My community is the bomb. When I ride my bike, someone always shouts, “Hello, Amy!” I can joke with my co-workers about the superiority of sweet fruit over sour fruit. I love the triumphant expressions on my kids faces when they master a difficult English lesson. However, if I stay in Ban Tak for more than a month without leaving, I lose focus on the beauty of Ban Tak and concentrate on everything that annoys me. I forget the reasons why I love this place. Therefore, I have a saying, “I leave so I can come back.”
This was the case a few weeks. My kids were annoying me, I wasn’t looking forward to teaching, I didn’t want to interact with people, and even the weather was against my liking–a bad case of Tambon Fever. I needed to leave.
Another saying I have is that in Thailand, you make plans for them to be broken. Two weeks previous, a friend had called asking me to help with an English camp in Chiang Rai. “Perfect,” I thought, “this is exactly the reason to leave my town that I have been looking for!” I was excited to visit Chiang Rai. Usually when I leave, it’s just for a weekend, either to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, but I wanted to explore some place new. All week I was looking forward to my little break. Things were wrapping up in schools, and there wasn’t much going on at the tessaban, excellent time to leave. The camp was scheduled to start on Wednesday, so I had made plans to go up to Chiang Mai for the weekend, take Monday as a vacation day, do the camp, visit Chiang Rai, and then leave for Bangkok for medical appointments the first half of the following week…I wish. On Friday, the day before I was supposed to start my 1 1/2 week break, I get a call from my friend at 2 pm saying the camp had just been canceled by the local government. “What?!” I exclaimed to myself, “I had been counting on the camp as an excuse to get away!” After an initial freak out and some thinking, I decided to leave anyway and take vacation. I had already informed my coworkers and co-teachers I would be gone, and my time away from site has been minimal throughout my service. My new plan: go to Chiang Mai, since I had already made the reservations at a guesthouse, and figure things out from there. [Note: I prefer not to travel alone or spur of the moment, but sometimes you have just got to go for it.]
Once in Chiang Mai with a plate of comfort-food-nachos in front of me, I set to work figuring out what I was going to do with my week. I could go anywhere! I have been wanting to go done south to the beaches for a while. But since I was already in Chiang Mai, I thought checking out northern Thailand would be more reasonable. What would make me the most happy? The answer was easy: happiness=caves. [Random fact: I LOVE caves! I get excited in the adventure of exploring them. Caves seem to give me energy.] I had heard my friends mention the place called “Cave Lodge” a couple of times. The caves were located in Soppong, which is in the northern province of Mae Hong Song (about a 4 hour van trip from Chiang Mai). After consulting my Lonely Planet and the internet, I hopped on a van early Monday morning to check it out.
The experience was everything and more. Here is a summary:
Day 1) I arrive at the Cave Lodge guesthouse. It is a tree house nine kilometers from the main town, complete with a swing, hammocks, and a fire pit. There is a general laid back, “spabai-spabai” feel. The main cave of the area, Tham Lot Cave, is within walking distance. That evening, I go with a few new friends, who I have just met, to see the swifts. Every night, just before sunset, hundreds of birds renter Tam Lot Cave. Awesome, but I am glad I had brought my umbrella. As one person said, “I can honestly say, it was a shitty place”.
Day 2) I went kayaking. It was 3 hours of constant, high-level excitement. First, we kayaked from the guesthouse to Tham Lot Cave and get out to explore cavern #2. I don’t think I can describe how beautiful the cave was. The guesthouse provided helmets and head lights. Everywhere I turned, there was some kind of formation. It was like my light wasn’t big enough to take it all in. Then, we paddled down river and went to a smaller cave. Again, gorgeous but it required some crawling. These are some of the best kind of caves! Hundreds of bats were in one section-way cool. Since it is rainy season in Thailand, the water level of the river is much higher. It also means that the rapids are much more intense. Normally, a person has the choice of kayaking alone or with a guide behind. Everyone, however, is required to be accompanied by a guide in rain season…and I am so glad. The rapids were fierce! Scary!! Thrilling!!! I loved it!!!! People said rafting they had previously done in Thailand was nothing compared to this. Wow is all I can say. Fabulous day.
Day 3) Took it easy. Me and a friend walked to go visit another part of Tham Lot Cave. For just a hundred baht each, we got to ride a bamboo raft to the entrance and a local guide to take us around cavern #1. Sanuk dii! We ate lunch at a local Thai restaurant and got invited to try the nom prik….Thais are extremely nice, especially if you can speak Thai.
Day 4) Went on 7 hour hike and cave exploration tour. It was just my new German friend, the guide and myself. Cave Lodge provided helmets, lights, and lunch. The guide also gave us walking sticks. At first I thought, “Oh this is nice, I don’t think I will really need it.” Wrong. Since it is rainy season, everything was wet and super slick. The walking stick was essential to walking anywhere without falling. Even then, it took a while getting used to walking on the path. I did much better in the caves than just hiking to and from them. All your concentration was needed to stay up. I couldn’t think about the itchy grass, wet socks or my energy level. In order to progress forward and stay upright, you had to pound the walking stick into the mud path, use it as a third leg to keep your balance until you took your steps. Think punting minus the water and the boat. It would have been a much different experience, I’m sure, if I would have gone in the dry season.
For reference, I am 5′ 6.25″. Is that some tall corn, or what?
The hike itself was beautiful. It only rained while we were in the last cave. No was no one else around. We hiked across the mountains through brush, rice fields, pumpkin fields, peanut fields, and many corn fields where the stalks were at least twice as high as me! I was super glad we had a guide. Parts of the path were barely visible. Once we got in the caves, we were crawling. We were ducking. It was dirty. It was muddy. It was going when I didn’t think we could go any further. In short, it was fantastic! I loved every bit of it. The first cave we went to was a very long, much crawling, thin cave. The second cave I would describe as mostly cave figures, and a little bit of cave. Everywhere you looked there was something. The name is called Christmas Cave because it was discovered on Christmas…by this point, I felt like I was having an early Christmas.
Nights at Cave Lodge were amazing too. They consisted of a campfire, reading Charles Dickens, sitting around the table ordering delicious (slightly over priced) Thai food, talking with the other travelers (the place had a real homey, friendly feel) and listening to owner’s, John, stories life in the area 30 years ago. John had first arrived 30 years ago where there were poppies everywhere and the area was supplying most of the world’s opium for heroin; his stories were quite interesting. I should include that there was a hot shower included in all of this-huge benefit.
Day 5+) Sore.
If I had to plan my dream vacation, this get-away would be pretty spot on. All the tours that I went on were organized through the lodge. Quite convenient for a person just wanting to leave and not spend much time in transit.
The result of this whim vacation? I left Bangkok one day early (my doctor’s appointments had finished) because I missed my sight. I am much happier at work now. Leaving makes me want to come back.