Located: in the middle part of Laos.
Total area: 16,135 square kilometers.
09 Districts: Thakhaek, Mahaxay, Nongbok, Hinboun, Nhommalath, Bualapha, Nakai, Xebangfay and Xaybouathong.
Khammouane is located in central Laos bordering Bolikhamxay and Savannakhet Provinces. Khammouane covers about 16,000 square kilometers and has a population of approximately 330,000, mostly engaged in agriculture. The Mekong River Valley in the west is framed by the Annamite Mountain Range which separates Khammouane from Vietnam to the east.
Fertile land here is well suited to plantations of rice, cabbage, sugar cane, bananas, etc. A total population is made up of lowland and up-land Lao groups: Phuan, Tahoy, Kri, Katang etc. Thakhaek is the provincial capital, situated across the Mekong from Nakorn Phanom in Thailand. It also has much well preserved French colonial architecture similar to that found in Vientiane.
Inhabiting mainly lowland river valleys the Lao, Phouthai and other Tai-speaking peoples are the main ethnic groups in Khammouane. There are also Mekong or Bru people, a Mon-Khmer-speaking ethnic minority that make up 13% of the provincial population. In smaller numbers are the Kri, Nguan, Atel, Themarou, and Maleng who are mainly found in the mountainous eastern part of the province.
The vast forsest of the Nakai-Nam Teun National Protected Area are an important watershed that feed many Mekong tributaries as well as form the catchment area for Nam Teun 2, the largest hydropower project in Laos..
Where to stay
In Thakhaek there are many hotels and guesthouses clustered in the old part of town near the Mekong River. Prices range from $3 to $15 per night.
In Khoun Kham Village there are also a number of inexpensive guesthouses catering to travelers heading out to the Konglor Cave and nearby waterfalls. The Sala Hinboun Guesthouse is an upscale establishment near the Konglor Cave.
Where to eat / What to eat
Watch the sun set over the Mekong while eating grilled chicken or other local dishes at one of the restaurants located in the center of the Old Town. Khammouane is known for producing excellent rice nooles that are widely-available and make a quick, cheap meal any time of the day.
The Nong Pa Km 4 fish restaurant on the road to Mahaxay just outside of Thakhaek is very popular
Along with That Sikhottabong Stupa and the Lam Mahaxay folksong, khaonome parn is one of the main things identified with Thakhaek and Khammouane Province. What is this khaonome parn? It is a soft, sticky green and black coloured sweet with yellow soy beans and coconut in the middle. This tasty snack is wrapped in banana leaves and sold in many places in Thakhaek Town. Khaonome Parn is originally from Viet Nam where it is made for special occasions.
Many villages in Khammouane maintain a tradition of textile weaving. The patterns are distinct to each ethnic group, often based on natural themes and cultural icons. Not only do the village women spin, dye, and weave these textiles by hand, but they usually grow the cotton, too. Some individuals maintain the use of natural dyes collected from plants around their village. If you plan to purchase a textile, remember that buying naturally dyed pieces promotes the preservation of indigenous knowledge about the collection and extraction of natural dyes and their use in the weaving process. Two of the villages that maintain these traditions are Konglor and Natan villages.
Natural Dyes and Textiles Some villagers produce their own incense using materials obtained from nature. Natural incense sticks are made from coconut tree leaflets to form the stick, crushed bark from the yarng bong tree (Nothaphoebe umbelliflora) for the sticking agent and mai niem bark to produce fragrance as it burns.
Basket weaving is usually practiced by men in the village during the dry season. Almost all fish traps are woven from bamboo or rattan, as are sticky rice baskets, furniture and other containers.
Many of the tools and materials used in daily village life are made from natural ingredients gathered from the forest. A good example of this is khisee resin which is derived from trees of the Dipterocarpaceae family. This resin is collected, crushed and mixed with yang oil (also collected from the forest) to make a sealant used for filling joints of wooden boats and sealing the pores of woven bamboo water buckets, as found in villages such as Ban Phalem in the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area. For more information about non-timber forest products visit a village or take a walk in the forest with a local guide.
Of Khammouane Province's total land area of 16.135 square kilometers, 6.295 (39%) belongs to three interconnected National Protected Areas (NPA) : the Nakai Nam Theun, Phou Hin Poun and Hin Namno. The Nakai Nam Teun NPA (353.200 ha) is considered one of the most biologically important areas in the world, with three of the world's last five recently discovered or re-discovered large mammals found there, including the Saola, Giant Muntjac and Indochinese Warty Pig. Nakai consists of sandstone formations, a complex range of habitats and mountainous elevations ranging from 500-2.200 m.
The heart of the Nakai Nam Teun can be accessed from Route 8B. The Phou Hin Poun NPA (150.000 ha) is the most accessible of the three NPA's with easy access from Thakhaek town or from Ban Na Hin on Route 8.
There are a host of ecotourism activities including trekking, rafting, kayaking and caving in Phou Hin Poun. This NPA is characterized by its karst limestone mountains and many caves, the largest being the 7.5 km Konglor Cave. The Hin Namno NPA (82.000 ha), least accessible of the three parks, also has dramatic limestone escarpments and caves and is the location where the Central Indochina Limestone meets the Annamite Chain. Hin Namno can be reached by taking Highway 12 to Muang Boualapha.
The Dominant forest types in Khammouane are semi-evergreen, with stands of mixed evergreen and deciduous as well. Most of the forests you see growing around the limestone mountains are semi-evergreen, with unusual stunted vegetation on rocky outcrops and cliff faces. Also are the vast stands of mixed evergreen and pine forests on the Nakai Plateau.
Khammouane's weather is dominated by the south-western monsoon, which brings heavy rains from May-October. Only in the mountains of the Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area is this monsoon rain supplemented by rain coming from the East Sea and Viet Nam, which keeps the area wet for nine months per year and supports the dense forests needed to sustain rare wildlife species.
Both the high forested mountains of the Annamite Range on the border with Viet Nam and the steep rugged cliffs and caves of the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area have an abundance of rare and unique animals. Scientists are astounded by the recent discoveries concealed in the cliffs, caves and forests of Khammouane. Beside tigers, elephants, gibbons and the beautiful Douc Langur, There are a number of other remarkable species in Khammouane, many of which were only recently discovered by scientists. There is the Saola, an ox-like mammal first described in 1994, as well as the Giant Muntjac, a deer-like mammal discovered at about the same time. Also a new species of rodent, reffered to by villagers as Kha Nyou, was found in 2004 and looks like a cross between a rat and a squirrel. The Kha Nyou, which lives in crevices of the Limestone Mountains, is so unique that it has been classified by scientists as a new mammalian family-the first new family discovered since the 1970's.
Another unique species found only in the limestone areas of Khammouane and Bolikhamxay Provinces and in the adjacent Phoung Nha Reserve in Viet Nam is the Sooty Babbier (Stachyrisherberti). This endemic species, which makes it's home around deep forested gullies, is a social, dark coloured, medium-sized bird usually seen foraging low in the stunted vegetation and playing in groups near cliffs and boulders. Look for the pale bill and characteristic eye ring to identify it.
The provincial capital of Khammouane Province, Thakhaek, is located on the Banks of the Mekong River. Much of its architecture can be traced to French colonial construction in the early 20th century.
The town's name in Lao mean "guest landing" ("khaek" literally meaning guest), a reference to its earlier role as a boat landing for foreign traders. The center of the old town can be found around the fountain square near the river where many old building remain.
Built at the same time as That Inhang Stupa in Savannakhet and That Phanom in Thailand. These were constructed in the Sikhottabong Empire for keeping the Bones of Lord Buddha. At first, it was bulit by King Nanthasene for King Soummitham then it was restored by King Saysetthathirath in the 16th Century. It is located along the bank of the Mekong River 6km from Thakhaek. The festival is preformed on the third month of lunar calendar. This 29 meter high golden stupa is one of the most sacred sites in Laos.
Legend has it that giant wall, which is 15 kilometres long, was erected in the 9th century by the ancient Sikhottabong Kingdom. Some say, however, that it is a natural sandstone formation which was incorporated into the civilization's defense system. The best place to visit the Giant Wall is 8 km north of Thakhaek on Route 13 where is reaches a height of 16 meters with an unbroken section 75 meters long. Here there is a small shrine constructed by the French that contains a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Kampaeng Yak (The Giant Wall) Tham Pa Fa Cave, located near Na Khang Xang Village in Thakhaek District, recently came into the news following the discovery of 229 Buddha statues in a previously unexplored cave. In April 2004, a local villager by the name of Mr. Boun Nong entered the small cave opening 15m from ground level. He had noticed bats entering the cave and decided to climb a vine to investigate, with the intention of collecting bats (a local delicacy).
Passing through the small cave entrance he looked down into the cavern below and to his amazement saw a large Buddha statue. Proceeding down into the cave he realized that there were over 200 Buddha statues ranging in size from 15cm to over 1m tall. For one week he did not tell anyone in the village, as he did not believe what he had seen and thought that it might just be his imagination, but finally returned with a group of nine villagers to reinvestigate. Word about the new discovery soon spread, and the cave has become one of Khammouane's most visited attractions. The villagers have since organized themselves to guard the cave and its sacred Buddha statues 24 hours a day.
The Buddha images are a collection from the Sikhottabong and the Lane Xang eras, with some thought to be of Khmer and Vietnamese origin. Together with the images, palm leaf manuscripts written in ancient Lao script, Lane Xang-style dharma, Lanna-style dharma, Pali dharma and ancient Khmer scripts are also present. It is unknown how these treasures came to be in the cave. The cave is named after the lake located at the foot of the cliff, Nong Pa Fa (meaning "Lake of Soft-shelled Turtle"). The limestone formations within the cave are quite spectacular and add to the natural beauty of the cave. There is a small entrance fee for visitors. Please also note that in this cave photography is prohibited. (Photographs in this publication were obtained by special permission). Close to the cave are stalls selling snacks, drinks, seasonal fruits and incense produced in the village.
Buddha Cave (Tham Pha Fa Cave) Tham Xang Cave (also called Tham Pha Ban Tham Cave,
Tham Nyai, or Tham Phose)
This cave used to be feared by local people due to a limestone formation inside the cave that was shaped like an evil monster's head. It was even taboo to drink from the waters that flowed from the cave. In 1956 when poor health engulfed the village, the villagers decided to destroy the "evil head" forever, and henceforth exploded it with dynamite. Soon after this, an elephant head miraculously formed in a different site in the cave, and the health of the villagers improved. Since then, the elephant head has been revered and the cave has become an important Buddhist shrine.
Pilgrims visit the site every year, typically around the Lao New Year, to sprinkle water on the elephant head and perform prayers for good health. The elephant head can be found along a small passage (flashight needed) in the top right hand corner of the cave behind the large golden Buddha. Village elders believe that it is also taboo to hit the head of the elephant, hunt for bats, or consume alcohol in this cave.
From the steep stairs to the cave there are fine views of the plain stretching to the Mekong River. There are also interesting Buddhist decorations in the cave, including several Buddhist statues and a small black box containing Buddhist literature. Of other interesting note, Japanese soldiers used the bat droppings from this cave to make gun powder during World War II, and in the 1960-1970's the cave was used for shelter and protection during the Indochina War.
Note : This is the closest cave to Thakhaek, and can be seen from a considerable distance as you approach Ban Tham village (actually meaning cave village). The cave is located 9km northeast of Thakhaek. Follow Route 12 (road to Mahaxay) until it splits at km7, then keep to the right and you should be able to see the cave entrance in the distant cliff directly ahead.
Cross a mall river by foot and pass vegetable patches as you approach the cave. Visiting the cave during the wet season is difficult due to flooding of the river. Alternatively one can continue along Route 12 to the bridge then turn right following the dirt road that also passes by the cave. There are some tuk-tuk in Ban Tham village to send you home as well.
Tham Xienglieb Cave Xieng means "former novice" and Lieb means "sneaking around". Thus, this cave is named after a former novice who was sneaking around, in love with the daughter of a mountain hermit, looking for an opportunity to catch a glimpse or her in the cave. The entrance to this spectacular cave lies beneath a 300m cliff but has now been partially blocked by a large rock fall. Flowing through the cave is the Houay Xienglieb Creek, which can be navigated by boat during the rainy season. During the dry season you can walk through the cave (with care) to explore the scenic valley beyond. Swimming is possible at the far side of the cave.
The cave is approximately 200 m long with impressive limestone formations on the cave ceiling, and it is said that this cave also contains many historical drawings. Because there is enough natural light penetrating the cave you do not need a flashlight to find your way around, but do be prepared to get your feet wet. Residents of this cave include Paa Faa (soft-shelled turtle), as well as many bats. The cliffs around the cave protect the rare Francois Langur and the recently discovered Kha Nyou (Laotian rock rat). Villagers traditionally use the cave to escape the heat but request that people do not sleep inside.
Note : This cave is located 14 km northeast of Thakhaek on Route 12, near the village of Ban Songkhone. From the bridge over the Houay Xienglieb Creek you can either walk or ride a boat to the cave. There are several kiosks on the road : a dirt track on the right hand side leads to the cave (approximately 400m).
Tham Nang Aen Cave The legend of this cave is linked to Tham Xienglieb Cave. The story goes, that Xieng, the young former novice who went looking for the beautiful daughter of the hermit at Tham Xienglieb Cave, met with her at the entrance of this cave. Here the two lovers sat (meaning nang in Lao) and flirted (aen kan). Hence the name Tham Nang Aen (Cave of Sitting and Flirting). This cave is a favorite weekend destination for Lao and Thai people and is a great place to cool off from the heat because of the cave's natural air conditioning, there is a constant cool breeze blowing out of it. The cave is up to 30m high in some places and over 1.5km long. It contains a small underground lake and impressive limestone formations. The cave is well lit and cement walkways and steps have been constructed for your safety. The large cave entrance is accessed through a wooden ceremonial structure built in 1987 for the visit of the Princess of Thailand. On the grounds just outside the cave is a simple zoo with severall animals and a very large Mai Kaphoung tree (Tetrameles nudiflora).
Note : The cave is located 18km northeast of Thakhaek on Route 12. Turn right at the sign and go 700m along the access road, fording a small river along the way. If the river is flooded you can cross using the small foot-bridge. Restaurant facilities are available in the dry season. There is small entrance fee.
Tham Pha Nya In Cave This cave is named after Pha Nya In, an archangel featured in many Lao stories as the link between the humans and the gods. This little-known cave is well worth visiting. After climbing up a cement stairway to your left is a small passageway leading to two Buddhist shrines with several Buddha images (tak a flashlight). You can also climb down into the cave itself (please take care) to view a small underground lake 75m long (depth unknown). On the far side of the lake is another cave. Swimming or washing in the lake is prohibited as the water is considered holy and is said to have magical powers used to treat the sick.
Note : The cave is located 17km northeast of Thakhaek on Route 12. There is no sign, but turn left through a blue cement gateway and go 400 meters to the cave.
Tham Phachan Cave (Cave of the Sandalwood Buddha)Tham Phachan cave is one of the most impressive caves in the area. It is open at two ends, cutting about 600m through a limestone mountain and has a 60 x 100m entrance in the shape of a giant dome. A stream flows through this tunnel, and in some spots, logs and forest debris have washed downstream into the cave. A major fracture in the roof of the cave can be seen and is likely to be the reason for the development of its large cathedral-like structure. As you enter the western entrance, to the left is a ledge 15m above the cave floor where a small monastery with several Buddhist images can be seen. One of the images is made from sandalwood (Mai Chan), hence giving the cave its name. About half-way through the cave, in a side passage on the right hand side (south) are long-eared bats roosting in crevices (please do not disturb them). The cave, which used to be inhabited by monks, is now used for meditation and is visited during the New Year Festival (mid-April) by hundreds of local people who come to sprinkle water on the head of the sandalwood Buddha image and get soaked in the cave's stream. During the wet season the waters in the cave can rise about 3m and it may be impassable by foot.
Note : From Thakhaek, the cave is reached after driving 1.5 hours on Route 12. It is not recommended that you try to find this cave yourself.
Tham Phi Seua Cave (Tiger Spirit Cave, Butterfly Cave) This cave is accessible by walking through rice paddy fields about 2.5km from Ban Phon Ton Village. The cave is approached through a lovely forest with a slope leading up to the mouth of the cave about 15m above the valley floor. The entrance is an impressive arch of about 40m wide and 25m high. At the entrance is a rocky, sloping trail with some pools on the right side. The cave's main trail leads down to a junction-take the path on the left past some large boulders to a chamber about 40m wide and 40m high. Wildlife around this cave includes Francois Langur, macaque, serow and kha nyou. Tham Phi Seua is a sacred cave that is believed to be inhabited by spirits.
Nam Don Resurgence (also known as Khoun Nam Don)A beautiful lagoon is created as the Nam Don River emerges from a cave below a large cliff 300m tall. You can ride a boat into the cave for about 20m then the river disappears into extensive underground tunnels. The cave continues for 3km into the mountain. A French survey team in 1998 discovered a new genus of blind cave fish 150m inside the cave at a depth of 23m. This fish is small, pale and has no exterior eyes, which would be useless in this completely dark environment.
Outside the cave local fishermen sometimes place nets in the pool so be careful when swimming. You can enter the cave by swimming or ask local fisherman to take you in by canoe. During the wet season the river rises considerably and the Nam Don River becomes navigable by boat. This location is a great picnic spot or swimming hole, with a shady forest near the cliffs that provides an ideal resting place for walkers. On the other side of the Nam Don River is a small Buddhist shrine.
Tham Heup Cave Tham Heup is a large and impressive cave that you can walk right through. The cave is 1.1km long, and has some beautiful rock formations, a pond, and a beach. The entrance is 20m wide and 15m high, with a interior that varies from 10m to 30m high.
Note : The cave can be accessed from Ban Nakhok village by crossing the Hinboun River and walking for 1.5km. In the wet season the cave can be reached by boat along a branch of the Hinboun River near Ban Nakhok. About 3-4km south-east of the cave is a beautiful sacred forest with an abandoned temple. Also in the area is a small Buddha cave called Tham Jong. A local guide is required for these visits and can be arranged in Ban Nakhok.
Tham Phabang Cave This narrow cave has a wooden image of a thin standing Buddha called the Phabang. Although less then 1m tall it is quite elegant and said to be over 300 years old. Although it has been knocked over and partially broken by resident monkeys, this image has been maintained throughout the centuries by villagers that have prevented it from rotting or being eaten by termites. Another larger bronze Buddha, which now resides in the village temple, also used to be inside this cave. According to local legend the image, originally called Pha Thong "bronze Buddha" was renamed Pha Ong Saen (meaning the Buddha 100.000) when a robber attempting to take the valuable piece could not lift it due to a mysterious weight transfer.
Note : Tham Phabang Cave can be reached with a local guide from the Ban Nakheu Village Guide Associatiion. The guide will take you about 1.5km across paddy fields and up a stream to the mouth of the cave. A small payment to the local guide is appreciated.
Tad Nam Sanam Waterfall This is a large twin waterfall cascading off the sandstone massif of Phou Phaman Mountain. It flows all year round and is surrounded by a Provincial Protected Area with pristine tropical forest. The path from the road follows the river for about 1.5km through semi-evergreen forest and ends at the falls. This waterfall is easily accessible by walking from Khoun Kham Village (also known as Ban Na Hin) on Route 8.
This waterfall has a total of eighteen tiers and flows all year round. The first, or lowest, tier is accessible by walking 1km from Route 8 near Khoun Kham Village (Ban Nahin). The walking trail goes through beautiful old forest and is part of the trail network surrounding Tad Nam Sanam. The other tiers are reached by climbing up a path along the ridge to the right hand side of the falls. There are some large trees along this trail including many wild species of mango tree, thus giving its name, "Mango Waterfall" (mouang means mango in Lao).
Khoun Kongleng Lake Legend has it that in the evening, on the full moon each month, the sound of a gong can be herd ringing from this lake, which was consequently named "Evening Gong Lake" or Khon Kongleng in Lao. Located approximately 30 km north of Thakhaek, this small but spectacular emerald coloured water springs from an underground river that is filtered through a mass of limestone in the surrounding mountains and bedrock.
This water is crystal clear and you can see large fish in the depths below. The area around the lake is very clean because of a strict code maintained by the local villagers. A shaded area near the access point provides an ideal picnic area. Swimming is only permitted in the cool, clean waters of the lake's outflow stream, near the wooden footbridge. Fishing is not permitted in the lake itself, but villagers may fish in the river flowing from the lake. Trails lead around the lake and into the surrounding forest, which is well worth exploration (stay to the main trails). Both the lake and the forest fall within the boundaries of the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area.
Note : Getting to Khoun Kongleng Lake is quite challenging in itself, and a local guide is essential, Go north from Thakhaek on Route 13 to Km-25, turn right along a dirt road and go approximately 2 km to a major junction where you must turn right. Continue along this road for 16 km, climbing several steep hills and passing through several small villages before finally arriving at Ban Nakheu Village. Here ask permission from the local village authorities before proceeding to the lake, which lies another 1 km further along the dirt road. It is advisable to travel by tractor, off-road to Ban Nakheu with the Provincial Guide Service on the Phou Hin Poun 2-day Trek.
This amazing 7.5 km-long limestone cave was formed by the Hinboun River which still flows through the cave year-round. You can take a boat ride right through the main caver, which is up to 90 meters wide and 100 meters high. The Konglor Cave can be reached via a 40 km overland trip from Ban Khoun Kham (the Gateway to Konglor) or by taking a slightly longer but more adventurous boat trip up the Hinboun River beginning in Naphouak village. Homestays are available in Natan and Konglor villages.
There are two routes to get to the Cave:
- From Vientiane along Route 13 (south) to Hinboun District about 160 kilometers then by boat along the Hinboun River about 120 kilometers.
- From Vientiane along Route 13 (South) to Ban Laow Village, turn left to Route 8 (Lak Sao intersection), at Km.37 Ban Khounkham Village after Theun Hinboun Reservoir turn right along the earth road about 38 kilometers to Ban Konglor Village.