sign in a cave in Laos

19 August 2008

Thale Ban caving - Star

Caving in Thale Ban

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Story and Picture by Liz Price

Wot, wot, wot was the dominant sound each evening and it lasted until dawn when it was replaced by wa wa. I was in Thale Ban National Park in Thailand and these were the sounds made by the local inhabitants – hundreds of frogs living in the lake. Unable to find the real name of the frogs, we soon called them the wot wot frogs, and they provided much amusement each night. I imagined long ago someone had asked them a question and they misheard and said “what”, and this remained the extent of their vocabulary. Each morning at dawn, the gibbons could be heard calling out to each other on the distant hill range. It was a very pleasant sound, the wa wa would reach a crescendo then die away until another gibbon took up the call.

Thale Ban in the Satun province is the southern most park in Thailand – the headquarters, a mere couple of kilometres from Malaysia’s Wang Kelian border post in Perlis. In fact, the Perlis State Park complements Thailand’s Thale Ban National Park and forms a transboundary park. The main geological feature of the Perlis Park is the Nakawan range of limestone hills which run northwards from Kuala Perlis across the border into Thailand. These hills in Perlis are riddled with caves, so it is logical to assume that the caves would continue in Thailand. I went to investigate with a caving friend from Perlis, and a caver from England who had flown out for a holiday cum caving trip.

The Thale Ban Park with limestone mountains.

We checked in at the park headquarters. As we walked alongside the 32ha lake to our bungalow, the wot wot frogs greeted us in a noisy chorus. Our rooms were situated right by the lake, with the limestone mountains forming a backdrop. It was a scenic backdrop. Thale Ban is a lush tropical park, carpeted with a remarkable semi-evergreen rainforest, which features flora and fauna more indigenous to Malaysia and Sumatra. Few people come to Thale Ban for caving – most people are here for birding. Over 200 species of birds inhabit the park, including the peregrine falcon, hawks, and hornbills. Interesting animals such as the mousedeer, white-handed gibbons, and dusky leaf monkeys are sighted regularly.

The park’s headquarters is located in a valley floor between limestone and granite mountains. From this beautiful spot, there are several trails leading to the park’s major scenic places. There are also two impressive waterfalls, and on the southern edge is a mangrove forest. And of course, there are caves.

We were looking for caves.

The best known cave is Tham Ton Din, a 400m long river cave, just across the road from Park HQ. I had explored this cave on a previous visit, and although it is a very pleasant cave, we didn’t go in this time, as we were looking for new caves. Many people in southern Thailand speak Bahasa Malaysia as they are from Malay stock, so it is quite easy to communicate. However, in the park it was different, as most of the staff only spoke Thai. We managed to meet up with one ranger who could speak Bahasa Malaysia and explained that we needed transport to look for caves.

That same afternoon we set off in a truck for a Ranger Station in another part of the park. We were joined by a couple of Field Force guys who came along to escort us, one had a HK automatic rifle, the other had a gun in his shoulder bag. As we climbed up a slippery hill slope, I was a bit perturbed to see the guy with the rifle, who was immediately behind me, using the rifle as a walking stick. I just hoped that the safety catch was firmly in place.

We found one small cave which was so short that it hardly qualified as a true cave. But we had an eventful time exploring it. There was a hornets’ nest in the narrow entrance, which we gingerly passed to enter the cave. As we dropped down into the stream, we saw a toad with one bare femur bone – all the flesh had disappeared. Ugh. After about eight metres, the cave ended in a sump, a place where the water meets the roof. On the way out, I accidentally disturbed the hornets and got stung several times. Outside the cave, Ronn slipped and bruised his leg very badly. We named the cave “Broken Leg Cave” after the toad and Ronn’s legs.

That night we went into Satun for dinner. As we were sitting having a beer, the landlady who is a nurse came out with some ointment for Ronn’s leg. We thought it was some special remedy, sticky and minty, but it turned out to be aloe vera toothpaste!

The next day the truck we had arranged for didn’t appear. We sat around and waited, and whilst wondering what to do, we were suddenly offered a lift on a truck packed with boy scouts. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, we eagerly climbed aboard, and were soon speeding down the road, hanging on for dear life. After visiting a school, we were dropped off along the roadside, and found an old man who escorted us through the rubber plantation to a cave.

Negotiating obstacles to reach the caves.

The cave was another short one, but entailed swimming through it. We emerged dripping wet, then walked back to the road and flagged down a passing pickup truck. We were able to hire the vehicle to take us around to other sites. Although we found no more caves that day, we did visit a couple of waterfalls. There are two falls which are tourist attractions, the Don Bliew and the Yaroy falls. The former is the most beautiful fall in the Park, about 10km from Park HQ, and has a good year round of water supply. The Yaroy waterfall is a series of five drops, again signposted from the road. We also went to a hot spring which we smelt long before we saw it as the stench of sulphur permeated the air from afar.

The next day we went up to Wang Prah meadows to look for caves. I found the name intriguing as it conjured up an area of meadows filled with wild flowers. Sadly, when we visited, there were no flowers, it was just grassland. It is actually a large area of redundant rice fields which is slowly reforesting. It is supposedly a good place for bird watching.

During our stay, we found a few caves, but none as big or spectacular as those in Perlis. It is strange that although it is the same hill range, the caves seem to stop at the border. Obviously the man-made border didn’t exist when the caves were formed. The caves are some of the oldest in Malaysia, made of 400-million-year- old limestone, so I wonder why the caves didn’t really develop on the Thai side. It is a geological mystery of Mother Nature. E

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