NEW CAVES TO EXPLORE (Part one of three)

NEW CAVES TO EXPLORE (Part one of three)

by Harold Stephens
Correspondent for Thai Airways International

   The carbide lamp gave a fizzle, flickered for a moment and then went out.  The afterglow lingered, and then came total darkness.  Our situation was grim; we were more than 500 metres below ground, in the dark grips of Tham Lung, a little know cave in northern Thailand.  I had anticipated such a mishap when we began our descent.  I made sure to study our route as we worked our way deeper and deeper, memorising each step, each turn.  The last hundred metres we went up a short incline, and then rounded a slight bend.  That would be easy to remember. 
   Nor could I forget the spot where we stood when the light went out.  We were at the opening to a huge cavern, more like a cathedral.  That first view was unexpected and startling.  Magnificent stalactites, like icicles frozen in time, hung from the the ceiling, and from the cave floor stalagmites rose up to meet them.  We had somehow stepped into a page in a child's book of fairytales.  All about us were strange and bewildering formations.  The walls, lighted by the glare of the lamp, appeared to be studded with diamonds, billions of diamonds that sparkled brilliantly.  What a magnificent discovery!
    Now the light was gone.
   The Thai who had rented us the lamp warned us; we had two hours and no more.  That's all the lamp would last. It had taken better than an hour to reach this depth, squeezing through narrow passages and at times crawling on hands and knees.  But once we arrived and beheld the stark beauty of this most unreal underground world, time no longer mattered to photographer Don Bianco.  His mind turned to such matters as angles and lighting and lens and filters.  His thoughts were  where tripod should go, and from his two heavy camera bags he began pulling out strobes and accessories. It were as though he was crazed with a magic elixir.  "They tell that to everyone," he said after I reminded him that we only had two hours.  "It's probably more like three hours."
   But it wasn't three hours; it wasn't even two.  Suddenly we were in the dark.  Usually when we speak of the dark, there's a glimmer of light somewhere, even if it's only a tint of gray.  But this was black.  Black black.  It was like a weight, a heavy weight that pressed down upon us. "Don," I called out. Now where was he standing?  Over there!
   "Yeah, I'm over here," he called back.  The voice came from some-where else.  "Don't worry," he continued.  "I have a pen flashlight in my camera bag.  Where did I leave the bag?"
   I could hear him moving about, stumbling and slipping on the wet floor.  He couldn't find the camera bags.  Our world of blackness began to take on a new meaning.  My ears started to ring, and now I could heard drops of water falling; it was a chorus of drops, like falling rain.  I hadn't heard the drops before.  In another thousand years they would form new stalactites.  But we didn't have a thousand years. 
   We had to get out.  I tried to feel my way along the cave floor.  It was slippery and wet.  This was ridiculous.  What was I feeling for?  I was disorientated, completely.  From which direction had we come?  I no longer knew.  "I think it's this way," Don said.  No, he was wrong. 
   I tried to muster all my Boy Scout training.  Follow a rivulet and it leads to a stream, and a stream to a river.  But in caves, rivulets vanish underground.  Listen for bats.  Caves have bats, but only at the entrances. We were in too deep. The only other rule I could remember was to wait for help to arrive, which was what we did.
   What angered me was this wasn't the first time I was in a cave in Thailand.  I had been tramping and climbing through caves in South-east Asia for more than 20 years, from great known ones to tiny unexplored ones.  So how could I do something so stupid?  We sat down and waited, and presently we heard the sounds and then saw the light.  They came after us.  We didn't make the same mistake.
   The fact that Thailand has unexplored caves may come as a surprise to some.  And they are not a few in number but in the tens of thousands.   The caves of Thailand are one of the country's great mysteries.
   We have to admit, Thailand presents to the world an image of enchantment that's hard to dispute.  It's well known, Thailand is a land of golden temples, with tiny bells tinkling in the breeze; a country with lofty mountains, tropical forests and endless off shore islands; a nation of smiling people and happy children, and monks in saffron robes moving in silent animation; a country interlaced with rivers and canals, with rice barges, teak logs floating down rivers, ferryboats and river buses all gliding along in a kaleidoscope of changing colours.
   The image Thailand presents is real enough, for Thailand is real, but it's not complete.  Thailand is more than golden temples and smiling faces.  Thailand has lurking in its midst what people are now beginning to discover--adventure.  It's mountains are a challenge for both rock climbers and mountaineers; it has wild rivers with churning white water for daring rafting and kayaking; it has trails to hike, or to cycle, through majestic hilltribe villages and lovely tropical forests; it has ocean floors, some littered with wrecks, for scuba divers to investigate; it has ancient ruins and archaeological sites still to be uncovered; and for the speologist, amateur or professional,  it has countless caves to explore. 
   Perhaps no place in the world is there such an abundance of caves as we find here in Asia.  In Thailand they exist in such widely dispersed locations as Udon Thani province in the northeast; Uthai Thani, 500 kilometers north of Bangkok; and Koh Khian in Phang- and Tham Sin in the South and on many of the islands.

Continued next week.

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

Some caves are well marked

The author marks the site for a spelunker

Old painting of cave exploring

A monks serves as the guide

Same entrances are huge

Famous caves, Ting Cave, on the Mekong River