Waking early at Lisu Lodge, I walked out into cool morning air and subdued light as mists covered the valley. It was a moment of stillness interrupted only by the barking of dogs and my hand scratching at my legs. Those sandflies, geez.
We ate platefuls of crepes for breakfast then set off on our way. We were headed back to Lod Cave, this time to explore its interior. We stopped off in Sop Pong on the way, taking a quick look around the Tuesday morning market where you can buy anything from fresh ingredients to prepared meals; cosmetics and toiletries; all manner of clothing from winter coats to lingerie; hardware and tools from allen keys to machetes. We picked up two flashlights and called it a day.
Arriving at Lod Cave a short time later we handed over 450 Baht to pay for a bamboo raft to transport us along the river through the cave system, and a local Lantern Guide who would show us the way. The guides come from the local villages and may or may not speak any english. Ours knew enough to point out various rock formations and to tell us where to watch our head, but that was it. They aren’t there to give guided informational tours, but rather to light the way in the dark cave system and make sure you don’t get lost, never to be seen again.
Our guide walked us towards the cave entrance then stopped and lit her lantern as we approached it gaping maw.
We entered the cave, walking over bamboo bridges and being careful not to slip in the muddy earth. A river ran through the cave, it’s roof 50metres high above us in the darkness.
We floated on narrow bamboo rafts through the darkness, listening to bats and stopping to get off and explore caverns along the way. We marvelled at ancient stalagmites, stalactites and columns that reached from floor to ceiling.
Reached by climbing high up a steep staircase, one of these caves is a Spirit Cave. Over one and a half to two thousand years ago an ancient civilisation buried it’s dead in massive teak coffins in the limestone caves of Northern Thailand. Not much is known about these people or their burial rituals, but Lod Cave was one such burial site, and an empty teak coffin remains to this day. Access is easy now with wooden staircases built, but it is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to manoeuvre the heavy coffins into these chambers all those millennia ago.
We visited the final cavern, home to the bats and swifts we’d see the day before and the smell was almost overpowering. Not a place to linger, that’s for sure. We descended to the river and our guide directed us back onto the raft for a return float up the river. Getting busier now the boats had to squeeze past each other, the locals in charge shouting at each other as they pushed their rafts against the current with their poles.
The cave was really cool to explore and we all enjoyed it, especially the kids. We’d been worried it would be quite twee and touristy, and we’d heard stories of people being rushed through by their guides. We were lucky, it was pretty quiet when we arrived and we only really saw a significant number of other tourists as we were leaving. We’d been told to visit before midday when the tour groups from Pai arrive, and it was good advice. Our guide wasn’t exactly chatty but we never felt rushed and she gave us a free return boat ride back on the bamboo raft instead of us having to walk back through the jungle like we did the night before when we’d seen the Swifts coming in to roost. Maybe she just thought we’d paid for it (an extra 100 Baht gets you a return raft ride), but I like to think she took pity on little legs and gave us a lift back out of kindness. We said goodbye to our guide and then got back on the road. Our destination: The eponymous Mae Hong Son.
As we got back on our bikes my bug-bitten legs were feeling hot and tight and uncomfortable. I pulled up my trousers to see the bites were red and swollen with blisters forming over them. So yeah, sandfly bites are a lot worse than mosquito bites, and also really gross. We figured I should get my legs elevated so we made our way to Mae Hong Son without further ado, stopping just once at a viewpoint along the way.
We arrived in Mae Hong Son mid afternoon and after finding a place to stay for the night I headed out to a pharmacy to pick up some medical supplies for my legs. Back in the room, antihistamines taken and legs now covered in 16 iodine soaked plasters, I lay on the bed with my leg elevated while Alex and the kids chilled. Feeling a bit bitter an hour or so later we made our way a few hundred meters down to the lakeside where a night market set up. We ate phad thai and watched two girls laugh as they paddled past in a swan-shaped paddle-boat as the lights of a nearby wat twinkled in the night and danced on the water.
We liked Mae Hong Son. It had a charm to it, and we are always suckers for a good night market around a lake. It felt a quiet place, and I found peace watching the empty streets at night from our room’s tiny balcony. There is something I’ve always enjoyed about deserted urban spaces, especially under the sodium light of street lamps.