Notes From Underground – the River Caves of Laos’ Khammouane Province
Into the black
An 11-hour drive from Laos’ capital Vientiane, Xe Bang Fai is hidden in a remote area of thorny karstic peaks, deep in Khammouane Province. To the west lay the Annamite Mountains, buffering the border with Vietnam, and beyond those the mammoth Son Doong, now touted as the world’s largest cave and around four times more expensive to visit. But we had our own monster to conquer.
Keen to get started, we pumped up our inflatable kayaks on the banks of Xe Bang Fai River. Black butterflies alighted on the biscuit-hued sand around us, as we pushed out into a skittering teal-green lagoon. Around our heads, swallows swooped and glided through the cave mouth, the deafening squeaks of a million birds soundtracking our entrance to the cave.
Kayaking upstream, the light soon began to foil as we moved deeper, the soft plop of paddle on blackened waters sharpening in the darkness. Monstrous formations reared out of the torchlight, throwing curious shadows. The chamber was like a giant underground cathedral and almost reverently still, soaring karstic columns looming out of the dark as the last dimmer of outside light was extinguished.
After nearly two kilometres, the roar of water heralded the first of five rapids, blocking our progress and forcing us to portage the kayaks over the rocks. After breaching the first break of grey boulders, we returned to the water. It was then that I spied the cave ceiling, bulging with folds like a silver Mr Whippy ice cream. The deeper we voyaged, the larger the boulders and pillars appeared to be – and the more impressive and grotesque their shadows Before long, a bank reared out from the dark and we made another pit stop, this time in search of a cave native: the world’s largest spider. The giant huntsman (or Heteropoda maxima) has a leg span that can reach a whopping 30cm and was first discovered in a cave in Laos in 2001. Thinking it was like any other spider, I immediately set about looking for large glistening webs in my lamplight, only to be gently chided by my guide: “Claire, they don’t spin webs – these things have teeth!”
My blood drained cold at the thought, but I needn’t have worried. After a fruitless few minutes’ spider-hunting we finally discovered something altogether less intimidating. Into our light scuttled a beautiful emerald-green beetle with a bronze belly, and then a huge bee-striped dragonfly, blown into the cavernous mouth of the river passage.
Paddling deeper into the cave, I admired its curves and folds, the walls undulating around us like curtains made of limestone. Then the roar of surging water sounded again. It resembled the swirl of a giant drain, and with it came the sense that we might be swept away. But when the river calmed after crossing each set of rapids, the water became so still that it was hard to tell where the passage wall met the river line.
After nearly seven kilometres of kayaking, a feint light started to bleed into our horizon. We emerged into the jaws of the cave’s exit, a huge gouged door partially blocked by outsized boulders. Beyond, we could see bouncy foliage with swallows zipping in and out. Phet, my other guide, gathered driftwood, lit a fire and warmed a lunch of sticky rice and beef strips stickered with sesame seeds. Before tucking in, he made an offering to the cave spirit to ensure our safe return.
On the way back through the cave, I trailed my lamp on the ceiling. Scrapes and dents were scratched across the limestone, leaving an impression of paw prints belonging to some ancient beast, while above us jagged stalactites formed the remnants of a natural portcullis.
We made good time and soon reached the entrance. Just as the light began to spill in, we parked our kayaks and climbed some steps to the ‘Dragon’s Hatchery’. Passing bulbous rock structures and cracked-earth fragments that resembled broken chocolate, we reached our goal. Here, neatly laid out in rows, were enormous hexagonal ‘pearls’ – calcium-formed shapes smoothed to a gem-like sheen by dropping water. Some of the largest of their kind are found here, and they could easily have been the eggs of dinosaurs, crystallised over millennia.
Beyond the ‘hatchery’, the cave held one last surprise. Stepping out onto a naturally formed balcony, out over the water I could see a dangling, gnarled limestone claw dropped from the ceiling, seemingly ready to plunge and grab any exiting kayakers. No wonder there were tales of vengeful spirits, I pondered, as we left the darkness behind.