Off The Beaten Track In Prachuap Khiri Khan: Further Adventures With Cave Man Jim – Part One
If you’ve lived in this enchanting, but bizarre, land (Thailand) for any reasonable length of time you’ll eventually come to understand that the average Thai is a fairly stoic kind of creature. Many display levels of patience that the average farang, me included, can only admire. In situations that would see us venting our spleen they can be seen smiling, enduring and silently sucking it up. It is an admirable quality, one to be respected, but it is also their Achilles heel. They’ll often put up with an intolerable situation far longer than would be deemed reasonable to do so; a case in point being the Bangkok Sky Train Service. The local authorities, no doubt, are cheerfully congratulating themselves on a job well done. The residents of the suburbs, down the line from On Nut, can now avoid the traffic congestion, along Sukhumvit, by making their way to the nearest BTS terminal to enjoy a stress free, comfortable ride into the city. All well and good unless, as I found out recently, you happen to be trying to board at around 7:30 AM on a weekday. I’d arrived at the Thong Lor BTS platform, with my bags in tow, thinking that it would be a relatively simple exercise; catch the sky train to Asoke and then hop on the underground for an easy ride out to Hualumphong station. I’d allowed myself plenty of time, or so I thought, and wouldn’t have any problems making the 8.05 AM, second class departure for Hua Hin. By the time the third jam packed sky train had been and gone, with barely a single person being able to sandwich themselves into the mass bulging through the open doors, I knew I had some serious scrambling to do.
I had no cause for complaint though as I’d been warned by a mate, the evening before, when I’d mentioned my plans for getting to Hualumphong.
“You might want to take a rain check on your travel timings,” said my buddy.
“I reckon an hour, from stepping out the front door, should be plenty of time to make the train to Hua Hin,” I said, with unabridged confidence.
“Those sky trains are really packed, between 7:00 and 8:30, with Thais commuting to work. You’ll have a back-pack with you and that’ll make it even more difficult to squeeze on. You might want to give yourself an extra 20 minutes or so?”
Those words were still resonating as the wall of bodies confronting me, on each train, came and left. As I made my way back down onto Sukhumvit, to catch a cab to Asoke, I could only shake my head in amazement as to why the locals put up with it. The answer, to alleviating the overcrowding at peak times, was plainly obvious; simply increase the frequency of trains coming down the line. As the cab inched its way down Sukhumvit I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to miss my departure time at Hualumphong. As it turned out I only missed it by 10 minutes and, as I stood there looking at the empty departure platform, I was ruing the fact that I hadn’t taken in my mate's words of wisdom the evening before. I was already contemplating buying another ticket when one of the counter staff chimed in.
“No problem, you can take motorbike taxi over to Bang Sue and catch the train there,” he said, as he indicated that I should follow him to the parking area outside the station.
“Can do?” I said as I pointed at the large back pack I had hanging off me.
“Yes, yes, mai mee pun ha,” he said, smiling and continuing to lead me through a melee of tuktuks and motorbikes.
A few seconds later we were standing next a motorbike, that looked as though it was a remnant of the last war, and conversing with a guy who was obviously the owner.
“Sam roi baht to go Bang Sue,” he said, looking at me squarely and not batting an eye lid.
I did a quick, silent calculation. The price of another train ticket was roughly 350 Baht; obviously this guy had it sussed.
“Can we get there in time?” I said, as looked down at the bike and noted pieces of number eight fencing wire holding a couple of things in place.
“Yes, plenty of time. Train leave only ten minutes ago,” he replied, with unquestioned confidence.
I figured it was worth a shot even though I was probably risking life and limb.
“Okay, sam roi baht,” I said, nodding in acceptance at the deal.
My transport for the thirty minute run from Hualumphong to Bang Sue station
The driver kicked the bike into life, I climbed on the back, and we were on our way to Bang Sue. As we weaved our way through the morning peak hour traffic, at break neck speed, the weight of the 20 kg pack, hanging off my back, was turning the ride into one to be remembered; every time the driver accelerated away from an intersection I was nearly catapulted off the bike. After about 25 minutes we were barreling down a road that paralleled the train tracks. The driver tapped me on the leg and pointed ahead; the train was a few hundred meters in front of us. I looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the speedometer; we were doing over 80 km/h. A couple of minutes later we drew level with, then passed, the train as the driver gunned the bike towards a crossing up ahead. With literally seconds to spare we shot over the tracks, as the booms were coming down, and then glided into the Bang Sue station car park. As I wearily climbed off the back of bike the station's intercom announced the imminent arrival of the train; we’d made it with a couple of minutes to spare. I handed over the three hundred baht, thanked the driver, and stumbled towards a nearby 7 Eleven as the train pulled up at the platform. I was seriously thinking of downing a beer to settle the nerves but then thought better of it; I still had a long day in front of me. Safely onboard, and with my bags stowed, I settled in for the sedate 3-hour ride to Hua Hin. As the train rumbled through the outer limits of Bangkok, and into the surrounding rural environs, I thought back to the recent phone conversation, with Jim, which had me itching to get out of the big smoke again. I’d had a great time on the previous trip and was keen to poke my nose into some more caves.
“Well there’s one cave that I went into about 12 years ago, with a monk, that was a couple of hundred meters back down the road from falling chicken cave,” said Jim, warming to the idea of an another caving adventure.
“You reckon you’d be able to find your way back there,” I said feeling the enthusiasm levels begin to rise again.
“I think so, but it may take a bit of searching for though because that monk is no longer around and I think he was the only one who knew where the entrance is. It’s also way up the side of that escarpment and the jungle’s pretty thick up there. I don’t think anyone goes up there too often; certainly not farangs or tourists. When I went up there the monk told me I was the first non-Thai to ever set foot in the cave. I bet no other foreigners have been in there since either as it’s well hidden from the road,” said Jim, with complete certainty.
“Are there any landmarks about that you’d still recognize?” I said, hoping to prod Jim’s memory.
“Well I seem to remember that there was an advertising billboard about where the track went in off the road. The billboard’s no longer there though so the track will be harder to find. I’ll probably have to bring the daughter along to act as an interpreter. She speaks English and Thai fluently so I’ll get her to talk with some of the locals who live nearby. One of them might be able to show us where the cave is.”
“Okay, that’s sounds about as good a plan as any. If we can’t find the track we’ll never get to the cave. What’s it like inside?”
“The entrance is small but it opens up into larger internal chambers. There are also a lot of passages branching off the main passage. The monk I was with, the last time I went in, placed small candles as we went along. When we ran out of candles he used a thin line and when that ran out we turned back.”
“Okay, it looks as though I’ll need to bring one of my caving reels down with me to ensure we don’t get lost down one of those side passages. Have you got any other caves, or places of interest, we can have a look at?”
“Yeah, there’s the cave of the crystal Buddha, down at Prachuap, and we could also take a run up to the border. It’s the narrowest part of Thailand. You can still see the coastline from up there; it’s only 12 kilometers in a straight line. There’s also a refugee camp which sells all kinds of jungle products.”
“Yeah, stuff like semi-precious stones, orchids and wood furniture. They can only sell products which they can scavenge out of the jungle.”
“That sounds interesting. It looks as though we’ve got plenty to see and do, I’ll see you soon.”
At just on midday the train arrived at Hua Hin station and fifteen minutes later I was checking into the Subhamitra Hotel: +66 (0) 32 511208. As soon as I’d got myself settled in I called Jim and by 1 PM we sitting down, in the Hotel’s lobby, discussing what we were going to do over the next couple of days. Due to the fact that we only had the afternoon of the remaining day, at our disposal we decided to take a short run down the coast, on motorbikes, to have a look at Skull Mountain. Our destination was a approximately an hour south of Hua Hin and, after easy an ride along a beautiful stretch of coastal road, we were pulling up in front of a large karst headland at the southern end of Naresuan Beach. The official name for the extensive promontory, jutting out into the gulf of Thailand, is Khao Kalok. A quick recce, along the flanks, revealed sheer ascents on all visible cliff faces. In anticipation of the hard afternoons slog, we were about to embark on, a decision was made to fuel up on some sticky rice and barbecued chicken at one of the nearby beachside restaurants.
Delicious barbecued chicken
As we sat there chomping our way through the tasty Isaan food, Jim made the observation that we didn’t actually know where to go and that we may need to get a local guide to lead us up the mountain. We’d noticed an information kiosk just back down the road where we’d parked the bikes and, after getting our fill of barbecued chicken, made our way to the small wooden hut tucked in under a swathe of shade-providing trees. It turned out that Khao Kalok encompasses Thao Kosa Forrest Park and the information kiosk was also the park headquarters. After a few minutes spent negotiating the price of the guide (300 Baht for the afternoon) we were scrambling up a rough cliff side trail.
Jim leading the up through the narrow access to Skull Cave
The guide mentioned that there were five caves we could take a look at and, after poking our heads into a couple of mundane smaller caverns, he led us to “Skull Cave.” It was a bit of a slog, as we worked our way up some narrow passages, but eventually we were inside a large chamber and looking up at the formation that gives the location its nickname. The daylight, coming through the three naturally formed vents, gives the eerie effect of the eyes, and mouth, of a skull.
“It looks like the Phantom isn’t home,” I said to Jim, as I continued working the camera.
“Out chasing the bad guys no doubt,” he replied, as we both had a bit of a laugh.
“I’m going up a bit higher to get some closer shots,” I said, as I began moving towards a vertical rock face below the skull.
A few minutes later I was standing on a small plateau, roughly ten meters above Jim and the guide, and getting a closer look at the “skull.” It certainly had an eerie effect; with the light coming through the vents, and the way in which the rock bulged out from the cave walls, giving the formation an almost sinister appearance. After banging off a few more shots I rejoined the others, on the cave floor, and we continued our forage around the cliff faces. After crawling into another couple of small chambers the guide asked us if we wanted to continue on the track up, and over, the mountain. After ascertaining that it was actually triple the distance, we’d already come, we turned around and retraced our steps back to the park headquarters.
The narrow entry passage into Skull cave
Just inside the entrance to skull cave
A close up of the “skull” formation
Roughly 20 minutes later we were back down at the park office. Jim had already mentioned something about another cave, somewhere on the promontory, which lead down to the sea and he was keen to follow it up.
“There was an old lady I met, a few years ago, who worked here as a guide for 20 years. She was the mother of a builder I employed to do some work for me and she mentioned something about a cave that lead down to the sea, somewhere on this rock. We’ve still got plenty of daylight left so I’m going see if these guys have any idea where it might be,” said Jim, as he beckoned the guide over for a chat.
A few minutes later we had our answer; he had no idea about a cave that led down to the sea. He did, however, suggest that we go to the temple, a bit further down the road, and talk to one of the monks. After a short hop on the bikes we were pulling into the parking area, of the temple complex and, as luck would have it, came across a resident monk almost immediately. After a fairly convoluted conversation it was ascertained that he knew of no cave leading down to the sea but he did know of another large cave with thousands of resident bats; called, appropriately enough, the bat cave. We were keen to have a look and asked if we could be provided with a guide. The monk called over one of the young initiates and, after grabbing ourselves a couple of bottles of cold water, we were being led up a rugged cliff face track. We were told it was a 300 meter trek up to the entrance but, once again, were soon to find that the locals distance estimation was seriously over-compensated. After a quick 75 meter climb, over some seriously jagged rocks, we were standing in front of the cave entrance.
There was a large opening in the cliff face which sloped down to a blacker cavern within. As we moved down the slope I was already picking up the tell tale scent of guano and remarked on how strong it was. Jim commented that there must be a large number of bats inside for the stench to be so strong. The path down leveled out and, in front of us, there was a small entry hole. We stopped and got our lights sorted out as the monk lit up his candle. After checking that we were good to proceed on, the monk stepped through entry hole and descended into a deep pit which dropped, almost vertically, ten meters to the bottom. We stood back and watched our intrepid guide descend and, with our powerful lights illuminating the surrounding terrain, noted that almost everywhere was covered in loose guano. When the monk arrived at the bottom I banged off a shot and then Jim, and I, began working our way down to join him. As we got closer to the bottom of the pit the stench got stronger and, to make matters worse, virtually all the available hand holds, on the rock surfaces, were covered with loose bat shit.
“Jesus H. Christ, make sure you don’t touch your face anywhere. This stuff is loaded with bacteria,” said Jim, checking out his grubby mitts as we arrived at the pit bottom.
“Roger that,” I replied and noting my hands in a similar state.
We moved further into the cave system and, as we ascended up onto a central plateau, the squeaking of bats became louder. To our left, an incline rose roughly thirty meters up to a broad, flat area bathed in daylight coming through a couple of large vents in the cave roof. To our right, the cave descended down into a dark cavern which, judging by the sound emanating from within, was the nesting place for thousands of bats. The guide indicated as to go up the slope but Jim and I both shook our heads and started moving down towards the bat cavern. As we got closer the loose guano was piled high and the stench became even more extreme. We shone our lights towards the dome ceiling, some thirty meters above, and watched the agitated bats swarming in the sudden shock of brightness. The cave was the perfect set-up for the resident bat population; they had a secluded inner cavern – which remained pitch black even during daylight hours – connected to another voluminous chamber with large entry / exit points. With bat shit raining down from the stressed bats milling about, above us, it took me a while to get an in-focus shot due to the fact the minute particles were creating fog on the lens. After few minutes spent cleaning, and re-cleaning, I was able to get one focused shot before finally retreating to the outer perimeter of the bat cavern. After another few minutes spent scrambling up, and down, the incline leading to the cave roof skylights we finally decided we’d had enough of the guano stench and beat a hasty retreat to the cave exit. We were drenched in sweat and smeared in guano but it had been worth it; there were more bats in the cave than I’d seen in any other previously. Our young guide found a half full bottle of water and indicated we should wash our hands before working our way back down the cliff face.
Our young guide; ten meters down in a pit of guano (bat poo)
Our guide leading the way with one candle power
Looking down from the top of the incline towards dark inner world of the bat cave
Thousands of bats in the belfry
15 minutes later we were back down at the temple compound. I tipped our intrepid young guide and we then made a bee line for the nearest shop with ice cold drinks. As we sat in the shade imbibing a soda, and recounting a satisfying afternoon's exploits, a transsexual at a table a few feet away sat there silently putting on its make up. I could only marvel at how bizarre this place is sometimes; at every turn there’s something unique and unusual to see. We finished our drinks and, with the late afternoon sun heading towards the horizon, we took in the refreshing breeze as we rode back along the coastline towards Hua Hin.
We arrived back in Hua Hin at around 6.00 PM and, after a well earned shower and a change of attire, I was sitting at Jim’s restaurant discussing our plans for the following day.
“I think it might be a good idea to hire a car for tomorrow. There’s quite a bit of ground to cover and if we want to do it all in one day, the bikes will be too much of a slog,” said Jim, as a matter of fact.
“Well, I wouldn’t fancy a long day’s ride out in that heat,” I replied, looking at my sun burnt arms.
“Yeah, well the sun’s something you don’t see much of up there in Bangkok,” said Jim, with a bit of a cynical snigger.
“Yeah, blue sky is something we’re not used to up there,” I said, nodding in agreement with his assessment of the environmental atmosphere in the City of Angels.