by Helen Twelftree
I spent half of 1995 in south-east Asia, timing it perfectly to miss one of the hottest Summers in England, experience the rainy season starting two months early in Indonesia, and arrive home for a miserably cold January and February in Britain. With my usual gift for careful planning and foresight I bought a one way ticket to Jakarta, no guidebook and refused to think about what I was letting myself in for. That was how I found myself standing outside the airport in Jakarta after dark, besieged by taxi drivers and touts, wondering how to get to "Jalan Jahxi" (whatever or wherever that was!) This, the first problem, was easily solved... I grabbed two Europeans (Dutch as it happened) and they found me the right bus, told me how much to pay, walked me to Jalan Jahxi and helped me find a hostel. My faith in human nature restored I realised I had found the perfect way of solving problems whilst travelling - find someone more experienced to do it for you. (Being a girl travelling alone helps for this technique.)
Needless to say I did lots of things, most of which have nothing at all to do with caving. Early in the trip I went trekking for ten days on Siberut island, a place where people still wear loincloths, grass skirts and are covered with tattoos. Since the humidity was around 90% in the rainforest we discovered that nothing dried (not even Rohan trousers after two days.) Not that it really mattered - after walking for ten minutes everything was soaked in sweat. For the first time I discovered the joy of being able to wring sweat out of a T shirt! When it rained it seemed a pleasant change, although watching two inches of rain fall in about as many minutes is slightly alarming. One of the least pleasant things was the dawn chorus of about twenty pigs, cockerels and hens living UNDERNEATH where you are sleeping. Their other popular trait was tending to eat anything which fell out of the hut eg. two toothbrushes, one shirt, one towel, one sandal... By the end of the week the four vegetarians in our group had vowed personally to sacrifice every cockerel within three miles. Going to the toilet was altogether a new experience. After dark you would walk off a fair distance from the hut into the jungle. Whilst squatting amongst the undergrowth it was common to see several pairs of eyes gleaming out of the darkness at you. Hurriedly you shine your torch to find several pigs hungrily waiting for you to finish. They really do eat anything, but at least you don't have to worry about the toilet paper...
In Indonesia I had my first proper go at snorkelling, off Weh island. You walked off the beach (white sand with palm trees of course) and the coral started after about three feet of depth. During my first snorkel I saw loads of pretty fish, coral, two cuttlefish, a baby octopus and four turtles. "Turtles must be common round here" I think, only to later meet a couple who had been there a week in the hope of seeing one! Later I saw a sea snake, a 1½ metre long shark, a stone fish, swam in shoals of fish, and saw umpteen pretty fish.
In Malaysia things got slightly harder. It started with a perfectly innocent evening in a bar of a hotel. A group of blokes had been buying me beer all evening and one suggested he take me to see a waterfall the next day. Having nothing better to do I duly went off on the back of his moped. It was a very pretty waterfall. Unfortunately I decided to climb it, but I slipped and fell. Bump, bump, arrgh, splash. Surprisingly I hadn't broken anything so I sat down to survey the damage, at which point my kind Malaysian friend obviously spotted the perfect photo opportunity. Sigh! Eight stitches and much iodine later I discovered the perfect way of scaring my entire family and friends at home. Simply phone your Dad and tell him what has happened. ("Hello Helen, how are you?" "I fell down a waterfall." "Did you break anything?" "No." "That's ok then - shaken but not stirred.") Then wait one week for an extended game of Chinese whispers and hear what everyone thinks you've done - by the time Mum heard, I had had seventeen stitches in my face!
When I eventually got to Thailand I met up with Nick (during his conveniently long Christmas break) and actually did some caving. In Thailand all caves have a statue of Buddha in them, often with accompanying monks. Our first cave was no exception. We stayed at Chaing Khan, by the Mekong and across from Laos. The guesthouse owner was an ex-Cambridge bod who had gone travelling ten years ago, got married and stayed. He lent us bikes and told us how to find the cave.
Monk Cave was sitting in the side of an impressive bit of limestone sticking up from the otherwise flat countryside. This was our first experience of caving in shorts and T-shirts whilst sweating buckets - pretty good but you get sore knees. The entrance chamber was big but boring, only one small flow in it. We then wriggled off down a small passage and found the monk's sleeping pallet, Buddha and shrine, kept going and found a short set of chambers with nice white calcite seams and flows (and bats.) Off in the other direction from the entrance chamber was a series of extremely muddy passageways with several digs - our friendly monk was obviously a budding troglodyte. Nothing terribly pretty down there but very slimy.
On the way back from this trip Nick and I went up a small hill to watch the sunrise. On the way back we decided to cycle down the road, hairpin bends and all. Unfortunately for Nick his bike only had one brake, and that didn't work. He set off using that well known "sandal braking" technique. I heard him scrape round the first two corners. He bailed out on the next corner (which had a solid rock face first, then an impressive drop to the side.) He had got a few cuts, but had succeeded in grating the side of his toe off in an attempt to slow down, and most of the sandal but that didn't bleed as much. Nick cycled back and I pushed his (now knackered) bike. On arrival at the guesthouse I was greeted by one of the children who pointed in the house and very seriously told me "He is hurting inside."
A week or so later we were in the Maesai by the Laos and Burma borders. We hired motorbikes and pottered off to the "Royal Cave." In the guidebook this was described as 7km of sweaty crawling... More like 7km of stomping passageways. It was probably the least fun and least impressive of all the caves we saw. It was big, apparently it was long, but we couldn't be bothered finding out. We wandered down large muddy passageways for a few kilometres but there were no pretties and the air was crap so we left. The best thing about this trip was the small table outside the cave. On this was printed the legend: "Tham Luang [Royal Cave]: 7kms Depth. Beware of slippery and lost your way." On the table were Thai carbides for hire. They had an elementary generator, on top of which was a nozzle for gas and a large reflector - reminiscent of a one foot high stinky.
Towards the end of the trip we stayed in the village of Ban Tham, north-west of Pai and Chaing-Mai. The village is 10km from the road, set in the middle of fantastic limestone scenery, hill tribe villages and forest. The guesthouse, Cave Lodge, is run by an ex-Aussie caver who has found and surveyed caves in the area and runs trips to some of these. As a group of six we went to "Long Snake Cave." This was found about five years ago and has been kept secret from the local people to prevent it from being spoilt. Only a handful of trips have been taken to it, the previous one more than a year ago.
The lights used motorbike batteries - keep upright or they leak everywhere, luckily there wasn't much crawling (or even stooping.) It was about an hour's walk to the cave from where we were dropped off, including walking through a field of opium poppies. The entrance to the cave was unremarkable but within 100 yards the calcite began. In every passageway and chamber there were stals, pillars, flows. As well as there being vast quantities, the formations were also untouched. No muddy hand prints, every stalactite with a pointed tip, and everything still growing. In the streamway we found a plastic bag and a stick which had obviously been washed in during the last rainy season. They were already calcited in place with the beginnings of a flow on the plastic bag.
Most of the calcite was gleaming white, but in places it was brick red. In one small chamber there was a three tiered flow looking like a waterfall in red calcite. It was about twenty feet high and spread from ten feet wide at the top to about thirty feet at the bottom. The entire structure sparkled and in fact the surface was made up of tiny calcite pockets each with a surrounding wall like a miniature terrace. One of the most spectacular areas contained a structure made up of several pillars and a selection of stals. It was about ten feet high, pure white calcite, and stood in an otherwise muddy cavern.
Many of the smaller formations were incredible in their own right, but appeared comparatively insignificant in this setting. On one roof was a patch of delicate white stalactites. They were only an inch or two long and had grown in spirals, twists and had branched in several places. They resembled crystalline coral more than stalactites. A less usual anomaly were the 'tables.' In one cavern there were several stalactites which finished in a flat platform suspended several feet off the floor. These apparently had formed when pillars had grown on a mud floor which had since been washed from under them.
In addition to the range, quality and quantity of formations, we saw several species of animal in the cave. The most common of these were the cave crickets and spiders which we found everywhere. There were also cavelice (albino woodlice) and an albino crayfish. Of the larger animals we saw two species of bat, and a couple of snakes - 'cave racers.' The snakes feed mainly on bats, specialising in striking them as the flit past. For this they prefer to wait in the smaller passageways of the cave. Thus it was that when we got to the only tight crawl in the cave we found a snake coiled up in it. After some umming and erring about how poisonous it was we flicked pebbles at it until it moved then sent Nick through first. Some people found another snake in the next narrow bit... the rest of us had already gone past it without noticing.
The only part of the cave we didn't see was one passageway. I started up it and it was very pretty, but fairly soon the entire passage became flow so we left it undamaged. It was an absolutely fantastic cave which has at least quadrupled the number of pretties I've seen. It's also the only place I have seen them so entirely unspoilt, the hardest part of the caving was to leave them that way.
The final cave we visited was Tham Lod, a large tourist cave by Ban Tham. Ignoring all the nice girls with big lanterns offering to take us round, Nick, Jeff (a New Zealander) and I went with one zoom and one pen torch between us. Tham Lod was enormous. It has a vast streamway going through a hill and three major chambers off this. The main passageway is about as high as Kings College Chapel at the entrance, but somewhat wider. The chambers are reached by passages about half way up the sides of the streamway (luckily with steps up to them.)
The first chamber is mainly noted for the pillar in its centre. This is over fifty feet high and surrounded by smaller stals. The rest of the cavern is full of stals, in many places they are over ten feet and it is hard to walk between them. At the edges of the cavern the stals meet giving an impression of teeth. In Tham Lod the formations have mainly stopped growing and the upper chambers are now dry. Mud - and in the main streamway often moss and algae - often covers the formations and they are far from untouched. But mainly they are too high up or too large to have been broken and the sheer size of everything is impressive. The floor of the first chamber is one flow, now covered in mud and often broken. Many of the 'steps' up to the chambers were the remains of large gour pools.
The second and third chambers were not as large as the first but the formations were in better condition. The second had an example of prehistoric cave art, a picture of a deer and several arrows. Unfortunately this picture was faint due to many people touching it. These chambers also contained wooden coffins up to ten feet long. They have been carbon dated as being over 2500 years old and for the most part are still intact, possibly because the Thais believe caves which contain them to be the home of spirits.
Towards the third chamber and the exit from the cave the stalactites are covered not in algae but in bats or swallows. At dusk every day there is the amazing sight of thousands of swallows entering the cave as similar numbers of bats leave. Or, as the sign at the exit puts it: "This point in 06.00pm dailyday. The probably ten-thousand of bat fly out which the inprotant prenomenen."... Thai English at its best!
In the area around Ban Tham there were several more caves which have been found. Unfortunately they proved difficult to find by the hand-drawn map provided by the Cave Lodge. We did however spend at least one day thrashing about in prickly undergrowth trying to find some... no joy, but we found some incredible spiders. There was a caving trip advertised to the longest streamway found in Thailand, which required a wetsuit, also several large caves to the north. The caves we saw in this area were spectacular. It was a shame we had run out of time (and money) so couldn't stay for longer. It was however a good end to a brilliant six month's travelling.