sign in a cave in Laos

19 August 2008

Canoeing around Krabi - Star

Saturday, September 14, 2002
Canoeing around Krabi

Story and pictures by LIZ PRICE

Drab wooden long-tailed boats nestle side by side with brightly coloured plastic kayaks. Traditional livelihood versus modern entrepreneurship. Fishing has been a time-honoured way of livelihood for the locals, but now sea canoeing or kayaking has become big business in Krabi, off the southwest coast of Thailand. You can canoe through a mountain, explore mangrove forests, or paddle out to an island. The choi-ces are numerous, catering for all abilities and budgets. You can paddle alone, or join a tour for one day or longer. The scenery is stunning, whichever destination you pick, as this area is renown for its beauty, majestic limestone islands rising out of the blue seas, hills dripping with stalactites standing proud above the plains, and mangroves. Many of these hills are riddled with caves, and what better way to explore them than by canoe.

Imagine paddling through a dark cave, the only sounds are the lapping of water against the rocks, the gentle splash as paddles dip into the water, and maybe the twitter of bats roosting in the roof. The scene is ethereal, aeons-old stalactites hang down from the roof and stalagmites rise from the floor to meet them. Light filters in from the entrance silhouetting the palms and ferns growing on the cliff face outside. It is so peaceful.

Various operators work from Krabi and Phang Nga. Phang Nga is a tourist town, 90km from Krabi by road. I opt for SeaCanoe International, as they are the original operators and one of the most highly awarded Ecotourism companies in the past five years. The founder is an Australian, John Gray.

Our day starts in Krabi, when a long-tailed songthaew picks up the group of 10 from their respective hotels. We are driven to Ao Luk about 40km north of Krabi, which is the jumping off point for Than Bokkhorani National Park. The main attraction of this park is its waterfalls and flora, but we are here for the riverine part, the ancient caves, the petroglyphs (cave paintings) and the mangroves.

We stop at Bo Tho Pier where we see colourful canoes lined up along the riverbank. Whilst we have some snacks and are given dry bags to protect our cameras, etc, the staff prepare the boats. We are given a brief lesson in paddling, and then we squelch through the mud to our canoes –– either a single or a double canoe. These sit-on-top sea kayaks are easy to paddle and experience is not necessary. We strap our water bottles in place, put on sun cream and set off.

From the jetty, we paddle out to the mangroves, past a floating oyster and mussel farm. Ahead of us, small limestone hills protrude out of the water. I find myself frequently stopping to take photos.

Our first cave is actually a short tunnel through a small hill, Tham Lod, or Through Cave. As we leave the cave, a troop of langurs swing through the trees on the cliff above us. “More tourists,” they seem to be saying to themselves. A couple of other kayak companies operate in this area, so we are not the only visitors that day.

We paddle on peacefully while the guides keep an eye out for any other fauna around. We spy a monitor lizard which soon slides into the water as we approach. Mud skippers and fiddler crabs are prevalent along the waters edge. High above are sea eagles and other raptors circling around –– quite a common sight along this coastline. My main interest is to see the ancient petroglyphs at Tham Phi Hua To. As we approach the jetty, there are already several other canoes and long-tailed boats moored. .

Concrete steps lead up to the cave entrance, the steps were built in 2525, i.e. 20 years earlier. The Thais have their own calendar, which is about 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. Tham Phi Hua To is also known as Tham Hua Kalok or Big Headed Monster Cave. A big- headed ghost reputedly lived in the cave. The cave is basically two large chambers, and the monster can be seen on one of the walls. It is a petroglyph, one of several ancient paintings found on the walls. They have been dated at 2000 or even 3000 years old, which would make them older than the paintings at Gua Tambun in Perak.

There are various pictures portraying animals and humans, and even an alien with a triangular head. I see a shaman, a fish, a dugong, a shark and a crocodile, a couple of people, and hands. There are two hands, one of which has six fingers. I don’t know if the artist made a mistake or whether he was symbolising someone with an extra digit. The paintings are red and black in colour, the red comes from the bark of a tree and the black from squid ink.

The cave chambers go through a hill and let in enough daylight to make a torch unnecessary. However, a torch comes in handy for seeing some of the paintings hidden in alcoves. From the back entrance, there is a good view over the mangroves to the coast, with lots of limestone hills jutting up. There are lots of shells littering the floor of the cave, probably left over by ancient cavemen picnicking there!

It is hard work paddling back to the jetty for lunch, as we are paddling against the wind and the river has become quite choppy. However, the food is worth the effort — fresh seafood, Thai curries and soups, followed by platefuls of fresh fruit. It is tempting to overeat, but we have to make sure we can paddle for the afternoon session.

This time, we paddle upriver to the next cave, again called Tham Lod. Every other cave in Thailand has this name, which is about as imaginative as Dark Cave or Bat Cave! But unlike the earlier Tham Lod, this one is dark, due to a bend which prevents daylight from penetrating. We come out into a beautiful wang or hidden valley. It is circular and surrounded by high cliffs. I notice some ancient cycads high above, these are primitive palm-like plants, a relict from the Jurassic era. During the age of the dinosaurs, the cycads were the most prevalent plants on Earth. One of the reasons why cycads have survived all this time is that they can grow in very harsh conditions, such as on dry rock faces. They can often be seen clinging to sheer limestone cliffs.

The only way back is through the cave. We spend the rest of the afternoon paddling through the mangroves and visiting other cave tunnels. On the drive back to Krabi, we drop by a beautiful stream near Thapom. The King and Queen recently visited the site, hence the plank walk leading to the pool. There is a beautiful clear stream which comes from a spring about 1km away. Mangrove roots which look like snakes, entwine along the banks. We jump into the water to wash off the sweat from the day, the water is really cold, but invigorating.

Sea canoeing is also very popular in Phuket. There are many accessible islands to explore and the coastline itself is stunning with sheer cliffs, dropping right down to sea level. The main feature of the islands is the hongs. These are deep open-roofed chasms with vertical sides, only accessible by paddling through the tunnels at low tide. Inside the hongs are giant mangroves, vegetation-covered walls, monkeys and other wildlife. It is like being in a lost world.

Gray was the first to introduce them to the tourist world. The locals, of course, have known about these sites for a long time, and have collected birds’ nests from within the caves. Ko Hong or Hong Island, off Phang Nga is one of the most visited islands, in the centre of which is a hidden lagoon.

The beauty of exploring the area by canoe is that you can go as part of a tour group, or just as an individual, depending on your preference. Many people just rent a canoe for a day and spend the time paddling around the coast exploring all the nooks and crannies. It is time well spent.

SeaCanoe International has offices in Krabi, Ao Nang and Phuket, and can be contacted at Their website is E

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