My time in Pai has been, well, interesting. Arriving here is like stepping back in time. Women with dreads, kombucha on tap, and an array of vibrant color packed stores. In a country known for its modesty, the rules don’t seem to apply here as westerners walk around in swimsuits, and oddly, the locals don’t look appalled. Probably because the only locals here are business owners. It’s as if I’ve entered California in the 70’s or maybe Colorado in present times. My hostel is across from the Woodstock Music Cafe and mushroom shakes seem to be within walking distance at any time. I feel as though I’ve time traveled, and the only thing keeping me grounded are the foreign accents and street signs in Thai.
Pai had not appeared on my original itinerary. It was a last minute change of plans when a friend (Neal) asked me if I wanted to join a cave trek. No one else had signed up, and if he didn’t find someone to join him, the trek would be canceled. On my original bucket list I had “sleep in a cave” written down, however, the cave would be closed when I’d be there due to monsoon season. Spending a day and eating lunch in a cave sounded like a good compromise.
Here’s what I knew about the trek ahead of time: To get to the cave, we would need to go through the jungle. It was a 7.5 mile trek that should take about 8 hours. The trek would take place in a cave where water might reach our knees. It was described as “a real adventure” and “not a tourist trap” like other caves. It would “blow our minds” and we would “see amazing rock formations.”
Here’s what I should have expected: a one hour jungle trek down a mountain. An eight hour trek through the 7.5 mile cave, followed by a 30 minute jungle trek up a mountain. Water would be so deep at some points that we would have to swim, and we would have to climb mountains of rocks up to 50 feet (estimated) and back down for about three to four of the eight hours in the cave. I can say, it was a “real adventure” and it definitely “blew our minds” but probably not in the way they meant. We did “see amazing rock formations” although I was too tired to appreciate them, and it definitely “wasn’t a tourist trap” as we were the only three people in the cave.
So what is it like spending eight hours in a cave? I would probably describe it as my own personal hell, but that might be over exaggerating just a tad. I’d like to make this clear… I NEVER want to do a cave trek again, and if I ever tell anyone different, slap me. When I think back on yesterday, I’ve already forgotten most of the details. I remember the highs and the lows, but the in between has faded away. The hour trek through the jungle was beautiful but hurt my feet as we constantly went down a steep dirt path. My weight pounded down on my toes and my knees took a beating. I felt like an old lady with joint pain.
It was clear as soon as we entered the cave that we were misled. The very first thing we did was hop into waist deep water. Unfortunately, I’d gotten a tattoo two days before between my shoulder blades and was instructed not to swim for a week. Realizing it wouldn’t hit my tattoo, we waded forward and entered into a huge cavern. It was absolutely stunning. The ceilings were so tall that the light from our headlamps couldn’t even reach. This was what we signed up for.
We began with an easy walk through knee deep water along the river that ran through the cave. The rocks we needed to climb started off easy. A few here and there which we could walk over with little effort. The closer we got to the center the steeper the rocks were piled.
About an hour or two in, Neal fell off the rocks. Luckily he was only 6 feet off the ground when he slipped, and he somehow miraculously landed on his back with all his limbs stretched in front of him. His daypack broke his fall, and although we were all a little shaken up, he was mostly unharmed. He’d bent back a finger nail which started bleeding, but no bones broke. After that it dawned on me that if you fell, there was no easy way to leave the cave. Sure, people could come get you, but there were areas where you would need to climb regardless of your injury.
Shortly after Neal’s fall, we were headed up a pile of boulders when suddenly I heard a noise. A noise no one ever wants to hear, especially when you have at least six hours of trekking ahead. It was the sound of my pants ripping. Right up the crotch. I looked at the damage and saw that it was minor but as I continued to ascend the rocks, the sounds kept resurfacing as the rip got bigger and bigger.
Finally, I reached the top and had to navigate my way around one rock without falling. The guide had to help ease me around, and all I could think was here I am in a very modest country with a guide from a very small town where women don’t even wear tank tops or shorts and I’m about one small rip away from flashing him. Victoria’s secret was a secret no more. Thank god I wore “modest” underwear. I continued down the other side of the rocks in a variation of elephant pants and chaps. Luckily, I was able to change into my backup pants which were meant for the ride home.
Hours were filled with going up and down, and up and down. Looking for grips, and placing our feet. Pulling up our weight and then descending the rocks once again. It was broken up by small walks in the river or along the bank and a couple of rest stops for water and a banana. We broke for lunch and were informed that we were almost halfway there. I had honestly thought we were almost done.
We ascended yet another pile of rocks. This one quite high. As we reached the top our guide, John, asked us to hold tight for a minute while he went ahead. After walking down several paths, he told us we couldn’t take the ones he wanted. We’d have to go another way. And then he pointed to the direction. I laughed because there was no way he was serious, but the laughter was followed by an immediate sense of absolute dread. My entire body felt like it was going to collapse. My breathing sped up, my heart pounded out of my chest, and my mind began to loose any sense of calm it ever possessed.
He was pointing to a cliff at about an 80 degree angle and a 40 foot drop. It was made of clay. No rocks to hold onto or step on. Just muddy, slippery, wet clay. But the best part was the jagged rocks at the bottom sticking out of the river. A soft landing in case we fell. I reached my body over and tried to slowly maneuver myself down the slop, half sliding, half digging my nails and toes into the clay. My body slipped and nothing was holding me up. I dug my fingers in and was paralyzed with fear. There was nowhere to go but forward, or in this case down, but I couldn’t move an inch.
The guide had already gone ahead of me, and I felt completely stranded as I hung on for life. I repeatedly said “oh my god, oh my god,” as I slowly started to lose my grip, and then I lost my composure and did the only thing I could. I cried. Not a silent, no one can tell cry, but a real snot dripping down my face, I’m gunna die here kind of cry. The guide came back, and I repeatedly told him I couldn’t do this. He said “no?” and thought about it. “No crying. If it no scary, it no adventure. It’s ok.”
He showed me where to put each foot and stayed beside me in case I slipped. He grabbed the handle of my backpack and pulled most of the weight off me so that I was able to move easier. I continued to say “oh my god,” like a broken record until John laughed and began saying, “oh my Buddha.” I couldn’t help but laugh too. As we got closer to Neal, he said, “In Australia, people pay hundreds of dollars to look at these rock formations from a little path like 50 feet away. You just fucking climbed over one!” Again, I laughed through the tears. Continuing to slide down the clay wall slowly, I finally reached the bottom. I’ve never been so happy in my life, until I saw the next place we had to climb.
The next hour or two was filled with constant climbing up and down steep slippery rocks and giant drops. We saw the caves “wildlife” which consisted of bats that liked to fly directly at your face and cockroaches. Yes, cockroaches because they’re the only animals that could survive these conditions. I managed to pull myself together until we hit another clay wall which resulted in another good cry.
Somewhere in the middle of all of that madness, we reached a section by the river that was flat. It was covered in clay/mud. The kind that sucked your shoes in like quick sand. I was just in the middle of saying “I hate this mud, I have awful balance” when suddenly, slip, slide, and boom I was laying flat on my back. I burst out laughing and Neal cracked up while pointing out the perfect timing of my previous statement. John peaked over the rocks ahead of us and joined in the laughter. As soon as I got myself up and pulled the chunks of mud off my back, I heard a sloshing sound behind me to see Neal flat on his back. Clearly karma for laughing at me.
I asked John if there were any more difficult areas. He said, “little more, then walk by river.” We reached the river and the mucky disgusting water felt like an oasis. I washed the grime off myself while remembering that I had actually paid to endure this. We waded through the water for an hour and a half. Sometimes it was knee deep and other times we swam. Any hope of keeping my tattoo clean went out the window hours ago. I was bringing up the rear, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was in some kind of adventure novel as the guys ahead of me walked through the water with head lamps on. Neal pointed out he felt like he was in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. I, slightly less sophisticated, thought of the movie Anaconda.
I was given a bamboo walking stick at the beginning of our journey and had held onto it for dear life throughout the trek. It was amazing how handy it was in the murky water. I turned the bamboo into a “white cane” like the blind use. Swinging it back and forth in front of me. I completely zoned out and the only thing I processed was whether the ground went up or down, or if there was a rock in my way.
After what felt like a lifetime, John told us to turn off our headlamps. We looked around in the pitch black but there ahead of us we saw something. Light! It was light! Glorious, glorious, light. It was up a giant wall of rocks that I couldn’t climb fast enough. As I reached the top, I saw leaves. Leaves have never been so exciting. The feel of moss on rocks was indescribable. Ants and spiders made me want to weep sweet tears of joy.
We’d been in the cave nine hours due to a few detours and my two breakdowns. It was getting dark outside, and we still needed to climb out of the jungle. Never have I been so happy to see a road and hear the sounds of car engines. Every inch of me was sore and the hour drive back to my hotel didn’t lack excitement either. The roads around Pai are one hairpin turn after another. When I finally made it back, I hopped in the shower and attempted to scrub my body clean. I scrubbed and scrubbed my leg to find that what I thought was dirt was actually a seven inch long bruise. I climbed into bed grateful to be alive, but every time I closed my eyes, I pictured myself teetering over ridiculous cliffs made of rock formations. Just a touch of PTSD.
I learned a lot about myself on this trek. I realized I’m very methodical with my decisions. I don’t just take leaps of faith. I wanted to make sure my body was firmly planted, and that my next move was worked out ahead of time, instead of simply going for it. The rocks were like a life size puzzle I needed to solve. If something wasn’t logical, I freaked out.
We went on this trip with Pai Adventure. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend this trek to a rookie. If you have experience rock climbing, can handle a seven hour trek uphill, or are an Olympic athlete, I might recommend this cave tour. Please note, it is dangerous and you could actually die (not exaggerating). There are no ropes holding you up and no safety precautions. If you still want to try it, but aren’t experienced, ask for the shorter version. You can do the first two hours and then turn around. It’s challenging, but not scary or impossible. It’s what I would choose to do if I had to go back and do it again. The first two hours were actually really enjoyable.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.
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