Into the Wild
Khop’s high mountain peaks and conservation area in Sayabouli’s northwestern-most district hides caves cloaked in legend and ancient stupas with interesting tales portraying the province’s past.
That Puak Stupa
That Puak Stupa is Khop’s most sacred monument dating to 1538 and the Lane Xang Era. Legend claims eagles from India left some of Buddha’s remains on a don pho tree, and went to nearby Nong Tao Lake. When they returned, Buddha’s bones were missing. Thousands of birds joined the eagles in scouring the forest for the remains. A local hunter noticed the birds and investigated.
He stopped at the don pho tree where termites were building a dirt mound around mushrooms (puak), and removed the soil to find the sacred bones. The termites, prohibited from touching the remains, quickly rebuilt their hill. The hunter told the viceroy, who ordered villagers to build a 14-meter-tall stupa over the termite mound.
To this day, locals make merit at That Puak to pray for spring rains, and before departing on a trip, locals take soil from around That Puak for good luck.
Location: Located south of the Khop municipal center (Ban Phabong) between Ban Don Moun and Ban Keung Villages.
Phou Pha Daeng Mountain Conservation Area
Phou Pha Daeng (Steep Red Mountain), Khop District’s highest peak and the 2,200-ha Phou Pha Daeng Mountain Conservation Area’s centerpiece, rises 1,488 meters above the 10-km-long ridge between Ban Phang Hai and Ban Don Yom in the heart of the district. Along with two fascinating caves, the conservation area is home to deer, tigers, bears, monkeys, and a variety of birds.
Tham Luang Cave
Luang means “Main or Significant” in Lao, and Phou Pha Daeng’s Tham Luang Cave, the district’s largest, certainly fits the mold. The 200-meter-long cavern’s rocky entrance stretches 50 meters wide and 30 meters high, and opens to a large cool, fresh-air grotto leading to five large chambers.
According to legend, the venerable Buddhist Monk, Inthanou, lived in the area about 100 years ago, and earned a reputation for performing magic and being indestructible. When a French army captain heard of his status, he investigated and tested the revered monk. Fearing the captain’s motives, Inthanou hid in Tham Luang Cave for two weeks before disappearing to Chiang Mai, never to return.
Location: Head 4 km south of Khop municipality (Ban Phabong) to Ban Nam Phao Village and a further 2 km to the Nam Phao River, and the challenging path up the mountain, which takes about 30 minutes to climb. A guide is required.
The Spirit of Tham Nang Ngoy Cave
Tourists are prohibited from entering this holy cave, a steep 50-meter climb up Pha Nang Ngoy Mountain, as locals believe it houses the spirit of a mythical young woman.
Legend holds that a Xienghone widow drank water from an Oupalath bull’s footprint, became pregnant, and had a beautiful daughter, Nang Taeng On. One day she asked about her father, and unsure how to reply, the widow said, “Your father was an Oupalath bull, and wanders between here and Khop.”
Nang Taeng On followed the bull’s footprints to Khop, and continued through a field near Ban Nam Pao, where she noticed a cave, and resided there to watch for her father. Everyday she washed her clothes on a meter-long stone, took a bath, and returned home to powder her face, dress nicely and appear at the cave’s entrance.
One day, some villagers went to the cave to collect soil, but fell ill and died. Soon after, Nang Taeng On vanished, as did her washing stone. Locals say she took a novice monk for a husband, and claim that on a full moon, she appears in front of the cave.
Location: Travel 3 km south of Khop District’s municipal center to Ban Nam Pao, and continue for 15 minutes to an access road to the steep outcrop and a view of the cave. The steep climb and local taboos prohibit entry.
Located on the edge of Khop municipality in Ban Phabong Village, Phabong Mountain requires an hour-long clamber up a steep 157-meter outcrop through bamboo and old trees, and is not for the timid. However, robust climbers will be rewarded with amazing views of the valley and town below. The entrance to Phabong Cave is halfway down the other side, but the descent is for experienced climbers only.
Ban Tham Village
Located 8 km southeast of Khop municipality, Ban Tham Village presents the gateway to a pair of caves and an ancient stupa.
A 1-km walk through rice fields surrounded by limestone outcrops leads to Tham Phounoy and Water Caves, drilled into the same karst. Tham Phounoy (Small Crab Cave) is fed by a stream with freshwater shrimp and small fish, while the neighboring Water Cave contains interesting formations including ones resembling a standing Buddha, elephant head and butterflies. Though accessible year-round, the Water Cave becomes too deep during the rainy season (April to November) to explore the entire cavern. A guide is needed to find the caves.
Little is known about Mann stupa that sits about 4 km from Ban Tham Village, though villagers have been worshipping there for generations. Archaeologists believe the stupa was built by Burmese centuries ago.
Good to Know
Where to Sleep?
Where to Eat?
Khop-bound song taews leave Hongsa for the 140-km drive at around 08:00, but continue past Ngeun to Khop only if passenger numbers justify it. Ferries cross the Mekong from Pakbeng to Ban Pakkhop and tuk-tuks to Khop Town (Ban Phabong). Some Hongsa guesthouses arrange private transport.CHECK A MAP