We had successfully completed our first day in the Thailand’s Koa Sok National Park. An hour ride by long boat is the only way to get to our lodging, a raft house on Cheow Lan Lake. This place is known for its towering limestone formations that soar hundreds of feet above the water. It is also home to an ancient 160-million-year-old forest ecosystem that is older than the Amazon rainforest. Short excursions by long boat reveal some of the wild residents of this area. We see three species of hornbills, brightly colored, long-beaked birds that inhabit Southeast Asia. While sitting in the long boat looking at eagles, I spot a Great Hornbill nearly four-foot long flying toward us 100 feet in the air. Once overhead, we hear the rhythmic, slow motion whoosh-whoosh of his wide wings. The evocative sound is as clear as if the bird was cruising next to the boat. Everyone aboard, including the guide and boatman, are in awe.
There are other encounters of the wild kind. Black and blue butterflies the size of small pancakes flutter in groups at water’s edge. A speedy, tan-spotted horned lizard nabs a lime green grasshopper and devours it. A Crested Serpent Eagle in all of its majestic glory perches on top of a bare tree as our boat drifts below the raptor. Our guide, You, tells about other Koa Sok residents like the barking deer, gibbons (apes which we spot often frolicking high in the trees) and the clouded leopard.
“We also have black panthers here,” claims You. “One day I got lucky and saw one laying on a branch of a tree. I could have grabbed its tail it was so close. He took one look at me and dashed away.”
On Day Two we board another long boat. This one is skippered by a guy name Lek. That word means leak in Dutch. I am skeptical since we are about to travel an hour by water. Lek sports a large black cowboy hat and a T-shirt that boldly proclaims, West Coast Boy Watcher’s Association. I christen the boatman Cowboy Captain and go on to explain to him what his t-shirt says in English. Lek looks down to the writing and just laughs. “I can speak some English but not read well,” confesses Cowboy Captain. “I chose this one because I liked the colors.” Our guide, You, kids Lek relentlessly about the T-shirt. And with that, we are off. The roar of the long boat’s massive diesel truck engine takes over and all aboard drift into their individual dream worlds. Our destination? The Indiana Jones Cave.
The actual name of the grotto is Tham-nam Thalu. Cowboy Captain navigates the long boat up a narrow channel to get to the trailhead. With the boat’s enormous length and no reverse on the engine, I wonder how we will ever get out. No worries now. The immediate challenge is the trail ahead. We have been warned to wear water shoes. All of our gear for the day is stowed in dry bags. You tells us that we will traverse a river dozens of times by the time we get to the cave. And so it goes.
We arrive at the entrance of Tham-nam Thalu an hour later. Neither You nor Cowboy Captain explain to us what is ahead. They assume that an adventurous surprise is probably what we really want. Ignorance is bliss as we don headlamps and plunge into the darkness. The floor of the cave is the same stream that we crossed multiple times on the hike. The water is cool and its noise amplified as it bounces off the walls of the cave. There are crystal formations along the way that gleam in our lights. We see hundreds of bats above clinging upside down to the cave’s ceiling. They are not appreciative of our illuminated intrusion.
After a 15-minute slog, the floor of the cavern begins to descend steeply. The walls close in and both hands and feet are needed to scale down the slippery surface. The noise of the water increases making conversation difficult. And then there are the bugs. They swarm to my light in a cloud so thick that I have to close my lids to mere slits to avoid them landing on my eyes. I can barely see. Occasionally, I turn off my lamp and try to negotiate with the light from the others. This gives me temporary relief from the insects, but I can only do this for so long. With my light back on, the bugs immediately swarm around my face. Are we having fun yet?
As we venture downward, the insects finally relent. A cool and sudden temperature change forces the bugs to flee. But the ‘trail’ now has turned into a narrow slot canyon reminiscent of Utah’s canyonlands. The noise of the stream is now thundering. At one point, we have to chimney down 20 feet and into the water below. The stream is deep here and my feet find no bottom. The current pushes me along and I have to duck my head in spots to avoid hitting rock formations hanging down. It is the kind of place at which Indiana Jones would start grimacing just as the bad guys gain in a close pursuit. Me? I’m just wondering how the hell we are going to get back out of this cave against the current.
The water becomes shallow again and the terrain flattens out somewhat. I peer ahead and actually see daylight. Once my eyes adjust, I can see lush jungle vegetation outside. My internal light bulb clicks on. I realize that Tham-nam Thalu has multiple entrances. We entered hundreds of feet above and spiraled down Inner Earth to this lower opening. I’m relieved to know that for us today, this is a one-way street.
Once out of the cave our guide, You, tells us about what happened here 5 years ago. The eight foreign tourists were trekking with two local guides when heavy rain started in the afternoon. That caused the stream inside Tham-nam Thalu to rise suddenly. It became a flash flood, a wall of water that rushed through at blistering speed. The cavern quickly filled with water. The sole survivor was 21-year-old British woman, Helena Carroll, who had climbed upward to a rock shelf just in time. She was rescued from the cave the next day, ending a 20-hour nightmare.
With the tale complete, I look up to the forest canopy and toward threatening, gray skies. Thunder rumbles overhead as if on cue. We quickly head down the trail and back to the long boat. No one says a word as the rain begins to fall. It is time to start chillin’ at Cheow Lan.