DAY 4 – November 7th. Exploring Phraya Nakhon Cave in Sam Roi Yot National Park

There was one place on the mainland that we definitely wanted to visit before heading down to the islands. Phraya Nakhon Cave is the reason that we’ve braved monsoon season on the east coast to come and stay near Pranburi, and after today’s experience we’re so pleased that we did. Phraya Nakhon is one of those images used over and over again by the Thai tourist board. It’s a huge collapsed cave buried in the side of one of the many limestone hills that dominate the landscape around here. Since the roof collapsed thousands of years ago, a small forest has grown up in the parts of the cave where the sunlight shines through. If nature made the cake, the Thai King put the cherry on top in the 19th century by having a pretty little temple built on a raised spot where the shafts of sunlight are the brightest. The result is one of the most breathtaking places that we’ve ever had the good fortune to visit.
First we had to get there, though. The most common way of making the journey from our resort is to pay for a boat to take you there by sea. One look at the ocean confirmed that this wouldn’t be possible – it was blowing a gale out there already, with thunderstorms predicted from 3pm onwards. We chose to hire a scooter and go by road to the national park entrance, where we’d have to hike 3-4km to get there. My only experience of driving a scooter was on our previous trip to Thailand last year, where we’d used one to buzz around the highways and byways of Pai. It’s fair to say that I’m not a natural – we spent most of our time trundling along in the gutter at 20kph whilst lorries and old lady scooter drivers flew past us. I’m also completely incapable of looking cool whilst using this method of transport – I have a big head, and I’m therefore usually lumbered with a helmet that resembles an upturned bucket, which tends to catch in the breeze and make me wobble if I try to look left or right. The journey to the park entrance got increasingly scenic as we got closer, with limestone cliffs rising up all around us as we drove through a basin full of paddy fields and swampland. We parked the scooter up in front of a cafe and entrusted the bloke who owned it with our helmets, on the understanding that we dined at his place upon our return.
The first part of the path climbed up and up along the edge of a cliff, offering increasingly spectacular vistas of the bay and the sea beyond. A few minutes into our journey Hollie screeched and leapt back, and I prepared myself as the alpha male that I am to do battle with a venomous snake. It wasn’t a snake, but it was a bloody big centipede – the biggest I’ve ever seen at about 30cm long. Just when we were starting to get knackered the path began to go down again, and we came out on the level to find ourselves walking through a grove of palm trees next to a beach. The respite was short-lived. The path began to climb again, steeper than it had before. We overtook couples who were pausing at the side of the path for a breather, only to be overtaken again when we got out of breath ourselves. We climbed a good 500 metres until we saw a gateway in the path, and quite unexpectedly we found ourselves in the first chamber of the cave.

AAAAARGH!!!

There were shrines to the Buddha balanced on rocks as we descended down rickety stone steps. The first cave contained a massive “dry waterfall” formed from the dripping of stalactites over the millenia. Since the roof of the cave collapsed the dripping has stopped, and consequently the falls are preserved in stone.

We continued downwards through darkness, travelling through a part of the cave which still had a roof, before coming out into a clearing filled with brilliant shafts of light that kaleidescoped down onto the pagoda roof of a temple. As we got closer to the light our necks craned higher and higher to look at the sheer walls of the cave, until finally we were able to see clear daylight through the tree-lined hole at the top. We recognised this as being Phra Nakhon from the photos, but no picture can do justice to the sheer scale of the cave.

We went into full-on tourist mode, staring at everything with our gobs wide open, before photographing the cave and temple from every angle. With it being out of season there were very few tourists around, and there was an eerie silence around the place, broken only by the calls of tropical birds in the forest above.

We left the cave after about an hour and began to walk back. We were completely alone on the path when we heard the snapping of branches in the forest canopy above.  We looked up to see a family of monkeys making their way across the top of the treeline.  My past experience with monekys have been mixed.  In Mumbai I had to leg it from a particularly savage looking primate that wanted to nick my water bottle. I’ve been woken by them bouncing on the corrugated roofs of buildings, and I’ve laughed as they’ve tried to bite overfamiliar Chinese tourists.  I’m happy to say that this particular enounter was an absolute privilege. We watched in Attenborough-esque awe as they swung gracefully from branch to branch with no interest in us whatsoever.  When we got to the bottom of the hill we saw a tourist information sign advising us of the presence of dusky langurs –  a shy and endangered species that are easily distinguishable from other primates due to the white rings around their eyes.


We were aware of the storm approaching that afternoon and didn’t fancy being blown sideways into a swamp whilst riding back on the scooter. With this in mind we bid the monkeys farewell and hiked quickly back to the park entrance, which was a lot easier having covered most of the uphills on the way to the cave.

We had pork in holy basil and tom kha kai soup in the ramshackle cafe that I’d parked up in front of, after which our helmets were returned. I can’t rave enough about holy basil by the way – it’s a hot, slightly bitter herb which grows around most parts of Asia. Stir-fried with chicken or pork and chilli it makes a stunning meal, with a sauce that tastes a bit like a spicy gravy. I’ve looked all round Asian food shops in Britain for it, but apart from dried leaves that fall to bits and go all gritty when you cook them, I’ve had no joy in locating anything like the real thing.
We managed to drive back to the hotel without being blown into a ditch, which was nice. The storm we were promised never really set in, and we enjoyed a few beers with a massaman curry in the evening in the hotel bar, which had filled up with a group of noisy teenage schoolkids. I overheard the teacher, who was English, negotiating with the hotel receptionist. He wanted to have the staff remove all the alcohol from the minibars in the rooms occupied by the schoolkids, which made me chuckle – no wonder they were all so rowdy.
Tomorrow we continue the journey down south towards the islands.

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15th February – Day 19

Song of the day: Kill All Hippies by Primal Scream
Ayup.

Today we hired a scooter again and took it for a spin in the hills that overlook Pai. First we stopped at a temple called Wat Hua Na. This was an unremarkable visit other than the fact that I was blessed by a Monk (I think). He was an old chap sat in the lotus position in the corner and I asked him if I could take a photo. I gave him twenty baht from his troubles and he asked me to kneel before him. He removed the lid from an ornamental jar and took out a stick of bamboo containing water. He began to utter various incantations before pouring water over my head and tapping me over each shoulder with the stick, as if I was being knighted. I didn’t really know how to thank him so I put my hands together and bowed to him as I’ve seen Thais do. As I walked off he began laughing heartily – the deep, contented laugh of a man on the path to enlightenment. Either that, or he was thinking “I’ve just poured water over this cretin’s head and he thinks it’s a special ceremony”.

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Unfinished monk-ey business

We continued a little further up the road and stopped at Santichon – known also as the Chinese village. Santichon is yet another example of the vast array of cultures and ethnicities that call Northern Thailand home. Initially, it looked just like a pretty collection of huts and koi carp ponds, built thriftily out of mud and straw, before being adorned with the usual golden effigies of dragons and Chinese animals that are so prevalent in oriental culture. It was puzzling because there was a much more modern-looking town built on the hillside, and we assumed that we had walked into some kind of touristy village. We had, but there’s more of a story to it than that.

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This village was built by Chinese refugees that escaped here through Myanmar after the communist revolution in 1949. It sounds like this community had lived up here on the hillside since then. In the nineties, the place developed a serious drug problem. The Thai army came in and raided the place several times, before placing restrictions on the movement of the people who live there. Just like the hilltribes, it seems as if the people here are struggling to be recognised as Thai citizens. Because the people of the town were not allowed to travel around and find work, they had to look inwards to earn their keep. They built the more oriental-looking village to celebrate Chinese culture and earn money from tourism. Hollie and me had a crack at some proper archery – an old lady handed us a lethal-looking bow and arrows to fire at targets. Not for the first time, Hollie showed me up by hitting the target whilst my arrows flirted all over the shop. The old lady was directly behind me knitting some children’s clothes, but I heard her shift uncomfortably in her seat every time I got ready to let one of my arrows fly.

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We got back on the bike and motored further up the mountain road. We whizzed past rural villages where skeletal cows and goats chewed at isolated cuds of dry grass. Past a shack advertising petrol for sale where an old man sat outside drinking from a grubby plastic container, leading us to speculate whether he was drinking his product. Cockerels, hens, chicks and ducks scuttled out into the road and tested our balance as we negotiated a path through them. We stopped for a short while at Mae Paeng waterfalls, but after finding it overun by hippies we cleared off back to Pai for dinner.
We’ve had mixed feelings on Pai. Everything that you see and hear about the place implies that it is some kind of hippy wonderland where the young and the groovy go to hang out with like-minded people. In a way it is – but that’s part of the problem – at least for us. Walking round the main streets of Pai you see people who seem to genuinely believe they’re at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. People who talk about organic lentils whilst wearing brightly-coloured, glorified potato sacks as clothes and farting out aromas of pure, unadulterated vegetable. I’ve never seen so many Jesus lookalikes wandering around the main streets with their tops off, digging chicks with braided hair and Thai dye t-shirts. It’s not that we don’t dig the whole hippy ideal – peace and love and all that, that’s right up my street – but you can’t help feeling that the whole thing feels a bit contrived. When we arrived on the Khao San road we knew immediately that what we were witnessing was cool and different to what we were used to, but still a bit naf. People that hang around Pai don’t seem to have that same self-awareness. What’s been created here isn’t authentically Thai, or in my opinion authentically anything. It’s a place of congregation for people who were too young to be at Woodstock, or people who were at Woodstock and still can’t let go of that dream.

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The valley in which Pai is situated is beautiful, and I can see how it became such a popular place for backpackers. I won’t deny that there’s amazing food available here, and it’s not unheard of to stumble upon a real gem of an acoustic troubadour playing for beer in some bamboo hut.
I wouldn’t advise people against coming, but if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, all I’d say is don’t take it too seriously. Up in the mountains road workers are widening the 1095 highway from Chiang Mai so that it can accomodate the larger tourist buses. You have to fancy that when the work is complete the levee will break and wash away any remnants of Pai as an “unspoilt” destination – all those hippies riding the crest of the current wave will have to choose whether to cling to the wreckage, or move on to the next valley in search of a new “Pairadise.”
Tomorrow we head back to Chiang Mai for a few nights before we move on towards Cambodia.
Have a niiiiice day!

Tommy and Hollie x