The entire area around Pangmapha in Mae Hong Son province resembles, proverbially, a chunk of Swiss cheese. There are caves wherever you go, a heaven for a spelunker. As it is typical for this sort of limestone landscape, rivers refuse to stay on the surface like proper, well-behaved bodies of water; instead, they flow underground. Subterranean channels twist, evolve, and grow, drying up in places, finding, or making new holes to go through. Usually, it takes skills, lots of equipment and, preferably, a death wish to explore such submerged caves. But, one underground river has been developed for tourism, with rafting facilities available: Tham Lot. Once used as a burial cave, now it has become a popular destination for travelers in North Thailand.
The cave is pretty long, over 1.5 km. Depending on the season, most of it is navigable. In the height of the dry season, some sections may have to be walked; during monsoon, parts of the cave may become completely submerged. The channel is full of speleothems - stalactites, stalagmites, "elephant's ears", limestone pools. In places, it may be possible (again, depending on the water level) to disembark and explore the side chambers. One of the main caverns contains prehistoric coffins - presumably a tribal burial site. Such coffin caves are very common in Southeastern Asia, but if you haven't seen one before, it may add some thrill to the experience. Myriads of bats can be seen flying out in a huge black swarm at dusk. Again, nothing unusual, but together with the rotten coffins, the sight makes one think of vampires. And if you stayed to see the bats, you'll be walking back in the dark, through the forest. Consider bringing along some garlic, at least.
Tham Lot is about 10 km away from Pangmapha, a small town on the so-called “Mae Hong Son Loop”. Accordingly, Pangmapha can be reached from Mae Hong Son to the west or Pai to the east. Buses and minivans connecting Chiang Mai with Mae Hong Son stop in Pangmapha. The town has a number of guesthouses, and the setting is lovely. It’s a nice, non-touristic alternative to Pai, and also a good base if you are a spelunker planning to explore the local subterranean systems. If you only want to visit Tham Lot, it makes more sense to stay near it – in the popular Cave Lodge or one of the homestays. There is no public transport to Tham Lot from Pangmapha. Either take a motorbike taxi (prices are fixed and should be posted on a billboard near the market), walk, or hitchhike.
Rafting on the underground river has become one of the local must-dos, and given the proximity of overly touristy Pai, it comes out somewhat costly. At the time of research, 150 THB is a price for a compulsory guide, plus 300 THB for the raft. Both fees can be shared between a few people, so if you’re traveling with friends, drag them along. Tour agencies also arrange day trips from Pai or Mae Hong Son. The cave is surrounded by tropical forest, suitable for a walk. This is the usual way to do it, in fact – go rafting downstream, then return on foot over the hill. In case you plan to see the bats at sunset, bring a torch – it will also come handy in the cave, although guides have powerful lanterns. Finally, avoid the rainy season – if the water level is too high, the trips inside Tham Lot may be shortened or canceled altogether.
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