Thanks, everyone, for your kind and encouraging words. Sometimes, I actually think that I might be a real writer! And then I read a NY Times article. I know I can’t come close to saying it better myself, so I am just going to send these great articles along with my posts. I hope you enjoyed the article about Ban Ruk Thai in my last post. It seems everywhere we went on this trip, the NY Times has been there, written that. Mae Sot has had a whopping 5 articles written about it over the 5 years. On to the next stop of our road trip. (Click here for a great NYT article about Cave Lodge)
The road conditions out of Pai were great, but we were climbing and climbing, until we reached the Kiew Lom Viewpoint at 7500 feet. The eastward view back to Pai was spectacular; the westward view towards Mae Hong Son was even more beautiful, and rugged. We started to see the karst hills that make for great caving. The road down to Soppong was a total white-knuckler for me, with lots of f-bombs, my foot stomping the non-existent brake pedal on the passenger side. Continuous steep hairpins with no barrier and a minimum 100 yard drop, I understood why few scooters go past Pai. Soppong is the hill tribe market town that marks the turnoff to Tham Lod, our destination cave, and our stop for the night, The Cave Lodge.
The Cave Lodge is a truly special destination, and we should all get there before somebody makes a movie about our host John Spies’ life, and Bradjolina will be the only people able to book a room. You don’t go there for the lux accommodations, which are rustic at best, and it is NOT the place to bring your elderly parents, who’d never be able to get to their room. You go for everything else.
First, the owner and long time northern Thailand resident, John Spies has a fascinating history with this adventurous corner of the world. He’s seen it all, communist rebels, Kuomintang drug smugglers, he was here when the hill tribes grew poppies for the drug trade, instead of passion fruit and artisanal rice for today’s markets. He speaks not only fluent Thai, but Shan and a few other of the hill tribes’ languages. He has led National Geographic and members of the Thai Royal Family through Tham Lod. He can direct you to numerous caves, waterfalls, hikes through karst hills and hill tribe villages, kayaking, and Tham Lod, the crown jewel of the region’s caves, is literally next door.
When we arrived, I expected to be flooded with brochures of $100+ cave tours. Instead, he gave us directions as if we were going to the nearest noodle shop, “Take the trail off the deck, follow the river, hire a guide, you can’t miss it, and leave at 4:15 to see the bats and birds at dusk”. It was that easy. At the park gate near the cave’s entrance, we hired two local guides, who have probably been exploring these caves since they were kindergartners, with kerosene lamps for a little over $20.
We had been to similar caves in Guanxi, China, that were completely wired with electricity so they could put Christmas lights on all the formations that resembled anything from Buddha to some body parts that stalagmites often resemble. These caves, except for a few necessary stairs and handrails, are left completely, pristinely natural. They are beautiful. We trekked through with a few river crossings on bamboo rafts to the other end of the cave. It was close to sunset, so the bats were starting to stir. We reached the other end of the cave by raft to the swarming Pacific Swifts that were coming in for the evening, while the bats were going out for the night. The cacophonous swarm blackened the dusk glow at the cave entrance. We all stood there, mouths open, speechless, completely unnoticed by this amazing, natural phenomenon.
We took the bamboo rafts back through the cave, most of the time being pulled by an incredibly fit, elderly hill tribesman. We tipped our wonderful guides very well and walked back through the forest, along the river, in the dark, to the Cave Lodge. We were sweaty, our muscles were sore, and had the distinctive aroma of bat guano, but bubbly with excitement about the unique experience.
The other reason the Cave Lodge is so special is the common area, a cavernous open space with teak floors, a soaring bamboo roof and no walls. There is something about this deck, great energy, great people, I don’t know and don’t care, but we had the best night just sitting, talking, snacking, drinking beer . . . there was a game of cribbage going in one corner (with a rare deck of playing cards, illegal in Thailand because they are thought to encourage gambling), a game of Cards Against Humanity in another, kids running around playing and swinging on the homemade rope swing. Alex went to bed early (most likely exhausted by the virus she would come down with in a few days, read Peace of Mind Checklist), but Frank, Catherine and I had the most memorable evening, no electronics, no books, just us.
Something else John Spies has witnessed is the complete transformation of the economy in this valley. During the height of the Golden Triangle era, the hill tribes lived in extreme poverty with no choice but to grow poppies for the illegal drug trade. Their lands were brutally ruled by an assortment of heavily armed anti-communist groups, using the drug trade to fund their fight against communists in Burma and China.
Today, Thailand is very protective of its tourist industry, strictly enforcing the Thai National-only tour guide policy. Tourists drawn to the numerous caves in this valley have provided local hill tribes with an alternative and very lucrative source of income, allowing the land to be returned to growing legal cash crops, not to mention new schools, medical clinics and thriving communities.
Expecting a difficult drive to Mae Hong Son, we left after breakfast so we would have time to explore on the way. We were just back on the 1095 at Soppong and it was market day!!! Several hill tribes, Shan, Lisu, Lahu, and probably some Yunnanese, in a bustling market. I picked up some szechuan peppercorns and some cool-looking black and white rice, and had the best soropbao (Chinese pork bun). The landscape looked a lot like Guilin and Yangshuo in China, with karst hills and rice fields, but the Shan temples are unique. Completely different from the traditional Thai temples, they look almost victorian with lacy, silver trim on square, layered roofs. The temples are made of teak and are completely open, without doors or solid walls.
Fortunately, the roads were good, the construction was minimal, and the worst of the curves were behind us. We made it to Mae Hong Son by mid afternoon.