by Ian Mackenzie
20 October 2015
by Ian Mackenzie
20 October 2015
We’d not heard of Tham Lod before coming to Northern Thailand. But, having read about the opportunities for caving, trekking and kayaking in the area we decided that we needed to detox from the pollution and chaos of Bangkok and get some good old fashioned jungle air back into our lungs.
From the backpacker haven of Pai, we jumped in a mini-van for the hour-hour journey north to the village of Soppong. And from there, we jumped on the back of two motorbike taxis for the onward journey to Tham Lod, some 9km away.
We stayed at Cave Lodge, the brainchild of Aussie cave explorer, John Spies. During the 1970’s and 80’s, he’d discovered most of the 200-odd caves in this area of Northern Thailand. The lodge had originally been built as a base for cave exploration and has since been a perfect place for travellers to use as a base to explore the amazing caves for themselves.
John, along with his Thai wife, still runs the place. And even if you’re not interested in physical activity, it’s jungle setting is still a lovely place to unwind. Which is effectively what Nicky did for the three days we were there. She’d decided (rightfully as it turned out) that it was too much of a risk to join me on the kayaking, trekking and caving trips in case her toe became infected.
So what was on offer? The hand-written posters displayed all over the lodge dining-cum-communal area detailed the various organised trips – including a two-day kayaking tour all the way to Mae Hang Son.
Sounded great but I opted for the more reserved half-day trip through Tham Lod cave and down-river through a number of white water rapids. Although a novice white-water-kayaker, I still managed to negotiate my way through the obstacles and finish three hours later, wet but definitely still afloat. Of course, I was helped by my local guide, Ong, who effectively steered me the whole way from his position at the back of the kayak. Still felt great, though.
Later on that day, I wandered down to Tham Lod cave again. But this time, it was to explore it on foot with another local guide. In fact, there’s no option to enter the cave alone – you have to pay for a villager to take you through. The cave was one of the first to be discovered by John and it’s still one of the most celebrated. And it truly is breathtaking.
Unlike other caves I’ve been to, this one wasn’t subtly lit to showcase the stalactite and stalagmite formations. Nor was there the remotest possibility it’d been given anything resembling a health and safety certificate. No, this felt like a serious cave experience. My guide fired up a gas-powered lantern, our only source of light through the hour and a half journey. Which included crawling through tight, dark spaces, clambering up and down steep, rickety wooden staircases covered in bat guano, and “cruising” along the underground river on a precarious bamboo raft.
Best of all, the cave is inhabited by 300,000 swifts, which return at dusk from their daytime feeding every evening in a spectacularly noisy, swirling spectacle. It was by some distance the most spectacular cave I’ve ever stepped foot in and is a good enough reason alone to spend a night at Cave Lodge.
But that turned out to be just a precursor for the three-cave trek I was about to embark on the next day. A trek which was the toughest I’ve been on since climbing Gunung Inerie in Flores.
Led again by the irrepressible Ong, I was joined on the trek by Ilie, a Russian ex-army guy whose sole communication skills appeared to be a shrug of the shoulder and a facial expression that said: “Don’t bother me”. That and a strange obsession with talking to himself at random moments. Suitably attired in a bandana, neck tie, camouflaged base layer, long sleeved white shirt and commando trousers he gave me the distinct impression I’d come under-dressed in my tee-shirt, shorts and walking sandals.
We began with a trek down through lush jungle, which was steep, muddy and slippery. Naturally, I fell over on a number of occasions as I struggled to maintain my grip. Ilie, of course, with his walking pole raised above his head like a true pro, was marching onwards with Ong, no doubt muttering to himself about the shortcomings of the improperly dressed Brit trailing behind him. But then the jungle gave way to grassland and, composure regained, I was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous karst scenery.
After an hour we reached “Fossil Cave”, where I was about to really find out what caving was all about. No staircases or footpaths here. Just three blokes with head torches climbing down, through and over pitch black caverns and crevasses in the rock. The caverns themselves were not as spectacular as those at Tham Lod. It was more the challenge itself here that was exciting. And, yes there were fossils to be seen in the rocks themselves.
After that, we trekked onwards through more jungle, grassland and plantations until we came to “Waterfall Cave”. You can probably work out for yourself what the main attraction of this cave was. But the real challenge was to actually get to the waterfall itself. Ong told us that we’d need to get on our hands and knees through running water so it would be best if we took our dry clothes off and changed into shorts – which was easy for me as I was only carrying the one set of shorts anyway.
Ilie, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have a change of clothes and indicated to Ong that he would be ok as he was. When Ong pointed out to him that he was about to get extremely wet, Ili’s shoulders again did their shrugging routine. He really didn’t want us to bother him. So in we went, two of us down to a pair of shorts and safety helmet each and the other in full commando gear. And it wasn’t long before we were indeed on all fours, squeezing between an incredibly low ceiling and the river bed below, while the water flowed speedily over us. One of us was getting very wet indeed.’
At certain points, the rock ceiling was so low that I was lay flat on the floor while I dragged myself along with my forearms like I was on some amphibious army assault course. Finally, after about 30 minutes we reached the narrow waterfall which plunged 90 metres over the precipice in front of us. I gingerly took a look over the edge but the rising sensation of vertigo I was experiencing soon put an end to that. The 30-minute obstacle course back to the cave entrance was just as, if not more exhausting than what it was on the way in. Thankfully, Ong signalled it was time for lunch as we stepped back outside into the heat and white light of the day. Not a bad spot for a picnic, either.
Ilie then finally decided to disrobe and hang his clothes on the nearest available bush. Not so clever now then.
After lunch, it was time for the 90-minute hike to the third and final cave. This time, we passed through changing scenes of gorgeous mountain scenery towards the border of eastern Burma. The different shades of green on display were just bewildering. And It dawned on me that the only other people we’d seen during the trek were local people working in the fields. Not one other tourist in sight. Which for me was one of the attractions of leaving Pai and relocating to this remote area.
As we again descended through muddy and slippery terrain I could feel the first signs of fatigue setting in.
At the cave entrance, there was a ladder made of bamboo which descended into the darkness below. Ong warned us that the first rung was broken, which didn’t exactly put my steadily increasing nerves to rest.
The descent further into the cave then involved negotiating extremely slippery rocks, which were at times also covered in moss and mud.
“Christmas Cave”, as it was called, was more similar to Tham Lod Cave than the other two. And it contained a number of glittering rock formations that did indeed look like Christmas decorations. I also came face to face with the biggest spider I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Certainly bigger than my hand, its eyes lit up in the beam from my headlamp as we began a face-off that was only ever going to result in one winner. No prizes for guessing which one of us that was.
But, in all honesty, I was just happy to have made it down there. And I was trying to run through my mind how on earth I was going to get back up. Happily, Ong was on hand to demonstrate where to place my feet and hands as we negotiated our way back up to the relative sanctuary of the dodgy bamboo ladder. Back above ground, the sense of achievement was palpable. Even to the Russian army veteran.
We tried to pose for some self-congratulatory photos, but Mr “Don’t bother me” was having none of it – either in front of or behind the camera.
It was then that Ong noticed the pit viper snake sliding its way along the cave wall opposite the ladder. Not only was this one of the world’s most venomous snakes but we’d been completely oblivious to its presence. A timely reminder that trekking in the Thai jungle should not be taken lightly. And it made me rethink the wisdom of doing it in tee shirt and shorts!
The trek back to Cave Lodge was a further hour and a half, by which time the muscles in my legs had pretty much given up. So, once back there was only one thing left to do – share a more than well-deserved beer with Ong, who had been brilliant throughout the day.
The three-cave trek was definitely my highlight from our three days at Cave Lodge. And it did whet my appetite for returning at some point and exploring the area further. Maybe even tackle that two-day kayaking trip.
You can visit Tham Lod Cave on a day trip from Pai – we saw a number of people arrive on scooters – but we think it would be a shame not to stay at least one night at Cave Lodge to immerse yourself in what the area has to offer. And, of course, meet the person who discovered these magnificent caves, himself.
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…or visit our Thailand page.
What did you think? Have you been to Tham Lod or Cave Lodge? Or are you planning to visit this part of Thailand soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.
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