Sparsely populated, Bolikhamsai and Khammuan Provinces offer a level of untouched natural glory that is rarely found elsewhere in Laos or indeed all of South East Asia. The land sedately climbs out of the Mekong river valley northwards and eastwards, and is positively littered with deep river caves and verdant jade-green jungles. Hemmed in by the Mekong River and Thailand to the west, and the Annamite mountain range and Vietnam to the west, the area is less ethnically diverse than the North, with a population that mostly consists of lowland Lao. Nevertheless, a significant population of Makong/Bru peoples can be found in Khammuan Province (roughly 10%) as well as smatterings of tribal Thais.
Easily the provinces least affected by human activity, there are six stunning National Park Areas to discover, including the highlight of Tham Kang Lor, a river cave reaching deep into the earth. While the nature is stunning, most of the towns and villages are nothing extraordinary, and most travellers mainly stay in Tha Kaek, using it as a base to explore the nearby National Parks.
Sadly the natural beauty of the region is under constant threat from developers wishing to exploit the abundant sources of hydroelectricity, leading to occasional clashes with those wishing to preserve the flora and fauna found here. As of now, the infrastructure developers have the upper hand, and as such a visit is recommended before too much of the nature here is despoiled by hydroelectric dams and industry.
See and Do
If you’re coming from Vientiane or elsewhere in Northern Laos, Paksan
is likely to be your first stop in Central Laos. While it serves as an excellent stopping point and gateway to further travel in the region, the town itself is nothing special. There are a handful of restaurants and guesthouses to accommodate travellers passing through, but not much beyond that. As such you’re best off resting here for a night before continuing into Central Laos proper.
As you continue east along route 13, the next destination on your journey is Pak Kading
. Situated not far upstream from the confluence of the Mekong and Kading rivers, the village has a relaxed and sleepy atmosphere, with stunning views in every direction. As of now, the Kading River is remarkably unmarred, more so than any other river in Laos, and its gorgeous turquoise water meanders through a forest covered river valley flanked by humongous limestone cliffs on either side.
The river also serves the functional purpose of carrying visitors into the amazing Nam Kading National Park Area
. While the park contains a plethora of rare animal species, it is as usual rare to get an actual glimpse of these, but walking through the jungle you will experience a cacophony of animal cries and noises. Travellers should bear in mind that access to the park can be tricky at times, as the local government sometimes shuts down river access.
Undoubtedly the highlight of Central Laos, Tham Kang Lor
presents travellers with a chance to venture deep into the bowels of the earth. Measuring 7.5 kilometres long, the winding cave features an underground river flowing through its entire length. A boat will carry you into the cave along the river, and the trip takes about 1 hour each way, including refreshment breaks and stops to study the stalactite forests descending from the ceiling. Depending on the season and subsequent water level, you may have to get out and wade at several points while the guides drag the boat back to deeper waters. This combined with the poor torches provided at the cave makes it essential that you bring both shoes suitable for water as well as your own torch.
Ban Kong Lor
, formerly a tiny village, has seen an explosion in economic activity since the opening of the cave, and its ion of guesthouses are the most convenient place to make your base while visiting the cave.
Continuing east towards the border with Vietnam, you will reach Lak Sao
, a small two-street village that derives most of its economic activity from logging and trade with Vietnam. There’s not much to do here, and the constant screen of dust generated by the trucks heading towards nearby Vietnam certainly doesn’t help make it a pleasant place to be. Because of this, generally the only reason travellers visit is as a pit stop on the famous Central Laos Motorcycle Loop
While not as sophisticated as Luang Prabang or Vientiane, Tha Khaek
is certainly the most lively and comfortable place in the region for travellers to use as a base to explore the nearby caves and hikes. The closest and primary destination for travellers in the city is nearby Phu Hin Bun NPA
. With its turquoise rivers and dense monsoon forests, the atmosphere is decidedly magical. Giant limestone cliffs rise up from the river vertically for hundreds of meters, a sight that leaves even the most jaded traveller awestruck. Tours can be arranged from Tha Khaek, and range from quick day-trips to multi-day excursions involving accommodation in a remote minority village. Alternatively, cycling and kayaking tours are a popular option to explore the park.
Should you desire more spelunking, recently discovered Tham Pa Seuam
is the best cave in the area. Being a river cave, it can be considered the smaller brother of Tham Kong Lor, coming in at roughly half its size at 3 kilometres. Unlike Tham Kong Lor however, here you have the chance to paddle your own kayak into the cave, instead of spending the whole experience on a guided boat. Tours arranged from Tha Khaek often combine Tham Pa Seuam with other smaller caves in the area to create a whole-day experience.
Culture & Arts
Since many of the towns in the area are lacking in terms of traditional accommodation, a fantastic way to get immersed with the local culture is through homestay accommodation
. Giving you the chance to live up close with a local family for a few days, you get to see every aspect of local daily life and eat deliciously cooked homemade Lao food.
For a longer and more intense option, there is the Central Laos Motorbike Loop
. Famous with travellers from around the world, the loop lets you make a tour of a myriad of smaller villages belonging to both Lao people and ethnic minorities like the Makong. The loop also offers an excellent opportunity to see most, if not all, of the nature sights mentioned earlier in this article, and as such might be the best way to experience the provinces, as long as you’re comfortable with taking a motorbike over the sometimes sketchy roads.
Food and Drink
While the region has little to offer in terms of unique specialties to set it apart from the rest of Laos, there are a few standout dishes that, while common in the rest of Laos, are prepared excellently here. Tha Khaek is certainly the culinary centre of the two provinces, and grilled food is the staple here. A smattering of “grilled meat restaurants
” surround the Fountain Square
, and the duck and chicken (called Ping Kai) are especially delicious.
Festivals and Events
Pha That Sikhottabong
, situated a few kilometres south of Tha Khaek, is home to a yearly religious festival held during the full moon in February each year. People from the surrounding area, and indeed as far away as North Eastern Thailand, gather here to pay their respects to the stupa, which is one of the most sacred in South East Asia. During the festival, a plethora of different entertainment activities are available, as well as a local trade fair and various art performances.