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Striking river cave, starry nights as photographers’ dreams come true in Khammuan province

Over several fortunate years this roving photojournalist has had the precious opportunity to visit so many beautiful places in Laos and abroad.

Visitors paddle wooden boats inside the chamber boasting limestone deposits of different shapes and sizes.

However nothing compares to a recent trip to witness the remarkable XeBangfai river cave and observe the glorious constellations of the Milky Way in a clear night sky on the Nakai Plateau in Khammuan province.
Plans for a trip to these two amazing spots were first considered a long time ago but circumstances meant I could not make it until a few weeks ago.
It seems it was good timing with some fellow photographer friends suggesting the outing.
Our plans came together just one week before the trip.
The timing was a bit curious as this year the rainy season had already started early. 
Increasingly known to intrepid travelers, the XeBangfai river cave is located in part of Hin Nam Nor National Protected Area in Bualapha district, Khammuan province.
The Hin Nam Nor NPA is currently vying for World Heritage listing for its 82,000ha protected area considered to be one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world covered by thick and lush forest habitat.
The cave is about 480 km away the capital.
We decided to leave in the early morning in order to be in Bualapha district to set up our camps before sunset.
However things had to change when we realized that the road we planned to travel on was flooded.
We switched route to an unpaved road, adding additional time to the journey.
About 125km from Thakhek the capital city of Khammuan, it took almost four hours to reach Bualapha district.
From there we continued another 14km on a very narrow and muddy road.
Some bridges we encountered were suitable only for motorcycles and so we sought to ford a small river in our friend’s truck.
Naturally it got stuck while crossing and we were forced to spend much additional time till night fall to free it.
Luckily we were helped by nearby villagers and they offered us a home stay to save up energy and continue the next morning.
In order not to get our four-wheel drive vehicles stuck again we decided to get there by tractor based on the recommendation from villagers who warned we could expect to face even more serious conditions ahead.
After three hours slow tractor drive on the bumpy and muddy way, crossing rivers and traversing mountain paths we finally made it to the cave entrance.
We gathered excitedly at the enormous cave mouth with our equipment.
The great XeBangfai river cave is 7 km long forming a giant tunnel beneath limestone karst mountains of Hin Nam Nor before emerging to a clear pool in the cave mouth.
The cave chamber, measuring an average of 76m wide and 56m in height, creates one of the largest active river cave passages in the world.
When we arrived inside we found bird and bat colonies making homes in the roof.
Some were flying around above our heads.
Meanwhile, fish were busy chasing any nutrition dropped by the creatures above.
Soon we were deeper, being mesmerised with the beauty and the grandeur of the limestone chambers, the spectacular natural sculptures and reflections and shadows cast by crystalline deposits providing an eerie splendor difficult to put into words.
We spent time to explore and photograph in some major locations of the cave.
Before going deeper inside the villagers recommended us to prepare proper equipment because in some sections it is difficult to traverse.
Our time in the XeBangfai river cave over, we headed to a site on the Nakai Plateau which is located about 100 kilometres away from Bualapha district.
It is known for beautiful scenery of Nam Theun Reservoir a host of ecotourism activities including trekking, rafting, kayaking and caving in PhouHinPoun.
Nakai's Nam Theun National Protected Area with a size of 353.200 ha is considered one of the most biologically important areas in the world, with three of the world's last five recently discovered or re-discovered large mammals found there.
These include the Saola, Giant Muntjac and Indochinese Warty Pig.
A population of wild elephants is also to be found in the area.
Nakai consists of sandstone formations, a complex range of habitats and mountainous elevations ranging from 500-2.200m.
We arrived night at Thalang a small village is known for being a tourism gateway.
Luckily it was a new moon night so we could already see the Milky Way with the naked eye.
Being photographers, the crystal clear sky saw us rushing to setup our tripods to snap the Milky Way before getting around to addressing our camping equipment.
Nakai Plateau is considered to be one of the best spots to observe the stars in Laos as it boasts an advantageous landscape of relatively high altitude and low levels of light pollution.
For us to capture the clear starry night was a big bonus in addition to the extraordinary opportunities presented by the XeBangfai River cave.
Together we agreed this could be one of our greatest photographic journeys yet.
Of course, a word of warning is necessary to those planning a trip.
According to Khammuan tourism department, it is not recommended to enter the XeBangfai river cave between June and October due to dangerously high river flows.
Road access to the area is also difficult during the wet season, however, there is boat access from Ban Pakphanang.
Meanwhile, homestays and lodge services are available year round to help visitors enjoy the activities on offer.

By PhoonsabThevongsa
(Latest Update June 16, 2017)

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