An adventure in the caves of Northern Thailand


Photo by Kristina Kulyabina

by Kristina Kulyabina

A Bumpy Start

I’m paddling in the front, my cohort Mikaela is in the back. The Lang River’s current gains speed as we approach the vast opening of Tham Lod Cave. The tip of the inflatable red kayak is heading straight towards a rock masked by branches as I try to recall our tour guide’s instructions to avoid collision.

In a split second, we are out of the kayak and my legs are flailing in the deep water, trying to find the river’s bottom and push myself up.

I frantically swim to the surface, gasping for air, weakly lifting the heavy raft off my head in the midst of rushing cold water. Mikaela helps me escape from underneath the kayak but I am quickly taken away by the current and drift towards more branches scraping my hands and knees. I cling onto protruding wood and my other hand grabs the paddle while Mikaela grasps the other end to hang on until the tour guide turns around to save our chain of helplessness.

This short, yet muscular Thai villager flips over the kayak and helps us get back in the seats. We smoothly ride into the cave’s entrance and park our kayaks on the side. Whew. My heart’s beating at the level of a caffeine overdose. Adrenaline dances across my chest.

“You looked so scared!” says my kayaking partner.

“That was scary,” I reply, in shock, “but that was so freakin’ fun!”

Inside the Caves

Although my life had flashed before my eyes, I have to say the caving expedition overall was some of the most fun I experienced in Northern Thailand.

Thanks to a suggestion from my friend Conor back home and a New York Times article by Russ Juskalian, I inspired four travel buddies to join me on a visit to the Sham Village’s caves within the Mae Hong Son Province, roughly three and a half hours outside of Chiang Mai – our home base for our four months abroad.

We stayed at Cave Lodge – recommended by Juskalian – where the Australian owner, John Spies, participated in the discovery of some of the caves in the province. The hostel kindly provided us with kayaking and caving gear and even a tour guide for a two hour cruise and internal trek of the 600 meter Lod Cave and an additional smaller cave, all for the reasonable price of 800 baht (around 27 U.S. dollars).

I have never gone adventuring in a cave so I found myself asking questions like “how long does it take for a cave to form?” and “what does the process exactly entail?” I was cave curious. Bats hung from the ceilings and spiders as big as my hand crawled along the walls. Occasionally, one of us would hit our heads on low throughways creating a loud thump throughout the eerie, dead silent interior – thank god for the helmets.

One of the coolest parts was crawling through a hole, just wide enough for my hips, in order to enter the second smaller cave. My roommate Eli was in slight panic, fearing claustrophobia in such a tight space. But we all squeezed through without a struggle.

On the way back down the river, the rapids increased and rocks invaded our route. This time, however, Mikaela had a guide in her kayak and I had my own to help maneuver around any obstacles. At the end of the ride, an estimated 20- foot-drop over a wide dam took us by surprise. “Ohhhh this a big one!” said the guide fearlessly in his broken English.

The kayak pointed vertically down into the water as I closed my eyes and embraced the feeling of an eight-year-old kid at the Six Flags water park. Opening my eyes again, I was glad to see that I was still sitting in the kayak, in one piece. We quickly approached shore, hopped out of the inflatable devices, and high-fived each other for one hell of an adventure.

Kristina Kulyabina studied abroad in Thailand in fall 2013. She can be reached at [email protected]

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