University of Bristol Spelæological Society

Thailand 2000 Trip

Personal accounts from Thailand:

UBSS Expedition to N. Thailand - Introduction by Sam Smith
River Cave & The French Connection
by Si Flower
Black Hole by Eddy Hill
Kids' Cave by Si Lee

The full account of the expedition may be found here.

UBSS Expedition to Northern Thailand

Team members: Eddy Hill, Nick Ireland, Andy Farrant, Simon Flower, Simon Lee, Dean Smart (Thailand), Sam Smith, Jon Telling

As we step into the 21st century, the chance to explore a frontier where humankind has never gone before becomes less and less likely. The chance to be the one to lay the first footprints in a never-before traveled passage is an intriguing and exciting proposition and this voyage into the unknown is the reason some of us yearn to explore. Or, maybe it was just a holiday?
For whatever reason individuals became part of the UBSS Expedition to Northern Thailand, the overall team purpose was to locate, explore and survey cave passage and then to share our findings with the caving world. We had heard of a 'cave and karst specialist' (Dean Smart) living in Thailand from a talk given by Simon Brooks at the 1999 Hidden Earth conference. We contacted Dean early on. We sought his advice on issues such as transportation, possible base camp locations, site access, local guides and he helped us acquire maps of the region. In addition, he put us in contact with an exploration team from the States who had caved in Northern Thailand in the early 1980's. Kindly, they offered to send us their unpublished surveys and some maps outlining their area of exploration. While waiting for the maps from Dean and the Americans, we had obtained a geological map in Bristol and had already become intrigued by a large karst plateau in the province of Chiang Mai. When we discovered that it remained to be explored (and that it was out of the National Park area, where access would have been difficult), we exchanged knowing looks and grinned like kiddies in a candy shop...we had found our starting point. (Note: our backup plan was to extend the US cavers' efforts in White Horse cave, where they turned back only because they ran out of rope).
We arrived in Bangkok on the 17 December 2000. We stayed there one night and then headed north, towards Chiang Mai. Our first base camp was a guesthouse/whorehouse in a small village called Ban Ai. From here, we drove our two rented jeeps on steep tracks meant to be footpaths and explored numerous pits promising to lead to cave passage. We hired a local guide, named Samkake, who was an interesting choice, as he didn't speak one word of English and our Thai is not even good enough to be appalling. Still, with unique hand gestures and the occasional grunts, we got by and Samkake proved to be a great help. He introduced us to the 'Bill and Ted' of the Thai jungle: Bum and Nong. These two characters could sniff out cave anywhere or, rather: Numerous attempts to explore large, going passage ended, time and time again, with the encounter of bad air. Feeling slightly frustrated, we decided to move our efforts to some tower karst, located south of Base Camp One.
Our second camp was a schoolhouse classroom in a small hilltribe village. Some might say this was experiencing 'real Thailand' - except that the local tongue was Lisu and few people even spoke Thai (i.e. they weren't of Thai origin). Despite the tribe appearing to be removed from the outside world, we soon learned they were HUGE supporters of Liverpool Football Club! The tribespeople were very generous (the children approached us with a mixture of intrigue and apprehension and then challenged us to some footy!) and two men offered to guide us to some holes in the ground. These were Snake Cave (bad air), Monkey Cave and Porcupine cave.
Our third camp was a guesthouse in Chiang Dao. From here, we attacked the tower karst area from even further south. It was here that we would find the jewels of our expedition: Bear Cave and River Cave (see Table 1 below).
This three-week expedition yielded the exploration of 20 caves and the survey of more than 2500 m of passage. Our total exploration area extended over 100 km2. We found that, in general, resurgences yield more cave passage than sinks, dolines are a waste of time (they seem to breed bad air), and caves with large vertical pitch entrances are SRT teases, but always seem to end in bad air as well (much to Farrant's dismay it meant we had to go horizontal).

English Name
(Thai Name)
God's Cave Led there by a monk! Tricky rifts, fun climbs, we were definitely not the first to lay footprints here (but we were the first to survey!).
Bat Bone Cave/Cave of Bad Breath Located in side of doline. HUGE entrance chamber, leading off in two directions. Floor coated with thick mound of organic debris. Bad air encountered at the top of a ladder pitch (passage going below.....argh!)
River Cave
(Tham Nam Huai)
Ladder climb into a stal-covered coach-sized passage; connected into previous efforts by the French. Located in side of escarpment. Over 800 m of surveyed passage
Black Hole Pit 55 m vertical entrance shaft (SRT), huge passage going at bottom. Bad air encountered at 30 m; unbreathable at 50 m. Tried to descend this one with a SCUBA tank - to no avail.
Rift Hole Four ladder pitches in rift, bad air
Cricket Pot Descent down a rift. Unstable floor. Passage choked.
Bear Cave A cave with everything (vertical bits, squeezes and crawls, pretties, phreatic tubes, huge chambers, etc., etc.)! Over 600 m of surveyed passage. Located in tower karst, 3 entrances found, more to find?
Spring Cave Doline. More like a cavern than a cave
Snake Cave Tower karst. Snake-shaped dissolutional feature in roof of entrance. Bad air found in a rift leading down, down, down....
Monkey Cave
(Tham Nong Khaem)
Tricky climb up tower karst to reach entrance; three-pitch cave (ladders); decorated with lots of old, crumbly stal. Dig going in bottom chamber.
Disappointment Pot 9 m pit in bottom of doline. Descended with a ladder. Bad air encountered at 8.5 m
Tham Nong Ladder climb down doline slope, huge entrance, wet in rainy season, lots of animal bones scattered on floor.
Trap Pot 7 m pit. No passage found at bottom.
Porcupine Cave Large entrance, passage going in two directions. 2 porcupine skeletons in passage to the left.
Bee Cliff Cave Temple cave (used as a site of worship by monks) - lots of Budhas inside!
'Cave 5' Large entrance shaft. 30 m pot. Good air!!!!! But, no passage.
Crystal Pot Walls covered in crystal. Lack of time prevented further exploration efforts.
Cricket Pitch Climb and 2 pitches to choke. In doline.
Coffin Cave had a coffin in it.
Kids' cave Led there by village kids who like to cave without lights or helmets! Picturesque.

Sam Smith

River Cave & The French Connection

It was about four in the morning. I'd been awake for about an hour or so and at last made the decision to get out of bed and made a beeline across the room for the toilet. A few minutes of hugging the sink culminated in me hurling copious volumes of vomit into it. The next few minutes were spent manually bailing said sick into the toilet after realising that the plug would not cope with such great volumes.
I returned to bed to find Nick awake.
"You OK Si?"
"Yeah, I feel a bit like that too."
A few minutes later, I could hear the hurried throwing back of sheets, and then a scampering of bare feet across the floor. This would be the first day of our little epidemic.
The next morning, the two cars set off as usual. Si, Jon and Sam were in one car, and the rest of us in the other; Ed driving, Andy shotgun, and Nick and I slumped in the back (concentrating on not feeling absolutely terrible). We were going out to visit a bowl of limestone towers with two purposes: to look at a big hole we'd seen high on the side of a tower, and to explore the place for other caves.
We parked up by some woods at the foot of the tower. Ed and Andy got out and started ascending into the trees. Nick and I wobbled slowly after, part of us thankful to be out of the heat, part of us protesting at the extra effort required of us. At one point we came to a miniature ravine straddled by a fallen log. "It's not so bad", Ed called back, "It just requires a bit of balance". "Balance?" came the horrified reply from behind me.
Quite a while was spent crashing around in the bamboo trying to locate the entrance through the trees. Progress was slowed considerably by inappropriate timing of bowel movements, but it was finally located at the foot of a 10m scramble. We all stood around for a while ?umming and ahhing? at it, but it was decided, when Ed found it too committing, to leave it for another day.
So a retreat was made for the car with a promise of return, and attention was centred on new discoveries. It was decided to go and get some local advice.
Whilst Andy and Ed lounged in the shade by the car, Nick and I wandered drunkenly over to some local woodcutters. Ten minutes of pointing at maps and muttering the slurred words of a very limited Thai vocabulary produced, eventually, a map to a destination that wasn't too clearly defined.
Unusually, their directions appeared to be absolutely right, and we were once more right up against the escarpment. We lightened to see that the track terminated by a river that seemingly ran straight out of the rock. We spent quite a while ferreting about at the foot of the escarpment looking for an obvious passage, but the ground was thick with mud and huge boulders, and none could be found. I eventually stumbled upon a small deep hole between one of these boulders and the rock face, and dashed back to the car for a ladder. Down inside I was greeted with an open space - a cave! By now we were quite used to finding promising looking cave only to find it ended after a short distance, so I had no great expectations. Nevertheless, I shouted up to Ed and Andy to follow me down, and wandered off into the space.
The cave opened out into reasonable dimensions, a sort of mini-chamber, which closed to a keyhole slot at the far end. The draft blowing out of this gap was strong enough to blow out the flame of a carbide lamp - the passage beyond seemed huge. I ran on whooping and yelling whilst the others battled with the ladder rungs, yelling back to a green looking Nick that the passage beyond was the size of a train tunnel.
And it was. It was about 10m wide by 7m high, and remained so for five hundred glorious metres. It was fantastically decorated, too - from flowstone walls and giant stal., to gour pools and crystalline formations. After two and a half weeks of finding mostly shite, we finally find this. Until we came round to surveying it, I completely forgot about feeling ill.
The unusual thing though, was that the cave just seemed to stop dead. It went for 500m+ without ever showing signs of closing down, then just came to a wall, with two great avens above it. There was still a draft coming in from somewhere, so we all split up to explore the various small leads off. Ed drew the short straw and found himself face down in a low watery inlet, while the rest of us negotiated minor climbs, but it was to no avail. We had to entertain the possibility that only the way on was at the top of the avens - unfortunate because we couldn't even see the top of them. We decided to leave it for the day and return afresh in the morning.
That evening, the position of the cave was plotted onto the map. The cave seemed to be the resurgence for a stream sink that a French group had found on the other side of the mountain. They'd mentioned in their report that a large seasonal streamway had sumped just 60m from the entrance. We decided to go and have a look at this the next day to see if there was away through, but the sump just turned out to be a mud choke. There did appear to be a way off at high level, but this was best left owing to the 15m overhanging bolt traverse required to gain it!
And so attention returned to the river cave. A brief amount of time was spent exploring side passages left from yesterday (adding another 70m of length to the cave), but efforts were to be concentrated at the avens. When I arrived, Ed was already busy back-and-footing up a narrow groove that flanked a 15m high stal bank. He had the look about him of a man who isn't too sure why he's in the position he's in, and was beginning to babble a bit. He soon reached the top though, and disappeared from sight. At about the same time, Nick was making light work of a delicate climb in the second aven, and was now also out of sight. There then followed a period of mass confusion as Nick tried to communicate with the group who were watching him, who were then relaying it to the group watching Ed, who were trying to listen to Ed, whose voice could be heard by Nick and the group listening to him. Both Nick and Ed then found pitches, which caused quite a lot more excitement, and the shouting intensified as both groups wanted to know what both climbers had found.
Both were describing a drop into a streamway, and suspicions were immediately aroused as to whether this was the French cave. Ed had not been to the French cave so couldn't tell, so I went up to see if I could recognise anything. At the top of the climb, a grovel up onto a boulder led to an eyehole that looked out into the big passage he was describing. This was definitely the French cave; we could even see daylight and trees if we leaned out far enough. Nick then appeared in the streamway, having just acquired a ladder, and wandered around for a while confirming our find.
This was my last day, and it was a perfect way to finish an expedition. We returned to the cars happy, to take group photos and ritually incinerate my clothes.

Si Flower

Black Hole

Day two of exploration and once more we (that is Jon, Sam, Nick and moi) set off in search of the object of our dreams and desires, that most elusive and immaterial of things, a hole in the ground to some and a cave to us.
Surely enough, after a flesh tearing trek through the velcro grass from hell, we found such a hole and promptly rigged a ladder to gain access to its base. No doubt from here we would be able to explore the system that inevitably lay hidden in the karst beneath us. I swiftly descended to the base, constantly looking for cracks in the rock that may lead into passages, only to find the pot not 9 metres deep, devoid of passage and lacking in that most ephemeral of substances, breathable air. Nick named it Disappointment Pot, for obvious reasons.
Later than same day, after lunch and a chat with a couple of farmers, we acquired the services of Mr. Nong and Mr. Bum (yep! you read right), to show us to a nearby cave. What cave? It didn't matter. All that mattered was that we had a new lead and this time we were sure it would go. With this in mind we jumped into the jeep and gave chase to the two farmers, as they rode through the jungle on the back of a moped, bearing the largest rifle any of us had ever seen. Soon we reached a clearing, unsure of our position or where we were going but these were minor details. We followed blindly through the vegetation and shortly arrived at what they called 'Tham' and we called a huge hole in the ground. While Jon and I had a better look at this beautiful pot, Sam and Nick went off with our guides in search of other possible caves. Finding a suitable tree, we rigged both ladders and Jon descended into the abyss. From the safety of the tree, I egged him on to descend faster (he'd been at the same spot for some time) to which he replied "I'm on the bottom rung and I can't see the end of the pitch". We were both quite excited and of course insisted on rigging it for SRT the next day. Meanwhile, Sam and Nick had found another three pots in close proximity to this one. Much to the amusement of our guides they'd been timing rocks thrown into the pots and found they took 6 to 7 seconds to reach an obstruction. It was obvious to us that all these pots must link up at depth and would provide us with a reasonably sized cave.
Day 3 and we were back at the mouth of the pot. Under advice from Dean Smart we rigged the rope with a Z-rig already in place, in case we encountered bad air. Jon won the toss of the coin and with it the prize of rigging the pitch and being the first one to the bottom. Due to the poor quality of the rock, it took ages to rig the first deviation and by the time he'd hammered the bolt in for the second one he was out of carbide and out of batteries. Bad for him but good for me since he had to abandon the cave and I got a chance to rig the rest and be the first one down. Without hesitation I passed the first deviation and descended to the second. As soon as I'd passed this, it became evident that no more rigging would be required. I could now see the bottom of the pot some 20 metres below me. Bearing in mind that I may still encounter bad air, I rappelled slowly. My breathing was laboured but I attributed this to nerves and excitement. About 5 metres beneath the deviation the pot suddenly opened up to 10 metres in diameter. This larger section was very decorated and the cave appeared red in coloration. The rock was still crumbly. To my right I could see a large terrace but it had no obvious ways on. I continued on my way down, now totally engrossed in my surroundings. Another 5 metres and the cave opened up once more. Now 20 metres in diameter and still heavily decorated with stal and flowstone. I could see the walls descending to the ground approximately 10 metres below. The boulder floor was covered with a scattering of vegetation and just to the left of my landing position a mound rose some 6 metres off the ground. Looking down I saw my feet couldn't be more than 2.5 metres from touchdown and then, I heard my carbide flutter once, twice, three times and it went out. I tried to re-ignite it but it didn't want to know. I switched on my back-up light and noticed my breathing was extremely rapid and I was having trouble catching my breath. I was in bad air, really bad air. I attempted a change over but my chest-strap was too loose. I decided to blow my whistle, to let Sam and Jon (on the surface) know I was in trouble. He immediately started to pull on the Z-rig, this had the fortunate effect of rocking the rope and swinging me close enough to the mound so that I could reach out and pull myself onto and then up its side, into an area of better air. A bit calmer and slowly catching my breath, I scanned the chamber. Straight ahead I could see a passage, 2 metres high by 3 wide, leading off and another possible passage, of similar dimensions, to my left. Shame they were in such bad air. The cave obviously went but where? We would never know. Three or four minutes elapsed and I realised that, although reasonable, the air at this level wasn't really all that good. I changed over and started up the rope. As I passed the second deviation I noticed the temperature drop markedly. I was told later that an increase in temperature is quite natural in high concentrations of CO2.
Later that evening we managed to borrow an air tank off Matt (an American cave diver) and decided we would have another go at the cave we later named Black Hole. That, however, is Jon's story and he can tell you all about it.
Overall Thailand was great and I would definitely recommend it for its scenery, beaches, cuisine and very friendly people. I found the caving in Chiang Mai province, with it's choked caves and bad air, disappointing and will not be making a return trip. I hear that other parts of Thailand do not suffer the same problems and Dean Smart is keen for people to go out again. He's even promised a 4-5 km system in Mae Hong Son, NE Thailand, so if you have nothing to do next Christmas........

Eddy Hill

Kids' Cave

It was another hot and sweaty Thai morning and, once again, time to head to the hills for another day of exploration. We had decided to target a stream in the hope there would be a sinkhole at the end of it for us to drop into, bringing kilometres of cave and spelaeological fame with it.
After relocating various innards and pushing them back towards where they should be we stopped the jeep at the edge of a tiny village located roughly in the middle of nowhere at an altitude of quite a bit. It was at the end of a muddy roller coaster overconfidently advertising itself as a road.
There are roughly 750,000 hill-tribe people remotely located throughout the length and breadth of Thailand, divided up amongst some 3,500 villages, and as the dust settled and we consulted the map, two of them stared at us with poker faces and shoots of sugar cane in their hands. They were curious yet a little wary, as five year olds are.
By the time Andy, Eddy, Si Flower and myself had donned gear and set off towards the stream, word had spread and ten or so children were around us trying on our hardhats and tackle bags.
Si decided to explore a little on his tod and the remaining three of us took the dry streambed. Following 90 minutes of scrambling, cursing, discovering a dearth of sinkholes and Eddy doing slapstick impersonations by stepping on dangerously balanced planks of wood that promptly leapt up and gave him a few days worth of black-eye, we gave up and returned to the jeep.
Not 10 minutes later and Si appeared over a nearby ridge, waving madly with a swarm of kids in tow who knew exactly where a cave was if only we'd bothered asking!!
The cave in question was a large, sloping-floor chamber with a few passages and rooms leading off from it. The decoration was well above par and included a couple of pristine white flows alongside pillars of stal.
As we finished the survey and headed out of the cave the late afternoon sun shot bold rays of light through the entrance, leaving long shadows trailing from the silhouettes of the children at the mouth of the entrance. Definitely a trip highlight and a lasting memory.

Si Lee

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