Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son; Mae Hong Son, Thailand; Mae Hong Son Province; Getting to Mae Hong Son; Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son; Things to see in Mae Hong Son; Caving in Mae Hong Son; Caves in Mae Hong Son; Lod Cave, Mae Hong Son; Mae Lana Cave, Mae Hong Son; Pangmapha District in Mae Hong Son; The Caves of Pangmapha District, Mae Hong Son; caving and Trekking in Mae Hong Son; Trekking in Mae Hong Son; Caving and Trekking in Pangmapha; Caving in Pangmapha; Trekking in Pangmapha; Coffin caves in Mae Hong Son; Coffin caves in Pangmapha; Lod Cave; Mae Lana Cave; Caving; Trekking; The Nam Bor Pee Sink Hole of Pangmapha; Sink Holes in Mae Hong Son.
Pangmapha is a district (amphur) in northwestern Mae Hong Son province, along the border with Burma. Better known is Soppong, a sub-district and small village located in a river valley in Pangmapha District. Pangmapha and Soppong are not the same, as Pangmapha is the name of the district in which the sub-district and village of Soppong is located. Soppong is on the main road, between Pai and Mae Hong Son on the Mae Hong Son loop. Soppong is a trading and market Centre for the many hill tribe villages that populate the area. There is a total of about 350 homes in the whole village area. The population is about 40% hill tribe (mostly Karen, Lisu and Lahu), 40% Burmese Shan, 20% Thai, as well as few Haw Chinese Muslim families. Pangmapha does not presently attract many tourists, in contrast to Pai, located 45 kilometres away, which has become crowded with tourists and now contains more than 300 guest houses and hotels. There are several guest houses, resorts and restaurants in Pangmapha, but very few tourist-oriented businesses and shops, thus lending a genuine traditional feel to the area. The area offers outstanding trekking in the surrounding mountains, caves, rivers, and jungle.
For more in depth information on Pangmapha please refer to: http://wikitravel.org/en/Pangmapha
Getting to Pangmapha, although being a fairly straight forward drive over Highway # 1095, is hard work. In terms of travel it’s not all that far from Chiang Mai but the rugged mountainous terrain, of this remote corner of North West Thailand, makes the drive seem a lot longer than it actually is. Under normal circumstances 200 kilometers of open highway might be doable in 3 hours, but not this stretch of twisting, winding national highway.
Approximately five hours after setting out from Chiang Mai airport in a rented SUV I was pulling into the parking area of Soppong River Inn – http://www.soppong.com/ – and it had been quite a challenging drive as the road snaked its way up and down two mountain ranges in between. I and good friend, fellow adventurer, and accomplished photographer, Andrew McNeill have travelled to Pangmapha for dual purposes; mine is to have a look at some of the cave sites in the area and Andrew’s is to photograph the hill tribe people. Thinking, prior to arriving here that we’d need to travel to different areas to achieve our individual objectives, we’ve landed in a location where both are in close proximity to each other. Perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that caves, generally, are in more remote, mountainous terrain and, under normal circumstances, that’s also where the hill tribes tend to be located. Our target area is the Mae Lana area – just off Hwy 1095 – but we’ll be using the Soppong River Inn as our base as we venture out, on a daily basis, into the outlying area. Our schedule is fairly straight forward; we’ll do the cave sites in the mornings and visit hill tribe villages later in the afternoons so that Andrew can take advantage of the excellent light for his portraiture work. I have a list of locations to visit and in no particular order they are:
- Mae Lana Cave
- Lot Cave
- Nam Bor Pee sink hole
- Coffin Cave
After getting ourselves settled in at the hotel, and having a quick bite to eat, we decide to do a recce for Mae Lana Cave. We’re not planning to do the trip until the next day or two but I’ve suggested taking a drive to find out exactly where it is rather than going at it cold and risk wasting our limited amount of time. A few kilometers up the highway we spot the turn off to Mae Lana Cave and, during the drive into our intended destination, we pass through a village populated by what is known as the Black Lahu people. Andrew comments that the village, Ban Ba Jo and its inhabitants, definitely look like a hill tribe location and suggests returning to get some good shots in the late afternoon light. After stopping to get further directions to Mae Lana Cave a resident government official provides us with another opportunity. After hearing our interest in caves he mentions the presence of a coffin cave quite near to the village. He further explains that the cave isn’t one that is often visited by tourists as there’s a fairly precarious climb up a wooden ladder, up a cliff face, to get to the entrance. Thirty minutes later, after establishing the whereabouts of the track into Mae Lana Cave, we’re back at Ban Ja Bo Village. Our friendly government official has organised a team of local guides for us and as we’ve still got three to four hours to spare before the sun sets we decide to take him up on his offer. I get my camera gear in order and a few minutes later where following our enthusiastic guides along a scrub trail leading away from the village.
Coffin Cave and Black Lahu People
As our team of hill tribe caving guides leads us along the narrow trail I look out across the expanse of the terrain sloping away below us and marvel at the beauty of this remote, mountainous region in the far north west of Thailand. The trail is more of a single file dirt track which wends it’s through thick, hillside scrub. After a few hundred meters we’re at the base of a near vertical cliff line which seems to disappear into the clouds. Our guides stop for a breather and indicate towards a rough hewn wooden stairway which, no doubt, is the way up.
Two of our guides aren’t carrying torches so they’re told by the more senior members of the team to sit this one out and wait at the bottom; perhaps they’re trainees. Whatever the case, the cost for the tour is still a bargain at 300 THB each. While we’re waiting for our guides to sort themselves out Andrew and I prepare ourselves for trip up the cliff face. We’ve both found that bandannas are essential piece of kit when it comes to hiking/trekking/adventuring. Wrapped around the head they keep the perspiration out of the eyes and reduce the irritating small distractions that come into play when one is involved in this type of activity and trying to bang off some decent shots at the same time. With mine firmly tied in place, and my head light mounted, it’s time to make the ascent up the wooden stairway. With the senior guide leading the way we’re soon clambering up what can only be described as a very agricultural series stairways and ladders. The locals have done their best to provide reasonable access, with the resources available to them, and a lot of the construction seems solid enough but extreme care is still needed in negotiating the way up. The access way has been built in sections to conform to the lay of the cliff face. Some sections are nothing more than a run of near vertical ladder while others, where the cliff face has a less acute gradient, are an inclined stairway. A few minutes later, breathing hard and with the perspiration beginning to trickle down the back, we’re standing at the entrance to the cave system.
The guide moves on again and leads us up out of the second chamber, across a short rock shelf, and then down another rickety ladder into the bowels of the third, and final, chamber. She shines her torch on two amazingly well preserved coffin half shells lying at an angle against the cave wall. I move in for a closer look, and the chance to bang of some photos, as the guide indicates with her torch to another coffin high up in a back crevice of the chamber. Both coffins are incredibly well preserved but the one above us, amazingly, still has the wood grain colourings on it. I ask the guide for her opinion on how old the coffins are and she replies “song pun ha pee tii laew (two and a half thousand years old already).”Two and a half thousand years old already; we found that concept hard to accept but one thing in favour of that being an actuality is the fact the cave is dry. I mention this because a couple of days later I visited Lod Cave and found, much to my disappointment, the coffins there were largely a disintegrated pile of lumber. This situation, after a bit of assessment was easily explained; Lod Cave, due to the fact that it’s part of an underground river system, has a much higher moisture content inside. Moisture creates dampness and dampness causes rot. The cave we were presently in was well above any river system and, as such, moisture levels within were virtually non-existent; the internal dryness being obviated by the dust deposits on the coffins. In my limited Thai I asked the guides “who had placed the coffins in here all those millennia ago?” The only thing she could tell me was “Pee Marn.” Loosely translated this means some kind of ghost she didn’t think very highly of. When I visited Lod Cave the info boards, near the coffins, said almost the same thing calling them the Ghost People. A later check of Wikipedia revealed a small amount of info which seemed to make more sense; the coffin makers, and placers were known as the Lawa – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawa_people – people and were briefly described as the early inhabitants of the area prior to the arrival of the Tai.
The fact is that most, if you’ve travelled about the northern regions of Thailand, have probably heard of the Shan, Karen and Mon peoples. Knowledge of the above mentioned is also by way of the news media in reports on hill tribes occupying the border areas of Thailand and Burma. The information we get portrays an ongoing stateless situation for these tribes as they apparently inhabit a grey zone between the two countries. Prior to making our trip I’d never heard of the Lahu people – there are Black and Red Lahu – but another check in Wikipedia confirms they’re of Tibetan-Burman origin. Although our guides, when asked of their origins, were quick to reply they were “Thai.”
I finish getting the shots I need and motion to our guides we’re ready to head back. It’s been an interesting foray, to say the least, and the preserved condition of the coffins is quite remarkable. The guides confirm our opinions on the numbers of sightseers that probably visit the site, due to the difficulty of access, are very few. A few minutes later we’re working our way back down the ladder system. My concern for the structural integrity of some of the wood work is confirmed; as I near the bottom a piece of the handrail, I had a solid grip on, snaps off. Luckily I’m only two steps away from firm footing so I’m able to arrest the fall before any serious injury occurs. With everything in order, we thank our guides for their efforts and make our way back along the trail to where the vehicle’s parked. We’re actually heading up the hill to their village for phase two of the afternoons outing – doing some hill tribe photography – so we offer the four ladies a ride. Andrew is getting quite excited about the prospect of getting some good shots as the light is almost perfect in the late afternoon. We park up, get our cameras sorted, and then begin roaming the village streets for photo opportunities. The village – Ban Ja Bo – is situated on a ridge with the road running straight down the center of it. The timber houses, on stilts, are clustered tightly on either side of the road and the locals are out, and about, as the suns dips towards the horizon. The following is a series of shots from the hour, or so, we spent at the village.
Its a few minutes before 0700 am and we’re standing on a high point looking out across the fog blanketed peaks of Mae Hong Son. It’s a surreal sight as the sun inches its way towards daybreak. We’re roughly about 20 kilometers off Hwy 1095 on a back road that we recce’d the previous day. We arrived here this morning to find a small group of young travelers standing around in the dawn coolness watching the colours change on the horizon whilst drinking mugs of hot tea. With the song thaew parked on the road nearby, and the thermoses, and hampers spread out on a rattan mat, it’s obviously some sort of tour organized by a local operator. We take up a position further down the slope and start working our cameras as the yellow orb gathers strength in the distance.
The fact is I’ve always been a sunrise person as opposed to being a sunset person. I think this probably has a lot to do with growing up on the east coast of a land mass instead of the west. And it’s not just about the few seconds it takes for the sun to climb above the distant horizon and cast it’s rays into a new day either. It’s also about the approach to that moment; the twilight zone of receding darkness. The appreciation of the dawn of a new day; the freshness and, in this part of the world, a short period of coolness before the coming day’s heat gathers intensity.
Nam Bor Pee (spirit well):
Approximately four kilometers south of Hwy 1095, and six kilometers beyond the turn off to Ban Mae Lana, Nam Bor Pee (Spirit Well) is a large sinkhole/collapse/doline located in amongst the acute, jungle covered limestone peaks. Getting there isn’t easy as it involves a 3 kilometer uphill trek before arriving at the rim of a dramatic 200 meter diameter, and 130 meter deep, depression in the terrain.
The starting point for the trek is the small Lahu, hill tribe village of Luk Koh Larn. We arrived early and after organizing a couple of local guides (guiding fee = 200 THB per person) set out on the energy sapping hike with blue, sun filled skies above. I say energy sapping because that’s exactly what it is. The gradient, for a lot of the upward trek, is quite severe and a reasonable level of fitness is recommended if one is planning to visit the site. For the most part – 2.5 kilometers at least – it’s all uphill going with the track only leveling out in the final 500 meter approach to the rim of the sinkhole. There are a number of thatched rest spots along the way where you can catch your breath while admiring the spectacular vista back down the valley and beyond. Be prepared to sweat and, above all, take at least two bottles of drinking water before setting out.
Depending on what kind of pace you set for yourself, the trek up to the rim will take between 1 – 1.5 hours. There is plenty of signage, up near the top of the peak, to guide you in and the final approach section of the trail is indicative of nearing the rim; the trail descends downwards for 200 meters or so. For safety the local authorities have installed wooden barrier rails along the part of the trail which skirts the rim. At certain locations it’s possible to get right to the edge for a better view but extreme care should be taken as the drop into the hole is sheer. As the others made use of the bench seats, at one of the viewpoints, I climbed over the handrail and moved right up to the edge of the sinkhole in an effort to get unobstructed shots. The skirting edge of the collapse, although having sporadic gaps enabling a view into the bowels, also has broken barriers of jagged rock blocking a more widespread picture. After a few minutes off pushing through the scrub, and negotiating the broken terrain, I was leaning out over a precipitous rock getting some good shots from a better position. A few minutes later I was back with the others at the viewpoint and checking out the echo effect as we bellowed out across the sinkhole. I asked one of the guides if it was possible go to the bottom and was told it was quite difficult and trip which involved an overnight stay as climbing down was a lengthy exercise which included rope work. We were also told that most people who spent the night down there were unable to sleep due to the constant echo effect caused by the wind. Perhaps this is where the locals got the idea that the site was inhabited by ghosts?
Lod cave is probably the premier mainstream tourist caving attraction in Mae Hong Son. Situated approximately ten kilometers North of Hwy 1095 the road in branches off at Pang Mapha and takes you directly to the parking area at the entrance to the site. Unlike Mae Lana Cave, which is more of an Indiana Jones style of caving trip, Lod Cave is set up for the droves of tourists which visit the site each day. Thai style open air restaurants, including som tam stands, are lined along one side of the car park and, as you pass through the park check point, there are a hoard of fish food sellers lined along the approach road. The walk to the cave entrance is an easy 600 meters (from the car park) and the properly constructed pathways pass through a wide expanse of manicured open lawn areas set up for camping and picnicking. The last part of the track in – roughly 300 meters – is dirt and follows the river which runs through the cave. The trip into the cave is a two option scenario. The first and, least expensive (free) is to keep following the track along the right hand side of the river. This will eventually take you up into the first and largest chamber in the cave. Be warned, however, that there is presently no lighting system in the cave so if you want to go DIY style you’ll need to bring your own torches or hire a kerosene lamp back at the park entrance. If you want to see the three chambers within the cave system you’ll need to hire a bamboo raft and, to make the tour a better experience, a local guide. The raft is 400 THB and the guide is 150 THB.
The guide will pole the bamboo raft, at a leisurely pace, through the cave. There are designated stopping points for going up into all through chambers inside. As mentioned, there’s no internal lighting inside so you will need lights to be able to see the formations and also from a safety stand point. Properly constructed access has been put in place at all three chambers with solid wooden stairways and boardwalks in place to make the tours more enjoyable, and safe. The first chamber is the largest, and the most impressive, with big formations throughout. Doing the full tour with the raft was worth doing once but, if I was to go again, I’d spare the expense and just do the first chamber.
Mae Lana Cave:
As our guide leads us down the steep track towards the cave entrance the dense, surrounding jungle is still heavy with fog at 0900 am. Andrew and I are on day three of our trip into Mae Hong Son and we were up at first light preparing ourselves for the tour into Mae Lana Cave. The exploration of this cave is the primary reason for my being in Mae Hong Son. For Andrew, the extensive tour into the underground river system will be his first experience of this type of activity. We picked up our local guide, at a check point back along the road, where he advised us that the two kilometer underground trek was 500 THB each and would take approximately four hours to complete the round trip. After an 800 meter downhill walk from the car park the track levels out to reveal a small stream running under a cliff face. Our guide informs us that we’re at the entry point into the cave and we ready ourselves for the four hour trek underground. A few minutes later, with head lights in place and camera gear set, we work our way through a crevice, in the limestone cliff face, and enter the cave. The following is a picture essay of our trip into Mae Lana Cave:
Mae Lana Cave and its underground river; an amazing adventure to say the least.
- Coffin Cave – Ban Ja Bo Village
- Nam Bor Pee (Spirit Well) Sinkhole
- Tham Lod Cave
- Tham Mae Lana Cave
Location: Pangmapha District, Mae Hong Son Province
Nearest town: Soppong – On Highway # 1095, approx. 200 kilometers west of Chiang Mai
Recommended accommodation: Soppong River Inn – http://www.soppong.com
- The dry cooler months between December and February are cold at night – warm clothing is strongly advised
- Get directions and information for the above listed attractions at Soppong River Inn