The Chiang Dao Caves
Chiang Dao, Thailand
After we left the Tree House Hideaway, we figured we’d check out the Chiang Dao Caves since we would pass them going north to Chiang Rai anyway. The caves are one of the main attractions in Chiang Dao National Park and are supposedly made up of a honeycomb network of over 100 caves and caverns extending 12-14 kilometers into Doi Chiang Dao, a massive outcrop of rock rising to 2,175m, the 3rd highest peak in Thailand. One legend says that a group of hermits who lived in the cave, once called a meeting of deities and angels to create seven sacred artifacts. A demon called Chao Luang Kham Daeng Khun Yak was appointed to guard these artifacts, which are hidden beneath the mountain. Locals say that if one ventures deep into the caves, they will encounter a stream that flows from the pedestal of a golden Buddha. Beyond that is the legendary town of Laplae, where one may find the divine city of the Nagas, the cloth of the gods, a great lake, heavenly food, a sacred elephant, the golden Buddha from which the stream begins, and the resting place of the hermits themselves. Locals still believe these legends, but no one claims to have ever witnessed the marvels because they have not ventured far enough into the mountain. People also believe that anyone attempting to remove anything from the cave complex will become hopelessly confused and lost forever in the caves.
Only the first five or six caves are even open to the public and we ended up pretty confused with the process upon entering the cave. It was a 40 baht entry fee and then right when we got inside, a local woman began essentially demanding an additional 100 baht (plus tip?!), which we reluctantly handed over as she motioned to a gas lantern. It turns out it’s not necessary to have a guide to freely explore the first two caves, Tham Saua Dao and Tham Phra Nawn, which are well-lit and contain many shrines and Buddha statues/images, but you need a guide to explore the additional 3 caves of Tham Maa, Tham Naam, and Tham Kaew. The dripping limestone and crystal stalactites and stalagmites create some pretty amazing formations, which the guide attempts to point out and name extremely broken or non-existent English. Some of the caverns could be pretty spectacular, the largest seemingly to be the size of a small airplane hanger, but overall, it was relatively unimpressive just because we could only see what was lit by the one kerosene lantern. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a lot. For the most part, to get cavern to cavern, we had to duck and weave through small muddy and slippery crevices which was relatively disconcerting to me having just seen a hand-sized spider close to the beginning of the tour – My mind was pretty convinced I was coming out of one of these tunnels with a man-eating spider on my back. It was pretty damn nice getting back into the fresh air – I’ve now found out I’m not a cave person at all.
At the cave entrance is an old Shan style chedi, ornamental garden, and a small mountain stream feeding a karst pool containing a ton carp and catfish. The caves were cool to see, but as it turns out, nothing compared to some of the other caves I’d end up going through.