Up To Our Bollocks In Beetles And Bat Shit

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After the successful SMCC expedition to Nan Martin and Phil had a week’s caving in Phitsanulok, Loei and Khon Kaen. Several caves were surveyed and a few new sites discovered. 

On the Saturday afternoon four of the SMCC Nan expedition left Lom Sak to go back to the UK while Terry had already caught the bus back to Laos and Ivan was visiting the in-laws in Sukhothai. This left only Martin and Phil. Martin had a big list of sites that needed investigating and caves that needed surveying and they had a week to do it all in.
 
In the morning of Sunday 22 February 2009 we set off westwards to Phitsanulok. ‘Cutting the corner’ via a dirt road we got to Ban Chomphu, somewhere Martin hadn’t visited since 2004. The longest cave in Thailand, Tham Phra Wang Daeng, is signposted from the main road and through the village. However, we weren’t here for proper caving, but to look at and GPS the entrances to various temple caves and resurgences so we headed south from Ban Chomphu.
 
The first stop was at Wat Tham Kleab. This turned out to be the usual small, fossil cave with the ubiquitous shrine. We were also shown Tham Chomphu which has been completely built over as another shrine to a well known monk who used to live here. 
After Wat Tham Klaeb we continued south and turned into Wat Tham Khun Takhan. This wat has two caves: a dry, rifty one and a resurgence. The dry cave is in the cliff behind the large Buddha. It consists of about 75m of high rifts which soon close down. Of interest was the cave gecko, the first one we have seen and by a fluke we managed to get a decent, in focus, photograph of it. This photo has been sent to a correspondent of Martin’s in an attempt to get it identified, there is a chance that it is a new species as these geckos are very localized. The resurgence cave wasn’t flowing and climbing up the tufa waterfall leads you to a 3m wide by 5m high entrance. After 25m a smelly, static sump is reached.
 
Next stop towards the south was Wat Tham Wang Hea. This is another dry cave at the foot of the hills that may take some water in the rainy season. In the first chamber we were surprised by a nun meditating in a kuti so made our excuses and left.
The final destination on our first day was ‘Hornet Cave’ near Tham Khang Khao. This seasonal resurgence had been looked at once by Terry Bolger, Dean Smart and others in 2002, but a swarm of hornets resulted in a hasty retreat and a visit to a nearby hospital. With the use of the GPS we soon found an entrance into the cave. With great trepidation we explored, looking at the ceiling for hornet’s nests. Towards the south the cave was noticeably buzzing, but got quieter in a northerly direction. The cave follows the cliff face north, passing a couple of other entrances, to end at a boulder choke. Just before the choke there was a draughting rift which wasn’t investigated. According to my dictionary the Thai for hornet is dak ga deen yak so we rechristened the cave Tham Dak Ga Deen Yak.
 
On Monday we went in another direction – north then east to Loei. In Wat Tham Pha Pong we ascended the 600 steps up to the cave entrance. After recovering from the climb we surveyed this impressive cave. A strong draught blows out of the entrance and you enter a first chamber that is about 30m wide and up to 50m high. On the left hand side a rough path and steps leads up and over into a second chamber. This is very impressive with a large Buddha and enormous formations all lit from a skylight 30m up. Unfortunately the formations appear to block the passage / chamber, though it may be possible to climb up the stal on the left hand side. The surveyed length of the cave was 240m.
 
After a day off (spent working on the Nan expedition maps, surveys and reports) we were back in the field on Wednesday 25 February. Again we went to Loei, this time to Tham Pha Ya to the east of Loei town. This cave is well known for its evening bat flight and a large temple has been built at the base of the hill. We set off up the 500 steps and soon got to the large entrance. After surveying past the Buddha we turned right and up a hill of guano. This was starting to get very unpleasant, particularly so for Martin who was wearing sandals. As we ascended the hill of dry bat shit it was noticed that the surface was swarming with thousands of small black beetles. Indeed, in places there were ‘rivers’ of beetles which had eaten away the guano to leave a white line of limestone chips and bat bones. We persevered across the first chamber where the ceiling was covered in ‘squealer’ bats in the hope that the condition would get better on the other side. They didn’t get better, in fact they got a whole lot worse – a wall of white noise of high pitched bat speech, a rise in temperature of about 10°C, a plague of small flies and a stench of ammonia so strong it took your breath away (though the alarm on the carbon dioxide meter didn’t go off). This was the home to the million or so bats that make up the evening flight and there was no way we were going to go in there. So we retreated back down the guano hill, trying not to kick up too much dust. Somewhere in all this Phil came up with the line that we were “up to our bollocks in beetles and bat shit” and that it wasn’t a very nice cave. After surveying some more passage near the entrance it was back down the hill to wash off the crap. Despite the conditions we managed to survey some 270m of cave.
 
After all this biological excitement we went exploring, driving south along the dirt track past Tham Pha Dam. We came to a junction with a ‘wat tham’ signed to the left which wasn’t waypointed in the GPS – a new cave. After about 50m we were surprised to reach a new two lane blacktop road and a grand gateway into the temple. This was a very large development with plenty of buildings and a few shy monkeys. At the foot of the cliff was a gated entrance to the cave, Tham Bpra Gaai Phet (Sparkling Diamond Cave) which was found to be unlocked so we sneaked in for a look. This has been heavily developed with concrete and shrines, but the formations were in quite good condition. As we were heading out we met a monk who showed us a few more corners and little dead ends that we hadn’t found. In all there is perhaps 100m of passage, but it could also be described as being a single chamber with various routes around the formations. After this cave we continued south along the dirt track and found another large temple complex at Wat Tham Pha Kham, but as enthusiasm was waning we didn’t get out of the car to look for the cave. 
 
Back in Lom Sak Phil claimed that he had read somewhere that alcohol helped to prevent infection by histoplasmosis. Martin was skeptical, but after wading through bat shit up to his shins in Tham Pha Ya he wasn’t going to take any chances and joined Phil in the consumption of the bottled medicine with ice.
 
After two days in Loei it was back to Phitsanulok on Thursday where we went straight to Tham Dak Ga Deen Yak (Hornet Cave). Phil went straight to the draughting side rift and disappeared up into the ceiling. After 30 minutes he returned reporting a higher entrance and a route through to a small chamber with two holes in the floor of about 8m which may bypass the boulder choke. We then surveyed the cave (180m) before heading back to Lom Sak. Plotting up the survey data shows Tham Dak Ga Deen getting close to the entrance area of Tham Khang Khao so it is unlikely that there would be much cave in this direction. At the southern end of the cave is the main seasonal resurgence, which may be a separate cave system, but is choked with sand.
 
On Saturday 28 February we went in a different direction and drove to the Phu Pha Man National Park in Khon Kaen. Most of today’s prospecting was down from the comfort of a 4WD, but we did get out of the car to look at one very small cave (near the well known Bat Cave) and an interesting tufa waterfall with a small spring. We also had a short walk up the ‘hanging’ valley above the waterfall without seen anything else of speleological interest. However, a later perusal of the map showed a large, shallow depression in the floor of the valley. We continued driving along various dirt tracks through the fields looking for access points into the limestone hills and then went north towards Ban Cham Phak Nam. Here we found a signposted indicating five caves to the north so we followed these and ended up at Tham Phaya Nakharat, a cave that had been surveyed by the Shepton in 2006. Phil was keen to play with his camera and flashes so we wandered up to the entrance and started messing round in the entrance chamber. Phil’s experiments were stopped when a group of a dozen Thais arrived. Having other cameras flashing around the chamber caused havoc with Phil’s slaves so we stopped work and made our way out, exchanging greatings with the other group. The lady in a white silk trouser suit was looking very smart, certainly a lot smarter than the two sweaty farangs.
 
Sunday was the last day of caving so it was back to Loei and Tham Pha Dam (Black Cliff Cave). This cave had been visited in 2006, but not surveyed properly and other caves were known to be found in the hill above the cave. Access up to the huge entrance was via the usual concrete staircase, but only 100 steps in this case. The cave ascends steeply, with concrete steps up to the back of the entrance chamber. There is then a bamboo ‘ladder’ consisting of four large bamboo poles which could allow you to reach a passage 10m up in the roof if you are brave and weigh considerably less than I do. Continuing the ascent brings you to the foot of a ramp to the upper entrance. We went up this and then headed around to the left passing Tham Pha Dam 2 to find Tham Pha Dam 3 at the foot of a small cliff. Tham Pha Dam 3 had 20m of descending boulder slope that soon choked. Tham Pha Dam 2 also had a descending boulder slope of about 20m to where it split up into small passages that soon closed down. Below a big boulder at the foot of the entrance slope there is a narrow, undescended pitch. Back in the main Tham Pha Dam we continued along the passage to a point where we could see another entrance that enters the cave by a 40m pitch. There is a short ladder here that allows you to climb up to a short continuation of the passage and a monk’s sleeping platform. GPS readings at the main and upper entrance indicated that the cave is close to having a vertical range of 100m and needs a proper survey.
 
After the visit to Tham Pha Dam we continued round to Tham Bpra Gaai Phet and followed the sealed road back to find out where it went. This gave good views of the south-east side of the Tham Pha Dam hill and a couple more entrances were seen. While driving back to Lom Sak we saw a ‘wat tham’ sign so set off down the track to find Tham Piya. This was, as usual, in a wat and a 285 step concrete stairway leads up to the entrance. This has a large Buddha in the entrance and is heavily developed. A metal ladder leads up to a kuti and a couple of alcoves, while around to the right there is a passage that climbs up to where it becomes a batty crawl which wasn’t explored. Back outside the cave a path was followed along the base of the cliff to another cave whose entrance was built up with a bamboo wall and locked door. Returning back to the main road we made a final stop at a Wat Tham Pha Phueng at the end of the hill with Tham Piya. A quick look found only a monk’s shelter, but no cave or a path leading up to a cave.
 
So that was the end of our week’s caving. After a day of R & R it was down to Bangkok for Phil to go home and Martin to go to work.