On a whim we decided to leave the highway well travelled and after a 9km motorbike taxi ride from Soppong have landed at Cave Lodge, lured by its rustic bamboo lodgings, proximity to a dozen caves and opportunities for traditional weaving and cooking classes.
We arrive in the afternoon, check into a wee little room most of which is a bed with a mosquito net and set out, map in hand, to see the twilight “bird show” outside of the area’s main cave. By the riverside we find sheets of drying mud peeling from the sandy soil below and a pretty grasshopper with blue wings.
The river flows through Tham Lod (meaning “through cave”) and must be navigated on a bamboo raft. We opt for the DIY overland option, traversing the hill, which is in essence the cave’s curved back. Climbing the red clay path, leaves the size of dinner plates litter our way and in the steeper parts steps are hewn into the earth.
A sign announces a temple and beside our path a stone stairway leads to a wooden door in the rock wall above – meditation caves for the monks. We continue past emerald rice fields and suddenly meet the river flowing out of the yawning mouth of the cave. Above us hundreds of black fork-tailed swifts are weaving a complicated dance in the air, their calls and flap of wings rivalling the river’s constant gurgle.
Inside thousands more birds are wheeling to and from their small nests. Apparently they navigate by bouncing sound off the inside surfaces, but if any should collide and fall into the river, its carp inhabitants will gobble up a bird in minutes! The walls and ceiling are sculpted by water’s erosion and subsequent deposit of limestone particles. As we walk further in, the darkness and stench of bird droppings grow and by the time we’re climbing the ladder to the viewing platform I’m slightly dizzy and imagining unsavoury creatures slithering at us from the shadows, but my determination for pictures bravely perseveres.
Back out in the clean air the storm that’s been calling from nearby finally breaks over us and thunder rolls for long seconds as if a heavy iron vase was dropped down some stairs. We retrace our steps, grateful for our 80-cent plastic rain ponchos, through the forest and past the Shan village houses, many of whose shingles are layers and layers of large leaves sewn together with long grass.
By 8:30pm our lodge grows still and we both dream incredibly bizarre stories as frogs and insects call to each other in the raindrop-filled night.
The morning is gorgeous and hot. We strike out for Big Knob, a huge rocky outcrop dominating the landscape. At the last moment we’re informed there is no particular path up to the top, rather we must find our own way. We start off following a well-trampled line, but soon it’s only narrow animal trails until we lose even those in the lush vegetation and basically clamber up as best we can. I state my astonishment at repeatedly finding myself on hikes I would probably entirely avoid if I knew what I was getting into. Rich totally loves the adventure.
The clear path-animal trails-guesswork scrambling cycle is repeated many times until we rest near the top. Off to one side a steady cowbell announces just how it’s all another day’s work for the locals. On the incline above us I hear crashes through the brush. Big Foot? We did see some undefined footprints in the mud earlier on. As I’m looking up towards the sound, the ridge’s trees are swaying and suddenly a brown shape swings through the foliage. Monkeys!!! Suddenly we are like kids, elated at this gift of an encounter. We watch for a few minutes, my sucky attitude forgotten. Once they are beyond our sight, I’m perfectly happy to soldier on up for the chance to see something more.
No matter how quietly we attempt to ascend, I’m sure we are announcing our presence to them like a steady broadcast. At the top the only life are hidden chirping birds and insects, but we find ourselves amidst a scattering of black boulders, worn away to whimsical shapes and seeming like a perfect setting for an ape tribe to hold their secret meetings, à la Jungle Book Mowgli stories.
The sky rumbles again and starts to pour. Time to descend. We scamper past snails with spiky shells, an unsettlingly long curled-up millipede, spiders and webs of various designs, a few stick insects and beetles and butterflies and ants, a tree well and a rock flashing us the biggest lopsided grin from the hollows on its face. Walking back through the village with its laundry flying like prayer flags from house railings, our mud-caked legs and shoes coax a smile from each local we pass on the way.
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