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Published: September 26th 2012
Having lived in Thailand for about 7 months, we were blessed with the opportunity to have five of our childhood friends come to visit us during our April break from teaching. All of us had grown up together and had attended the same high school in a small rural town outside of Binghamton New York. They arrived on, of all days, Songkran Sunday in Chiang Mai. What a way to bring them into Thailand. And while we had an unforgettable afternoon of Chang Beers and water-fights, Thai family-style meals and late nights, what we had really flew them half-way across the world for was not just a drunken backpacker party in Chiang Mai and Pai. So after a few days in Chiang Mai we rented an SUV and began our first tour of the Mae Hong San loop. After a few nights in Pai, we packed up the vehicle and headed for Soppong.
To begin, I have to say that no matter what you read about twists and turns, ups and downs on the road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong San, you really won't understand what your reading until you actually hit the road. Despite the fact that I
hadn't driven anything but a motorbike in seven months, and that I had never driven an SUV of this size before, let alone with the driver on the opposite side from America, I was nevertheless the only one willing to hop behind the wheel. When we left Pai (perhaps the highest number of farang per capita in Thailand) and headed for Soppong, we didn't have much of an idea what to expect. While I don't know how highly everyone else ranked it, for me it may have been the best part of the trip. Allow me to explain.
When we arrived at the exit for Soppong, we drove through a tiny village and up a road that gradually turned into a dirt road and eventually more of a dirt path. When we arrived at Cave Lodge we were officially in the middle of nowhere. We were greeted by two friendly dogs who escourted us into the main lodge. The Lodge was built overlooking the river with the bungalows built into the hill side. The first Bungalow we looked at was 250 baht ($7.50) / night and consisted of a bamboo woven floor with a cot and blanket. I think
our friends were a bit suprised by this, and after snapping a few photographs decided that they would move up market just a bit to the 500 baht ($15.00) per night rooms. Tara and I, figuring we were on vacation, decided to do the same. The rooms were comfortable with two large beds, a fan, bathroom and porch. As far as Soppong goes, we were living the life of luxury. We headed up to the main lodge to order some food. I ordered the traditional Shan meal which they claim is what the local villagers as well as their cooks eat. I love almost all foods but I have to say, I wasn't overly impressed. The meal included rice, crushed tomatoes and a mashed eggplant dish, which were said to be quite spicy but I didn't find them so. They are also completely Vegan. They were like nothing I have tasted before, completely dissimilar to Thai, so I would recommend you try them just for the experience.
And now for a little history of the lodge. How did I hear this?, you might ask. It turns out that the owner of Cave Lodge, John Spies, has written a wild
account of his experiences living in Northern Thailand and Soppong, beginning in the late 1970s. The book is for sale at the Guesthouse and is one of the most informative (regarding Northern Thailand) and entertaining (regarding everything) books I have read. As a matter of fact we spent the first night at cave lodge huddled around a table reading about unmedicated schitzophrenic guests, heroin overdoses and unsolved murders that had taken place in the woods nearby. It turns our John came to Thailand in his late teens, hanging on the very beach in Phuket where we began our travels. According to his account, and backed by his photographs, in the 1970s Naiharn Beach consisted of a single wooden shack, owned by a local police officer, where travelers could sleep, smoke top-quality ganja, and sample his wife's fine cooking. John eventually made his way to Northern Thailand where he met a young Shan woman, with whom he could not communicate, but nevertheless fell in love with. They began some of the first organized treks to hill-tribe villages in Northern Thailand. He relates accounts of life in the villages, where he spent significant time. He and his wife helped scrape opium sap
from poppy plants, took part in rituals designed to rid the villages of spirits, and sat up listening as opium addicted village elders laid by their fires, opium pipe in hand, shouting from house to house until the cocks crowed. He met men who had never seen a car, and one who thought airplanes came from outer-space, and another who thought the moon in the sky was closer to their village than Mae Hong San. One of the opium addicts he met was a woman who was 10 months pregnant, her pregnancy delayed by her addiction. When he asked the father about this, he replied, "perhaps the child has turned to stone, ha!" Despite these humorous and tragic accounts, John describes a people who were willing to take a stranger as there own, share the little they had, and were able to communally survive under the most basic of conditions, as their ancestors had for centuries. Their animist religion was deeply spiritual, and connected them with the earth and nature around them. While modernity has brought education and help with addiction, and even new crops to some regions, it has often come at the expense of destruction of the traditional
culture of these people. Much like the earth itself, the deep spiritual connection these people share with their planet is being wiped off the earth as rapidly as her dwindling resources. I wonder if today there are still people in Thailand living a life as traditional as these people had only a few short decades ago. Although Northern Thailand has changed dramatically, as you sit in the mountains, reading his accounts, you can still capture some of the sense of wild, unadulturated adventure captured in his accounts. It is a must read on many levels, and I won't ruin any of the mysteries for you, should you ever decide to head there.
The next day we took a walk down to the cave, not far from where the young tourist had been murdered all those years ago. The local villagers have built rafts and take tourists into the caves for a small fee. The area around Mae Hong San is filled with caves, some with poisonous gas that nearly took the life of our host, others with rare species such as a small pink fish not dissimilar to an algae-eater you would find in fish tank, which is able
to "climb" up waterfalls. The first one was discovered by a friend of our host, who caught the fish while scaling the cliff alongside the falls, holding the creature in his mouth until he could get it to some fluid to preserve for further study. The cave we visited was safe, had many beautiful formations, and also some ancient coffins and cave paintings. One of the most interesting parts of our trip to the cave was the short ten minute walk there along the river. When we began our walk we noticed a dog which ran out ahead of us cut us and appeared to be headed down the same trail. We figured it was just going for a walk. As the dog kept slowing it's pace and looking back at us, however, we realized that it was leading us to the cave. It walked us the entire way and then waited until we entered the cave. Even more incredibly, as we emerged at dusk another dog was waiting, and this one led us all the way back to the stairs leading up to the lodge. We later read in the book that different generations of dogs have been doing
Birds and Bats
At dusk the birds fly into the cave for the night, and the bats fly out for the night.
this for many years, and the author was just as suprised as we were, as no one has ever trained these dogs to do so. He suggests that the dogs have come to embrace all visitors as their masters, and seek to be sure that their masters never walk without a companion, and always return home safe.
Because our time was short, the next morning saw us packing up the SUV once again. This time we were on our way to Mae Hong San. If you are taking a trip around the Mae Hong Son loop on a time budget, or are looking more for the party scene in Pai and Chiang Mai, a stop at the cave lodge may not be for you. If however you are looking for a place to sit out, relax, play some ping-pong, take in some nature and chat idly with friends or new aquaintances, then the cave lodge is worth a stop. If you do have a visit, do not forget to give John Spies book a read, especially at the place where it all unfolded, surrounded by the still very wild surroundings near the Burmese border. Despite the over-development of many
parts of Thailand, there is still a certain wild charm surrounding this place, exemplified by it's history. We very well may be the last generation of travelers who get to experience travel in this way.
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