Since the late 19th century, the geological wonders of Laos have captured the interest of foreign explorers, not just for its striking mountain ranges, fertile Mekong River floodplains and waterfalls – but also for what lies beneath the surface.
Countless caves have been revealed within the towering karst massifs and limestone mountains that dominate much of Laos’ picturesque landscape.
Let’s explore the 10 amazing caves in Laos!
Xe Bang Fai River Cave - Extended Thakhek Loop
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 active 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, flow-stones and cave crystals provide an eerie beauty rarely experienced.
A climb through a branch cavity reveals a chamber evocative of a Dragon Hatchery. 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 encircled by a beach. This 200m radius pond is conserved by villagers as a fish breeding zone, ensuring reliable downstream fishing.
Traditionally, villagers thought this to be the source of the Xe Bang Fai 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 swallows 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.
However, villagers are not complacent about this safety record and provide helmets for all visitors entering the cave.
An annual sacrificial offering is also made to the cave spirit to ensure its continuing protection.
Please don’t challenge this tradition by entering the cave without a village guide.
Watch the below video about Xe Bang Fai river cave
Konglor Cave - Thakhek Loop
Floating on a precariously-balanced wooden boat, apprehension sets in as your non-English speaking guide paddles the small skiff around a limestone corner.
The sinister mouth of a cave swallows you into the darkness and you realize the eerie nature of the adventure at hand – welcome to Tham Kong Lo Cave.
Tham Kong Lo Cave (sometimes spelled Konglor Cave), hidden deep in the Phu Hin Bun wilderness of central Laos, is one of Southeast Asia’s geological wonders.
Otherworldly stalactites, spooky limestone formations, and ceilings over 300 feet tall make this flooded cave a highlight and bragging-point for many travelers in Laos.
The Nam Hin Bun River flows through the cave, making it only accessible by small boats which must be hired from one of the river villages.
Boats do stop throughout the 7 km cave, allowing travelers to explore a little on foot.
Colored lights donated by a French organization create a dramatic light show bouncing off the shadows.
The river passage through the cave is also used by locals for transporting goods (the town of Nam Thone regularly delivers bulk tobacco down the river), but traffic or overcrowding on the inside is never a problem.
Exploring Tham Kong Lor cave
To explore the cave, you must hire a motorized boat from Ban Kong Lo village and chug the 7 km through the cave; boatmen usually charge around US $8 per person.
The long, narrow boats are tricky to balance and like the experienced men that paddle them, show their weathered age.
A typical boat can carry up to 2 passengers plus 1 crewmen.
About five minutes in, the boat will stop at an in-cave shore, where you can disembark and explore on foot.
The multicolored lights add drama and flair to what used to be a pitch-dark experience; paved walkways allow you to wander without slipping or tripping on wet limestone.
At its widest, Konglor Cave’s cave chamber rises over 100 meters above the water and 90 meters from wall to wall. The oddly-shaped, gleaming stalactites and stalagmites underscore the other worldliness of Konglor Cave’s interior.
At the end of the ride, the boats emerge into a verdant hidden valley. You’ll spend a fifteen-minute break here (friendly vendors here will sell you snacks), before riding the boat to float back the way you came.
Below is the promotion video for the cave
Tham Mangkon (Dragon Cave) - Thakhek Loop
Mangkone Cave is right off Route 8 and has a new restaurant and coffee shop, gift shop, and guest house.
Pay a nominal fee to walk through the cave.
A second entrance can be climbed up to and out at the back of the cave.
Dragon Cave has a deep, dark and dramatic interior with a stream and sparkling stalagmites and stalactites.
Navigate around the lake, under a very low-hanging ceiling and into a spacious and well-lit cavern with colored spotlights shining on impressive rock formations.
The cave is part of the history of Khamkeut district, as a place of refuge during the aerial bombing in the 1960s Indochina War, and its part in the legend of Nong Hia cave in Khamkeut.
There is a Buddha cave nearby where people make offerings.
Tham Nang Aen Cave - Thakhek Loop
Nang Aen is a massive cave 18km east of Thakhek and 1km south off Route 12 along Cave Alley. The spectacular cave, 30 metres high in the central chamber, is named after the legendary orphan Nang Samounta.
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).
Chom Ong Cave - Oudomxay
In January 2009 an international team of cave researchers conducted a very successful expedition to Oudomxay in Northern Laos.
The most significant finding and major highlight since the expeditions in northern Laos started in 2002 is the exploration of the Chom Ong Cave System 45 kilometers northwest of Oudomxay town near the village of Ban Chom Ong.
The system stretches along a 4 kilometers-long mountain ridge and has a parallel running and interconnecting fossil and river passage.
It was explored in three explorations (2009, 2010 and 2011) to a length of about 18,4 kilometers with some small, unpromising side passages remaining.
It ranks now as the 2nd longest cave in and the 9th longest in whole South East Asia.
The typical passage dimension is 20-25 m width and 20-30 meters-height.
There are two overlaying passages, a river and a fossil passage, which are linked at one huge hall with 100 meters-length, 30 meters-width and ceiling heights of 30-50 meters.
The cave is a trough cave and could be entered with exploration equipment near the small stream inlet in the north and left at the outflow in the south.
The full traverse would take about 5 hours with additional 1 and 3 hours respectively return walking time to Chom Ong village!
But this traverse is not recommended for tourists as several climbing parts and slippery river walks are unavoidable.
The cave is not only one of the longest caves in South East Asia but also by opinion of the cave exploration team one of the most beautiful and interesting caves.
With its two very different passages it has a diversity that is very rare.
It impresses with several huge stalagmite and stalactite formations as well as vast glittering parts, sinter basins but also geologically interesting parts (shields, floe calcite etc.).
It is said that Chom Ong cave is the most beautiful and diversified cave in Lao PDR.
Check out the below video about the expedition to Chom Ong cave
Phachao Khamtan Cave - Pakbeng
Long time ago the local people from the area used to go to the forest to collect food and firewood for their livelihood.
During one of these sometimes extended trips one group from Ban Pak Ngeuy found the cave.
However, in order to protect their discovery from being over-exploited they did not communicate it to people from outside.
For them the cave provided guano from bats for sale (e.g. for gunpowder production) and as a fertilizer for their gardens.
However, during dire straits from the Indochina Wars the wrap was taken off and the cave became a shelter from bombings for everyone in the area.
From people in the cave many prayers were sent to the Buddha to ask for protection from the falling bombs by putting a shield over the area that would send off the bombs.
It was during these hard times that the cave was given its Name “Phachao Khamtan” or “Khamtan Buddha” Cave. “Phachao” stands for Buddha and “Khamtan” stands for Valuable Protective Shield.
In this combined word “tan” is the word for shield, in this case for blocking the bombs and “kham” the word for something very valuable.
Still today in the cave you can ask the Buddha for protection or another wish to be fulfilled and you can be sure it will be granted.
Tham Ting - Tham Theung - Pak Ou cave
Though not the most impressive cave, Pak Ou gains its popularity because it locates in Luang Prabang.
Packed with over 4,000 Buddha icons, the caves, a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha, are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River.
There are two caves to visit, the lower cave called Tham Ting and the upper cave Tham Theung, both boasting miniature Buddhist figures that are mostly made from wood.
Positioned about 50 feet above the river, Tham Ting filters in some light but a torch is required for the absolutely pitch black Tham Theung.
The upper cave is home to the majority of the Buddha statues and you will need to find your way in darkness to the thousands of hidden icons.
The statues are believed to have been left in the caves by local people for hundreds of years.
Pak Ou translates to ‘mouth of the Ou river’ with the first cave entrance of Tham Ting being very visible from the water; the higher cave is accessed by stairs.
The Buddha images in the Pak Ou Caves assume a variety of positions, from meditation to peace and nirvana (the reclining Buddha).
Both caves are shrines to Buddha, offering places of worship with the largest image in Tham Ting being a popular place to burn incense and offer prayers.
The smaller cave is the more peaceful, with glimpses of the Mekong providing a breathtaking backdrop.
The caves are a very popular pilgrim site for locals and get very busy during April when the Lao New Year is in full swing with locals washing and attending to the images.
The caves are not far from Ban Xang Hai village, famous for its wine production and for the making of Lao wine earthen jars; it is a great side trip where you will get the chance to try locally produced whisky and wine.
Check out the below video for the Mekong River cruise tour to Pak Ou cave
Tham Phu Kham Cave - Vang Vieng
The vast Tham Phu Kham is considered sacred by Lao and is popular largely due to the lagoon in the cave. The beautiful green-blue waters are perfect for a dip after the stiff climb.
A hiking trail on the forested hill leads to the Phou Kham cave’s entrance, about halfway up the limestone cliff.
The 200 meter climb is quite steep at places; the trail is equipped with handrails at the steepest sections.
The cave is a labyrinth of chambers, galleries and crevices filled with stalagmites and stalactites; the air is cold and moist.
First chamber with reclining Buddha image
Past the entrance is the first large chamber which is well lit. A hole in the ceiling allows the rays of the sun to come in.
The chamber contains a large bronze reclining Buddha, lit up by the sunlight. Local Buddhists come to light incense sticks and pay homage to the three meter long gold color Buddha image.
Galleries and chambers deeper into the mountain
Red direction arrows have been painted on the rocks to mark a trail. After a while the arrows disappear and there is no clear path to follow.
From the main cave several galleries branch off deeper into the mountain. Past the first chamber there is absolute darkness and a torch or flashlight is essential to see where you are going.
While some of the chambers are quite large and relatively easy to navigate, venturing into other parts of the cave means climbing over ledges, crawling through low crevices and in some places wading through the water.
Take great care wandering deeper into the cave. There is no clear marked path to follow, the floor is slippery and uneven and there are many drops and falls.
It does not take much to loose your footing and slide down the slippery rocks, especially in the dark. Make sure to wear good shoes and have a flashlight if you go past the first well lit chamber.
At the bottom of the track to the cave is the blue lagoon, a beautiful pool with crystal clear waters. The cold turquoise waters provide a chance to cool down and wash of the cave’s dust.
Next to the pool is a tree with ropes hanging down from its branches to swing off from and jump in the water.
Tham Jang Cave - Vang Vieng
Tham Jang (or Chang) Cave is the most famous cave that used as a bunker in defense against marauding jęen hór (Yunnanese Chinese) in the early 19th century
Tham Jang is a cave just to the southwest of Vang Vieng, Laos. Approached by a bridge over the Nam Song River and then a long flight of steps, a spring is located about 50 metres (160 ft) inside the cave.
The cave is said to have been used as a refuge during the 19th century from Chinese Haw bandits and this explains its name: chang meaning ‘loyal’ or ‘steadfast’.
Walk over a cool bridge, take left and you’ll see the stairs up to the cave and the nice green/blue water on your left.
The cave itself was quiet and interesting for tourist to discover. Inside the cave, the location of the Buddha (virgin statues) with the lights shining just on it is wonderful view.
Entrance is via Vang Vieng resort south of town. For your entry fee you get into the caves and the lighting system will be turned on. Although the cave is not the most magnificent, it serves as a superb lookout point.
There was a small pool near the entrance where you could swim and the water felt quite warm.
Just down from the cave there is a patch of grass where you could have a nice picnic or read by the river. Besides, one of the paths leads to a view point outside the mountain where you can enjoy stunning scenery of the countryside.
There follows a series of chambers all well lit and easy to take photographs in. As is usual with caves there are lots of legends and shapes attached to structures in side.
Look out for an elephant, the monk’s chair and a hole where a Naga lives. There is also a stalactite which you should tap three times and make a wish.
Tham Viengxay Cave - Huaphanh province
In one of the hardest to reach corners of the country, the Vieng Xai caves are a testament to the suffering and struggle that gave rise to a new nation.
Now open to the public, the caves are one of the most important and remarkable historic sites in Laos, though few travelers venture here to visit them.
At first glance Vieng Xai doesn’t look like much. The sparsely populated, sleepy village sits on a plain surrounded by hulking limestone karst.
As unlikely as it may seem, the peaceful landscape played a pivotal role during the Secret War.
Concealed in the rock are hundreds of caves, and for almost a decade 20,000 soldiers and civilians survived the intense aerial bombing by living underground in this hidden city, which also served as the command center for the Pathet Lao.
The events leading to the conflict in Laos during the 1960s and early 1970s were the result of history and politics – the history of Laos and the Indochina region during the colonial era, and the global political situation after the Second World War.
In one way or another, this conflict affected everyone living in Laos.
Some of the most significant sites of the years of conflict are still hidden inside the mountains that circle Viengxay.
The Lao Patriotic Front – also known as the Pathet Lao – and some neutralist politicians made their headquarters there, inside networks of caves, and it became the left-wing revolutionary heartland of Laos.
The people who came to join the command center of the resistance, and the local population, sheltered here from US bombing for nine years, from 1964 to 1973.
Before the war years there was no such place as Viengxay.
But even before the first bombing of the area in 1964, when the headquarters of the Lao Patriotic Front – known as the Pathet Lao – was based in Xieng Xeu village, the leaders knew they would have to find a safer base.
When the first US planes bombed the area they moved quickly into caves they had surveyed in what was then called Nakai, where four small villages were sheltered by limestone peaks surrounding a plain.
From here, the leaders of the revolutionary movement planned and controlled the campaign that would finally achieve an independent, socialist Laos.
In 1970 the area was named Viengxay or ‘City of Victory’. Today, Viengxay is known as the birthplace of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Visiting Vieng Xai caves
There are harrowing tales of people getting caught outside during a raid and having to stand perfectly still as bombs exploded around them; if they moved, they would have been seen and shot at.
Mr Xay’s four children were killed instantly in a single air raid. These survivor stories can be found in “Voices of Viengxay: Stories from the Hidden City”, a book that can be purchased at the visitor centre or Sam Neua tourism office.
Part of an oral history project, several of the interviews can be heard on the audio tour.
The caves, which thankfully have been left in their original state except for lights and stairs where necessary, can only be accessed via a three hour tour.
A chaperone leads the group through seven cave sites explained through 18 audio chapters (the chaperone prompting visitors when to play). The audio tour is excellent.
It covers multiple aspects, the narration made richer with villager interviews.
We wish other sights in Laos were this informative—it is the country’s first audio tour and there’s no other like it in Laos.
We saw one visitor vehemently refuse it and insist on hiring a private guide as they thought it would be better. We say: do the audio tour.
As the wilderness is not yet fully explored, there are plenty of places in Laos, including caves are still hidden in the mist. If you find that there is some caves that should be listed above, do not hesitate to contact us.