I was late at the caving game: I was already 22 when I walked into my first cave. Several others followed soon and, since this first encounter, caves have been at the top of my list wherever I traveled. My fascination with them comes from what is most likely their mighty effect on any human visitor: I enter caves as matter-of-fact spaces, fully aware of the straightforward natural processes that have shaped them over eons, and somehow, after a while, their otherworldliness takes over, time and space warp, until I’m on a completely alien planet populated by splendid structures and bizarre creatures.
In SE Asia my route intersected several areas famous for their caves, and on more than one occasion my obsessive interest has raised some eyebrows with fellow travelers more focused on above-the-ground attractions. (Obsessions take longer than a bus ride to explain.) To tell all the stories of caving in SE Asia would probably mean to start a blog of its own (probably ‘Incavernous Travels’), where I would soon run out of adjectives. The only underground story that gets told here is the most memorable of all – and not because it involved one of Thailand’s biggest caves or because I was the only female in the group, but because it almost didn’t happen.
Pang Mapha is a small district in Northern Thailand where under a hilly jungle landscape lie around 200 caves, the majority only discovered or properly explored in the recent decades. It was Jimmy in Sangkhlaburi who brought this cave paradise to my attention, when he advised everyone traveling “up north” to stay at a place run by a friend – Cave Lodge. The name immediately attained a legendary aura and became part of my mandatory travel list. Once I was in the area, I shushed the cold and the fever I was still struggling with, and carried on to the adventure.
Fast forward to a few days later, during my final breakfast on the open-air teak floor of Cave Lodge. I had hiked around and visited four caves during my time there, each with its own personality and enough beauty to make me feel satiated with underground wonders for a while. All packed and prepared for the road, I was to hop on a bus to the Mecca of Northern Thailand, the WiFi-cafe-infested hippie haven of Pai. The plan was to have a lazy time and finally get rid of my cold before the next leg of the trip.
Enter John, the man behind Cave Lodge. The same John I had been reading about in a worn DYI book lying around the Lodge titled Wild Times* – an autobiography. I picked it up out of curiosity, but ended up devouring it during my time there. Cave Lodge and everything it involved – (re)discovering and mapping the caves in the area, making them accessible to tourists while at the same time protecting them, offering job opportunities for the locals, building the entire Cave Lodge and conceiving its communal, laid-back atmosphere – had been John’s life’s work.
I struck up a conversation with him while he was busy with the daily running of the Lodge. I was curious about the teak coffins they had discovered in some of the caves – an ancient burial practice. John mentioned how this was most likely a prehistoric civilization and how no one had entered the burial caverns for centuries afterwards (fearing the spirits of the dead). I asked how he had felt entering some of the more recently discovered caves for the very first time, but there was no place for exaltations in his answer, only pragmatic considerations. He added that if I was so interested in caves, they were organizing one of their rarer tours that day, into Northern Thailand’s biggest river cave, and they needed one more person. I had 40 minutes to make up my mind and get ready.
One Ibuprofen and cancelled reservation later, I was in a speeding songthaew to Tham Nam Lang [“cave water big”], discovered by John with the help of locals and explorer friends in the 80s. With a length of around 8.5 km and a height of up to 100 meters, Tham Nam Lang ranks both among the longest and biggest in terms of volume in Thailand. For most of it you have to wade up a river stream, which makes the cave accessible only a couple of months each year, when the water level drops and its temperature becomes warm enough for the human body.
As we sat in the songthaew, we got to know each other. My travel companions were a muscly Thai guide and his helper, three French guys in their late 20s, all radiology residents, and S. from Great Britain, a few years older than me. There’s a staple question that travelers ask each other to cut through the small talk – “What’s your thing?” or “What’s your story?”. S.’s answer was probably the most intriguing one I’d ever heard – “geometry and music.”
Being in the company of six men felt flattering, but also challenging, because they were expecting me to adjust to their rhythm, and not the other way around. Still insecure because of my couch potato past, I did the one-hour jungle hike to the cave less aware of how strenuous it was, and more afraid of not seeming too slow or out of shape. At the cave’s entrance, an impressive 80-meter gaping hole in a vertical wall of rock, we stopped to gear up. Since we were going to spend the day away from my skin’s greatest enemy–the sun–I put on for the only time during the entire trip a pair of short pants.
Past the entrance, a boulder slope–which we partially had to rappel down–led us to the river passage. The water was exactly as I had expected: slightly cool to provide a welcome relief from the temperatures outside, with a vigorous current that made the river feel fresh and clean against the skin. We formed a line and started moving upstream, with the two Thai guides sandwiching us at all times. The helper, always at the back, was silent and morose throughout, and only at the end we found out that he suffered from a terrible hangover.
The boys went ahead and I lagged behind to take photos, carefully capitalizing on the 4-5 beams from our headlamps which were moving around like incapable tiny reflectors. I didn’t feel like I was in a cave, but rather in an enormous dark structure, the limits of which I could perceive only through the reverberations of the river’s noise. My headlamp only illuminated fractions of the giant walls around us, revealing textures, protruding rocks, a spider here and there, but it rarely reached the ceiling, which, judging by the sounds, seemed to be home to numerous bats.
From time to time, the Thai guide stopped and, like some magician in front of children, revealed to us in that almost impenetrable darkness formations of both unexpected beauty and monstrosity – massive flowstone forms, columns, draperies and stalactites of an orange color, varying in size and complexity.
He took a special interest in making sure I had seen and photographed these formations, since by then I had been designated the group photographer. Probably instructed by John, who had a knack for cave photography, the guide had brought along a powerful video light which he sometimes turned on for the ample structures.
It was next to such a curtain-like flowstone formation that he warned me to pack everything in my waterproof bag, since the river would get deep. We all got ready and passed round the curtain and into the hip deep stream. The water level gradually grew to our chests. I treaded carefully to find the higher parts at the river’s bottom, so that I didn’t sink in too deep. A few minutes later, the water level dropped to our knees again and the guide told us it would stay that way for the rest of our trip. The cave got even bigger and we zigzagged in and out of the water, avoiding or climbing over vast rockfalls – another indicator of the cave’s enormity.
Around a Medusa-looking formation which was staring at us from above, my camera started to behave weirdly. It took several attempts to get it to turn on and focus. There was no time to stop and have a proper look, so I was trying to postpone all worries until reaching daylight again. Meanwhile the camera became less and less responsive, until it completely turned off, not before spitting out the incomprehensible image of photo death:
I didn’t want to tell the boys about the misfortune, but it wasn’t long until they noticed I was no longer taking photos. They were sympathetic and tried to help, which made me realize even more acutely what it would mean to lose my camera.
I carried on and told myself that being in a cave means staying unaffected by any lacks but the lack of light, lack of heat, or lack of coordination.
One hour later, we stopped on a gravel bank and had our lunches – rice with tofu or chicken packed in plastic bags. Next to us was a big rock beyond which the passage became visibly more difficult. We had walked 3.5 km into the cave and, from that point on, our guide told us it took John another 50 hours to reach the cave’s other end, where the river flowed in. The boys relaxed and were sharing jokes, and we all partook in a traditional cave ritual: turning off all our lamps for a few minutes, to feel the humbling experience of being in sheer darkness, and, more foolishly, to move around and make scary noises.
During our return trip, another small disaster hit: one of the French guys pointed to something flipping under my right foot. I took my boot out of the water to examine it and noticed the 2-cm thick sole was almost loose. The constant stepping in river mud had been devastating for my 6-year old hiking boots on their retirement trip to SE Asia. I reached to the sole and peeled it until it fell off, so only a thin layer of plasticky fiber stood between my foot and the ground. S. picked up the sole and offered to carry it in his pocket, hopeful that the boot could still be fixed. Surprisingly I could carry on without much difficulty, but with extra attention that I don’t slip.
200 meters before the exit, the guide told us to turn off our headlamps again. It was almost 5:00pm and the sun’s rays were coming into the cave, making for an astonishing sight. We had been in the cave for five hours and it felt like we were witnessing a mini sunrise, nature’s way of greeting us back into a familiar world.
A bit drunk on the whole experience, I stayed behind and took off my backpack, fully confident that for some reason the camera would work again and I could photograph the light show in front of me. It did work and I did photograph, from different angles and a bit out of control, until I was the last person in the cave. Wishing to share the great news with the boys, I hurried up the boulder slope and briefly lost grip of the ropes, sliding a few meters down through the mud and small stones, which bruised my knees and brought me back to earth.
While walking back through the jungle, S. said he admired my reaction to losing both my camera and my boot sole in the cave. He frankly expected that I would break down and cry, like all the other girls he knew. That was the nicest benignly sexist compliment I ever got.
After we returned to Cave Lodge, I forgot to get my sole back from S. He had to leave the village that evening, so he placed it on my bungalow porch where I found it the next day. I packed it in a plastic bag together with the still wet boots, and forgot about the whole thing for a couple of weeks, inadvertently causing a death by mold.
The week after Cave Lodge consisted in a mundane tourist existence in Chiang Mai, where I enrolled in a Thai massage course. Many of the techniques required me to kneel on a hard floor and force all of my weight on my knees, and the scrapes often oozed blood, to the despair of my teacher. Everyone assumed these were the markings of a motorbike accident and the usual jokes ensued. I smiled to myself whenever I explained that I had actually lost my balance briefly while exiting from Northern Thailand’s biggest river cave.
*John’s autobiography, Wild Times, is available for purchase online. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in a life lived differently, in exploring, in the Thailand of the 80s, in hill tribe cultures, in caves, and in building the most efficient and scary fireworks.