Xe Bangfai River Cave
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.
Hin Nam No National Protected Area:
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.
Dos and Don’ts When entering caves:
- Village guides essential for entering caves, even if you have a non-local professional guide.
- Strictly no taking souvenirs from caves.
- Village guides have torch service available for you. Howev- er, just in case batteries run out, it is recommended to bring your own torch as back-up.
- Wear cave helmets provided by village guides/boatmen
- Wear life jackets provided by village boatmen
- When walking in caves, strictly stay on designated trails to avoid crushing cave crystals under your feet.
- Villagers request no shining of torch in the water as large fish are attracted.
Staying in Nong Ping Village:
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.
Village Guide Service:
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.
Tips for Motorbike Hiring:
- Make sure it is roadworthy (check brakes, lights, oil etc.) before you hire.
- Wear helmet; Speed kills
- Make sure you practice before starting your journey
- Avoid riding with 2 people per bike if possible
- In the case of flat tyre, look for a roadside store dis- playing old tyre as a sign.
- Unpaved roads very slippery when wet.
- Xe Bangfai River Cave is about 150km East-south-east of Thakhek. Motorcyclists be aware that the roads a mainly unpaved and suitable only for experienced riders.
- From Thakhek, travel east along Route 12 to Mahaxay (43km), turn right to Panam junction (25km).
- Turn left at Panam to go to Boualapha (68km).
- From Boualapha, turn left after the District Administration Office then take 1st turn right (230m) to go to Ban Nong Ping (14km).
- Note; option to go by boat from Ban Pakphanang to Nong Ping (see directions to Ban Pakphanang below). Do the circuit
- You may like to return to Thakhek on the Ho Chi Minh trail from Boualapha. Travel back west from Boualapha 6km and take the right-hand turn to Langkhang. Continue north to Ban Pakphanang river crossing (11km). No bridge there, so motorbikes cross in canoes (also get a local to balance the canoe on the boat for extra fee to save you from falling in the river with the bike). Onward to another river crossing at Ban Senphan village (12km) (a boat may be necessary here too). From Ban Senphan continue north to Langkhang (11km).
- Langkhang is a good place to eat. From there it is paved road for the 128km to Thakhek along Route 12.
- Thakhek to Ban Nong Ping village is almost a day journey.
- The road from Mahaxai-Panam– Boualapha is unpaved (therefore slip- pery when wet) and has some rocky sections, but is a shorter distance than going via Langkhang.
- Thakhek to Langkhang is good road but Langkhang to Boualapha is un- sealed and there are 2 river crossings.
The Boat to Xe Bang Fai Cave & Pak Phanang
The boat to Ban Nong Ping Village and the Xe Bang Fai Cave is the most scenic and most reliable way to get there. During the rainy season, the boat is the only way to reach Ban Nong Ping because the road from Boualapha to Nong Ping is not operational. The boat ride is approximately two hours one way. Prices for the boat are posted on the board. If you are staying overnight in Ban Nong Ping, you can hire a boat from there for your return. The head of the boat association lives in the house next to this board, so if no one approaches you please go to his house to arrange the boat.
The boat trip travels along the Xe Bang Fai River, which is the natural border for Hin Nam No National Protected Area, which is located on the northern side of the river (left side of the river when traveling upriver). Along the banks of the river you will see a lot of agricultural plots and activity, as this is the controlled use zone of the protected area where local people are allowed to practice traditional agriculture and livelihoods sustainably.
Overnight in Ban Nong Ping
To fully enjoy the Xe Bang Fai Cave it is recommended that you stay overnight in Ban Nong Ping. You can stay in a homestay or in the village guesthouse. Prices are listed on the board. You can arrange the homestay once you arrive in Ban Nong Ping. There is food available in the homestay, the guesthouse and at a small restaurant near the cave.
You may park your motorbike or car here at the boat association manager’s house. There might be a small parking fee; please check the price list on the board for more information.
- Check that your life jacket fits and that buckles work.
- Please wear your life jacket while you are in the boat at all times.
- Do not stand up in the boat while it is moving. Please wait until the boat has docked before standing up.
Help us to Protect the Environment of Hin Nam No
- Pack out all rubbish including cigarette butts. Keep the area clean.
- Do not touch any of the rock formations in caves.
- Do not take anything from the park including plants from the forest.
- Do not purchase wildlife or wood products from the area.