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I am not much into caving- and can easily feel claustrophobic, but sometimes it is good to explore away from the mundane world of news and venture into a realm of other existence.
Imagine a place where a species of eye-less cave fish can walk up waterfalls and where thousands of fork-tailed swifts swirl above you at sunset before finding their safe nests for the night.
This can be found at Tham Lod Cave in Pang Mapha district of Mae Hong Son, approx. four hours drive from Chiang Mai.
On the way you pass through a place called Pai, the organic-everything mecca where modern-day flash-packers chill out, but about an hour beyond Pai, is Ban Tham Lod, an ethnic Shan village where time seems to have stopped since the 1980s. Well, the 80s were actually quite the wilder times as the Australian owner of Cave Lodge, John Spies, writes about in his book “Wild Times” when opium poppies covered the hillsides with rogue armies dealing with the heroin trade along the Burma border.
John and his Thai wife settled in Ban Tham Lod leading treks to ethnic villages. Northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are filled with hundreds of cave systems, and around Pang Mapha, remains of teak coffins, pottery and tools dating back to over 2000 years can be found. John Spies has done some remarkable research and all sorts of caving and kayak expeditions are offered today for the adventurous.
The famous Tham Nam Lod Cave is an easy visit- a short walk from Cave Lodge- no crawling involved in this huge realm- about 1.5 hours to explore with a short bamboo raft ride bringing through to the other side.
Local Shan female guides lead you through Tham Nam Lod.
Tham “Nam” Lod means water passing through the Lod cave.
Amazing shapes all around…
Can you see the elephant?
And do you see the Hanoman head ?
Below is one of the ancient coffins in the Pi Maen Spirit cave:
There is also a Doll Cave with amazing stalactites and stalagmites, a crocodile rock and a pre-historic wall painting thought to be 2,000-3,000 years old.
The Lang river passes through the cave and bamboo rafts await to cruise you out the other end.
It was too dark to see the eye-less fish- guess they do not need eyes to find their food!
BBC Planet Earth did a documentary on a species of eye-less cave fish.
But there are lots of carp hovering outside and within the cave which you can feed.
Visiting Tham Lod is quite an experience and besides treks, there are some gentle walks and places to just sit along the river. The village of Ban Tham Lod has a few good local eateries for some variety, and there is a peaceful Shan temple.
Another highlight is a visit to the ethnic Karen village of Ban Muang Phaem– about 6 kms along a good road. I was delighted to see several families continuing their tradition of weaving and also in natural dyes. Many of the remoter villages can feel quite impoverished with a loss of identity, so this weaving tradition is so important for the Karen community to maintain.
Cave Lodge feels like a village itself where backpackers once conceived their version of utopia….
Simple but comfortable bungalows now for around 750 Baht ( a little more than USD 20) Do not expect hot water all day but good food is available from a welcoming staff. Just flow into the unexpected, and if the more instant still calls- there is wifi.
See more on the Cave Lodge website including some of John’s beautiful images: https://www.cavelodge.com/
Pencave Homestay is a short walk away in the village for those seeking rooms for around the same price, with some more creature comforts and
set in a lovely garden. The Shan owner Pen is a great cook and also offers cultural adventures. I met the Karen guide Mr. Jaka through Pen who has a passion to support the weavers in Ban Muang Phaem.
More on: http://www.pencavehomestay.doodlekit.com/
Getting to Ban Tham Lod:
Minivans from Chiang Mai’s Arcade bus terminal depart about every hour for Mae Hong Son and the cost as far as Soppong market in Pang Mapha is 250 Baht ( less than USD 8 ) The road is one of the most scenic in Thailand and be prepared for lots of curves!
You can even now book seats online:
From Soppong market, you can either hire a motorbike taxi to Ban Tham Lod ( about 20 minutes and 70 Baht ) or have the guesthouse send a car for you.
For more exploring around Mae Hong Son
and along the Salween River on the Myanmar border,