Foreign cave exploration in Thailand

Foreign cave exploration in Thailand


Many of the early travelers to Thailand mentioned caves and limestone hills in their journals. John Crawfurd mentions caves on Ko Si Chang (Chonburi) in 1821 (Crawfurd 1828) while Captain James Low recorded a bird’s-nest cave at Hat Chao Mai in Trang in 1826 (Low 1833). Being close to Bangkok Tham Khao Luang in Phetchaburi was visited frequently by 19th century European travelers with one of the earliest visitors being Robert Schomburgk in May 1860  (Schomburgk 1861). Tham Tab Tao in Chiang Mai was already developed as a shrine when visited in 1876 by Hallett (Hallett 1890). Tham Khuha Pimak in Yala had been visited by William Cameron before 1882 (Cameron 1882).

Thailand has always been popular with cavers and caving expeditions, particularly from the late 1970s onwards when international travel became easier and cheaper. The country was seen as an exotic, tropical location with extensive karst areas and because it was a popular tourist destination visas were easy to obtain. Within the country most regions were accessible to tourists and after the mid 1980s there were few travel restrictions or security concerns. With many of its neighbouring countries being ruled by communist or military dictatorships Thailand was one of the few countries in south-east Asia where caves could be easily explored or studied.

A history can only be written if there is a record of the visit or the expedition and references to these primary sources are given. The author can’t stress enough that all caving trips should be written up. Even family holidays that visit small and easy caves can document important and new data about these sites. Some speleological investigations that were conducted in more recent years have only been recorded through personal communications with the author and it is unfortunate that this work hasn’t been more formally recorded.

Early 20th Century

The first speleological expedition to Thailand was from March to August 1899 by the Cambridge University “Skeat” Expedition who explored birds’-nest caves in Thale Sap and made important collections of cave fauna from the caves near Yala such as Tham Sam Pao Thong, Tham Khuha Pimak and Tham Meud (Skeat 1900, 1901, Skeat & Laidlaw 1953). Nelson Annandale, who had been on the Skeat Expedition, led a second expedition under the auspices of Liverpool and Edinburgh Universities to Thale Sap and Yala in June and October 1901 when more cave fauna was collected (Bonhote 1903, Boulenger 1903, Swinhoe 1903). Annandale returned to Thale Sap and Yala on a third expedition in January and February 1916. Also in 1916 the Slovene explorer Ferdo Lupša explored a cave near Mae Sot (Tak) and recorded cave paintings in the Huai Umphang valley, upstream of Umphang (Kranjc 2021).

Foreign archaeologists had written about Buddhist votive clay tablets from caves in Trang and Yala as early as 1902 (Banerji 1907, Steffen & Annandale 1902). Further finds of Buddhist clay tablets from caves in Surat Thani, Phattalung and Ratchaburi were published in 1926 (Coedès 1926) and pottery finds from Surat Thani were reported in 1922 and 1931 (Evans 1931, Graham 1922). Another early archaeologist to visit Thailand was Etienne Lunet de Lajonquière who published the first observations on rock art in caves in Phang Nga bay as well as the antique Buddha statues in cave shrines in Yala and Ratchaburi (Lajonquière 1909, Lajonquière 1912). Tham Pha Thai in Lampang was discovered by roadbuilders in 1923 and soon became popular with visitors with HRH the Prince Leopold of Belgium collecting isopods in the cave in February 1932 (Jackson 1937). The Swiss naturalist and archaeologist Fritz Sarasin toured Thailand the early 1930s and made archaeological investigations in Tham Borichinda (Chiang Mai), Tham Phra (Chiang Rai), Tham Kradam and Tham Wat Khao Wong Khot (Lopburi) and Tham Ruesi and Tham Fa Tho (Ratchaburi) (Sarasin 1933).

Late 20th Century

From 1943 to 1944 the Dutch archaeologist H.R. van Heerken was compelled to work on the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi while a prisoner of war. He made some archaeological discoveries, including stone tools which he hid in the caves along the railway line and then recovered after the war. (Heekeren 1948). These discoveries were followed up in 1955 by Karl Heider of Harvard University in 1955 (Heider 1957). Further cave archaeological work in Kanchanaburi was done on four expeditions in 1961, 1962 and 1965-66 by a Danish-Thai team (Heekeren 1962, 1963, Knuth 1962, Nielsen 1961, 1962). The renowned American art collector Jim Thompson, famous for helping to launch the Thai silk industry, visited archaeological caves in Kanchanaburi by boat in the early 1960s. He also visited Tham Tha Morat (Phetchabun) in February 1962 (Toulmin 2018) and Tham Phra Phothisat (Saraburi) in June 1967 (Rochlen 2005). In northern Thailand there was a Thai-British Archaeological Expedition to the Chiang Dao area of Chiang Mai in the 1965-1966 field season (Watson 1968, Watson & Loofs 1967). In the same season, 1966, Chester Gorman began his very well-known archaeological excavations in Spirit Cave (Chester Gorman), Banyan Valley Cave (which is the dry entrance to Tham Pung Hung) and Tham Pha Chan (Steep Cliff Cave) in Mae Hong Son (Gorman 1969, 1970).

During the Vietnam War thousands of American servicemen were stationed to Thailand, cavers amongst them. The first published record of a caver visiting a cave in Thailand was in 1962 when Dewayne Dickey and two others, who were stationed at Khorat, visited Tham Chum Pon and Tham Khao Bin in Ratchaburi (Dickey 1963). John Viletto was in Kanchanaburi in 1969 for a project for the US military to assess karst slopes for military vehicles which happened to also recorded a couple of caves (Viletto 1971) and in April 1972 Captain W.E. Zarwell and Chuck Pease visited 4 caves during a week of caving (Zarwell 1972). The American servicemen even formed a short-lived (1973-1975) local chapter of the National Speleological Society based in Bangkok, the Thai-Am Caving Grotto (Anon. 1973), which although it organised caving trips, mainly to Saraburi and Ratchaburi, and published a series of newsletters (Brewer et al. 1974) didn’t record any speleological work. Also from the Vietnam War era is some graffiti in Tham Pha Phaung in Khon Kaen that reads "Pat Hole. Australia. 2508" (1965).

The war in south-east Asia also resulted in research into medically important arthropods. In September 1966 Norihiro Ueshima of the University of Berkley collected bed bugs from a cave with a large bat colony in Saraburi (Ueshima 1968). This cave was found to also host the Khaeng Khoi virus (Williams et al. 1976). There was also research into cave-dwelling mosquitos (Huang 1972, Peyton & Rattanarithikul 1970).

The study of the cave fauna in Thailand restarted in the late 1960s after a long gap from the early expeditions at the start of the century. In April 1967 Louis Roth collected cockroaches in Tham Khao Luang, Phetchaburi (Roth 1974). The American cave biologist Fred Stone was based in Thailand as an agricultural advisor and in 1967 he visited Tham Chiang Dao and Tham Tab Tao (Stone 1967). He started his biological collecting with F.G. Howarth in 1967 and continued this biospeleological work with a study of the fauna of Tham Lumphini Suan Hin (Saraburi) between December 1972 and December 1973 (Deeleman-Reinhold 1985). He was also in Thailand in July and August 1981 collecting cave fauna in Tham Chiang Dao, Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi (Stone 1983). Fred Stone also joined the Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie expedition for a few days in August 1986.

In 1971 American cavers Michael and Helen Kaczamarek visited caves in Chiang Mai (Tham Chiang Dao), Kanchanaburi (Tham Mongkhon Thong) Ratchaburi (Tham Khao Ngu) and Phetchaburi (Tham Khao Yoi and Tham Khao Luang) (Kaczamarek & Kaczamarek 1971). The first recorded cave mapping in Thailand was by a Thai-North American team from Chiang Mai University which included four Canadian and American cavers. They carried out a compass and tape survey of Tham Chiang Dao, mapping 2.1 km of passages between December 1972 and February 1973 (Windecker et al. 1975). The Swiss biospeleologist Pierre Strinati visited Thailand in February 1975 and made biological collections in Tham Chiang Dao (Chiang Mai) and Tham Lawa (Kanchanaburi) (Hoffman 1982, Strinati 1975).
The Austrian cavers Heinrich Kusch and Ingrid Staber toured throughout Thailand on annual trips between 1973 and 1978. Ninety-four caves were explored and of these they mapped Tham Phaya Nak (Krabi), Tham Phi and Tham Dao Duang (Kanchanaburi) Tham Mae Pim, Tham Ruesi (Ratchaburi), Tham Phra Phothisat (Saraburi) and Tham Suwan Khuha (Phang Nga) (Kusch 1976, 1977, 1982, 1985, 1987, 2006).

The first expedition organised by a European caving club to Thailand appears to have been in August 1978 by the l’Equip de Recerques Espeleològiques del Centre Excursionista de Catalunya from Spain. A team of three surveyed Tham Lawa in Kanchanaburi on a very short visit (Ubach i Tarrès 1980). Tham Lawa was also visited in December 1978 by the famous American entomologist E.S. Ross who collected a whip spider (Weygoldt 1998).

From December 1980 to January 1981 French speleologists Louis Deharveng and Alain Gouze explored and surveyed Tham Chiang Dao, Tham Ki Nok and Tham Tab Tao (Chiang Mai) and Tham Pha Thai (Lampang) (Deharveng & Gouze 1983). Subsequent to this first expedition Louis Deharveng organised and led three major biospeleological expeditions by the Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie in 1985, 1986 and 1987 which investigated many caves and karst regions throughout Thailand. Although the collection of biological specimens was the main focus major caves such as Tham Pha Mon (Mae Hong Son), Tham Klaeb Yai (Chiang Mai) and Tham Luang Nang Non (Chiang Rai) were surveyed and comprehensive expedition reports were published (Deharveng 1986, 1987, 1988). Members of the Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie also visited Thailand in 1991 and 1992, but unfortunately no expedition reports were published.

Australian speleologist John Dunkley’s interest in the caves of Thailand was sparked by a talk given by Elery Hamilton-Smith at the 1968 Australian Speleological Federation conference in which Hamilton-Smith reported conversations in Bangkok with Fred Stone about Thai caves. John subsequently visited Thailand for the first time in 1969 when he travelled by train to Kanchanaburi, making numerous observations of the caves and karst that could be seen from the railway line. Dunkley returned in December 1981 to visit caves in Chang Mai and Lampang, the start of annual and biannual visits to the karst regions of Thailand (Dunkley 1983). In January 1982 he visited several caves in Kanchanaburi, Phang Nga and Krabi.

Having seen the large poljes in Mae Hong Son on topographic maps and read in a travel magazine about trekking in the region, Dunkley made contact with the author of that magazine article, fellow Australian John Spies who was working as a guide in the region. Spies and Dunkley made the first explorations of the caves of Pang Ma Pha in Mae Hong Son in January 1983 (Dunkley & Greenfield
1983). This first trip was soon followed up with trips in January and May 1984. Full scale Australian expeditions to Pang Ma Pha were organized by Spies and Dunkley in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990 and 1992 which surveyed many of the major caves in the region including Tham Mae Lana, Tham Nam Lang, Tham Susa, Tham Pha Phuek and Tham Pung Hung. Amongst the many participants on these early Australian expeditions were John Brush (first expedition in 1986) and Neil Anderson (first expedition in 1988) who over the next three decades were on several other caving trips. Unfortunately the last three Australian expeditions were not as well documented as the first two. (Boland 1989, 1990a, 1990b, 1991, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c, Dunkley 1985a, 1985b, Dunkley & Brush 1986). The 1992 expedition was the last major speleological expedition to Mae Hong Son.

As part of his cave documentation work John Dunkley compiled a list of Thailand’s longest caves that was published in 1987 (Dunkley 1987) and a gazetteer of the caves of Mae Hong Son (Dunkley 1993). These two lists were combined and expanded in the 1995 publication ‘Caves of Thailand’ (Dunkley 1995) which was the first complete listing of the caves of the country. It was an indispensable work for anyone with an interest in the caves and karst of Thailand with a listing of 2,045 sites and was updated in 1997 taking it to 2,283 sites (Dunkley 1997).

As well as the large expeditions to Mae Hong Son the Australian cavers also visited many other areas in Thailand. In 1984 they were in Chumphon and Ratchaburi, in 1985 they visited Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi and Phang Nga, in 1986 they visited Krabi and Phang Nga (Dunkley & Brush 1986), in 1988 they again visited the south including Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Krabi, Trang and Satun and in 1990 it was Kanchanaburi (Boland 1991).

After a break of fifteen years John Dunkley returned to Thailand for nostalgic trips to Mae Hong Son and tours of north-east Thailand in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 researching for his new interest in sandstone caves (Dunkley & Bolger 2017, Dunkley et al. 2018, Middleton & Spate 2018).

John Spies came to Thailand in 1977 and set up as a trekking guide in Chiang Mai. He started cave exploration after he met John Dunkley in January 1983 and he organised the guides and camping for the Australian caving expeditions to Mae Hong Son between 1985 and 1992 (Spies 2008). In 1985 John opened the Cave Lodge guesthouse in Ban Tham and this became a must visit place for all cavers visiting northern Thailand. Spies has an unrivalled knowledge of the caves, especially the coffin caves, of Pang Ma Pha and has aided many scientific expeditions to Mae Hong Son (Grave et al. 1994, Kiernan et al. 1988, Kunpradit et al. 2000, Spies 1997, 1999). John’s extensive local knowledge was also invaluable for the Pang Ma Cave Project in 1999 (Dilokwanich et al. 2000, Kunpradit et al. 2000) and the Highland Archaeology Project (Shoocongdej et al. 2007).

Between December 1983 and January 1984 the American “Thailand Karst Hydrology Project”, which was a group of cavers from Idaho, explored caves near Chiang Dao and the previously unvisited mountain karst of Doi Angkhang on the Myanmar border in Chiang Mai. This expedition surveyed several deep caves and although several of the surveys and some survey data are available unfortunately a full report on this interesting expedition was never published (Benedict 1983, Ingram & Rigg 1984, Rigg et al. 1984).

Swedish biospeleologist Bill Odell studied Kitti’s hog-nosed bat in Kanchanaburi in 1984, 1986 and 1987. He also published reports and surveys of caves in Chiang Mai and Lampang, along the headwaters of the Nam Chon river in Tak and the sandstone pseudokarst at Phu Hin Rongkla, Phitcanulok. However, many of the place names in his reports can't be found on any maps and it may be worth noting that apart from the small caves at Phu Hin Rongkla none of the caves reported by Odell in his article have been relocated (Odell 1985, Odell & Odell 1984)
Gert Pedall was a German engineer working at Song Tho mine and he was probably the first person to traverse Tham Nok Nang En in Kanchanaburi (Dunkley et al. 1989). He showed the cave to the French Groupe Spéléo Scientifique et Sportif expedition in February 1986 who surveyed the cave and they returned in January 1988 to finish the work (Ostermann 1988, Roche 1993). Tham Nok Nang En was also investigated in May 1987 by Graham Wilton-Jones and Jane Clark, of the Bristol Exploration Club, and John Dunkley (Dunkley et al. 1989, Wilton-Jones 1988).

The first cave diving in Thailand appears to have been carried out in 1986 and 1988 by the Swiss diver Oliver Knab at Thale Noi (Surat Thani), Tham Than Bok Khorani and Sra Prang (Krabi) (Knab 1986, 1988a, 1988b).

In November 1986 British cavers Tony White and Fran Hampton surveyed Tham Tab Tao in Chiang Mai and explored the carbon dioxide filled lower series of the cave (White 1988). From January to March 1987, and again in December 1987, the Polish Alpinistyczny Klub Eksploracyjny w Sopocie held two serious caving expeditions to the Chiang Dao area of Chiang Mai. The first expedition involved camping on top of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, hoping to find a high entrance into Tham Chiang Dao. Although a full expedition report was not published the surveys are available (Parma 1987, 1988).

A small French team from the Maison des Gouffres were in northern Thailand from January to February 1988 where they followed up several leads in Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son remaining from the Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie expeditions, including a survey of Tham Sai Thong in Chiang Rai. Their report was included with the report of the 1987 Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie expedition (Deharveng 1988).

German caver Daniel Gebauer visited Krabi, Phang Nga and Prachuap Khiri Khan in July 1988 and Trang over the New Year 1993/1994 period. His reports include surveys of Tham Phayakorn (Krabi) and Tham Morakot (Trang) (Gebauer 1988, 1994, 1995, 1997).
David Checkley led a British expedition to explore the caves of the Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary (Chaiyaphum) in April and May 1989, following up on a reconnaissance by the Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie in 1987 (Checkley 1989, Checkley et al. 1989). In September 1989 a small French team from the Spéléo Club de la MJC Bellegarde explored caves in Krabi and Phang Nga (Tournier 1989).

The New Zealand Speleological Society organised a caving expedition to Kanchanaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Satun from December 1989 to January 1990. A report was never published, but their surveys of caves such as Tham Don Din, Tham Jet Khot (Satun), Tham Kaeo, Tham Phraya Nakhorn (Prachuap Khiri Khan), Tham Dao Daung, Tham Nam Phra That and Tham Wang Badan (Kanchanaburi) are available.

In August 1990 a Société Spéléologique de l'Ariège-Pays d'Olmes expedition explored and surveyed the entrance series to Tham Nam Mut in Kanchanaburi (Apel et al. 1990). Some members of this club surveyed the well-known Bor Nam Phi "Spirit Well" in Mae Hong Son in August 1991, although the survey was never published.

In December 1991 Benoit Stinglhamber, Magnus Björkman and John Spies explored Tham Galopin, Tham Christmas and the second tributary and aragonite chambers of Tham Mae Lana in Pang Ma Pha, Mae Hong Son. Benoit Stinglhamber was back in Tham Mae Lana (Mae Hong Son) in February 1994 and on a three day through trip with three others explored, but didn't survey, a third major tributary in Tham Mae Lana (Stinglhamber pers. com. 2014). Unfortunately these important explorations were ever published in a report and the passages found remain unsurveyed.

A small Oxford University Caving Club expedition recorded caves on Ko Si Chang in Chonburi and in the Three Pagodas Pass area, Kanchanaburi over the New Year period from late December 1991 to January 1992 (Mead 1992). Also in January 1992 Californian caver Carol Vesely surveyed caves at Ao Nang, Krabi (Vesely 1992).

The British Combined Services Caving Association held a major expedition to Kanchanaburi from April to May 1992. They explored and surveyed some major caves including Tham Nam Mut and Tham Ban Nam Mut (Smith 1995). Another British expedition in April 1992 was by the Manchester and Sheffield University Speleological Societies who explored the caves of Nam Nao National Park (Phetchabun), including the first investigations of Tham Yai Nam Nao (Standing et al. 1992).

Most of the early exploration and geological work on the sandstone caves of north-east Thailand was carried out by French geologist and caver Claude Mouret. Employed in the region as a hydrocarbon exploration geologist he had three field trips in October 1992, October to November 1993 and December 1993 to January 1994, publishing the results in a 1994 paper (Mouret & Mouret 1994). As a geologist he recognised the paleokarsts at the Permian-Triassic boundary in north-eastern Thailand (Mouret 1994) and some of the fundamental features of speleogenesis in sandstone (Mouret 2017). He also studied the large bat colonies at Tham Khao Luk Chang (Nakhon Ratchasima) and Tham Khao Chong Pran (Ratchaburi) in 1993 and 1994 (Jarlan & Mouret 1997, Mouret 1997) and the archaeological Buddhist caves in Ratchaburi in 1992 (Mouret 2009).

Italian cavers Ezio Anzanello and Mariagrazia Cadamuro of the Gruppo Speleologico Opitergino CAI Oderzo explored and surveyed two caves near Mae Sariang (Mae Hong Son) in 1992 (Anzanello & Cadamuro 1993, 1995) and on another trip in 1995 surveyed Tham Mutalu in Tak (Anzanello & Cadamuro 1996).

British speleologist Dean Smart first visited Thailand from February to May 1993. For most of this trip he was in Mae Hong Son and led teams that explored and surveyed Tham Sua/Tham Lom and Tham Ban Luk Khao Lam (Smart 1994). He was back in Mae Hong Son in 1995 when he surveyed Tham Fossil and Tham Huai Kut Pba Teung. Dean was based in Thailand from 1995 to 2005 working as a karst specialist for the Royal Forest Department. He documented the caves in many National Parks in Kanchanaburi, Sukhothai, Uthai Thani and Prachuap Khiri Khan, writing reports for the RFD (Smart 1995a, 1995b, 1996a, 1996b, 1996c, 1996d, 1998a).

From 1997 to 2001 Dean co-ordinated a major project funded by the Thailand Research Fund to explore and study the caves in the Thungyai Naresuan East Wildlife Sanctuary (Tak). Eight international caving expeditions were organised with cavers from the UK, USA and Australia assisting the work (Smart 2002a). Following on from the Thungyai Naresuan East Wildlife Sanctuary project Dean Smart organised three expeditions to the neighbouring Thungyai Naresuan West Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi between 2002 and 2004 (Oakley et al. 2003, Oakley & Smart 2002).

Another major project organised by Dean Smart was in the Thung Salaeng Luang National Park in Phitansulok. Between 1997 and 2004 there were nine expeditions and amongst the major finds were Tham Phra Wang Daeng, which is Thailand’s longest cave, Tham Khang Khao, Tham Nam Dan and Tham Phra Ngam Sai. These explorations were assisted by cavers and clubs from a number of countries including the Canberra Speleological Society and Orpheus Caving Club (Bolger 1999, Smart 1998b, 2002a, 2002b). Dean Smart and Robert Cunningham organized a cave ecology study of human disturbance in caves in southern Thailand from 2001 to 2002, which included a lot of cave mapping (Hutacharern 2004, Smart & Cunningham 2001, 2002).

As part of his remit as a cave and karst consultant for the Royal Forest Department Dean Smart was involved in organizing various cave management training seminars, including one at Erawan National Park in 1995 which was attended by John Dunkley and Elery Hamilton-Smith, and a cave resources conference in Bangkok in 1999 (Smart 1999). As part of this cave management work Dean also proposed a cave management classification for Thailand which was a modified version of the Australian scheme (Smart 2000).

Whilst working for the Royal Forest Department Dean became the focal point for foreign caving expeditions to Thailand and he actively promoted the country as a speleological destination. Amongst the many caving groups and individuals Dean assisted and encouraged were the Shepton Mallet Caving Club, Orpheus Caving Club, Bristol Exploration Club, Canberra Speleological Society, University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, Société Spéléologique de l'Ariège-Pays d'Olmes, Torne Valley Caving Club, Richard Borowsky, Terry Bolger, Steve Smith, Ron Simmons and Mike Futrell. He was also working with the cave divers exploring the flooded systems in southern Thailand, publishing a report on sub-sea level speleothems in Tham Sra Kaeo (Krabi) (Smart 2003) and helped Matt London to dive in Nam Phut Thap Lao (Chaiyaphum).

Dean’s last caving trip in Thailand was in March 2005 when a four man team toured Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Nan. This was a highly successful reconnaissance trip which made the first speleological investigations of many caves including Tham Pha Phueng (Nan) and Tham Pha Daeng (Chiang Mai) that were in later years explored to become Thailand’s two deepest caves.

Liz Price is a British caver who was based for many years in Kuala Lumpur and first visited Thailand in the 1980s. In June and August 1993 she organised three trips to Yala with Malaysian cavers to explore and survey Tham Krachaeng (Price 1994, 1995). In 2000 she returned to Tham Krachaeng and other caves in Satun and Phattalung on two expeditions with British cavers from the Axbridge Caving Group (Gray 2001a, 2001b, Price 2000, 2001, 2002).

Mark Costlett led three Canadian ‘Bad Air’ expeditions to Mae Hong Son in 1994, 1998 and 2003 with the intention of using supplemental oxygen to explore Tham Pha Phuek and Tham Hued, two caves which can have lethally high carbon dioxide levels. Although a fair amount of publicity material was produced before the expeditions and magazine articles published afterwards there wasn’t a detailed report about their work (Cahill 2003, Cosslett 2003a, 2003b, Douce 2002).

In April 1996 the Canberra Speleological Society had a major expedition to Kanchanaburi during which Tham Nam Tok, Tham Sao Hin, Tham Khang Khao and many other caves were explored and surveyed (Brush 1996). This was the last large scale caving expedition to Kanchanaburi.

American fish biologist Richard Borowsky of New York University led six “Cave Fish Expeditions” to Thailand between 1996 and 2000 to study the blind cave fish. The expedition in March 2000 managed to collected live cave fish from Kanchanaburi, Mae Hong Son, Phitsanulok and Chaiyaphum and transported them to a laboratory in the USA for study (Borowsky & Vidthayanon 2001, Duboué & Borowsky 2012, Trajano & Borowsky 2003).

In 1998 there were three small caving expeditions to Thailand. The Bristol Exploration Club from the UK were in the Tai Rom Yen National Park (Surat Thani) in January (Harper 1998) while in July the Société Spéléologique de l'Ariège-Pays d'Olmes were also in Surat Thani, but in the Khao Sok National Park (Jarlan & Caron-Jarlan 2000). American cavers Steve Smith and Ron Simmons surveyed Tham Nam Khao Siwa (Sa Kaeo) in December 1998 before joining Dean Smart in the Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary East in January 1999 (Smith 2001).

21st Century

The Shepton Mallet Caving Club from the UK had their first expedition to Thailand in February 2000. This was to the karst near Khon San in Chaiyaphum and although the finds were modest it was the start of a long and ongoing series of visits to the country (Ellis & Barrett 2001). Between December 2000 and April 2003 the next three Shepton Mallet Caving Club expeditions were to Umphang in Tak when Tham Takobi and Tham Loe Pu were surveyed (Ellis 2003).

In recent decades arachnologists have made many extensive collecting trips looking for cave spiders. These biologists include Peter Schwendiger who made visits in 1985 to 1987, 1991, 1992, 2000 and 2002 to 2005 (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chumphon, Kanchanaburi, Lampang, Mae Hong Son, Saraburi and Trang), Christa Deeleman-Reinhold in 1986, 1989 and 1990 (Kanchanaburi, Krabi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Ratchaburi and Songkhla), Peter Weygoldt in 2004 (Kanchanaburi), B.A. Huber in 2015 (Prachuap Khiri Khan, Ranong and Yala) and Huifeng Zhao and team in 2014 and 2016 (Kanchanaburi, Khon Kaen, Krabi, Mae Hong Son, Nakhon Ratchasima, Phang Nga, Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Ratchaburi, Ranong, Sa Kaeo, Saraburi and Tak). By May 2021 over 100 species of spider had been found in Thai caves, of which 84 were new to science.

The University of Bristol Spelaeological Society from the UK had a large expedition to the Chai Phrakan area of Chiang Mai in January 2001 (Farrant et al. 2001) and a follow up trip in December 2003. On the December 2003 expedition oxygen rebreather equipment was used to explore and collect air samples in the carbon dioxide filled passages at the end of the lower series of Tham Tab Tao (Smith & Telling 2004). The caves in the Mae Ping National Park in Lamphun were explored by a small team from the Bristol Exploration Club from November to December 2001, assisted by Dean Smart and National Park rangers (Harper 2002).

An archaeological and paleontological survey was conducted in northern Thailand by the French-Thai Palaeolithic Mission between 2002 and 2005 which included investigating and surveying several caves in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Phayao. The results of this work was published in the 2008 book "Préhistoires au sud du Triangle d'Or" (Zeitoun et al. 2008). The Société Spéléologique de l'Ariège-Pays d'Olmes continued their series of small scale expeditions in July 2003 then they visited Uthai Thani and Tak (Jarlan 2003) and in July 2008 to Chiang Mai and Nan (Jarlan 2009).

Following their trips to Tak, the Shepton Mallet Caving Club moved their attention to the Nam Nao National Park in Phetchabun. Over three expeditions from 2003 to 2006 they explored and surveyed Tham Yai Nam Nao and many other caves (Ellis 2006).
By 2006 Martin Ellis of the Shepton Mallet Caving Club was living in Phetchabun which resulted in an increased amount of cave documentation and field trips. After Dean Smart left Thailand in 2005 Ellis acquired Smart’s library and cave survey notes and started to fill the role that Dean had had of communicating with the foreign cavers visiting Thailand. The Shepton Mallet Caving Club has hosted a website on Thailand caves with Ellis as the webmaster since 2005 and a database of the caves of Thailand was started in 2005, beginning by entering the caves from Dunkley’s “Caves of Thailand”. Ellis has also published a series of books to update and expand Dunkley’s “Caves of Thailand” (Ellis 2017b, 2017c, 2020).

The caving team formed by employees of Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures have had several caving expeditions to Doi Angkhang in Chiang Mai from 2008 to 2019. Amongst the deep caves that they have explored or relocated are Tham Ban Luang, Tham Hub Pha Khao, Tham Pha Daeng and Tham Sui Tang. Unfortunately no expedition reports have been published, though some survey data has been made available. In 2020 they joined the Shepton Mallet Caving Club for an expedition to Doi Angkhang (Ellis 2021) and at Crazy Horse (Chiang Mai) they surveyed 4.3 km of passage in 14 caves. In March 2021 the Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures team helped with the resurvey project of Tham Luang Nang Non (Chiang Rai).

French caver Thierry Tournier has visited Thailand nearly every year since 2008 and from 2019 has lived in northern Thailand. Tournier is the Fédération Française de Spéléologie commissioner for Thailand and he has published a series of annual summaries on cave explorations and news (Tournier 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, Tournier & Rateau 2020). He has done a lot of exploration in the Lamphun/southern Chiang Mai area in recent years. As part of her PhD thesis Belgian biologist Alice Latinne collected rodents in caves throughout Thailand from 2008 to 2010. Many caves were investigated, though they all had to be outside national parks and protected areas due to the bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining research permits (Latinne 2012).

The Shepton Mallet Caving Club had five major expeditions to the Doi Phuka National Park in Nan between 2009 and 2016. They explored Tham Pha Phueng to -473 m, the deepest cave in Thailand, as well as other significant caves such as Tham Rai Phin, Tham Huai Poen, Tham Nam Tok Nam Poen, Tham Bpaet Sip, Tham Maa and Cave NA0122/NA0135 (Bolger & Ellis 2009, Ellis 2011, 2015, 2017a).

In November 2010 Alex Fletcher, with support from Martin Ellis, Terry Bolger, Anukoon Sorn-ek and his crew, dived the first sump in the Tham Nam Nao resurgence in the Nam Nao National Park (Phetchabun), but was unable to pass the upstream sump in Tham Nam Lei in Chaiyaphum (Fletcher 2011). Craig Werger and his team had a more productive diving trip to the north in April 2012 when they pushed the flooded section of Tham Nam Pu in Loei upstream from the resurgence (Werger 2012).

The cave diving community in southern Thailand have conducted some very deep, technical and long dives at sites such as Tham Sra Kaeo (Krabi) and Tham Song Hong (Nakhon Si Thammarat). Unfortunately there have been no detailed reports or cave surveys published on these very interesting explorations and news has to be sought in forums, blogs and Facebook posts. The divers involved include Matt London and Bruce Konefe (USA), Joon Park (Korea), Ben Reymenants (Belgium), Cedric Verdier and Maksym Polejaka (France), Richard Harris and Craig Challen (Australia), Ivan Karadzic and Claus Rasmussen (Denmark). In November 2001 Joon Park was the first to dive at Tham Song Hong when he reached a depth of -92 m (Park pers. com. 2015) and in January 2017 Ben Reymenants, Richard Harris and Craig Challen dived this site, which is several kilometres long, to a depth of -198 m. Tham Sra Kaeo was first dived in 1993 by Matt London and was bottomed at -240 m in February 2007 by Cedric Verdier and Ben Reymenants (Verdier 2007).

Since 2011 Romanian caver Liviu Valenas has been exploring the sandstone caves in Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani (Valenas 2019) and Swiss caver Alexander Thoma has had several trips between 2012 and 2016, exploring and surveying caves in Lopburi, Loei, Saraburi, Phetchabun and Phitsanulok.

John Gosset of the l'Equipe Spéléo de Bruxelles (Belgium) has led the multinational SpeleoDAO expeditions from 2015 to 2020. The expeditions have been mainly focused on the Tham Lom-Tham Nam system which is near Ban Muang Na on the Myanmar border in Chiang Mai. By the end of the 2020 expedition this cave system was 13.5 km long, the second longest cave in Thailand (Gosset 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020a, 2020b).

In recent years several cavers who haven’t published reports on their activities have been sending cave information to Martin Ellis for inclusion in the Thailand cave database. American caver Page Ashwell was working in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla from 2011 to 2017 and he carried out extensive cave exploration in the southern provinces, creating a spreadsheet with basic information on over 600 sites. Between 2013 and 2015 Russian cavers from the Krasnoyarsk Territory Cavers Club documented caves in Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon, forwarding the information to Ellis. Phil Collett of the Shepton Mallet Caving Club has had frequent trips to the Kanchanaburi and Suphanburi area since 2015 as well as several field trips to other areas in Thailand with Ellis. In February 2016 Joerg Dreybrodt and Marc Boureau surveyed Tham Phra Kha Yang in Ranong on their way back from a Myanmar expedition while American Ryan Gardner documented caves in southern Thailand in 2019 and 2020, making his information available to Ellis.

British caver Vern Unsworth has been based in Mae Sai (Chiang Rai) since 2012 and has greatly extended Tham Luang Nang Non with assistance from local cavers and occasional help from British cavers such as Rob Harper, Phil Collett and Martin Ellis. Unsworth played a pivotal role in the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue and following the rescue Tham Luang Nang Non has been resurveyed by an international group of cavers from the UK, Singapore, America, India and Austria as well as Thai cavers. The resurvey was completed in March 2021 and Tham Luang Nang Non is now 11.1 km long, the fourth longest cave in Thailand.

In 2016 the first “Family” caving expedition to Krabi was organized by Imogen Furlong. This expedition had the stated aim of being child-friendly and was open to caving families of all nationalities. Based on the coast at Khao Thong they were fortunate to find the 1.3 km long Tham Lek Lek almost on the doorstep. The first expedition was a great success and two more expeditions have since been run in 2018 and 2020, attracting families from the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark (Furlong 2017, Furlong & Shade 2018, Shade et al. 2020).

Didier Rateau of the Spéléoclub Caniac du Causse has had a series of expeditions to Kanchanaburi from 2017 to 2020, concentrating on the caves of the Khao Phu Thong-Khao Tha Khanun area in the Khao Leam National Park as well as exploring caves in Lampang and Chiang Mai. Unfortunately so far only summary reports, and no cave surveys, have been published (Rateau 2018, 2019, 2020).
Indonesian students from the Mahasiswa Pencinta Alam Universitas Gadjah Mada organized a caving expedition to the Satun Geopark in May 2017. Working with employees of the Geopark and Department of Mineral Resources they surveyed seven caves (Ilham 2017). The
Shepton Mallet Caving Club were back in Thailand in February 2018 for an expedition to the Thung Salaeng Luang National Park in Phitsanulok and some of the caves in western Phetchabun (Goddard & Ellis 2018).

At the invitation of the superintendent of the Khun Sathan National park in Nan an ad hoc international expedition was organised in May 2019 to survey Tham La-ong. Over four days a team of British, American and Indian cavers along with National Park rangers surveyed the cave to a length of 3 km (Ellis 2019). In January 2020 another international team, this time with cavers from Germany, France, Russia and China, had a very successful expedition to Surat Thani where they surveyed 9.1 km of passage in 29 caves (Steiner & Laumanns 2020).
The most recent international caving expedition was organised in February 2020 by the Shepton Mallet Caving Club and Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures to Doi Angkhang (Chiang Mai). Twenty two cavers from the UK, USA, Canada, India, Austria and Thailand mapped 5.4 km of passage in 14 caves. They confirmed Tham Pha Daeng as the second deepest cave in Thailand at -293 m, found a second entrance to Tham Ban Luang which increased the depth to -207 m and connected Angkhang Sinkhole into Tham Hub Pha Khao to increase the depth of that system to -200 m (Ellis 2021).

The Future

Over the past fifty years foreign cavers have made a considerable contribution to the exploration, mapping and scientific understanding of Thai caves. Thailand continues to be a popular destination for foreign cavers and speleologists, for holiday and expedition caving and for karst studies. These international speleologists are a valuable resources who, if permitted, can continue to explore, map and study the caves in the country, including in national parks and other protected areas. A positive trend in recent years has been the increase in joint caving expeditions between international and Thai groups, as was seen on the February 2020 expedition to Doi Angkhang. These joint expeditions are of mutual benefit and is a trend that is likely to continue to increase in the future. It is also hoped that the government departments that manage caves and control access will continue to allow foreign speleologists to explore and study the caves and in return these speleologists will supply detailed reports and cave maps to the authorities and could help train Thai staff in cave exploration techniques.


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