sign in a cave in Laos

19 August 2008

Treasures of Trang - Star

Saturday, March 22, 2003
Treasures of Trang

By Liz Price

The gooey mud was sucking at my shoes in a determined attempt to drag them from my feet. I tried another couple of steps but it was a real battle against the tenacious hold of the mud.

I could see the sandal straps straining and likely to part company from the sole. The only option was to remove my footwear and continue barefoot. For the first couple of steps, it was an odd sensation as cold, clammy mud oozed between my toes and slid over my foot as I squelched forward. But I soon got used to the feeling and realised I had a better grip in the mud, though I needed to be careful not to stub my toes on stones and rocks. And to think I was paying for the pleasure of this!

The setting – a show cave in Trang province, Thailand. My friends and I had driven from KL to southern Thailand for a long weekend of adventure, both caving and culinary. That was how we found ourselves in the mud at Tham Lae, also known as Tham Khaokob.

We’d seen some signs for the cave on the main road and decided to investigate. Ahead of us lay a small limestone hill surrounded by a canal. We discovered that to rent an eight-seater boat was only 200 Baht, less than RM20. So with two guides we paddled off into the gloom, or should I say they paddled whilst we relaxed to enjoy the ride.

The cave was lit by electric lights. The darkness dispelled, we beheld how impressive the chambers, some packed with stalagmite formations, were.

The most notable were the long straws, as you rarely find these in Malaysian caves. At various sections we got out of the boat to walk around the chambers, and that was how we found ourselves squelching through the sticky mud.

Having seen some reasonably large chambers, we headed for a low series of narrow passages. We had to lie almost flat in the boat to avoid banging our heads on the roof. I wouldn’t like to be in this section during the rainy season as the cave would obviously flood to the roof. The whole trip lasted an hour and was a great experience.

After this experience, we were feeling peckish and so headed off to look for lunch. A couple of us were fans of tom yam, so every lunch and dinner we would order a bowl to try out the different tastes. They were all good. Authentic Thai food is so good, and also cheap. We invariably stopped at small roadside eating places, choosing ones well away from tourist areas. Sometimes ordering was a slight problem as my Thai is limited to a few words such as rice, chicken, etc, so the easiest option is just to point or self-serve.

We visited various other caves, mostly multi-level Buddhist temples. I lost count of the number of steps we climbed to reach the upper chambers with their shrines and Buddhas. But the views over the surrounding plains invariably made up for the effort.

One such cave is Tham Khao Pina, discovered by one Ni Pha Ya – a statue of him is in the cave. The remains of an old Dodge car outside commemorates the first car to reach the cave.

Trang is famous for its coffee and the coffeeshops are easily identified by the charcoal-fired aluminium boilers with stubby smokestacks. These shops are usually run by Hokkiens.

Trang province is also known for a particular cake, similar to a sponge cake (their white boxes only have Thai writing so I have never discovered the name of these cakes). But they tasted good.

Apart from food, the province is known for Panan mats, used as bridal gifts in rural Trang, made from pandanus leaves.

One of Trang’s claims to fame is that it often wins the award for “cleanest city in Thailand”. However its main attractions are the beaches, islands, waterfalls and caves.

An odd aspect of the city is the seeming lack of Buddhist temples normally found in Thai towns. The central business district of Trang is inhabited predominantly by Chinese, so there are a few joss houses.

During the seventh to 12th centuries, Trang was an important port for ocean-going sampans sailing to the Straits of Malacca. Today, Trang is an important point of exit for rubber from the province’s many plantations.

We spent a day driving along the coast, stopping at interesting places. One of these was Hat Jao Mai National Park. The park is rich in evergreen, mangrove and beach forests and is a haven for wildlife. Dugongs can sometimes be spotted, as well as sea otters, langurs, pangolins and birds.

As we walked towards some limestone caves on the headland, we were surrounded by macaques. They were eyeing our bags, hoping we had food for them. We didn’t and some monkeys got quite aggressive, trying to intimidate us as they made a grab for our bags.

Lunch was at the main beach resort of Pak Meng. We dined from the stalls selling all kinds of tasty tidbits along the roadside.

The following day, we did a boat trip to Ko Muk. This island is south of Pak Meng and has a high central peak. As we approached, we passed a knob of rock about 10m high on top of which was perched a small bamboo hut. It reminded me of the bobble on a hat. I’m not sure if it was a house or just a fishermen’s shelter.

At Ko Muk, we moored outside Tham Morakhot or Emerald Cave. The only way into the cave was to swim, and as I headed into the ever-increasing gloom I could hear a strange noise like a groan . . . It was really eerie and I was a bit perturbed as the noise grew louder and the cave got darker; my imagination conjured up all kinds of ghostly beings. My companions were all walking behind me so I had no one to seek solace from.

The cave tunnel did a dogleg turn, and as I came round the bend, I realised with great relief that the noise was actually caused by water slapping against the rock, the sound being distorted in the enclosed space. Around the bend, I could see daylight from the entrance ahead and quickly swam towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

I emerged onto a sandy beach. It was beautiful. A small beach and patch of trees encircled by towering limestone cliffs. There was no way out except through the cave, or over the sheer cliffs, negotiable only by monkeys.

There are some scenic waterfalls in the Trang area but we did not have a chance to visit them as we were occupied with visiting caves. We headed back towards Satun and the border. The whole stretch of coastline has limestone islands, which go right down to Langkawi, being part of the same geological chain.

The attractiveness of Trang province – apart from its natural beauty – is that it is less touristy than many other parts of Thailand.

It is very easy to travel around by car, and find good and cheap accommodation and food. And tourist attractions are generally signposted on the roadside, so quite often we’d see a sign to some attraction and investigate.

The only drawback was that we were only there for a long weekend and didn’t really have enough time to do it justice. I will be back!

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