Less visited than Savannakhet to the south, THAKHEK, capital of Khammouane province, is gradually gaining popularity as the best base to explore the nearby Mahaxai Caves and karst formations, and the massive Khammouane Limestone NBCA. It is also an entry point into Laos from Nakhon Phanom in Thailand, as well as being a good place to break the long journey down Route 13 to Savannakhet.
Take a short walk out from Thakhek’s tiny town square and you’ll find crumbling French villas, overgrown gardens, and an almost haunted atmosphere pervading the too-wide streets. It’s hard to believe that during the Second Indochina War, Thakhek was a sort of Havana on the Mekong, with visiting Thais flocking to its riverbank casino; these days, it’s Nakhon Phanom on the opposite bank that’s the big metropolis. Separated only by the Mekong River, the two Lao peoples living on each bank couldn’t have a more different way of life.
For most visitors this lost-in-time atmosphere is the main draw. There are a few nice colonial-era buildings around the town square, and on Chao Anou Road, north of the square, is a fine row of 1920s shophouses featuring interlocking swastika designs of moulded stucco (although this Hindu motif appears in Lao weaving, it is rare in Lao architecture). Between Chao Anou and Setthathilat is a large temple, Wat Nabo.
Thakhek’s main attraction is 6km to the south and easily reached by tuk-tuk. Known locally as Muang Kao, Wat Pha That Sikhotabong is one of the country’s holiest pilgrimage sites and a great scenic spot, especially at sunset. The third lunar month, which usually falls in July, is the best time to visit, when the temple celebrates its annual bun and a carnival-like atmosphere prevails.
Thakhek’s roots date back to the Chenla and Funan empires. The name Thakhek, which means “Visitor’s Landing”, is relatively new, but is a reference to the town’s importance as far back as the eighth century. As Sikhotabong, and later Lakhon, Thakhek was a principality spanning both banks of the Mekong, and a hub for trade routes connecting civilizations in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Its former spiritual centre, the shrine of That Phanom, is now in present-day Thailand and is still the holiest site in ethnically Lao northeastern Thailand. When the kingdom of Lane Xang was formed under the leadership of Fa Ngum in the fourteenth century, Sikhotabong’s governor oversaw the southern extent of the Lao empire. Under the French, the town became an administrative outpost with a bustling Vietnamese community: the colonial administration thought that an influx of Vietnamese workers was the key to finally turning a profit on their sparsely populated Lao territory. By the 1940s, the town was 85 percent Vietnamese. After the revolution, large numbers of these Vietnamese families fled across the Mekong to Nakhon Phanom on the opposite bank, with the result that Thakhek has slipped into being the sleepy Lao town it is today.
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.
The most accessible of Khammouane province’s three NBCAs is the Phou Hin Poun NBCA, more popularly known as the Khammouane Limestone NBCA and home to a dizzying array of wildlife, including elephants, tigers and macaques. Unlike the neighbouring Nakai-Nam Theun and Hin Nam No NBCAs to the east, the Khammouane Limestone NBCA can be accessed by road or river from a number of approaches, making it the most practical and affordable of the three to visit.
The best way to experience the park is on one of the organized tours that operate out of Thakhek or Vientiane, and that generally include kayaking, hiking and village stays. Although it will not allow you to penetrate the interior of the park to the degree a professionally organized expedition can, a do-it-yourself tour from Thakhek is also easily arranged and affordable.
The chief highlight of many of the tours is the journey by kayak through the wonderfully dramatic Tham Lot Kong Lo Cave, a natural 7km river tunnel through a limestone karst mountain into a hidden valley. Bring a torch (flashlight) and some rubber flip-flops as it can be necessary to wade through the more shallow stretches of the river. Green Discovery (t021/264680, www.greendiscoverylaos.com), which may have opened a new Thakhek office on the town square by the time you read this offers a three-day kayaking, cycling and trekking tour to the cave.
There’s an eco-resort within the park, the L’Auberge Sala Hine Boun (t020/755220, wwww.salalao.com; 120,500–200,000K), on the banks of the Nam Hin Poun River; it’s reached by taking a tuk-tuk from Na Hin (on Route 8) to Ban Na Phouak on the northern boundary of the NBCA, and then a boat up the Nam Hin Poun ($15; 2hr). The resort has comfortable bungalows and is within easy day-hiking distance of a number of hill-tribe villages, Tham Thieng cave and Tham Lot Kong Lo. Kayak excursions through the underground river can be arranged here but a cheaper option, especially if you’re travelling solo, is to arrive at the cave with your own transport and wait until you can split the cost of a boat and driver (around $10) with other sightseers.