a holy site, there’s no photography allowed inside and women are required to wear a long skirt, available for rent for 3,000 kip. A sturdy staircase leads up to the mouth—pause here to admire the view—before removing shoes and ducking in. The inside of the modestly sized cave is a temple, with lights illuminating the geological features and hundreds of statues.
A sign also indicates that a boat can be hired to take you into the cave at the base of the mountain for 10,000 kip per person.
From the main entrance/parking/vendor stalls we heard there is 400-metre trail to scenic Nong Thao Lake, where another rocky trail delivers you to Tham Pa Seuam (also spelled Tham Pla Xaem), Blind Fish Cave. 800 metres from Buddha Cave, Tham Pa Seuam cave boasts an underground river and some remarkable stalagmite and stalactites. It’s no Konglor but a worthy guided day trip when the boat trip/swim through the cave is combined with the lake and the Buddha Cave. This one-day trek is offered by the Tourism Office, costing 550,000 kip per person with two people, 450,000 kip for three to five people, including all transportation, entrance fees, English speaking guide, lunch and drinking water. At Green Discovery, we were quoted 470,000 kip per person with two people, 360,000 kip per person for three, 310,000 kip per person for four.
Km 4, on the left
On the dirt road to Tham Pha Fa there is a turn off signed for 16 kilometres to Tham Phachan. This enormous cave is impressive with a stream running right through it to the other side. The cave plays host to a Buddha though not a lot else. It's possible to climb the righthand side of the cave to take in the views and explore some other chambers, although you'll need your own torch as there are no guides here. Sadly, this cave is usually skipped due to time and distance, and it would be rushed to visit if you're trying to do the loop in three days.
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. We’ve heard that it’s also possible to hire a boat to take you into the cave.
Tham Xieng Liab
Km 11, on the right, near Ban Songkhone village
The cave derives its name from a story about a former monk (xieng) sneaking (liab) around the cave to peek at a girl he was in love with. Houei Xieng Liab creek, home to soft-shelled turtles, flows through this sizeable cave. During the dry season it’s possible to carefully wade a fair way into it and even complete the 200-metre journey out to the other side where it’s possible to swim. Sunlight poking through holes in the roof helps lead the way. Beware, it requires walking on slippery, jagged rocks—buddy up and if you’re solo, we’d recommend hiring a local guide, and if that’s not possible, content yourself with sticking to the cave entrance for a cool swim. During rainy season, approximately May to October, we were told you can hire a boat from the bridge and it will make the journey inside.
The entrance is at Kilometre 11—there are some stalls on the sides of the road where the sign to the cave is. Park in a visible spot at the small school, lock the bike and walk past the right side of the building where a trail runs through the forest and alongside the river until the cave, at the base of a cliff. No admission fee.
Km 11, on the left
It’s easy to see why Tha Falang was once a popular picnic spot for the French during colonial times. Today it remains a popular place to swim, eat and relax for foreigners and locals alike. Unfortunately that does mean the site often has post-weekend barbecue rubbish strewn about. The blue-green waters are inviting and the surrounding limestone mountains are special, particularly as the sun begins to lower. A 16:00 swim here is simply perfect.
Finding it is easy, with a big sign pointing the way down a dirt track, the entrance 400 metres down Route 12 from the Tham Xiang Liab turn-off. Despite the sign indicating it is 200 metres, it’s actually 500 metres to reach the secluded spot. 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. Don’t leave belongings unattended or unsecured, and safety in numbers.
Tham Pha Nya Inh
Km 12, on the left
Unique and atmospheric, Tham Pha Nya Inh cave is just off the road and as such shouldn't be missed. A set up cement stairs leads up to the entrance and once inside, there are two paths. To the left, walk past incredible rock formations reminiscent of melting candle wax. This leads to an upper level with a Buddhist shrine and a picture perfect view over the cavern below.
Our visit was memorable as when we arrived we thought we were alone and were alarmed to see rustling in the bushes. An old, blind man emerged and he led us into the cave to the shrine. A donation of one or two thousand kip to the donation box is suitable.
From the entrance to right, an informal way leads down the slope taking you to the water’s edge. When the light is right, the water appears a beautiful aquamarine. The water is considered sacred and there is no swimming is allowed. Simply savour the peace and it will rejuvenate you just the same.
The turn off to Tham Pha Nya Inh is 500 metres up Route 12 from Tha Falang, just shy of the entrance to Green Climbers Home.
Tham Nang Aen
Tham Nang Aen (or Nan Ene) is the big daddy cave of the route and it’s a developed tourist attraction. For some, especially those who have never ventured into such a gigantic cave, it will be the highlight and worth the rather steep 30,000 kip admission and hour needed to fully explore it. If you adore nature untouched and unspoilt, it probably won’t be to your taste.
Those who have explored the caves in Phong Nha, Vietnam will find this pales in comparison. In any case, the cave provides a respite from the heat and the grounds are not a bad spot to take a break at one of the many picnic tables.
Concrete steps lead up into the wide mouth of the cave and Escher-esque balustrade staircases take visitors deep into the belly. There are some magnificent formations lit up like a disco, giving an atmosphere that only a Southeast Asian tourist site can provide. An underground lake can be explored by boat, hired at the ticket booth. We were quoted 50,000 kip per person (oddly price is not per boat) for the two hour roundtrip journey.
Open daily 08:00-18:00. Tham Nang Aen is 16 kilometres from Route 13. An enormous sign heralds the turn-off for the unsealed, but nicely graded access road.
Route 12 guided tours
These sites can be reached by tuk tuk except in the muddiest of conditions. The Tourism Office in Tha Khaek offers the “Amazing Route 12” one-day tour covering Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Xieng Liab cave, Tha Falang with a picnic lunch, Tham Pha Nya Inh and Buddha Cave. As mentioned earlier, another tour covers Buddha Cave, Nong Thao Lake and Pa Seuam Cave.
There’s also a one-day trek in the Phou Hin Poun NPA to Tham Phachan. Price for one person is 800,000 kip; 550,000 kip per person for two people; 450,000 kip person for three to five people, 350,000 kip per person for a group of six to eight. Trips include all transportation, entrance fees, lunch and an English speaking guide.
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.