The Mae Lang winds through the hills of northern Thailand like a shimmering worm, wriggling mostly through the swaths of dense jungle, but disappearing for a span beneath the cavernous limestone ceiling of Tham Lot. That disappearance just so happens to be downstream from the Cave Lodge, so it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that I found myself kayaking through Tham Lot the day after completing the cave and hill tribe trek.
There were seven of us, plus our two guides, in a total of 5 kayaks. One of the benefits of traveling solo: I got my own kayak for the entire day.
The entrance to the cave is watched by locals, who wait to escort travelers into the cavernous mouth. We moored our kayaks for a short break before getting in again and paddling through the entrance. The current whisked us beneath the lowest of ceilings, some of our helmets scraping the rock even as we ducked as low as we could.
Then, the cave opened up, and we found ourselves floating through a world steeped in darkness. The beams from our headlamps swept around the chamber, taking in each new sight. Huge stalactites hung overhead, and the soft plunking of water punctuated the heavy silence. Every once in awhile, we would hear the rustle of wings and the shrill chittering of bats as they moved about overhead.
We disembarked and climbed up a series of makeshift steps to a small passage on the side of the cavern, where more stalactites hung from the ceiling and stalagmites rose from the floor, joining to form whatever the heck a combination of the two is. In the cracks and holes pocking the walls, massive spiders lurked and scurried, eliciting their share of startled gasps from our group.
We carried on through the rest of the cave, towards the waxing light streaming in through the cave’s other end. It was a stunning sight, and we drifted slowly so we could savor it.
A short hike from the exit led us to the entrance of Hair Cave, or — more accurately — the crack in the ground through which we had to crawl to access Hair Cave. The tight squeeze opened up into a small, oppressively muggy chamber, where delicate filaments of infant stalactites coated the glistening ceiling. My glasses fogged up almost immediately, and I spent the remainder of the cave crawl wishing I’d sprung for LASIK during my last stay in Korea.
Luckily, in case I got lost, there was a thread along the cave floor to help visiting monks find their way out. The cave is a popular spot for meditation, because there’s nothing like spending a few hours in the pitch-black bowels of the earth with naught but a thread to guide you to safety.
We crawled out of Hair Cave and walked back to the kayaks to set off once more down the river, where we negotiated increasingly difficult patches of rapids. Nothing too crazy, but due to the low water level we all got stuck multiple times.
On one particular set, one of the guides navigated their kayak through, then perched at the bottom while the other guide waited at the top. Together, they guided us down one by one. Each and every kayak got hopelessly stuck on the rock at the bottom, the current threatening to flip each of our crafts. Mine came close to flipping, my backpack getting swept into the rushing water. Luckily, I’d tied it to the kayak, so I was able to snag the bag and bring it to safety as the guide helped push me free. Little did I know, but that brief torrent of river-water had ruined my camera — stored in a faulty dry sack. I didn’t notice until we stopped for lunch.
Gutted at the loss, but determined to enjoy the rest of the trip, I focused on kayaking along the Mae Lang. We drifted through lush gorges, past quaint homes and boutique resorts, and exchanged nods with amused fishermen. Eventually, we moored the kayaks one final time and hauled them up to the road.
We had one more cave to visit and began the brutal climb up to Coffin Cave, just below the summit of a nearby karst. Karsts are generally steep, and this one proved to be no exception. We were all sweating profusely by the time we reached the caverns, and took in the impressive view with forced enthusiasm. The ancient coffins once found there were long gone, but the caverns remain, and you couldn’t help but shiver at the thought of being in a very old, very isolated graveyard.
We descended at a snail’s pace, and settled gratefully into the back of the Cave Lodge truck waiting for us. As we bumped and jostled on our way back, the acute ache of overused muscles not accustomed to being used began to set in. The next day would be a lazy one, it seemed.
How about you? Have you been kayaking, or even been kayaking through Tham Lot? Where did you go, and how was your experience? Share in the comments below!