Wang Daeng Cave – Phitsonulok Province
As I follow the monk, walking a few paces ahead of me, on a guided tour of the temple grounds I do my best to try and show a bit of restraint. He obviously thinks it’s important that I see all the golden statues dotted about scrub covered hillside so I patiently bide my time as we work from one effigy to the next. A few minutes later, the tour is over, and he points to the track leading up the hill to the cave entrance. I thank him for his time and then set off eagerly up the 800 meter bamboo enshrouded trail to the entrance of Wang Daeng cave.
At approximately fourteen kilometers from entrance to exit Wang Daeng is presently the longest known, and mapped, cave in Thailand. A few minutes later, breathing hard after the fast clip up the track, I stand looking at the rocky stairway leading down into the entry chamber. I felt relieved that I’d finally got here. I’d been planning the trip for quite some time but getting here hadn’t been exactly a straight forward exercise. The location of the cave is quite remote and is well off the beaten track for main stream tourism. There is little information available, regarding its location, save for what can be gathered from caving specific internet sites. An in depth description of the cave, and it’s exact GPS location, was found in a 2010 report, by Martin Ellis, called “The Caves of Phitsonalok.” The problem for me was that I hadn’t used the GPS co-ordinates to pin point the caves location. In hindsight it probably would’ve been the way to go as I made an unnecessary drive – the long way around – to get here. Tham Phra Wang Daeng – it’s official Thai name – is situated in Thung Salaeng Wang National Park. The problem for me was that it’s on the outer periphery of the park and not the more well-known area of Khao Kho. For anyone looking at a map, Thung Salaeng Wang National Park is shown as being in an area predominantly along National Highway number twelve between Lom Sak and Phitsonalok.
The park headquarters are, in fact, along this highway. At 1,262.4 square kilometers it’s also the largest national park in Thailand and straddles the borders of Petchabun, and Phitsonalok, Provinces across an undulating terrain of low level peaks (1000 meters maximum) and lime stone escarpments. For the Thai’s it’s a popular short getaway destination with resorts and chalet style accommodation clustered across the peaks. Most of the activities and attractions are along highway twelve with roads branching, predominantly, on the Petchabun side. My target destination was the aforementioned national park and, somewhere within, Wang Daeng Cave. Google Maps had pinpointed it as being closer to Lom Sak. Unfortunately for me, Google Maps will only ever give you an average. Localized variations are never taken into account when you’re printing out your Google direction finder route. After pulling up in what I assumed was my intended destination, I was given the bad news by the staff at the information kiosk. “I was on the wrong side of the mountain range. The cave I was looking for, although still in the same national park, was another 200 kilometers further on.” She pointed it out on a map; I’d be retracing my steps back up onto the highway and then driving towards, and beyond, Phitsonalok.
I thanked her, took the map and began the forty minute trip back to highway number twelve. As mentioned, Thung Salaeng Wang National Park covers a substantive piece of territory and looking at the map I could see clearly that it would’ve been far quicker to have come up from Bangkok, via Ayutthaya, and then go up highway number eleven. Two and a half hours later, with the sun well and truly down and darkness covering the landscape, I was winding my way down a narrow rural back road – number 1295 to be exact – pushing on to my intended target; Wang Daeng cave. I passed the through the final village – Ban Chom Phu – and was eventually bouncing over an even narrower, winding dirt road. Some may think this completely absurd, particularly as I had no intention of going into a cave at night, but there was method in my madness. I could’ve easily gone straight through to Phitsonalok, and been resting up in a hotel at that very moment, but I didn’t want to be scrambling about wasting precious time in the morning trying to find the route; I wanted recce the way in now. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that’s exactly what happened; I took a wrong turn and got lost for an hour. After roughly five clicks of rumbling over dirt road I went through an open check point; I was getting close. A few minutes later I made the last turn and coasted down to the parking area in front of the temple; the cave was beyond. Satisfied with the reconnaissance of the way in, I turned the car about and headed for Phitsonalok; finally arriving at the Topland Plaza Hotel – http://www.toplandhotel.com – at 2100 hours the previous evening.
I take a good slug of water and, with the perspiration dripping off me already, begin working my way down the stone steps into the entry chamber. As I do so I pick up illumination from the far side of the cave where there’s a smaller entry/exit point providing natural lighting around a Buddha statue that’s positioned atop a four meter high formation. According to Martin Ellis’ 2010 report its 116 meters from the cave’s rim down to the underground river. To make the going easier for sightseers the monks have put in place cement steps and a hand rails to make the traverse to the bottom safer. At a point I estimate to be roughly halfway down to the river bed, the light begins fading and I can see the trail disappears around some large rocks; beyond will be the world of darkness. I take out my head mounted light and prepare to leave the daylight behind. With the light in position, and switched on, I move further down into the blackness and note that the monks, as they do at many of these cave sites, have done a great job in providing safe access. Where cement steps can’t be put in place they take the time to chip foot holds into the solid rock. I begin to feel the draft coming up from the river below. There is a final concrete stairway, with a handrail, and after beginning my descent I’m standing in gently flowing stream of cool, sweet water. I empty out the manufactured mineral water in the bottles I’ve got with me and fill it with real mineral water. Referring to Ellis’ report again he mentions that the best part of the cave is to be seen on the upstream side of the river. I begin plodding through pools of calf deep water and it isn’t long before I’m ducking under some low hanging rocks. A few meters later I’m able to stand upright again and to my left is a steep clay bank which leads up to a huge chamber some thirty meters above the river bed.
There’s a heavy knotted rope running all the way up the slippery clay slope to provide safe access. After another slug of water I take ahold of the rope and give it a good tug, to ensure its secure, and then begin the almost vertical climb. The going is quite good and there’s lots of footholds and small steps to make the ascent easier. About 10 meters up there’s a small plateau where three bronze Buddha’s have been put in place by the monks. I stop for a breather and marvel, once again, at their tenacity. The Buddha’s are cast from bronze and at roughly one meter in height; it must’ve taken quite a bit of effort to get them into place. After another drink of real mineral water I push on up the final stretch. Towards the top the going becomes more vertical, and muddy, and it requires quite a bit of effort to pull myself up over the edge. The ropes have been tied off around a formation and as I move past it my boots begin sinking into the soft mud in the vicinity. Up ahead I can see a large chamber and as I squelch out of the mud onto firmer footing my head lamp picks up the first signs of a weird kind of mist in the air. It looks almost like smoke and appears to be wafting up with a draft from the far side of the chamber. I pass around a large formation and enter into the chamber proper; it’s massive – at least 50 meters to the ceiling at its apex – and right in the middle is another large floor to ceiling formation. Beyond, the chamber drops away towards the river and as I move in that general direction I can hear water flow. About one hundred meters past the large formation the chamber floor drops away abruptly to the river thirty meters below. I can see there would be great difficulty in trying to descend in this direction so I backtrack towards the formation to get some photos. With the weird mist billowing about getting some decent shots won’t be easy as the auto focus, on the camera, will be constantly shunting with the mist drifting across the lens face. It takes a few minutes but, with a bit of patience, I manage to get a couple of shots in focus.
After another drink of water, and a few minutes sorting out my kit, I check my watch and note it’s been an hour and a half since departing from the monk; time certainly flies when one is having an adventure. I figure it will probably be another hour before I arrive back at the parking lot so I decide to head back. Admittedly I hadn’t been in very far but the fact was I was alone and to go further on into the cave system would be tempting fate. Although I was confident of my own abilities a disabling injury would create great difficulty in getting back to the surface. I made my way back to the muddy slope in preparation for the rope climb down the thirty meter drop. A few minutes later I was standing back in the river again and, after once more filling my water bottles up with real mineral water, began the climb out to the entry chamber. Eventually daylight began to filter through from the rocks above and soon enough I was leaving the darkness behind working my way up into the middle of the entry chamber. Before I departed the cave site there was one last thing to do; I wanted a photo of the Buddha at the rear of the cave.
I arrived back at my vehicle to find that I’d lost the keys during my afternoons foray. I was at least fifty kilometers from Phitsonalok and didn’t have too many options. With the help of a young monk I completely retraced my route through the grounds, and back down into the cave, hoping to find the missing keys; all to no avail. At 1630 pm, foot sore and weary, I trudged off up the road, collared a young guy on a motorbike, who gave me a lift up to the main road, and from there I took a local bus back to Phitsonalok. The staff at the hotel did a great job in assisting me by calling the car rental company, in Bangkok, and arranging for a spare set of keys to be air freighted up, early the following morning, to Phitsonalok. After picking up the keys, a hotel car took me out to the cave site. If you’re venturing up to Phitsonalok, and need a hotel, please check out the Topland Plaza; the staff are great and the room rates are very reasonable.