I’m not getting out of bed until it’s up to 20 degrees! Celsius, that is. The first cold front of winter (from the Mongolian Steppes, feels like) has rolled through Thailand and its effect is magnified by the altitude in the northern hills where we are ensconced. Our tiny, rustic room has jalousie windows that almost close and screens near the celling that are open to the
outside air, which dropped into the low 40s F last night! The miniscule bathroom has a sink, toilet and shower wand on the wall. A handwritten sign at the reception area alerts us that hot water is available in the winter between 5 and 8pm. It may be warm or hot, depending on how much wood the cooks have put on the fire! (it actually was hot at 6pm, after running the cold water out for 4.7 minutes)
The Cave Lodge is a simple collection of bungalows and common area built with stilts and poles on a steep hill overlooking the Lang river in Tham Lot Village, about 10 km from the Myanmar border. We took The Minibus for the 1 hour trip from Pai to Soppong yesterday, then grabbed some Pad Thai at a local food stall when we arrived about 11am. No GRAB around this tiny town so we looked around for a means to get out to Cave Lodge.
Several people point to a blue cart a block away, so off we go to find several older guys with motorbikes. They set our large backpacks in front of them while we hop on the back, wearing our smaller packs, and off we go. It did not escape our attention that they were both wearing
helmets, while we were not offered that option! We both managed to get some short video before the road required both hands on the grab bars! Eeek. I have never cared for being in the passenger seat of a bike, fast car or boat.
But we quickly climbed up the 9 km winding road and safely arrived at Cave Lodge. The covered, but open common area has several seating areas, with bean bags, low tables, benches and hammocks, with a fire pit in one section. The kitchen/office is towards the back and the front looks out over the hill and the river below. The walls are covered with old photos and hand-lettered signs describing house rules and available tours.
As the name implies, cave tours are a big deal here. Everything from an easy tour through nearby Tham Lod Cave to multi-day spelunking where people end up wading or swimming to make it through some passages. Memories of the boys stuck in a cave near here about a year ago quickly dampened any enthusiasm we might have had for that!
White water rafting is another popular activity, but this is the dry season and we can see the river is running in a narrow channel between wide banks of damp gravel. We grabbed a pack and hiked down to the river and found a nice sunny spot near a bend in the river. Directly across the narrow stream was a small herd of cows; most of them with large horns, and a few had bells. (insert CB joke here).
Both sides suspiciously eyed each for a while and eventual decided there was no immediate
threat, so we made ourselves comfortable in the afternoon sunshine, and the cattle munched away on the weeds. Sometime later one of the larger cows decided it was time for a dip, so she waded into the river. Next thing we knew she was completely gone! Submerged! Who knew it was that deep? I guess she did. She would then poke just her head out and slap her chin into the water a couple of times, and then go back under. Looked like she had a good time.
When the sun started getting into the trees we packed up and followed the river down to the Tham Lod Cave park which had a nice level area with many flowers, bushes and trees. We engaged a local guide as required and walked down the path towards the cave. All the guides are local women and they all use the fussy, old-style gas lanterns with mantles, which she primed up and got it lit. We proceeded into the cave on a wooden walkway over the river and noticed hundreds of large fish gathered in the current below. They are a type of mahseer, related to carp, and congregate in and around the cave as the ticket booth sells packets of fish food which will soon be sprinkled into the water.
Tham Lod is about 1,600 meters long with many stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other large formations. There are also a couple of 2,000-year-old teak wood coffins unique to this area, carved by ancient Lawa tribes. Some of the path is a boardwalk but many parts are slippery limestone, and there is a dearth of lighting and guardrails. Several rickety wooden staircases climbed hundreds of meters into smaller sections of the cave.
Eventually we came to an area inside the cave overlooking the river where a dozen skinny
long bamboo rafts were pulled up, with the pilots sitting around talking. Why did this conjure up images I my mind of crossing the river Styx?!?! We gingerly climbed aboard and perched on low stools while our guide and the pilot used long poles to push us down the river to another section of the cave, and more scaffolding to climb. The mahseer crowded around the raft and I played the consummate tourist and threw out handfuls of dry fish food. It was very dark and quiet, and we could hear the bats high up on the ceiling out of sight.
About an hour later we came back to the same point where we entered the cave, so we thanked our guide and wandered around in the little valley in front of the cave where supposedly thousands of swifts (birds) emerge around sunset. There was already quite a few flying around – I suppose they are feeding on some insects in the area. We walked across the tall and thin Happy Bridge which spanned the river, made out of very skinny bamboo poles – then headed back towards the lodge. I can never visit a cave anywhere without hearing that old familiar spiel: “Are you wondering what to do on this rainy old day in Lake of the Ozarks? Visit beautiful and romantic Bridal Cave!”
This tiny village is really lovely. From our room we can hear the river and the clacking of the
cow bells, which sound more like wooden chimes. Walking a 1km loop to the road and back passes 3 different small cafes, and the Cave Lodge has decent food also. There is a wood-fired sauna that can be used if you give the mgmt. a days’ notice – I suppose so they can gather up wood.
It would all be rather idyllic if it just weren’t so darn cold! I know that seems ridiculous to many people but that’s just the way we are made. Time to head back south. We hire a pickup truck instead of scooters this time and get to the “bus station” in Soppong, where we run into the young Israeli couple we met on the ride up here. They are proceeding on south to Chiang Mai while we are only going as far as Pai. We all troop across the street for some iced coffee – it’s warm out now!
The coffee shop is next to a very busy gas station and we watch as a large truck with a crane on the back hits the overhead pump roof, causing much shouting and commotion. A large part of the pump traffic are motorcycles – not just the usual little scooters but bigger
Triumphs, Ninjas and even a couple of Harleys. Seems that this road is part of the Mae Hong Son loop – 1,864 curves and 600 km through the highest mountains in north Thailand and some of the coolest villages. Riding on 2 wheels with nothing over your head is the best way to see it – but NOT from the back seat!
On the road again….back to Pai.
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