Discover caves and rocky peaks of Khammuan

These are just some of the highlights of a new tour package being put together to showcase the beauties of Khammuan, a province in central Laos which is starting to really put itself on the map as an adventure and eco-tourism destination.

Enjoying amazing views from the top of a 250 metre stone outcrop, taking in the town of Thakhek, enjoying a village home-stay, getting back to nature with some trekking and then relaxing by a tranquil blue lake at the end of the trip.
I had the pleasure of joining a group of media personnel from Laos and T hailand for the maiden voyage of a package tour being developed by local tourism authorities with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The programme aims to showcase some of the wonders of Khammuan and promote them as a package tour, particularly for Thai tourists from the neighbouring province of Nakhon Phranom.

Waking up in the morning in the town of Thakhek, we met with local tourism officials, fellow journalists and photographers and JICA personnel. After a short briefing programme, we were off in the mini-vans and heading out of town through some villages to our first destination, a cave named ‘Tham Xang’ or Elephant Cave, where we were greeted warmly by local villagers and given flowers by young girls.

This cave houses a small elephant-like stone formation – hence the name of the cave. With elephants being revered in Laos, the cave has been visited by those who knew about it for a long, long time. There have been many ancient discoveries there including sacred manuscript boxes and centuries old Buddha statues.

After comin g out from the cave, we are introduced to a newly opened sightseeing spot, and climb our way to the top of a 250 metre high limestone peak to take in the surrounding views. It can be tough going on the way up, but it is more than worth it once you get to the top.

The view seems to stretch forever, and you can see all of Thakhek town and even as far as Nakhon Phranom, while in the other direction more limestone outcrops rise sharply up from the plains on the way towards Vietnam.

After enjoying a meal with the locals upon our descent, we headed off to explore another cave named Tham Phra, the Buddha Cave. Even though the road is not paved it is still quite good as Tham Phra has been a well-known destination for locals for some eight years now and the road has been graded smooth.

Buddha Cave was discovered in 2004, so named because more than 200 Buddha images were found there along with other ancient implements that date back many centuries. Under this cave is another one called Nong Pa Far, or Turtle Cave, which has filled with water allowing visitors to enj oy a boat ride with a local guide.

Not far from Buddha Cave, only about 500 metres walk in fact, there is freshwater lake called Nong Thao, where the water is clear, made green with fresh waterweeds and surrounded by picturesque mountain scenery.

Next to it is Tham Pa Xeuam, the Fish Cave. With the limited time, we didn’t have a chance to go inside, but it is supposed to be a wonderful cave as well, with many amazing stone formations, but it is easiest to take a boat there from the lake.

Tired out after exploring the area, we headed off to Phalam village where a home-stay had been arranged for us. It is a proper local village and the unpaved road is bumpy and dust billowed from the back of our vehicles, and at one stage it got so bad the driver had to turn his lights on.

Around an hour later, we arrived in the small village of Phalam, where we were immediately captivated by the sound of locals playing the khaen, a traditional bamboo flute. When they saw us arrive some of the other villagers joined in a welcome dance, to greet our arrival.

Phalam is a small village with about 25 houses situated in a cluster, close to the side of a mountain. For their livelihoods, they depend on the fruits of the jungle, harvesting bamboo, herbs and other non-timber forest products whilst undertaking some small scale agriculture.

That night they held a Baci ceremony to make us welcome and pay tribute to the spirits and keep us safe. Then we enjoyed a hearty meal before heading off to bed quite early, with a full day’s adventure ahead of us the following day.

Early the next morning, we ate a hurried breakfast of kaopiak kow or rice porridge and prepared our water bottles for a day of trekking through the densely forested Phouhinpoun National Protected Area.

On our way through the jungle we met with many local people going about their daily routine of scouring the forest looking for one kind of indigenous product or another. After three hours following a walking trail through the thick foliage, we arrived at another village named Nakeu, which is home to an almost magical lake called Kong Leng.

Our vans were waiting there to take us the final kilometre along the road to the lake, which was a really refreshing sight. Whilst it is not vast in expanse, the lake is a beautiful turquoise blue in the dry season, as the water leaches through the limestone rock.

In the wet season it turns wonderfully cle ar again, but out towards the middle it is dark, because Kong Leng lake is actually a submerged subterranean canyon, and nobody knows exactly how deep it is, except that it is very deep.

It is a captivating place and the water is cool and refreshing. There are no catering facilities there but you can order food in advance, so we stopped to enjoy lunch and chat by the calm waters.

We all wanted to stay longer but as we were on a tight itinerary for the two day tour, we ha d to keep moving. After that, we headed to our last destination of the tour, Kam Pheng Nyak, the Giant Wall, which is not far from Thakhek on the way to the third Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge.

It is an impr essive rock formation that reaches up to 15 metres in height in some places. It formed a natural defence against invaders during the Sikhottabong era and the locals say it was built by giants to defend the kingdom. It was a great way to contrast the end of the tour, the might of nature’s granite wall, and the manmade concrete of the bridge spanning the Mekong, across which many more tourists are set to flock to see the wonders of Khammuan.