When traveling, I enjoy the unique delights of every city I visit, but it’s the cities located away from the concrete, in the farthest reaches of a country, which stirs curiosity the most.
These far reaches sometimes end with border towns. In my opinion, a border that separates two countries is like some sort of purgatory…the no man’s land between two countries that no one fully understands. This is where immigration officials gobble passports. They have the power to trap you between two countries, can be stressful, cause tears to fall, wallets to drain and curses to be uttered. You go to a border, cross your fingers and hopefully get a stamp in your passport hassle-free, then you get the hell out and into fresh territory. Besides the obvious immigration matters, what is there to see in border towns? What untouched beauty and discovery could there be?
These questions are exactly what make border towns so interesting. You have to go, explore and answer those questions yourself. You might find that some of the most stunning and thrilling parts of a country are in that no man’s land, where few tourists venture, except to get a visa stamp.
Recently, my friend Chris and I visited Tham Lod cave in Mae Hong Son province of north Thailand, which shares a border with Myanmar. We rented motorbikes and set off on a day trip from the mountain village, Pai. It’s amazing how once you leave a tourist laden town the roads become mostly empty and pleasantly quiet. It’s just one paved road and endless mountain wilderness.
On our way to Tham Lod cave, we lost internet, missed turns and at one point, drove a good bit in the wrong direction (thanks to my flawless navigation skills); but we didn’t care. To fill our lungs with the crisp mountain air, to be engulfed in a bed of clouds and to feel rain droplets splatter on our faces as we wove around limestone karsts and hillside farms was glorious. The only problem was that we had planned a day trip. After backtracking, we found the sharp turn off that led to Tham Lod cave. It was evening time, and after delving deeper into the misty jungle, we found the secluded Cave Lodge; bamboo bungalows perched above a mountain stream where water buffalo graze and toucay geckos call across the canopy.
We were not prepared to stay overnight, and had only brought the clothes on our backs. A day trip turned into an overnight adventure to explore Tham Lod. Luckily, the one item that was conveniently tucked into my purse was the The WakaWaka Power+ solar charger. Since it’s powered by the sun, it was readily available to charge my phone anytime, anywhere. Score.
Despite our lack of supplies and a long day of biking, drinking loads of beer quickly numbed the discomfort of sweaty skin, greasy hair and dirty underwear. Laying back in a hammock, I was engulfed by the jungle. The sporadic rain showers strummed tree leaves and branches, soothing and sound. There’s nothing like being out there. The magic of wilderness is that you become part of a living system; the beating heart; a thinking brain. You become part of something so natural and your instincts tell you without hesitation that you are where you belong in the world. Stupid gripes and life bullshit fades, and you are treated to the joy that you once felt as a child discovering earth and savoring it, no strings attached.
Tham Lod cave is an impressive sight to behold; an archaeological site that was once occupied by the Hoabinhian hunting tribe from 9000BC to 5500BC.
The mouth and ceiling of the cave is wide and tall, filled with large stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over thousands of years. Three caves are connected into one, with prehistoric wall paintings and skinny, wooden coffins serving as reminders of an ancient past. A quiet stream runs through the cave, and visitors can snag a ride on a bamboo raft to explore every nook and cranny. Don’t forget a flashlight or headlamp! Once again, the The WakaWaka Power+ saved the day for us.
Around 6pm each evening, the cave mouth spews hundreds of swallows and bats, as the nocturnal critters welcome the night and the insect meals it brings. You can view their evening departure from outside the cave, or inhale their ripe odors (and get doo doo’ed on) as they flit around their cavern mansion during daytime.
If you’re an avid caver, besides Tham Lod, there are numerous caves to explore around Mae Hong Son. During certain parts of the year (depending on dry and rainy season) you can rent a kayak to paddle Tham Lod and visit nearby waterfalls. Unfortunately, we were unable to kayak, but the bamboo raft was a different experience that was also enjoyable.
Driving a motorbike from Pai to Mae Hong Son is the definition of scenic and was my favorite part of the trip. You can also book a white water rafting trip the same way, but of course, conditions depend on the season. There is so much more to explore, more than can be done in a day. Caves, hill tribe villages, incredible wildlife and archeological digs- I’ll have to go back, but this time with a fresh pair of undies and a toothbrush.