Khammouane Province

KHAMMOUANE PROVINCE OVERVIEW

Located: in central Laos

Total area: 16,135 square kilometers

Population: 412,052 (2024)

9 Districts: Thakhek, Mahaxay, Nongbok, Hinboun, Nhommalath, Bualapha, Nakai, Xebangfai, Xaybouathong and Khounkham

Capital of the province: Thakhaek

  • Caves to explore

  • Karst mountain landscape

  • Ecotourism incl trekking, kayaking, caving

  • Newly discovered mammals

Khammouane is located in central Laos bordering Bolikhamxay and Savannakhet provinces. The Mekong River Valley in the west is framed by the Annamite Mountain Range which separates Khammouane from Vietnam to the east.

The Limestone Mountains are honeycombed with countless caves, some of which for years concealed forgotten treasures. The Buddha Cave (Tham Pa Fa) was discovered in 2004 and houses 229 priceless Buddha images. Kong Lor Cave is perhaps the most well-known in the province. It is 7,5 kilometers long and as high and wide as 90-100 meters in some places.

The province has three national protected areas (NPA) that cover an enormous area about 6,295 square kilometers in total. Phou Hin Poun NPA encompasses much of the limestone forest and has 43 recorded species of bats. The Hin Namno NPA is located in the area where the Central Indochina Limestone meets the Annamite Chain, and as a result, has prominent limestone escarpments and caves. The most important area in terms of biodiversity is the Nakai-Nam Theun NPA with its complex range of habitats and newly discovered species of mammals such as the saola, giant muntjac, and Indochinese warty pig.

Locally made products include handmade incense sticks, naturally dyed cotton and silk weavings produced in the Kong Lor area. The province’s favorite snack, khaonome parn, is a soft sticky green and black colored sweet wrapped in banana leaves made with yellow soy beans and coconut in the middle. This treat was originally brought to Laos generations ago by Vietnamese settlers. Today, whenever Lao people visit Khammouane they are obliged to bring back a bag of khaonome parn to their friends and family. 

Fertile land here is well suited to plantations of rice, cabbage, sugar cane, bananas, etc. Total population is made up of lowland and up-land Lao groups: Phuan, Tahoy, Kri, Katang etc. Thakhaek is the provincial capital, situated across the Mekong from Nakorn Phanom in Thailand. It also has much well preserved French colonial architecture similar to that found in Vientiane.

The Lao, Phouthai and other Tai-speaking peoples are the main ethnic groups in Khammouane. Inhabiting mainly lowland river valleys . There are also Mekong or Bru people, a Mon-Khmer-speaking ethnic minority that make up 13% of the provincial population. In smaller numbers are the Kri, Nguan, Atel, Themarou, and Maleng who are mainly found in the mountainous eastern part of the province.

Khammouane, meaning “happy gold”, is believed to have been named after the gold deposits found in the area hundreds of years ago. The province’s history dates back as early as the 6th-8th centuries when the region was part of the Sikhottabong Kingdom. Remnants of the ancient civilization include the Great Wall (Kampeng Nyak), Meuang Phone Stupa, and Sikhottabong Stupa – one of the most sacred in Laos. The province has many remaining buildings that date to the colonial period, especially in the provincial capital of Thakhaek. 

Khammouane is a land of rugged karst mountains which were once the refuge of a succession of ethnic groups fleeing the Haw invasions in the north during the 19th century. The famed Mu Gia pass at the end of route 12 was one of the main transit points of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Indochina Wars. This dreamlike landscape has served as a sanctuary for a number of wild animals that were unknown to scientists until the 1990s. The khan you, a small rodent-like creature the size of a small squirrel was found in Khammouane in the early 21st century and possibly will be the last remaining mammalian family to be described on earth.

TOURIST DESTINATION

THAT SIKHOTTABONG STUPA
Built at the same time as That Inhang Stupa in Savannakhet and That Phanom in Thailand, these were constructed in the Sikhottabong Empire for keeping the bones of Lord Buddha. At first, it was bulit by King Nanthasene for King Soummitham then it was restored by King Saysetthathirath in the 16th Century. The festival is performed on the third month of lunar calendar. This 29 meter high golden stupa is one of the most sacred sites in Laos. It is located along the bank of the Mekong River 6 km. from Thakhaek.

OLD THAKHEK TOWN
The provincial capital of Khammouane Province, Thakhaek, is located on the Banks of the Mekong River. Much of its architecture can be traced to French colonial construction in the early 20th century. The town’s name in Lao means “guest landing” (“khaek” literally meaning guest), a reference to its earlier role as a boat landing for foreign traders. The center of the old town can be found around the fountain square near the river where many old building remain. During the French colonial period, Thakhaek was an important city, both for trade along the Mekong as well as a defensive out post on the front lines, with the Siamese, who weren’t too happy about giving up “their” territory. As a result of the strong French presence, there are a lot of French colonial style buildings around town from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so if you’re interested in such things, a stroll around the old city area can be a pleasant way to pass some time. The old city was centered on a broad median plaza that stretched away from the river for a couple of blocks. Most of the interesting buildings are within five or six blocks of the plaza in either direction. You can easily make a loop walking down the riverfront, or better, one block away from the river, until you get to the end, then heading over one block further in and walking back.

KONG LOR CAVE
This amazing 7.5 kilometers-long limestone cave was formed by the Hinboun River which still flows through the cave yearround. You can take a boat ride right through the main cave, which is up to 90 meters wide and 100 meters high. The Kong Lor Cave can be reached via a 40 kilometers overland trip from Ban Khounkham (the Gateway to Kong Lor) or by taking a slightly longer but more adventurous boat trip up the Hinboun River beginning in Naphouak village. Homestays are available in Natan and Kong Lor villages. From Vientiane along Route 13 (South) to Ban Laow Village, turn left to Route 8 (Lak Sao intersection), at Km37 Ban Khounkham Village after Theun Hinboun Reservoir turn right along the earth road about 38 kilometers to Ban Kong Lor Village.

XE BANGFAI CAVE
The Xe Bangfai River, whose source is in the Annamite range between Laos and Vietnam “loses” itself for 7 km through a giant tunnel beneath limestone karst mountains of Hin Nam No to find itself emerging again in a clear pool near Ban Nong Ping Village. The cave chamber, measuring an average of 76m width and 56m in height, creates one of the largest ac- tive river cave passages in the world. Although there were two 20th century explorations by the French (1905 & 1995), this cave remarkably remained virtually unknown except to locals until a National Geographic survey brought it to world attention through an expedition in 2008. The cave is navigable by boat for 2km until a section of rapids is encountered. The grandeur of the limestone chamber, the spectacular natural decorations, flowstones and cave crystals provide an eerie beauty rarely experienced. A climb through a branch cavity reveals a chamber evocative of a Dragon Hatch- ery. This chamber leads to an elevated balcony providing a dimly lit view of the massive opening . Outside the cave a resurgence pool glitters in the light encir- cled by a beach. This 200m radius pond is conserved by vil- lagers as a fish breeding zone, ensuring reliable downstream fishing. Traditionally, villagers thought this to be the source of the Xe Bangfai river and knew it as Tham Khoun Xe, meaning “the cave at the source of the river”. According to village legend, the cave is inhabited by a spirit. One time a broken khaen (musical instrument) was left at the entrance and was found restored to immaculate condition the next morning. The spirit was also known to lend beautiful clothes to individuals for various ceremonies until one time a beneficiary returned a garment unwashed. The spirit is still believed to be benevolent though, as villagers who have fallen while gathering swal- lows nests and bats within the chamber have never lost their lives from the event. Not only that, but no bombs entered the cavity during the war.

KHOUN KONG LANG LAKE
Nestled amid the limestone karsts of the Phu Hin Bun NPA is the stunningly beautiful Evening Gong Lake. The luminescent green waters spring from a subterranean river that filters through the limestone, making the water crystal clear. It’s only about 30km northeast of Tha Khaek. You must ask at the village before swimming in the lake. Once you get approval, only swim in the stream that flows from the lake, near the wooden footbridge, and not in the lake itself. Fishing is banned. Heading north along Rte 13 and turn right (east) at Km 29 onto a dirt road. After 2km, turn right (south) again, and bump up over hills and through villages for 16km until you reach Ban Na Kheu. It’s another 1km to the lake.

BUDDHA CAVE (THAM PA FA)
Examine Khammouanes province’s famous Buddha Cave on this one-day guided trek that follows a forested trail through a cave and along a lake to another cave for swimming before reaching “Tham Pa Fa”. The trek is led by trained local ecoguides who explain the local flora and relate the legends of the caves. Located near Na Khang Xang Village in Thakhaek District.

THAM NANG AEN CAVE
The legend of this cave is linked to Tham Xienglieb Cave. The story goes, that Xieng, the young former novice who went looking for the beautiful daughter of the hermit at Tham Xienglieb Cave, met with her at the entrance of this cave. Here the two lovers sat (meaning nang in Lao) and flirted (aen kan). Hence the name Tham Nang Aen (Cave of Sitting and Flirting). This cave is a favorite weekend destination for Lao and Thai people and is a great place to cool off from the heat because of the constant cool breeze blowing out of cave’s natural air conditioning. The cave is up to 30 meters-high in some places and over 1,5 kilometers-long. It contains a small underground lake and impressive limestone formations. The cave is well lit and cement walkways and steps have been constructed for visitor safety. The large cave entrance is accessed through a wooden ceremonial structure built in 1987 for the visit of the Princess of Thailand. On the grounds just outside the cave is a simple zoo with several animals and a very large Mai Kaphoung tree (Tetrameles nudiflora). The cave is located 18 kilometers northeast of Thakhaek on Route 12. Turn right at the sign and go 700 meters along the access road, crossing a small river along the way. If the river is flooded you can cross using the small foot-bridge.