Christmas Road Trip 23 - 28 December 2008


Nan, Phayao, Phrae, Uttaradit and Khon Kaen

 Time for another caving tour. This time we wanted to visit a few provinces in Northern Thailand, including a reconnaissance for the Shepton Mallet CC’s February 2009 expedition.
Terry Bolger and Noi arrived in Lom Sak by bus from Vientiane on the afternoon of the 22 December. The next day we drove to Nan via Phitsanulok, Uttaradit and Phrae. Rooms were taken at the Dhevaraj Hotel in the centre of the town and later that night Ivan and Nom Hollis arrived having driven up from Bangkok.
The main task of the tour was to inspect and book accommodation for the Shepton’s February trip to Nan. In the morning of the 24 December we headed north, through Pua to Chiang Klang. Turning off the main road the next hour was spent ascending into the hills to the Hmong village of Ban Mani Phruk. This village has a Royal Reforestation Project office where there is a bungalow that can be rented. A quick inspection revealed that this would be more than adequate for a bunch of cavers and can sleep about 7 people. A phone call later in the day to the manager, Mr Phinit (081 6022731), confirmed the booking for a week in February at no cost – the accommodation was free as long as we bought some souvenirs in the nearby village. Mission accomplished it was time for a bit of caving. 
Nan is one of my favourite corners of Thailand. Lots of hills and forests, surrounded on two sides by Laos and cut off from the rest of Thailand by the mountains. Although not known, yet, as a major caving region the province does have some promising areas. On the northern border with Phayao there is a national park centred on Tham Sakoen which is a large fossil remnant cave. However, the area with perhaps the greatest potential is near Ban Mani Phruk. The topographic maps show several streams sinking in dolines at an altitude of over 1,300m. The resurgences are unknown, but the valleys surrounding the massif are at an altitude of around 600m. One cave, Tham Pha Phueng, had already been surveyed to a depth of -163m where exploration was stopped by a pitch down which stones fell for 5 seconds. This cave is easy to find as it is a signed tourist attraction two minutes walk from the road in the doline just before Ban Mani Phruk. Tham Pha Phueng survey.
Terry, Ivan and I decided to look for another cave, Tham Nam Dan, which was meant to be in a doline to the south of the Reforestation office. We followed the stream to where it disappeared between boulders at the foot of a cliff. However, despite a bit of jungle bashing we couldn’t find the way into a cave, just a few flood overflow sinks. Defeated we headed back to the office to ask. Here we were informed that the entrance to Tham Nam Dan had been blocked by fallen boulders. To get into the cave will have to be a digging project for the Mendip cavers in February.
The Reforestation Project had a topographic model on display which showed the location of a few other caves: Tham Phu Hua Lan, Tham Ho Ying, Tham Ho Chai and Tham Champi. These have been plotted on a photograph of the 1:50,000 topographic map along with Tham Pha Phueng, Tham Nam Dan and the road.
The next day, Christmas Day, we moved on from Nan. I hadn’t been caving in Phayao province before so today’s task was to find me a cave. This was achieved in Ban Huai Tham near Doi Kham Tai. This village (Cave Stream Village) has a little forest park with a few caves. We turned up to find some sort of festival going on and loads of people milling about. The park has a large resurgence and a short distance up the hill there is Tham Chom Si which was explored by Terry, Martin and around a dozen school children. Our exploration stopped after about 75m when we reached a pool of water. This would be at about the same altitude as the resurgence and the passage is heading in the direction of the resurgence. Another four caves were named on an information board, but Ivan failed to find any of them despite walking around the hill.
Christmas evening was spent in Phayao town, with Christmas Dinner (Thai style) being taken in a lake side restaurant before we moved on to a local night spot (the Batman Pub) to be entertained by scantily dressed local ladies singing Thai rock and hip-hop.
It rained overnight and the next morning it was still overcast. We set off for Phrae and took the back road (the H1154) from Ngao to Song. This scenic route goes through the bottom part of the Mae Yom National Park and we can confirm there is no limestone here. In Phrae it took four attempts to find a hotel with double beds, by which time there was no enthusiasm to go out looking for caves. Just east of Phrae town along the H1023 there is the Pha Klong National Park whose attractions include an ‘air conditioned cave’ (i.e. it has a strong outward draught blowing from a small hole) and the Coral Mountain which is weathered limestone hill with lots of sharp rillenkarren.
Time to go home, so Martin, Terry, Yuphin and Noi set off back to Lom Sak while Ivan and Nom went to visit the in-laws in Sukhothai. To the south of Uttaradit there is a Tham Din signed, with one of the big tourist attraction signs, to the east of the H11 along the H1246. Over the years there have been previous attempts to find this cave, but it was time to try again. However, we were again unsuccessful. After turning off the main highway there are no more signs! There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of limestone hills in this region. Looping back around to the H11 again near Uttaradit town we asked the GPS to take us to the Wat Wang Tham waypoint, but the tracks became very agricultural a couple of kilometers before the temple so we gave up.
On the 28 December we offered to drive Terry and Noi to Khon Kaen to catch the bus back to Vientiane. Once past the Chumphae the road is a good fast dual carriageway and we paid a 100 baht fee to the highway police as confirmation as to how fast this road is. Once Terry and Noi had been delivered to the correct bus station Martin and Yuphin headed back to Lom Sak, travelling a bit slower on the road to Chumphae. 
Near Khon San we took the back road through Phu Pha Man and saw a sign to a priest’s campsite cave. The track, which is in good condition, leads for 3km through the fields. This is a nice spot with the classic south-east Asian scenery of rice paddies surrounded by low limestone hills. Where the track ends it is a short walk (sign posted) to Tham India. This is a large undercut at the base of a small cliff that has been developed into a campsite for monks on tudong (pilgrimage). Following the path beyond Tham India you drop down off the limestone back into the fields and in the low cliffs on the other side of the there is another cave (Cave KK0075) which also has a monk living in it. This cave closes down after 50m, but in the wet season it has a small stream flowing through it and the fields outside become lakes (i.e. they are poljes). This area has a good supply of water all year round and there are probably vauclusian resurgences from the limestone massifs to the north and south.
Heading back a third cave was seen on the left just before the road. This cave had been heavily developed with lots of concrete floor and steps, but seems to have been abandoned as a temple cave as inside there was only a white seated Buddha. Behind the Buddha and to the left a couple of passages lead up to skylights while some low passages to the right were not explored. Some homework on getting back to Lom Sak revealed that this is Tham Fun.
So, three caves discovered while driving back from the bus station in an area that we have been visiting for the past nine years!