Tham Chom Ong: Creep into the latest Lao adventure in one of Southeast Asia’s 10 longest caves. First explored in 2009, the Tham Chom Ong network rambles some 16 km through a 4-km mountain ridge. The cave features parallel, connecting passages: one dry and one with a river. For spelunkers, several side passages offer exits from the spacious labyrinth. The average exploration from entry to exit lasts 5-6 hours.
Tham Chom Ong hit cave researchers radar screens as early as 2002, when the Lao-European Cave Project conducted its first expedition in northern Laos. An international team hit pay dirt in January 2009, when they uncovered the cave about 45 km northwest of Oudomxay Town near Ban Chom Ong. Subsequent explorations discovered the cave meandered more than 16 km through the ridge.
Tham Chom Ong now ranks as the 9th longest mapped cave in Southeast Asia. Most of the passages are a sizeable 20-25 metres wide and 20-30 metres high. What makes the cave unique are its overlaying channels, a river and a fossil route. The two meet at a spacious, 100-metre-long chamber that is 30 metres wide and up to 50 metres in height. Experts agree these two distinct passages are a geological rarity. Its array of huge stalagmite and stalactite formations, sinter basins, shields, calcite flows, and other oddities also impress scientists…and tourists.
Only experienced adventurers should try to traverse the entire cave due to several rock-climbing sections and slippery river walks. The full traverse takes about 5 hours with more time to return to Ban Chom Ong, a Khmu village. Still, tourists can explore much of the cave on their own or sign up for a 1-or-multi-day trek with a tour company. To reach the cave from Ban Chom Ong, follow the trail along the Nam Khon River for about 1 hour. You’ll occasionally cross the river on a bamboo bridge, and cut through rice paddies and bamboo forest. You can swim in the cave. Homestays are available at Ban Faen.
Phachao Singkham Buddha Cave: Take a pleasant 2-hour walk from Samakkhixay Village to Phachao Singkham Buddha Cave, which hid the Pha Singkham Buddha statue during the Indochina War. You can view the statue along with a collection of 400-year-old Buddha images at Phachao Singkham Temple. Tour itineraries, including the cave, also stop at Nam Kai Waterfall, a traditional salt mine, and hot springs. You can book a package at the Provincial and District Visitor Information Centres.
Phachao Kamtan Cave: Visit this legendary Pakbeng cave by tuk tuk or boat, with stops at other attractions along the way. Phachao Khamtan’s legend gets most of the credit for its allure. Generations ago, locals spent days in the forest collecting firewood for a living. One day, villagers from Ban Pak Ngeuy found a cave to store their wood before the haul home. Inside they found bat guano used for fertilizer and gunpowder. They kept it a secret until the Indochina War, when everyone in the area used it for shelter from the bombs.
The people hiding in the cave prayed to spirits for protection. They asked for a shield to deflect the bombs. Hence the name, Phachao Khamtan. Phachao means “strong spirit”; Kham translates into “gold” or “something valuable”; and Tan means “to block”. Together, Khamtan is a golden protective shield. To this day, locals come to Phachao Khamtan to ask the spirits for protection.
To visit the cave and its nearby attractions, sign up for a tour at the Pakbeng Visitor Centre or with a local agent. A half-day program starts with a tuk tuk or 30-minute boat ride on the Mekong to Pak Ngeuy. Along the way, you’ll visit a pair of temples and may see people panning for gold in the river. When you reach the village, experience their way of life before a 15-minute walk to the cave. The full day itinerary spends the afternoon trekking in the area.
Tham Luang: You can hike to the entrance, but you can’t go in. That’s because professional spelunkers have yet to conduct an expedition into Tham Luang. The cave trail starts 17 km from Muang Xay at Ban Tanongpo, where a village guide takes you on the 4-km hike to the entrance. An organized trek from Muang Xay takes in the cave’s entry and mountain as well as a Ban Tanongpo (Khmu) village visit and homestay.