Caves command a special fascination in us. Be it exploring narrow passages or marvelling at gargantuan underground spaces, it satisfies a deep part of our minds, perhaps left over from our species’ early days, when caves were our natural sanctuaries from nature.
Starting in Vietnam, the premier spelunking location is easily Phong Nha Natural Park. With more than 300 total caves, there are far too many to mention by name, but there are three clear highlights. First is recently discovered Son Doong Cave which is the largest cave anywhere in the world. The biggest chamber is a staggering 5 kilometres long, 200 metres high and 150 metres wide. Unfortunately, visiting the gargantuan cave is prohibitively expensive for most, with guided tours costing as much as 3000$USD and only a few thousand visitors allowed per year.
The breath-taking Son-Doong Cave.
Luckily, the two other standouts are much more accessible for regular tourists. These are Phong Nha Cave with its many spectacular rock formations, and Thien Duong, or “Paradise” cave, featuring some of the most impressive stalagmite and stalactite formations anywhere in the world.
Up in Ninh Binh, the Tam Coc caves provides a unique spelunking experience. Rather than entering the caves by foot, small rowboats will take your group down the river through three incredibly low-ceilinged caves.
While Ha Long Bay is famous worldwide for its rock formations bursting out of the sea, many are unaware that many of the formations contain some spectacular caves. When visiting the bay, make sure your cruise visits one of the following: Trinh Nu Cave, Sung Sot Cave or Thien Cung Cave. Thien Cung is the standout, with the stalactites and stalagmites lit up by multi-coloured lights, making it feel like you just entered a fine arts museum curated by nature herself.
Thien Cung Cave, the standout cave in Phong Nha.
Over in Laos, the sheer amount of caves is enough to tire out even the most enthusiastic spelunkers. Starting in the north, you have Chom Ong Cave, which at 16 kilometres ranks as the deepest cave in all of Laos. Next, for a more cultural experience, Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang houses thousands of Buddha statues. Kayaking to the caves is a popular way of getting there, and makes for a pleasant day-trip. To the east, in one of the most remote corners of Laos, are the Vieng Xai caves in Hua Phan province. These caves served as a giant underground city during the Secret War, with tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians taking refuge here.
Pak Ou is filled to the brim with these Buddha statues.
While there are many options for caving around Vang Vieng, Tham Nam steals the show. While the cave is only 500 metres long, a river flows out of it, and in wet season is accessed by tube, requiring your guests to drag themselves along a rope, making for a truly unique experience.
Further south, in Khammouane Province, there are two standout caving experiences. First is Tham Kang Lor, which at 7km deep and up to 100 metres high, is truly massive. Deep inside you’ll find a stunningly gorgeous pool which shines with a bright emerald coloured light. The second cave is Tham Pa Seuam, considered the “little brother” of Tham Kang Lor. This cave is 3 kilometres deep, but requires you to take a 400 metre boat ride to reach the main chamber.
Go on an exciting boat ride into the bowels of the earth in Tham Kang Lor Cave.
The best caving experience in Thailand can be had in the north, on the road between the towns of Pai and Mae Hong Son. This is Lod Cave, a natural wonder is filled with stalactites and stalagmites, as well as giant fish in the water and bats hanging from the ceiling. Located as it is, the cave makes for a great stop on a motorbike trip through the northern mountains. In the south, a more spiritual experience awaits in Tham Khao Luang, arguably Thailand’s most impressive cave-shrine.
Finally, Cambodia, due to its flatter geography, doesn’t have quite the wealth of caving options as its neighbours. However, Phnom Sampeau, the so called “Killing Caves” makes for a memorable, if sombre, experience.
Tham Khao Luang, Thailand’s most impressive cave-shrine.
There are so many caves to visit in South East Asia that it’s impossible to cover them all, but these are some of the best caves to visit in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.