The first day we took kayaks down the river through the biggest of the caves, Tham Lod
. This seemed like a great idea and a fun way to see the cave, as its so big it takes about 15 minutes to paddle through it. As it turns out though our intructions from the mad aussie amounted to "this is a paddle and this is a boat" and off we set, so most of our energy was spent trying to avoid the many obstacles and threat of imminent death int he rapids, so we hardly noticed the cave. Once we got the hang of it it was pretty cool though, and I only properly fell in and though I might die once, which is pretty good in a two hour trip. It turns out the spirit of Cave Lodge was very much that tourists are expendible (more will be along tomorrow, he said) which is actually quite refreshing compared to standard British health and safety. For example, on the local trekking map he had made it was printed "impossible to get lost". When I queried this he clarified that "lost" meant you never came back - he'd had plently of tourists temporarily misplaced (including one poor guy who spent a night lost in a cave!)
Later that day we took a guide up the nearby hill to show us a few smaller caves. We hadn't realised this meant real caving, and when we got to the entrance the hole was only just wider than us! It took a good bit of wriggling to get in, then quite a bit of crawling and squeezing once we were in. The caves are full of ancient (about 2000 years old) "spirit coffins" left there by ancient tribes in the regions, and in this cave there was one quite deep underground, filled with fragments of bone and teeth
. QUite spooky really, especially when you're already terrified of getting stuck in a pitch dark cave. On the way out we also saw the biggest spider I've ever seen (about the size of my hand) sitting looking at us. I asked the guide if they bite, and she said "not if you don't touch them", which isn't the easiest when its pitch black and you're crawling through a tunnel! I was too scared even to take a photo in case I antagonised him.
We finally wriggled out much to my relief, but unfortunately for me Helen had developed a bit of a taste for caving so we did some more the next day. It was more of the same, but longer and a bit harder. I finally lost it on the way out of the last cave when we came across some giant centipedes. I was trying to keep an eye on them when I spotted a big evil spider nearby, and between the two sets of beasties I couldn't cope, squealed like a girl and got out as fast as I could. There's just something nasty about things that live in caves in the dark, waiting and watching.....
That afternoon we went back to the big cave for an amazing bird show. At sunset hundreds of thousands of cave adapted swifts fly in from all around the area to roost in the cave, clinging to the stalagtites. They use echo location like bats, so the sound and sight of them flying overhead as dusk came was amazing. Unfortunately, none of them pooed on Helen this time, but you can't have everything!
We left Cave Lodge the next day quite having had a great time, but I was quite pleased we didn't have to go in any more caves for a while.
We moved a little north to stay in a small village near Soppong, right on the north western border with Myanmar. We stayed in a place called Cave Lodge, eight miles up a dirt track from the town. We both had some nerves coming so far from civilisation in the back of a pickup truck, but the place turned out to be great. It was a collection of wooden huts on the bank of a river, run by a mental Australian who had lived in the area for 30 years. There are extensive cave systems in the area which he had explored and offered tours of, along with loads of other walking and river stuff to do. It also had a big communal area with a bonfire, swing and even ping pong. It was a bit like finding myself back at youth camp, except this time people found my exceptional table tennis abilities impressive, and the girls liked me (well Helen did at least).