The Xe Bangfai River, whose source is in the Annamite range between Laos and Vietnam “loses” itself for 7 km through a giant tunnel beneath limestone karst mountains of Hin Nam No to find itself emerging again in a clear pool near Ban Nong Ping Village.
The cave chamber, measuring an average of 76m width and 56m in height, creates one of the largest ac- tive river cave passages in the world. Although there were two 20th century explorations by the French (1905 & 1995), this cave remarkably remained virtually unknown except to locals until a National Geographic survey brought it to world attention through an expedition in 2008. The cave is navigable by boat for 2km until a section of rapids is encountered. The grandeur of the limestone chamber, the spectacular natural decorations, flowstones and cave crystals provide an eerie beauty rarely experienced. A climb through a branch cavity reveals a chamber evocative of a Dragon Hatch- ery. This chamber leads to an elevated balcony providing a dimly lit view of the massive opening . Outside the cave a resurgence pool glitters in the light encir- cled by a beach. This 200m radius pond is conserved by vil- lagers as a fish breeding zone, ensuring reliable downstream fishing.
Traditionally, villagers thought this to be the source of the Xe Bangfai river and knew it as Tham Khoun Xe, meaning “the cave at the source of the river”. According to village legend, the cave is inhabited by a spirit. One time a broken khaen (musical instrument) was left at the entrance and was found restored to immaculate condition the next morning. The spirit was also known to lend beautiful clothes to individuals for various ceremonies until one time a beneficiary returned a garment unwashed. The spirit is still believed to be benevo- lent though, as villagers who have fallen while gathering swal- lows nests and bats within the chamber have never lost their lives from the event. Not only that, but no bombs entered the cavity during the war.
However, villagers are not complacent about this safety record and provide helmets for all visitors entering the cave. An annual sacrificial offering is also made to the cave spirit to ensure its continuing protection. Please don’t challenge this tradition by entering the cave without a village guide.
This 82,000ha protected area is a refuge for rare primates, including the black langur and the red-shanked douc langur. Other significant wildlife to lookout for are 4 species of horn- bill bird. Hin Nam No NPA is currently vying for World Heritage listing. Xe Bangfai river-cave is part of this protected area. Villagers manage this site as a community-based eco-tourism venture to create sustainable livelihoods.
Boats are located at the mouth of the cave. Rather than using motorized boats, village boatmen paddle in the cave in order to conserve the cave environment and the bat population. The village boating group provide the following tour options;
1. Short trip Paddle 300m into the cave, climb up to a branch passage and view the cavern from Dragon’s Balcony. This is for sure-footed adventurers who are prepared to muddy their feet and climb a fairly steep incline. (1 hour boat and climb; moderately difficult).
2. Long Trip Ride 2km into the cave to the rapids, return via the Dragon’s Balcony branch-cave to view the final river bend before it exits the cave. This is for adventurers only, who want to experience the eerie atmosphere deep within the cave; hear the pound of rapids in the darkness, and then climb up a steep limestone slope before finally re-emerging into the day- light. (2 hour boat and climb; moderately difficult).
Tham Bing Cave This cave is entered from an entrance high on the cliff to the north of the river-cave mouth. The passage, although much smaller than the river-cave, passes through spectacular flowstone and co- lumnar formations for about 700m be- fore breaking into the river-cave at a high cliff inside the giant river-cave pas- sage. Return by backtracking. (1 hour trek/climb from the resurgence pool; moderately difficult)
Tham Long (Coffin Cave) A rock-ledge cave located only 300m from Nong Ping village. It has two cavities; prior to the war, one was known to have contained a number of hardwood coffins from another era. During the war, villagers sheltered from bombing raids in one side of the cavity (although many sheltered in trenches), and North Vietnamese soldiers travel- ling the Ho Chi Minh trail sheltered in the other side. Thou- sands stayed here. (30 min from village; easy walking)
The Xe Bangfai River-cave is not recommended to enter be- tween June and October due to dangerously high flows, but the village is still open for other itineraries, as well as homestay and lodge services. Road access is difficult during the wet season, however there is boat access from Ban Pakphanang to gain year-round access.
Homestay. Villagers provide meals; rollout mattresses; mos- quito nets; blankets; toilets with bucket bath.
Village Lodge. Four rooms; bed, work-desk and fan. Meals can be arranged for extra fee.
Village meals. Please be aware that food in this village is not always readily available. Taking a small back-up supply is recommended.
Please note that these treks and cave tours are facilitated by village guides, so foreign visitors please be aware that lan- guages will be limited, and non-verbal communication will be paramount. Local knowledge is essential in caves. Those with professional non-local guides will still need to have a local guide when entering the caves.
Link website: www.hinnamno.org
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