Northern Thailand has numerous caves, but Tham Lod (also spelt Lot) is said to be one of the most impressive to visit and is over 1,500 metres long.
The drive from our hotel in Pai, to the village of Soppong where the caves are located, took around an hour. The road was very twisty and if you suffer from motion sickness, it’s not the journey for you. The final 15 minutes was on a single-track road and we were glad that an early start meant the limited number of vehicles were all going in the same direction – to the caves.
Having walked a short distance from the car park, our guide paid the entrance fee (450 Baht/£10 for a group of three) and bought us fish food.
Cave guides from the village are mandatory, and the all-female guides are allocated on rotation. We set off along a relatively flat track to the limestone entrance, where our guide lit and carried a hurricane lamp. We had to duck down to cross a bridge over the Nam Lang River which flows through the cave, and firstly we fed the large black Mahseer fish that swarmed around.
Big Column Cave is named after the 21.45-metre-high column which developed when a stalactite and stalagmite converged. I told our guide how I remembered which is up and down (the mites go up and the tights come down)!
Doll Cave had beautiful examples which as expected resembled several dolls. Someone had obviously tried to determine what each formation looked like and in the course of our exploration, we saw a tooth, lady’s breast, elephant, crocodile, monkey’s face, cauliflower and popcorn. Here we also saw faded pre-historic paintings on the wall said to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old.
The going was difficult, and we had to constantly watch our footing. As we also wanted to stop and take photographs, we asked our guide to slow down (as they’re rotated, she was presumably keen to get back in the queue). The cave was huge, so we didn’t feel claustrophobic, but in some places, we had to duck around low hanging formations.
Open wooden staircases led us to some of the higher parts and although some of the steps were steep and narrow, because we were early it wasn’t busy and we could take our time. At the top, we found a lady sweeping the floor with a lamp on the end of her brush which must be like painting the Forth Bridge.
Having made our way safely back down, a series of long bamboo rafts waited for visitors. It wasn’t easy getting on and sitting down on one of the four small wooden stools which were in a row. The Mahseer swam vigorously around the raft and we fed them the last of our food.
A guide poled at the back for the 15-minute trip to an exit point where the water had been dammed up. Having managed to get off safely, we set off climbing again to Coffin Cave to see the ancient teakwood coffins. This part of the cave was the home to a significant population of swifts and bats, so as well as a certain aroma, the wooden hand rails on the steps were covered in guano which we had to avoid, and this made climbing even more difficult. It was also humid and my glasses kept steaming up.
Back down and back on the raft, we returned against the flow of the water and our lady guide had to pole as well as the boatman.
The whole experience lasted around 2 hours and was harder than we’d anticipated. We’d taken our head torches which were essential as there was no other lighting apart from the hurricane lamps and sturdy non-slip shoes are a must.