Tha Khaek

The sleepy provincial capital of Khammouane Province. Tha Khaek lies across the Mekong River from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom. While Tha Khaek is not the most exciting town in Laos, it's a good deal more interesting than its cross-river neighbour, and it's the biggest, most tourist-friendly town in the province.

Tha Khaek means "guest landing". Originally, this was a reference to the town's stature as a riverine trading outpost, but the name still holds water today. Tha Khaek is a full-on, international border crossing, withLao visas on arrival available for the foreigners pouring into Laos at this point.

The construction effort to transform Route 12 from a dirt track to a major east-west trade corridor led to a steady influx of Laotians moving into town from outlying areas. A corresponding increase in tourist numbers has also been seen and you'll spot more tourists in this town than in many northern Lao towns. Accommodation options haven't increased in recent years though with Tha Khaek Travel Lodge still the hands-down favourite, primarily due to their cheap dorm beds and wealth of Tha Khaek Loop information.

Route 12 courses along the southern edge of the Phou Hin Boun NBCA, a massive limestone forest with numerous pristine and picturesque rivers and lakes. And where there is limestone, there are caves. Route 12 offers easy access to half a dozen or more, the most remarkable of which is the eerie and amazing Tham Konglor -- a 7.5 kilometre-long cave with a massive river running right through the middle of it. It's inaccessible from the south, but good roads lead north to the village of Na Hin (also known as Khoun Kham) from which the cave can be reached on a daytrip.

Tha Khaek in general, and the Travel Lodge in particular, are increasingly becoming a staging area for the Konglor Cave Loop, as tourists show up here looking to take a three-to-five day motorbike journey from Tha Khaek, through Nakai and Lak Xao, to Na Hin for a trip to Konglor Cave, and then returning from the north via Route 13S.

The Nakai-Nam Theun NBCA along the eastern border with Vietnam is a rarely visited part of the province and in recent years part of the area was affected by a massive hydroelectric project. For those seeking true adventure, a trail bike journey through parts of this area is possible, but it is more a 'make it up as you go' experience.

A road, route 1E, has been cut through the forest along what is essentially the western edge of the reservoir, from Mahaxai in Khammouane Province, to Lak Xao in Bolikhamsai. While the road tracks the edge of the reservoir, at many points it cuts right through spectacular lakes and tributaries filled with dead trees.

A motorcycle journey along this road used to be a dusty, bumpy and demanding trek that tested the patience of even the most experienced rider. Today, route 1E is paved all the way to Nakai and between Nakai and Thalang the unpaved road is smooth, wide and easy to ride on. North of Thalang things get a little more testy and the road deteriorates significantly, but work is underway to pave the entire way and we anticipate that over the next few years the loop will become a much easier journey.

For the more adventurous, travel into the remainder of the province is possible and can be especially rewarding -- rest assured you'll probably be the only foreigner in sight.

Things to Do & See 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. 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.