Caving in Northern Thailand
We arrived at Cave Lodge after a pleasant 2-hour motorbike ride from Pai. Cave Lodge is a special sort of guesthouse. The kind that will live in my memory alongside gems like La Serrana in Colombia or Utopia Lodge in Guatemala or Hostel Candelaria in Valladolid, Mexico. Nestled in a hillside overlooking a tame river near the village of Sappong and the Thailand border with Burma, the place is made up of a large, friendly lodge-like commons area with a legit restaurant, along with dormitories and private cabins. The area surrounding Cave Lodge has enough hidden nooks and crannies, caves and waterfalls to fill many months with adventure. Unfortunately, we could only spend a few days exploring the area.
Founded by Australian caver and explorer, John Spies, the lodge is wallpapered with yellow handwritten scribes outlining countless caving/kayaking/general adventure tours as well as free treasure maps for the independent-minded.
On our first day, as we waited for the tours to fill up (most have a minimum number that must be reached before leaving) Jim and I opt to grab a treasure map and explore by motorbike and foot. We choose the map which ends at a large, undeveloped, and very hidden cave found somewhere in the nearby countryside.
Feeling a bit lazy, we decide to take the motorbike as far as we could down loose, dusty paths, and then make the one-hour hike through the rugged hillside. After over an hour of sweaty wandering through sticky jungle, we “stumble on” the large mouth of a cave. With only one small flashlight, we enter, feeling a bit like explorers. However, we don’t venture far, not wanting to crawl through pitch-dark, narrow crevices, and for fear of getting lost in a secluded cave.
We return from the cave dusty and sweaty and feeling like there would be no better way to end our day than with a swim in the river. While searching for the perfect swimming hole, we run into some fellow cave lodge guests. Together, we venture down a path, seeing some local children cooking fish above a small, smoky fire, right near an idyllic spot, perfect for an early evening dip.
As we cool ourselves, and after engaging in the typical traveller banter (“where ya from, where ya been, where ya going?”) we agree to book a tour together for the following day. We decide on one which would take us through three major caves in the area.
And so, at about 9 the next morning, after a hearty Cave Lodge breakfast of eggs and homemade buns–with a few liters of water each and bagged lunch in hand–we are loaded into the back of a pickup truck. After a brief drive, the truck drops us at the start of a very rugged trail, where we must traipse through farmland and foothills, to the entrance of our first cave. Though this cave is definitely wild and remote and interesting, it is rather unmemorable compared to our next two. On our way out, our guide pays a local man, who is lucky to have this plot of farmland which can produce income for him, both above and below the ground.
Our second cave experience was by far the most unforgettable and adventurous of our entire trip. We traveled along a narrow underground stream, our headlamps the only guiding light. At times, we had to wiggle and crawl on our hands and knees, sometimes dragging our tummies along in the dark, pebbly, water, slithering under very low rock walls. An experience not for the faint-hearted … or claustrophobic … or TALL (as Jim realized). We reached the end of the cave where the stream dropped off of a steep waterfall into a deep, narrow pit. Here, we later learn, was where one tourist stepped a little too close to the edge, falling to his death as he peered over the dark edge.
We turn around and return from where we came, back to the mouth of the cave.
After a quick lunch and a strenuous hike, under the hot midday sun, through more farmland and hills, which were literally on fire (slash and burn farming), we reach our final cave.
This underground wonder was discovered and named “Christmas Cave,” by owner John and his team. The cave, as it’s name implies, could be described as ornamental, with spectacular stalagmites and stalagmites decorating it’s interior walls. It’s a cool and welcome break from the unrelenting heat. Here, our guide reveals to us, Buddhist monks use the cool, quiet space within the caves as meditation chambers, and that like those monks, we will be using the space in a similar way. So, for what feels like a very long time, our group of seven sits in complete silence. Far away from honking, loud music, buzzing motorbikes, and wifi signals, this was easily the most silent, calming environment I have experienced in over a year in Asia. We leave the cave feeling a little more refreshed and make the long walk back to the Lodge.
We end our day back at the lodge, gorging on satisfying Western-style burgers, washed down with icy beers. Afterwards, we relax our tired muscles and sweat away our stress in a herbal steam sauna, prepared by local Shan women.
This day will undoubtably live on alongside a collection of my ideal travel memories–the kind that mix adventure with social connections; dirt in my fingernails with a healthy dose of physical exertion; rounded off with a perfectly relaxing end.
If you don’t have a motorbike, Cave Lodge can be reached by combo bus and motobike taxi from Chiang Mai (4-6hours) or from Pai (1-2hours). See their website for more information..