Thakhek and around

Located on the Mekong, at the junction of Routes 13 and 12, Thakhek is a quiet town, surrounded by beautiful countryside. It is the capital of Khammouane Province and was founded in 1911-1912, under the French. Apart from Luang Prabang, Thakhek is probably the most outwardly French-looking town in Laos, with fading pastel villas clustered around a simple fountain area. It has a fine collection of colonial-era shophouses, a breezy riverside position and a relaxed ambience. One of Laos' holiest sites, That Sikhot, the stunning caves of the region and beautiful Mahaxai can all be visited from here. This town is the most popular stopover point in the central provinces, attracting a range of tourists with its vast array of caves, rivers, lakes and other attractions. Despite encompassing some of the most beautiful scenery in Laos: imposing jagged mountains, bottle green rivers, lakes and caves, the region is still not considered a primary tourist destination. Tourism infrastructure is still quite limited but a trip to this area will prove the highlight of most visitors' holidays to Laos.

That Sikhot

That Sikhot or
is one of Laos' holiest sites. It overlooks the Mekong and the journey downstream from Thakhek, along a quiet road, reveals bucolic Laos at its best. The
is thought to have been built by Chao Anou at the beginning of the 15th century and houses the relics of Chao Sikhot, a local hero, who founded the old town of Thakhek.

According to local legend, Sikhot was bestowed with Herculean strength after eating some rice he had stirred with dirty - but as it turned out magic - sticks. At that time, the King of Vientiane was having a problem with elephants killing villagers and taking over the country (hard to believe now but Laos was once called Land of a Million Elephants). The King offered anyone who could save the region half his Kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage. Due to his new-found strength, Sikhot was able to take on the pachyderms and secure most of the surrounding area as well as Vientiane, whereupon he married the King of Vientiane's daughter. The King was unhappy about handing over his kingdom and daughter to this man, and plotted with his daughter to regain control. Sikhot foolishly revealed to his new wife that he could only be killed through his anus, so the King of Vientiane placed an archer at the bottom of Sikhot's pit latrine and when the unfortunate Oriental Hercules came to relieve himself, he was killed by an arrow.

That Sikhot consists of a large gold stupa raised 29 m on a plinth, with a viharn upstream built in 1970 by the last King of Laos. A major annual festival is held here in July and during February.

Kong Leng Lake

This site is usually incorporated into hikes as there isn't direct road access to the lake. Steeped in legend, locals believe an underground Kingdom lies beneath the surface of the 100-m-deep lake. As a result, you must request permission to swim here from the local village authority and you can only swim in the designated swimming zone. Fishing is not permitted. The beautiful green waters of the lake morph into different shades season to season due to the dissolved calcium from the surrounding limestone crops. It is very difficult to get to on your own and the track is sometimes completely inaccessible except on foot. T

Tham Pha (Buddha Cave)

A farmer hunting for bats accidentally stumbled across the Buddha Cave (also known Tham Pa Fa, or Turtle Cave) in April 2004. On climbing up to the cave's mouth, he found 229 bronze Buddha statues, believed to be more than 450 years old, and ancient palm leaf scripts. These Buddhas were part of the royal collection believed to have been hidden here when the Thais ransacked Vientiane. Since its discovery, the cave has become widely celebrated, attracting pilgrims from as far away as Thailand, particularly around Pi Mai (Lao New Year). A wooden ladder and eyesore concrete steps have now been built to access the cave, but it is quite difficult to get to as the dirt road from Thakhek is in poor condition. It is recommended that you organize a guide through the
Thakhek Tourism Information Centre
to escort you. In the wet season, it is necessary to catch a boat. The journey itself is half the fun as the cave is surrounded by some truly stunning karst formations sprawling across the landscape like giant dinosaur teeth.

Route 12 and the 'Loop'

The impressive karst landscape of the Mahaxai area is visible to the northeast of town and can be explored on a popular motorbike tour from Thakhek, known as the
, which runs from Thakhek along Route 12 to Mahaxai, then north to Lak Sao, west along Route 8
to Ban Na Hin and then south back to Thakhek on Route 13, taking in caves and other beautiful scenery along the way. The circuit should take approximately three days but allow four to five, particularly if you want to sidetrack to Tham Kong Lor and the other caves.

The 'Loop' is mostly for motorcyclists, who pick up a bike in Thakhek and travel by road. For those with more patience the trip can be undertaken on public transport. The whole loop covers an area over 400 km (without the side-trips). This includes 50 km from Thakhek to the Shell Station before the turn-off to Mahaxai; 45 km between the shell Station and Nakai; 70 km between Nakai and Lak Xao; 66 km between Lak Xao and Ban Na Hin; 60 km between Ban Na Hin and Ban Lao and then 100 km between Ban Lao and Thakhek. The trip between Ban Lao and Ban Na Hin offers some spectacular views.

If on a motorbike pack light: include a waterproof jacket, a torch, a few snacks, a long- sleeved shirt, sunglasses, sun block, closed-toe shoes, a
or sarong (to use as a towel, to stop dust and - for women - to bathe along the way), a phrase book and a good map. It is a bumpy, exhausting but enjoyable ride. Few of the sites are particularly well signposted in English so you will need to ask around. Most sites charge a parking fee for motorbikes.

Note that this whole region is very susceptible to change due to the Nam Theun II dam, a US$1.45 billion hydropower project, and other developments in the area. It is imperative that you check for up-to-date information before travelling. Check on the status of the roads at the Tourism Information Centre and check the logbook at the
Thakhek Lodge
. This trip is difficult in the wet season and will probably only be possible for skilled riders on larger dirt bikes. In the dry season it's very dusty.

The caves along Route 12 can also be visited on day trips from Thakhek, although some are difficult to find without a guide and access may be limited in the wet season. Many of the sights have no English signposts but locals will be more than obliging to confirm you are going in the right direction if you ask. Turn south off Route 12 at Km 7 to reach
Tham Xang
(Tham Pha Ban Tham), an important Buddhist shrine that contains some statues and a box of religious scripts. It is considered auspicious due to the 'elephant head' that has formed from calcium deposits and in the Lao New Year the locals sprinkle water on it. At Km 13, turn north on a track for 2 km to
Tha Falang
(Vang Santiphap - Peace Pool), a lovely emerald billabong on the Nam Don River, surrounded by pristine wilderness and breathtaking cliffs. It's a nice place to spend the afternoon or break your journey. In the wet season it may be necessary to catch a boat from the Xieng Liab Bridge to get here. Turn south off Route 12 at Km 14 and follow the track south to reach
Tham Xiang Liab
, a reasonably large cave at the foot of a 300-m-high limestone cliff, with a small swimming hole (in the dry season) at the far end. It is not easy to access the interior of the cavern on your own and, in the wet season, it can only be navigated by boat, as it usually floods. This cave, called 'sneaking around cave' derived its name from a legend of an old hermit who used to meditate in the cave with his beautiful daughter. A novice monk fell in love with the hermit's daughter and the two lovebirds planned their trysts sneakily around this cave and Tham Nan Aen. When the hermit found out he flew into a rage and did away with the novice monk; the daughter was banished to the cave for the rest of her life.

At Km 17, beyond the narrow pass, turn to the north and follow the path for 400 m to reach
Tham Sa Pha In
, a cave with a small lake and a couple of interesting Buddhist shrines. Swimming in the lake is strictly prohibited as the auspicious waters are believed to have magical powers. South of Route 12, at Km 18, a path leads 700 m to the entrance of
Tham Nan Aen
. This is the giant of the local caverns at 1.5 km long and over 100 m high. It has multiple chambers and the entrances are illuminated by fluorescent lighting; it also contains a small underground freshwater pool.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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