Breathtaking Beauty. One of the most famous attractions in the Mae Hong Son region, is the Tham Lod Cave, about 50km north of Pai. There are several other caves in the area, and you can stay closer to visit more, plus do some hiking while you’re at it – the surrounding mountains must be absolutely fantastic to explore by foot! For visa-reasons, our time in Pai is sadly limited, so staying longer wasn’t an option this time – but we definitely didn’t want to miss this site, so we hired a taxi for the day and made the trip up with two other worldschooling families.
We left Pai at 2.30 pm and set out on the mountainous road up to Soppong. Driving time is about 1h30 and takes you through lots of beautiful scenery, both farmland, forest and villages. Once at the cave, hiring a guide with a lantern is compulsory, but well, you don’t really want to go in without one anyway! There are three cave parts to visit in total, so you can choose from several options, the cheapest one including only the first part that you visit by foot. Once through that one, you get onto bamboo rafts, that then take you through the cave lake, to the two other parts. We have visited caves before, and I am always amazed and impressed at the beauty of nature, but this one is decidedly spectacular. The rock formations are incredible – several of them resembling animals or even a Buddha at one point! And they are innumerable too – above you, under you, and besides you, so it’s nearly impossible to decide where to look!
Bats, bats and more bats. Like most other caves, this one is naturally home to a colony of bats. It was impressive to feel how the inner parts of the cave were literally covered in bats. I say ‘feel’ because you couldn’t see them, they were up to high and your eyes couldn’t distinguish much in the cave darkness. But you could definitely HEAR them! I gave up on trying to catch anything visible on film, and ended up just closing my eyes and listening to the persistent squeaking in the dark. Fantastic. There is something special about gliding along on a bamboo raft, in the silence of a completely black cave, hearing nothing but thousands of bats singing above you…
Aside from the noise of the bats, what also gave away their presence, was the smell! A portion of the cave trail was literally covered in bat poo, which on a side note didn’t make it any easier to climb the very steep stairs at some points – because you didn’t really want to hold on properly to the manure-painted railings 😉
We made it safely up and down, though I had to take a deep breath a couple of times when the walking path was particularly challenging for someone afraid of heights. Oh, and wear sneakers. Or a good pair of sandals. But don’t do flip-flops if you don’t have to. It’s slippery in there!
A Piece of Advice. The only downside to our tour, but it was a major one though, was that our guides were hurrying us through the cave trail – so much that we couldn’t keep up with each other as groups. We were separated into groups of three, each one with a designated guide, and several times we had to ask them (a bit sternly) to stop and wait for the others. Not only was it hard to visit as a group of friends this way, but more importantly this crazy pace made it nearly impossible to stop and take pictures and if you wanted to stand an gaze a bit somewhere….well, forget it! At first we didn’t quite understand why the guides would act like this, but later it we discovered that we had probably been one of the last groups of the day to enter the cave, so probably it was a case of bad luck, and we simply got caught in a typical ‘last-customer-just-get-it-over-with-we-want-to-go-home’-situation. A shame, because you don’t visit caves in northern Thailand everyday and we really did not have enough time to explore, much less truely admire and take in the beauty and uniqueness of the place.
Also, we went in the afternoon because we had been told that we could then observe ‘thousands of birds’ fly into the cave around sunset. Supposedly, the tour would have had us come out just in time for this, but because we hurried so much (and we might also have started just a bit to the early side) we were out quite a bit in advance – and the guides were already storming on towards the exit of the park again, definitely not wanting to wait around to see birds. We debated whether to stay on our own, but just then it started raining again, and as we would probably have had to wait another half hour at least, we ended up just giving up. Sigh. Well, thank goodness for youtube…!
So, my advice to you – and what I will do next time, if we visit again, is to come earlier, for one – to ensure enough time IN the caves and look to hire a guide independently (not just take the one appointed at the entrance) and make sure to agree with them that the visit will be done at your pace, even if that may mean paying an extra fee. It will be worth it.
A Bit of Practical Info. A truck from Pai will cost you around 200THB/person (round trip w. the driver waiting for you while you visit). We negotiated a lower price, but 200 is standard, and what the tour operators charge as well. On top of this comes entrance fee and guide with or without the bamboo rafting. I don’t know who would choose the option without raft though, you would seriously only see a tiny part of the cave. Cost of the complete tour is 450THB per raft, which can hold up to three visitors.
The drive is about 1,5 hours each way. Depending on the time of day and the car you hire (ours was an open one) make sure to bring a sweater as it got pretty chilly when we drove back in the evening. In terms of food there are shops at the entrance that sell both hot meals and snacks, like fruit or chips. If you drive on your own, or have a deal with your driver about stops on the way, there are plenty of options along the road too, as well as awesome viewpoints. When I researched, I came across several nice-looking accommodations close to the cave, and while it’s totally doable as a day trip from Pai, I would definitely recommend staying overnight if you can, to explore more of the area. Or better yet, do the entire Mae Hong Son loop if you have the time.