scooters to bamboo rafts-and lots of good photos!
07.11.2008 - 08.11.2008 24 °C
I'll be leaving Pai at the end of today...and I'm....sad! Pai is an amazing little town, one in which one can easily spend weeks, even months. The live music scene is outrageous. The food is cheap and varied. Faces swirl in a mix of origins, new ones appearing daily. The dogs sleep right in the middle of busy intersections, while scooters and peds swirl around them like so many electrons around a nucleus.
No one hurries here. Pai is a slow and sleepy town. Get manicure or back massage for a few dollars, chomp down on a big juicy american burger or a spicy red eggplant curry in a coconut shell. Ride an elephant, explore hot springs and water falls. Nap all day in a hammock. I'm going to miss this place.
Two days ago, I embarked on a wonderful tour of the countryside. Amir and I rented scooters and stored our bags at our respective guesthouses and headed for the mountains north west of Pai.
The land was low and flat in the valley, the sun warm on our faces. Rice paddies and corn fields stretched to the threshold of the mountains. Thatched huts and teak bungalows dotted the landscape and peasents in wide brimmed hats bent their backs in the hot sun and lent their labor to the earth.
Slowly the land began to rise, as our scooters gobbled up kilometers like so many ice cream cones in Bangkok. Occasionally a faster motorbike would pass us, or we'd meet an oncoming car, but the road was wide and the pavement newly laid, therefore the going was very easy. Soon we began to weave our way into the mountains, the way curving back and forth like a grey snake under the sun.
The steep hills around us often gave way to sweeping vistas of the Thai country side. We could see for ages, the darker patches of green on green, and the winding brown rivers in the valleys below. The mountains here are covered in jungle and shrouded in mist. Their peaks, unlike the familar and predicable peaks of the rockies, have been worn away into uniquely twisted formations and bubbily knobs.
We reached the pass between Pai and Sappong. The view towards both directions was amazing. Far to the east we could see Pai, glittering in a large flat valley. To the west we could probably see Burma, although I'm not sure if this is true...its just that we could see very far and I know we're not too far from the border here.
At the Mountain pass looking West...burma maybe?! Certainly Sappong!
We began our decent. The road double backed several times, and I made sure to take it really slow around the corners. Thankfully the road was new, and visibility was very good. The air was quite a bit cooler up here too. It was nice to descend on the sunny side of the mountains. It wasn't long before we reached Sappong. The turn off to Cave Lodge is just 1 KM before town, so we turned North and the road was concrete and in poor condition. We just took it slow and bumped and jostled our way the 7 Kms to Cave lodge. On the way we passed children playing with balls, adults tending little gardens, and lots of lovely but simple thai dwellings. We had to avoid the pigs and chickens who like, for some reason, crossing the road. Chickens, i can understand, but pigs...?
Here are some cows we "ran into"
All in all it was about 45 Km to Cave Lodge, an easy 2 hours puttering along, enjoying the scenery, and stopping to take photos.
Cave Lodge was intensely beautiful. The Bungalows were all set above the river, with large hot water showers attached for 350 B a night. John Spies, the owner is a fascinating man, who I could sit and listen to rapturously all day. He started the Lodge in 1977 and the stories and experiences he can tell are enough to fill a book. they DID fill a book actually, and I bought a copy from him. It's titled Wild Times: 30 Years on the Thai Border.
The Lodge was full of Americans, as well as a few dutch and brits. The staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating.
Here is a picture of Slutmuffin, the cutest kitty EVER (except for you Belle!)
That evening, Amir and I walked to Tham Lod cave to see the "bird and bat show." I'll try to describe the cave:
A river flows into it. The mouth is (estimating here)30 M tall and maybe 40 or 45 M wide. (HUGE). The cave goes on for about 1/2 KM and then the river reemerges in the jungle through an equally large exit. The cave is huge within, with many large branches splitting off from the mammoth inner cave. At dawn and dusk, bats and swifts exchange places.
We approached the cave enterance. We were making our way to the exit, where the show was to take place. We didn't know where the path was that went up and over the cave, and none of the thai locals around spoke any english. I knew what direction to go in though, which was over the river and around the cave.
One problem. The bridge over the river had half-way collapsed. There wasn't going to be a dry crossing. Amir and I looked at each other, and then to the west, where the sunlight was already turning the darker shades of blue and pink. High high in the sky Bats could be seen circling. A LOT of them.
I resolved the cross the river. Bridge or no bridge. I rolled up my pants, took off my shoes, and stepped in. Amir followed me in, a little unsure at first, but his trepidation gave way in face of his pride, perhaps. The water rose from ankle deep to knee deep and then half way up my thighs. I counted on the river to get no deeper than this, and sure enough, half way through the water level slacked off. The current was strong, though, so it was slow progress, but we were motivated by the fading light and the gathering flying things above our heads.
The mud on the other side of the river sucked in our feet. We scooted barefoot to higher ground and then washed our feet in a little stream that trickled into the river. Two other American girls had come as far as the broken bridge with us, but had not the courage for the river crossing. I yelled at them that the water was shallow and to come over, but I couldn't wait to see if they followed. The light was fading fast.
The path through the jungle was wide and flat. On either side lay wide swaths of soft moss. The trees to our left and right resonated with the deep GWARPPING of what I can only imagine to be frogs. To our left we began a fence beyond which lay a tilled field, and to our right the earth rose steeply: it was hard to imagine that just under that hill was a huge hollow space; a labyrinthine convolution of passages and rock formations. the path began to narrow until we were on a single track, following behind one another. The signs for the "bird show" in Thai and English were faded, like they were scores of years old and faded with time. The path split and in one direction was a temple that we could just make out in the gloom. The other way was a wooden gate hanging off its hinges.
We went this way, and the path became ever more rough. Gnarly tree roots reminded us to be very cautious in the dimming light. We hopped across several large flat stones over a mountain stream and soon we were aware of a noise.
It was the sound of thousands-no...hundreds of thousands of swifts whooshing, swirling, chirping in the air. An opening in the trees ahead revealed the river which had just exited Lod cave. There we were at the exit point, the enormous mouth of the cave revealing its inky black interior into which streamed an endless mass of swifts. It was like watching a movie where someone CGI created birds, except these were real. Nearly half a million made their way into the cave to rest high above the ground clinging to stalactites.
This picture didn't really come out well, but I hope you can KINDA see what I mean:
We were in awe. We sat well off to the side on a little bamboo bench under the ledge at the side of the cave exit. We didn't see any bats, but I'm thinking we got there a little late. I'm thinking the bats have to leave for the swifts to come in. At any rate, the show was amazing.
It was also our first taste of the cave, which yawned its mysterious at us in the gathering dark. There was literally nothing stopping someone from bringing in a few high powered torches and just setting off to explore the cave. Course I wouldn't do that. Place reeked of bat guano anyways!
Amir and I made our way back in the darkness. I had a flashlight and my uncanny knack for direction got us back to the river. It was a little more thrilling crossing the river in the dark, but I had a large bamboo stick this time for support. We walked all the way back to Cave Lodge, exhilarated at having seen such a wondrous sight, and eager to explore the cave the next day.
The next day, did indeed to prove to be AWESOME.
First we sat in the sauna. It was run on a little wood burning stove and a Thai lady had collected lots of Thai herbs so that one inhaled the healing aroma while taking in the heat. Then I had a thai massage. Divine! For breakfast I had a banana smoothy and some whole wheat toast, which was made in large stone ovens right there at Cave Lodge. Then we checked out, but not before I purchased John Spies book.
We scooted to the Cave, which only took a few minutes. It cost 150 B for our guide, a cute little Thai lady who spoke very little English but had an eager smile. We walked to the cave entrance. In the daylight is possible to see all the formations at the entrance to the cave; a truly impressive sight. In flowed the river, and upon it long bamboo rafts which we clambered on, with our guide.
Me, just inside the cave enterance
We floated only moments before reaching the first stopping point. The cave rose sharply to the right, and we left the river and with the aid of a few Thai-made steps, ascended into a cavern riddled with Stalactites, stalagmites, vents, sinkholes, and wondrous displays of natures unutterable power to create beauty out of time.
Kinda hard to see, but Amir is at the bottom of a GIANT COLUMN
Me strong: if it wasn't for me, cave might fall
I just lack the skills to describe how amazing this cave was. The ceiling was just lost in shadows, and only the bottoms of imposing stalactites could be seen. Our little Thai guide turned out to know a few English words. She would point to a funny looking formation-made by millions of years of dripping water and limestone and say "elephant." and indeed, the thing would look like an elephant: about the same size too. She would end up saying "monkey" "dog" "Buddha" " pancake" "crocodile" and even "UFO" which was a surprise. It's no wonder the cave was called "spirit cave" because surely people believe that animal spirits (and apparently breakfast spirits and UFO spirits) inhabit the cave and make themselves manifest in the formations.
The squeaking of bats high above our heads became background noise. I got used to the smell of the gas lantern. I wondered at every new corner turned. Eventually we got back on a bamboo raft, were pushed to the other side of the cave, and ascended a new even higher ledge. I must note here that safety standards are NOT even CLOSE to American standards. There are no safety rails. You can pretty much walk anywhere. There are a few deep sink holes with the occasional road cone and a faded "danger" sign. There was another chain across an entrance with a sign that read "do not pass-low oxygen." Our guide pointed to a piece of wall and said "cave painting."
We looked. We looked harder. the thousands year old hunters cave painting had been rubbed out. All that was left was a shadow. Below the "painting" was a photograph taken perhaps 30 years earlier. It had been a picture of a deer, an arrow, and the sun. It was sad looking at that smudge, barely visible now--faded by countless fingers over the years-feeling the need to touch the past...it's a lost treasure-Art from the imagination of a man (or woman!) who clambered up wet steep and treacherous slopes in the pitch darkness to etch a picture in the wall with burnt bamboo or some such instrument one, maybe two thousand years ago.
Down we went, stepping carefully over pools of water, dipping around dripping columns that glittered in the gas lamp light. Down rickety wooden steep steps we carefully tread til we were at river level again. Again we got on a raft, and again we floated ever deeper into the darkness. In just minutes, the cave exit was visible.
We got off the raft and ascended once again to a difficult to reach cavern on the side of the cave. The smell of guano here was overwhelming. I heard Amir retching behind me and i scrambled to wrap my scarf around my face. The guide merely giggled.
Me, with the cave exit behind me-totally exited that it smells like bat butt!
This next part of the cave held an unexpected surprise. we turned a dark corner and there was a coffin, dated 1700-2500 years old. It was very long, maybe 8 or 9 feet. It was striking witnessing where a people a hundred generations ago or more buried their dead. One had to imagine the painstaking work it would have taken to haul the wooden coffins up there. As we moved on we saw about 7 more of these ancient artifacts, and pottery as well.
Back to the bamboo raft we went, this time to return to the cave enterance. How would we get there, we wondered. The river flows one way, and these little rafts haven't got any motors.
We were pulled. It was a little disconcerting actually, having quite an older little wiry man pulling on a rope, hauling you half a KM up river through waist deep water. He defiantly earned the 400B that was asked of us!!!
It was really good getting back to fresh air. I felt really dirty after having been in that cave!! Amir and I hoped on the scooters and scooted to Sappong where were had a light lunch, gassed up, and drove back to Pai.
I had a nice relaxing evening here last night. Listened to some great live music at Edible Jazz, ate some wicked Red curry. I booked my ticket for the slow boat to Laos as well, so I'm leaving tonight!!
I'm also going to have A VOTE! ARE YOU READY!
My next entry is going to have photos of all the spirit houses I've had a chance to photograph. The thai people often erect little houses outside their own dwellings, replete with figurenes, food, beverages, incense and flowers, so that spirits will be happy living there and not take residence inside of peoples homes.
Some of the spirit houses are really cute! Others are very elaborate and yet others very simple. Sometimes you find them in the darndest of places. Cast your vote!!!
Love everyone for following!