27th October 2016
Bats swirled eerily around my head as I peered through a crack in the rocks, revealing a shaft of brilliant light illuminating the mouth of the cave. Stalagmites and stalactites edged the entrance like a set of ancient limestone jaws. In the emerald lake below plate size silhouettes of fish rested in the shallows. I’d finally reached the largest river cave passage in the world. The mighty Kong Lor had long been my jewel in Laos’ crown of caves – until now.
Xe Bang Fai Cave lies hidden out in the far east of Khammouane Province, in Laos’ often-overlooked central region. Khammouane loosely translates to ‘lucky gold’– a reference to ancient legends of precious metals hidden in the area. Today the province’s treasure is the abundance of stunning caves that burrow kilometres into Laos’ mountainous spine. The excitement of arriving at the often talked about, seldom seen cave was not only a result of its enormity and beauty – but also with the satisfaction of negotiating the trails and rivers to find it – especially in the green season.
Although the cave has been well known to locals since ancient times, the area was closed to foreigners until 2005. A year later a team of American explorers mapped 14 km’s of the cave system – finding giant huntsmen spiders with a 30 cm large leg span in the process. It’s no wonder the local people are wary of living spirits of the caves and waters that dwell inside this giant cave. The Xe Bang Fai River flows for nearly seven kilometres through the cave, across eight sets of rapids and reaches 200 metres wide in parts. Our boatmen gently oared us inside the 60 metre high entrance towards the first set of rapids - with only head torches to guide us. Torches flickered as we discovered the incredible rock formations of the first section of the cave. Beyond here only kayakers can venture.
One of my tour mantras which I teach to guides is ‘The Journey is part of the Experience’. Getting to Xe Bang Fai Cave really tested the improvisation skills of our posse of assorted guides and operations staff, as the effects of the seasons rains started to seriously impact our recce trip. Roads passable yesterday were impassable today. Barely 15 minutes into our intended 15 km journey to meet with our boat, an overnight river blocked the road - and we’d arrived 6 months too early for the new bridge! Pooling ideas we came up with a convoluted chain of transport - boat – tractor-trailer – boat – Hyundai truck which several hours later got us to Ban Pakphanang village, where our boatmen were waiting. The tractor trailer ride through a stone forest was stunning – the constant clicking of the guides cameras confirmed it wasn’t only me that had noticed the beauty of the journey. It’s these improvisions that turn into tour highlights - a trip on a wonderfully named Lot Tok Tok will definitely be included in the tour program here.
Late afternoon on the Xe Bang Fai River was as equally beautiful as the stone forest. As the sun dragged itself wearily down over the mountains, villagers came to the river to wash their animals, their clothes - and themselves. What looked like rocks from a distance were actually buffalo that started moving as we neared, nonchalantly checking our boatmen’s passage beside them. After a couple of hours on the river we arrived at Ban Nong Ping village, in the shadows of the amazing Xe Bang Fai cave, settling into cosy homestays dotted around the village. I smiled and thought to myself how lucky we were to be together in such a stunning, remote corner of Laos far from the fairy lights, wine bars and tourists of Luang Prabang - adventure travel at its absolute best.
This is not currently a Wild Frontiers tour, however we could arrange it as private group travel, led by Mark, should there be interest.