Xieng Khouang Caves
Tham Piu (Coffin Cave): Experience a wide range of emotions - sadness, curiosity, introspection, resignation, and hope – at Tham Piu (Coffin Cave). The sad hillside hole and its rocky rubble floor reminds visitors of that catastrophic day, when an American bomb found its target. Though accounts of the fateful day differ, one fact goes undisputed: the explosion on 24 November 1968, killed hundreds of innocent villagers.
Before the ascent to Tam Piu, go to the visitor centre and contemplate the display of photographs and history behind the bombings. You’ll read about the single shell that hit the core of the cave, and claimed a reported 374 lives of locals seeking shelter from the daily bombings. Pictures of victims horrify, while the snapshot of Officer Thidbounkon, who allegedly downed an F4 fighter jet with three rifle shots, raises an eyebrow.
Start your climb to the cave on the upper staircase, which passes a golden Buddha, grave markers, and bomb craters set in an eerie park-like scene. Practical yet peculiar, a series of narrow concrete channels crisscross the walkway. They feed mountain water to diversion dams rerouting the flow to irrigate nearby village fields. Inside Coffin Cave, locals light incense to pay tribute to those who died.
Outside the cave, the statue of a man, straining to hold his anger, carries the body of a lifeless child. This solemn monument to those who died, calls for an “Annual Day of Remembrance” for the 1968 massacre. The stairs head downhill to a stream you can cross on a short but challenging bamboo bridge, or play it safe and simply wade through the creek. Refreshment stands and small restaurants offer a respite for reflection on the other side.
To reach Tham Piu, take Lao Route 5 north from Kham Town for 3 km to Ban Bouam, turn left (west), and follow the road to the end and the cave’s parking lot.
Tham Xang: According to locals, during the Indochina War, no villages existed where Ban Ta now stands. Only Xang Tham (Cave for Care) in a cone-shaped peak and a great view of the karst landscape and valleys with chirping birds occupied this patch of Xieng Khouang.
Today, terraced rice fields and forested mountaintops stand atop the stairs leading 400 metres down to the cave entrance, which is maintained by the Hmong villagers in Ban Ta. You can still envision the well-lit cavern’s war-time setup, though it competes with the natural rock formations for attention.
When the war hit, Pathet Lao soldiers capitalized on the cave complex, changing its rocky chambers into a hospital, pharmaceutical warehouse, and arms depot. Peek inside with a Hmong guide and see evidence of its wartime role.
Besides its war history, the cave is worth visiting to see its gorgeous features. Inside, you can inspect dripstone forms called “speleothems”, caused by water flowing down the walls and over the cave floor. This creates flowstone or rim stone deposits around pools of water that are tiered like rice paddies. Tham Xang’s other familiar formations are its stalactites and stalagmite growths.
To visit Tham Xang, travel 15 km west of Kham Town on Lao Route 7 to Ban Ta. Turn right at the sign for the cave near the market, and follow the road for about 5 km to the parking area and stairs. Ban Ta is 35 km north of Phonsavanh.
The Secret Tunnel: Scale more than 1,000 steps up the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site to the hidden mountain passageway drilled through its rocky summit. As you’ll see, this tunnel played a strategic role for Lao revolutionary forces during the Indochina War.
The hardy climb begins after about a 30-minute drive from Phonsavanh, and passes a scattering of unfinished, flawed, and broken jars once destined for Jar Site 1. Alongside this prehistoric workshop, craters from the 1964-1973 American bombing campaign pock the forested terrain, though singing birds have replaced explosive blasts.
The stairs get steeper towards the end of the 1,200-metre ascent, but there are plenty of places to take a break and enjoy the view of the Paxay Plain and tiered rice paddies stepping down the foothills. The climb ends at a fork in the trail, and a left turn takes you on an easy 200metre path to the “Secret Tunnel”. You can enter the concealed cave, built into the mountain, after stepping down into a concrete bunker.
The narrow 70-metre channel, chiselled through rock, with a ceiling around 1.6-metres high, winds past a few reinforced concrete ammo depots and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the mountains around Phou Koud District.
A visitor information centre and restaurant sit at the base of the mountain, and a row of refreshment stands serves soft drinks, beer, and snacks.
To visit the Secret Tunnel from Phonsavanh, travel west on Route 7 for about 13 km and turn left at the sign to the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site. From here, a compact dirt road winds 7 km to the site entrance, crossing a steel truss bridge next to a broken wooden one on the way.
Tham Pha: Place Ban Nong Tang, home of Tham Pha, on your must-see list. Soaring limestone karsts surround the town on Route 7 and peaceful Nong Tang Lake. Nearby, you’ll find Tham Pha, a cave complex housing hundreds of Buddha images, and the ruins of ancient Buddhist temples.
Before the Indochina War, Muang Sui Town, now called Nong Tang, sat quietly near a lake. Beautiful Buddhist temples and shrines, some dating to the 15th century, stood alongside French buildings, but today, only the ruins of Vat Mixay, Vat Ban Ang, and Ban Mong Stupa remain.
These are well-worth a visit before embarking on short journey to the Tham Pha (Buddha Cave) underground maze. A large sitting Buddha, alleged to be 1,200 years old, greets visitors inside the entrance, before the amply-lit cave expands into a limestone labyrinth. Follow the web of rocky walkways that lead to chambers holding stashes of Buddha figurines still hiding from 19th-century Haw bandits.
To visit Tham Pha from Phonsavanh, follow Route 7 west for 48 km to Nong Tang Town and its lake. To reach the caves, pass the lake, turn left at the “Buddha Cave” sign, and follow a 3-km paved road.
Tam That: After your Tham Pha Cave experience, move next door to Tham That and the ruins of an ancient Buddhist stupa. Then head back to Nong Tang Lake and a waterside noodle shop for a bite to eat and a nice cold drink.