I hadn’t been to Mae Hong Son before so the chance of a trip there, in the company of John Dunkley who explored the region in the 1980s and 1990s and authored the Caves of Thailand, was not to be missed.
We met up at a hotel in Chiang Mai on the morning of the Wednesday 29 October and managed to fit the six of us in the Hilux (John, Terry Bolger, Noi, Yuphin, Eng and myself). It was somewhat cramped with four people on the back seats, and what seemed like a million bends on the mountain roads between Chiang Mai and Ban Soppong didn’t help. However, we got there after about 6 hours and made our way to the famous Cave Lodge in Ban Tham Lod. Here we met up with another legend of Thai caving, John Spies, and settled down to recover from the journey with a few beers.
Thursday was spent driving around the region so give me an idea of the geography of the region with John D acting as tour guide and a sketch map from John S. From Ban Tham Lod a recently upgraded road, that is now sealed, heads north to a Y junction. To the right is a road/track that loops through the hills and forests for over 100km to Pai. We went left, down a short unsealed section, past the turning to Ban Yappanair, and on to Ban Mae Lana.
After a quick look at the Shan temple and some refreshments we drove out along a track heading south from the village. This climbs out of the Ban Mae Lana closed valley to the ridge between the village and the large doline where the Mae Lana sinks into Tham Mae Lana. I bottled out of driving down the unsealed track so we set off on foot to a sign saying Tham Kai Mook (Pearl Cave). This cave is a few metres below the track, but only Terry could be bothered to descend a slippery slope for a quick look in (a later look at the literature revealed the cave is only 40m long). Descending further along the track brought us to concrete again and a set of very steep S bends. A path to the north of the track leads to Tham Toed, a 400m long cave with coffins that has not been completely explored. We turned back here, not wanting to walk too far back up the hill, but in the evening John S and the Caves of Northern Thailand book informed us that this track passes close to several other caves including Tham SIB, Diamond Cave and Coral Cave. Of more interest was that the track was still driveable and would save a lot of effort getting to the Tham Mae Lana upstream entrance.
Back at the car we drove back to Ban Mae Lana and then headed north on the ‘main’ road that is mostly sealed, occasionally unsealed and sometimes a mixture of both. This road follows the ridge and gives good views down into the valleys that have Tham Pung Hung (Long Snake Cave) and Tham Pha Puek. At the army check point Yuphin signed us in and we continued. Technically we must have been in Burma as the road ran on the wrong side of the ridge. Eventually we headed ‘inland’ away from the border and down into the Shan village of Ban Pang Kham. After lunch we had a chat with a Thai Army NCO about caves nearby and life up here on the border. Tham Pang Kham was too wet to explored (and we didn’t have enough tackle for the 40m entrance pitch) while Ban Pang Kham was described as being a bit dull with no karaoke or singing girl bars. Heading back the way we came we took a 400m detour alongside the border to arrive at an army camp, checkpoint and a footpath crossing into Burma. Unfortunately the man in charge of the camp wouldn’t let us in to get views of the Burmese Army (or is it the Shan State Army?) on the other side.
Returning south along the road we could see the large white cliff above Tham Pha Puek so drove down into the village of Ban Pha Puek. However, we arrived in the village at the same time as a heavy shower of rain. The villagers (Black Lahu folks) were very busy sweeping up the rice that had been drying in the road and we were not going to get out of the car and get wet. So it was back up to the ridge and continue south, getting ahead of the rain. We diverted into the next village, Ban Mai Hung, and got out of the car to have a look down into the valley with Tham Pung Hung (it would be a long walk in) only for the rain to catch up with us again.
We finished off the day’s drive by going through Ban Jabo (which has another army checkpoint) to the main Pai – Mae Hong Son road (yet another army checkpoint) and back to Ban Sappong and Ban Tham Lod to complete a fine day out.
On the 31 October only Terry and I were keen to get in the car again so we headed back to Ban Mae Lana and along the track we had looked at the day before. This time I didn’t wimp out at the top of the ridge and descended past the S bends, down a couple of quite rough sections (if it rains this is a 4WD only track) to where a barrier had fortunately had been put across the track just before a very bad section. There was a convenient parking and turning place here so we took the hint and set off on foot.
After 20 minutes we were at the Tham Mae Lana upstream entrance, getting there somewhat quicker than the original Australian explorers had done who had had to walk from Ban Mae Lana (perhaps a 2 hour hike with 400m of ascent). There was a name sign in English and another in Thai stating the cave was 12km long. Terry and I had a debate as to how we were meant to get into the cave before we came to the conclusion that the 1.5 to 2 cumec stream would probably make any entry into the cave a one-way process. There is plenty of work left to be done in Tham Mae Lana, in particular it could do with being re-surveyed, and access is now a lot easier than it was 20 years ago.
Back at the car we headed to Ban Mae Lana to rehydrate before returning towards Ban Tham Lod. The lads at the Ban Jabo checkpoint were starting to recognize us; anyone intending to spend time caving in this area may wish to invest in some beer or whiskey for the squaddies to make these checkpoints very informal. Back on the main road we decided to walk up to the coffin cave advertised just before Ban Soppong (Tham Lang Jan). A nice path and steps have been built, but the scramble up does involve one small section of interesting climbing that would tax some tourists. This cave has a couple of coffins in the entrances overlooking the road.
To finish the day off we went to Tham Pha Mon. This cave is conveniently close to the main road on the Pai side of Ban Soppong. The location can’t be missed as there is a huge sign commemorating a Royal visit made a couple of years ago, a sala and a couple of small barrack shacks. However, the path to the dry, doline entrance must be overgrown as it isn’t obvious (later John S said it goes up the hill behind the sign and there is another sala at the top before it descends to the cave). The Thai army are said to still restrict access to the site, but there was no one there. Inside the cave some wooden steps (which are starting to fall apart) lead to a long wooden walkway that goes as far as the chamber with the blue formations. This walkway, again put in for the Royal visit, is proving to be an environmental disaster as it rots away, plus it is a waste of a lot of good teak. Failing to find the Royal Entrance we had a look at the resurgence. It seems like a monk has recently built a bamboo bridge over the river and a living platform in the cave entrance. On this visit the cave would have been too wet to get in.
Our last day at Cave Lodge was going to be spent kayaking through Tham Lod. This turned out to be quite good fun without a single capsize (though I did seem to impale my canoe on every available obstacle). The passage through the cave was probably the easiest bit, apart from trying to avoid collisions with the numerous bamboo rafts which were transporting tourists. Tham Lod is an impressively large river cave which is made to seem even bigger when you travel through it on your arse. After a shower and a late lunch the day was finished by driving along the main road towards Mae Hong Son as far as Wat Pha Tham Wua. This is a rich, well maintained, forest meditation wat that caters to foreigners and Bangkokians. However, we had insufficient time to look at the three or four caves in the temple grounds.
This was the end of the touring around the Pang Ma Pha district. It had been a very interesting three days, particularly as my guide was John Dunkley and my host John Spies. All that remained was to say our goodbyes at Cave Lodge and get John D back to Chiang Mai in time for this overnight train to Bangkok.