While we waited for our massage training to start, we headed northeast of Chiang
Mai via nauseatingly windy roads to the small town of Pai. In the early days of
Thai tourism, Pai got a reputation as an ex-pats retreat from the city with a
focus on meditation, spirituality, etc… Once it got popular, however, the center
of this small mountain town transformed into a tourist hub with corresponding
bars and western food restaurants. Still, Pai retains enough of its Thai culture
to stay charming despite its popularity.
Column in Tham Lot Cave
While staying in Pai, we took an overnight trip to Soppong (recently re-named Pangmapha) to visit the amazing Tham Lot Cave, which features the largest cave opening in all of SE Asia. Tham Lot is also home to over 300,000 swifts (tiny birds) who return to the cave at sunset every evening in an amazing aerial show. The drive alone was worth the journey - with sweeping views of the countryside and fresh mountain air.
We stayed at a placed called the Cave Lodge, established by an Australian named John and his Thai wife in the early 1980s. It was fascinating to read about John’s life (he wrote a book) about the early days of exploring the numerous caves in the area (Tham Lot Cave is part of one of the largest cave systems in SE Asia). John was exploring Soppong when the opium trade was still in full swing in the area and he survived through the cycles of violence and addiction in the area to establish the Cave Lodge and map out the caves for others to see. At one point he and a crew were underground in a cave for 55 straight hours!  They also discovered and began the scientific research on the numerous teak  coffins in the area’s caves – remnants of a civilization at least a 1,000 years older than Thai culture.

The Swift show at the exit to Tham Lot Cave - like the Austin Bat Show in reverse!
Trekking to the cave entrance with our guide
We were inspired by the seeming fearlessness that John had displayed in his life as he explored the dark depths of the caves of Soppong. We got our own little taste of working with fear as we took our 125cc motorbike over some steep back country dirt roads riddled with pot holes to visit the small Karen hilltribe village of Ban Huang Paem. We rolled into town and after perusing the hand woven fabrics that the locals brought out and laid on the street, we hired a guide to take us to the Tham Long Yaow Cave. It was an exhilarating and slightly scary feeling to take our tourism into our own hands as we followed this local tribeswoman deep into the jungle to find a cave that the first Westerners visited only 20 or 30 years ago. As we crawled on hands and knees through the narrow entrance trepidation crept up our spines only to be quickly replaced by awe as the cave’s grandeur erupted around us. Beautiful stalagmites and stalactites littered the landscape and “flow rock” (crystalline formations of rock) glistened as our lights fell over it.

Flow Rock at Tham Long Yaow Cave
Pai Canyon at Sunset
Leaving the caves and returning to Pai, we enjoyed a stay at a mountain lodge where we recharged with stunning views of the mountain while practicing yoga, peaceful days reading in hammocks, and fruit carving. We also explored the beautiful Pai Canyon, the area’s steams baths (fed by the Pai Hot Springs) and some waterfalls reachable by motorbike. One day we decided to hike to the Mae Yen waterfall (which is only accessible by foot), a 14km roundtrip trail that is barely marked, leaving us to just “follow the water” as one local told us. We brought 2 liters water and expected the hike to take 3-4 hours roundtrip, but found we didn’t count on the hilly terrain and numerous water crossings. At one point about 3 hours into the hike, we climbed over a rocky outcropping in the water and had trouble finding the trail. Scared about how long the return trip would take and our dwindling water supply, we contemplated returning to town without seeing the falls. We gave ourselves 20 more minutes to try to find the way. At minute 19, as I ducked under a fallen tree, I saw a glimmer of water falling down the mountain side and heard the dull roar of water crashing upon the rocks. We started to run with exhilaration to the clearing where the waterfall gushed. There were no tourists all the way out here in the jungle – just the sound of the water and the beautiful view.

The clearing at the Mae Yen Waterfall
As we  hiked back from the falls (the round trip ended up being about 7 hours of hiking), we contemplated how so many of our experiences these past days had almost been derailed by fear. The cave and the hike to the falls seemed an analogy for the spiritual journey. Perhaps each of us must enter our own dark caves to explore, despite the fear it brings up in us. We must somehow find the faith to move into fear and not away from it. At the superficial level it is a belief in our own self-reliance and ability to survive. But at the deeper level it is faith that those same fears can propel us to insights that make life infinitely more vibrant.

John from the Cave Lodge moved into his fears and as a result was istrumental in
mapping the caves around Soppong and in developing a tourist industry in the
area that was beneficial to the local people. For Neda and me, moving through
the dark caves and challenging hikes led to a renewed faith in our own
abilities, our relationship, and the beauty that lay on the other side of fear.

To see the rest of the amazing pics of our time in this region, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjyovm5W.

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