Upon arrival at the Cave Lodge, I knew that the small hassle to find this remote place in the wilderness of the Pang Mapha district was well worth it. I walked onto the main patio and was immediately transported back in time to the summer camp of my youth.
Backpackers lounged in hammocks and chatted.
Families ate around the fire.
There was even the far-off sound of kids singing Auld Lang Syne:
“Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon…”
I would stumble a few days later on an actual summer camp for Thai children nearby, which explained the songs that drifted into the lodge. But, for that moment, I was content to lounge about the lodge making new friends, which was as easy as if it really were summer camp.
Adventuring is easy from a home base of the Cave Lodge, which is strategically located near the largest cave system in Thailand and within a day’s trek of the hill tribes that inhabit the mountains of Mae Hong Son Province.
I opted for a day at the cave, walking toward Tham Lot through a small village until I reached the visitor center and was appointed a guide who would walk me – with the help of a hand-held lantern – through three caves and across the Nam Lang River by way of a bamboo raft.
I tried to ignore this last part about the raft, given that I remain a bit dubious about water and boats, and I readied myself for the adventure by tucking the offered fish food into my bag.
My smiling guide was nimble on her feet, quickly scaling narrow stairs and cruising over knotted paths, eager to show me the treasures of the cave.
She would move quickly among the paintings made by hunters some 2000-3000 years before, stating “painting!”
Or the coffins carved by ancient tribes: “coffins!”
Or the stalagmites jutting from the ground: “column!”
Or the stalactites, formed by minerals and water dripping from the cave ceiling over thousands of years: “waterfall!”
And finally: “booby!”
Wait, did she say booby? Yes, yes she did. And, you know what? Yeah, she’s right.
And then it was time for the bamboo boat. This river is an underground passage in a subterranean world that feels ripped straight out of the Lord of the Rings.
All along the way there were fish bumping the boat to get to the food I was throwing.
There were bats overhead screeching, the overwhelming smell made more obvious by the periodic splat of bat poop in the water. All punctuated by the eerie sound of the paddle in the dark waters behind me.
In short, it was awesome.
I was deposited at the mouth of the cave where, moments later, as the sun set, thousands of birds flew into the cave for their evening rest within the confines of the cave.
I watched these same birds leaving the cave the next day from a perch in the mountains as the sun rose. I was at the cave lodge for Valentine’s Day, so I took myself on a sunrise date, a treat in the wintertime in Thailand, since the fog is thick before the sun lifts over the hills.
And then it burns off to reveal the beautiful countryside.
I wished that sunset over the wilderness of the Pang Mapha district would last forever.