Ryan has been long fascinated about caves and has often told me about their ancient tales and the stories of their deep explorations. There was an ancient belief that caves are an actual living being, where the water flowing inside is its own circulatory system, the air flow is its own respiration, up to the sounds it makes representing its own voice. After Ryan had read so much about this, he sought to discover this first hand.
In my mind and perspective of caves, it is more like a dark, humid and damp hole, that could be scary at times. Except for the ones I’ve visited recently were the Crystal and Fantasy caves in Bermuda, which are beautiful shiny white, well protected and lighted up, with bridges to traverse. Little did I know how different this experience would be.
The Cave Lodge
To pursue Ryan’s dream of exploring caves, we decided to stay at the Cave Lodge in Soppong, as they are the only place of accomodation that organizes a multitude of caving activities.
We arrived around 7 o’clock at night, after a gruelling bus ride with over 800 winding turns from Chiang Mai. After throwing up several times from motion sickness, I was definitely not feeling my best. This was made better however, when we arrived at the lobby’s central area, where everything just felt very relaxing and cozy.
It is a large bamboo-made open hut with a central fireplace, a swing, and many hamacs and hand made lazy boy chairs on which to relax on. It turned out the be the perfect place to get together with the other travelers and share the experiences of our daily adventures. Our room was an individual bungalow, deep inside the nature surrounded by the forest. At night, we would only hear the croaking of frogs and the sounds of crickets.
The owner of this unique concept is an Australian man, John with quite an interesting backstory. He decided to get lost in Thailand at the age of 22. When he was in northern Thailand, he had the courage to explore caves with his locals friends from Thailand. He discovered countless caves in the area and is now even well known to have collaborated in an episode of Planet Earth. He is married to a local Thai woman and travels frequently between Thailand and Australia. We had the great opportunity of meet him at the cave lodge.
I asked him especially after the first excursion,
“Do you ever get scared by not knowing what’s in front or how to get out of the cave?”
“That’s the fun part of it! and the success is getting out alive!”
Boy did he have a sense of humour!
He has such a huge passion for nature and adventures that he sought to share it with other travelers. It is for that reason that he built the cave lodge, which in turn also created many job opportunities for the local villagers.
Actually one of the present guide used to plant banana trees and sell a bunch of 30ish bananas for a meagre 120THB (equivalent of 5CAD), and now he is happy to work within his hobbies and earn a decent wage.
We embarked on many excursions and activities during our 4 days stay at the Cave Lodge. From Fossil, Waterfall, Christmas, Susa, Nam Lod, to Tham Nam Hoo caves, we saw so many variations of cave systems.
Although Fossil and Christmas Caves are considered smaller caves, it still took a full hour to discover each of them. The Waterfall cave presented a new challenge of claustrophobia, as the inside of the cave was all running water and the ceilings were a mere half a meter high, such that we had to crawl on our hands and knees during most parts. We have done a lot of crawling in muddy areas during Obstacle Course races, but this was surprisingly challenging. Crawling within poorly illuminated rocky waters, finding your way through the dark with only a small head light, keeping our heads low to avoid bumping into the ceiling (thanks god we had our helmet), were among the difficulties.
Next, we explored the Susa and Nam Lod, which are beautiful caves with humongous cavernous chambers. Being within them, we felt like we entered a total different world. As we reached the permissible end to the Susa cave, there was a large 10m drop to connect to a massive river system. The guide explained that below at the water level the oxygen is so low that after a few minutes of kayaking, you can unknowingly pass out. He knew because in order to film the deep caves episode of Planet Earth, they had to venture down there with a whole film crew. After several weeks of difficult filming, their clip was featured as a 15-second segment in that episode.
Makes you realize the incredible amount of work that goes into nature photography.
Since we couldn’t experience rafting through a cave system at Susa, we went to Nam Lod cave. It is quite a lot more commercialized, so we got to travel on a bamboo raft through the river system. It allowed us to explore the cave in a whole new way, fascinated by the grandiose stalagmites within the massive chambers. Apparently, people used to live in here, which is why plenty of coffins were found inside of this cave.
The experiences just got better and better, so we decided to stay an extra day to visit an even bigger and wild cave, the world-class Tham Nam Hoo.
Tham Nam Hoo
Tham Nam Hoo is a 4.0km deep cave through which a water stream traverses its entirety. To enter, we trekked 45 minutes through deep forest down a steep slope. Hidden behind a large rock was an inconspicuous crack in the wall, which turned out to be the entrance to this gigantic cave system. Apparently this cave can only be explored in the dry season, since during the wet season, the river currents are too strong and the cavern is overflooded.
As we crawled through the narrow entrance to the cave, we left behind the sounds and smell of a living forest. Within the cavern, we noticed it was devoid of light, of smells, and the silence was disturbed only by the splash of water with our every step. Crossing through knee deep streams, and at times swimming in deep water, we got to witness all shapes and forms of massive stalagmites and stalactites, undisturbed for over millions of years.
Within the black backdrop of dark rocks were these multicoloured crystal formations, some pointy like a chandelier, some rounded like bunches of jellyfish, and some multi-layered like rice fields. At points, the ceiling was so high that even our light beam could not touch the top. We felt like we were in an entirely new world. The whole journey within the cave took us 6 hours, an unforgettable adventure. We could not have done this without the help of our amazing private guide, Mr. Ang.
We were so sad leaving the cave lodge at the end. After 4 days, we knew all the staff and even the little doggies at the lodge. Everytime we left the lodge, the 3 dogs would follow us right till the exit. We met amazing guides who truly love what they do and love to share their passion for nature. In the end, it felt like family, it was difficult to say goodbye…
This part was unexpected for me since I never previously had a real concept of what a wild and raw cave would be like. Those tough experiences challenged me physically and mentally and kept pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Everyday, I knew I would push my limits even further and I am damn proud of it. It has also made me see and discover another side of myself. I can tell Ryan :”see, I am not a princess :P”.
This finally turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of our Thailand trip so far. Hoping we can return one day to the Cave Lodge.