Way Off The Beaten Track
This beautiful expedition takes us to the heart of the Khammouane Province in Laos, where limestone mountains are covered with untouched jungle. In the middle of this fantastic landscapes, the giant Xe Bang Fai Cave (sometimes called Khoun Xe Cave) has been “rediscovered” and exposed to the world by a National Geographic expedition in 2008. But visitors are still rare.
And now… it’s my turn to go and bring back what probably are the first panoramas of Xe Bang Fai in the world! I wanna say thank you to my 2 guides Ice and Tik and my adventurous mom who were a great company for this cave trip.
I wanted to show here the whole expedition, from the village of Pakphanung to the exploration of the cave itself. I divided this journey into 4 parts:
GPS (cave’s entrance): 17°22’20.27″N, 105°50’22.94″E
How to go: Book a tour with Green Discovery, they have their office in the Inthira Hotel in Thakhek.
Tour price: At the time of my visit (October 2015), 396 USD per person for two persons. Note that I am not sponsored or affiliated with them in any way, but they did provide excellent service.
Duration of the tour: 3 days. This article is actually the third day of this tour.
Best season: October to May (dry season).
Part 1: Where It All Started – The Remote Village of Pakphanung
Hours away from the city of Thakhek on a difficult road, Pakphanung is a village with dirt roads and wooden houses. This is where the expedition actually starts, as the village is located on the bank of the Xe Bang Fai River.
Thakhek is on the Mekong River, with Thailand on the other side. Phakphanung is totally on the other side of Laos, the border with Vietnam being only 26 km away in straight line!
Part 2: Traveling On The Xe Bang Fai River
Once you get on the boat and leave Pakphanung, there are almost no more signs of civilization. On both sides of the river, can be observed the typical karstic landcape of this part of the world, with limestone mountains and the forest partly covering them.
From Pakphanung, it’s a 20 km journey on the meandering river before finally reaching the Xe Bang Fai Cave. After passing the village of Ban Nongping, we really enter the vast wilderness of the Hin Namno National Protected Area.
In front of the cave’s lower entrance, a large sandbar is where we will camp. I had plenty of time to explore every corner of this sandbar, enjoying the wonderful pristine environment… and shooting panos.
Part 3: A Night On The Sandbar In Front Of The Cave
It is actually a total of 2 nights that we spent on this sandbar – the night before exploring the cave and the night after. The first night, I must admit that I didn’t sleep much – too excited!
An almost full moon ruined my hopes of shooting great pics of stars. But when the moon finally disappeared below the horizon at around 3:30 am, I was out with my tripod and camera! How can you just sleep when you have this rare opportunity to see this remote place under a sky full of stars?
Part 4: Exploring The Xe Bang Fai Cave
Finally, the D-day has come! For someone who usually is allergic to waking up early, I can tell you that on that particular morning I was quick to get up! No matter how much sleep debt I had accumulated from the previous night spent taking photos of the stars.
In a straight line, from an entrance to another, the Xe Bang Fai river cave is a little less than 5 km long, but underground it meanders for much longer, 10 to 12 km according to different sources.
I am not particularly experienced in cave exploration, but it is easy to tell that the Xe Bang Fai Cave is exceptional. It is the largest cave in Laos, even larger than the more famous Kong Lor Cave. It is actually said to be the largest river cave in the whole world.
I really didn’t know what to expect inside the cave. Its size, the height of its ceiling, are astonishing. At some points, we had to get off the kayaks and carry them among huge slippery boulders in order to pass some rapids.
It happened 3 times at the time of my visit, but the number of rapids depends on the level of the water.
Most of the time however, it is just kayaking on calm water, at times struggling a little against the current. But at all times, you are just in awe discovering what your tiny headlamp reveals from the darkness.
This darkness, I hadn’t really thought of it before going in. The fact of staying alive… depends on the little batteries inside your headlamp. Of course I was not alone in the cave and we all had a headlamp plus some extra ones, but if they happened to run out of batteries… we are probably doomed to death.
There isn’t a single speck of light inside. The darkness is total and spatial landmarks are all gone. So without light, I really don’t see how anyone could get out of the cave and brave the violent rapids.
Shooting in the cave
Shooting pictures and panoramas inside the cave was a real challenge… as there is zero light.
When I left for my trip around South-East Asia, I was not sure I would be able to go to Xe Bang Fai. As a result, I didn’t bring any good source of light with me, and the only available light inside the cave was the one coming out of our headlamps. And it’s really not great.
So I did what I could with what I had. The panoramas at the two mouths of the caves were of course not a problem as plenty of daylight was penetrating the cave. But inside the cave, I had to use all the available headlamps and place them around, in order to light the whole scene up.
At the end of our visit we took the time to climb an incredibly slippery muddy slope to visit the most beautiful chamber inside the Xe Bang Fai cave, with a nice collection of stalagmites and stalactites. But we were running out of time and couldn’t shoot any panorama there. Here are some pictures taken with a small point-and-shoot camera:
There is so much more inside the cave that I would have liked to shoot and show on this website. But my lack of light equipment and lack of time prevented me from doing more. When we came out of the cave it was already night – we had spent 10 hours underground!
This tour is clearly on the expensive side and it was a real financial sacrifice for me. But I felt that it would be something amazing and gave it a go. It turned out to be one of the more extraordinary places I have visited in my whole life. An experience I will remember forever!
My wish now? Get another opportunity to explore this cave, with more time and proper light equipment to create a complete virtual tour all along! – and make a YouTube video.