Fifty kilometres east of the Mahaxai Caves lies the beautifully situated town of MAHAXAI, engulfed in limestone karst formations, on the banks of the Xe Bang Fai River. A bumpy 50km drive from Thakhek, this lively little town lacks sights of its own but is nevertheless a charming place offering visitors enchanted by the strange beauty of Khammouane’s karst formations a chance to soak up the surroundings at a more measured pace.
Buses and pick-ups grind to a halt at the central market, next to an old tin-roofed temple. There’s just one hotel, as well as several noodle shops and tam màk hung vendors, all just steps away. Hiring a boat to cruise the river, which stretches from the mountainous Vietnamese border to the Mekong, can be a bit of a chore – ask by the river or around town – but if you can swing it, a two-hour round-trip by motorized pirogue is scenic in either direction, with the upstream route taking in stunning cliffs and the downstream option skimming through gentle rapids, past submerged water buffalo and villagers catching fish. Most cave touring originates in Thakhek, but the area surrounding Mahaxai is also honeycombed with caves – ask the villagers.
East of Thakhek, potholed Route 12 is swallowed up by a surreal landscape of karst formations. Hidden among the sea of jagged limestone hills are the Mahaxai Caves, many of which lie within the Khammouane Limestone NBCA. A number of the more easily accessible caves are popular both with Lao families on a weekend picnic and with foreign tourists. These more visited caves line the Thakhek–Mahaxai road, the furthest one only about 20km from Thakhek. The best caves here are spectacular and a day-trip out to explore them is a must if you’re staying in Thakhek.
The easiest way to reach the caves is by renting a motorbike or chartering a tuk-tuk from Thakhek, but some visitors prefer to cycle out or catch a Mahaxai-bound bus to the caves and then explore on foot. Public transport can be tricky, however: pick-ups and buses travel the road frequently enough in the morning but aren’t so reliable late in the afternoon. To get back, you’ll have to flag down one of the buses or pick-ups coming from Mahaxai – of which there are several a day – although again, you can’t count on catching one late in the afternoon. If you want to do a walking tour of the caves, a good starting point is Tham Ban Tham, on the road to Mahaxai 7km from Thakhek; from here you can walk to Tham En, taking in other caves en route, a 12km walk in all.