Soppongs Secrets

The winding road to Pang Mapha district is a sensual joy. It can be hell if youre stuck in the back of a fume-spewing local bus and prone to car sickness, but on a motorcycle its heaven. Being in Northern Thailand this time of year is like watching a high-speed video clip of a flowers transformation from bud to bloom its astounding how rapidly the jungle recovers from the annual burning spree. What was charred, smokey earth two months ago is once again a tangled mass of acid-green undergrowth, snaking lianas and feathery bamboo. The air is filled with the scents of earth and fresh rain, and the screeching chainsaw buzz of cicadas. At the top of the pass the ground falls away abruptly, down and across a seemingly endless expanse of rolling rainforest.

It is between these mountainous tropical folds that the small town of Soppong is located, 70kms from Mae Hong Son and an hour or two from Pai. Dont be put off by initial appearances at first glance Soppong looks like a virtual non-entity, with only a few ugly buildings flanking the roads and sign posts indicating the presence of guesthouses. But those who linger here soon find out that Soppong is a veritable goldmine of archaeology, surrounded by caves holding the remains of teak wood boxes believed to be ancient coffins.

Even if youre not interested in the strange burial practices of aeons ago, the caves, the jungle and the Lang River which runs directly through the caves and the town present a whole world of opportunities for outdoor adventures.

Unlike Pai, which is ever-changing to accommodate the influx of farang, Sappong has a wilder, more authentic feel. This is not the place to come if youre fresh from the Full Moon Party and looking for more of the same - night life here is pretty much non-existent, with dinner at one of the local noodle bars, or long fireside chats about as far as the options go. This is the territory of exploring the jungle and the caves, bird watching, and splashing in the river, with most visitors opting for early nights at whatever guesthouse theyre calling home for the time being.

Accommodation in town is limited to a few guesthouses on the rivers edge and across the road. The nicest of the budget options is Jungle House, with friendly owners, good food, and simple bungalows, ranging from 100 baht to 200 baht. Little Eden Guesthouse is a swish, upmarket operation with a swimming pool, internet access and bungalow/bathroom units for 380 baht. By far the prettiest place in town is Soppong River Inn, with a lush tropical garden and a terrace overhanging the river. Luxurious double rooms and bungalows here start at 500 baht and end at 700 baht for a luscious little number suspended above the river.

Caving is Soppongs number one attraction, with countless caverns located in the area, many of them containing complete or partial Log Coffins. The identity of their creators remains a mystery, but archeologists have surmised that the culture probably had some degree of social stratification. In most caves there are less than 10 coffins, indicating that not all members of the society were accorded such a burial. Similar receptacles have been discovered in other parts of Asia, but nowhere in such vast numbers as in Pang Mapha, where they have been found at 83 sites.

The most visited cavern system in the area is the massive Tham Lod, situated 10kms from Soppong in the tiny village of Ban Tham Lod, and encompassing three separate caves. There is no admission fee, but its wise to employ a guide available at the park entrance - to lead you through the system.

At twilight each night, swifts who sleep in the cave by night execute an expertly orchestrated exchange with bats who reside there by day. As the bats venture out to feed, thousands of swifts circle overhead, breaking off in small swirls to enter the cave at lightning speed. It is a phenomenon which inspires awe at the perfection of nature. The same transaction, in reverse, is visible at dawn.

Until a week ago, there were two guesthouses in Ban Tham Lod, but a flash flood effectively finished off Lang River Guesthouse, taking four bungalows down the river and through the cave, as well as a four wheel drive pick-up truck a testament to the power of the elements in this region. The only remaining accommodation option is Cave Lodge. Fortunately its an excellent one, with a wide array of price and room options.

Like some of the guesthouses in town, Cave Lodge offers a variety of adventure activities. Kayaking day trips rivers are offered during rainy season, with the option to stay overnight in the dryer months. Also on offer are guided treks to caves or to one of the Lisu, Lahu or Karen hill tribe villages that permeate the area. Bamboo rafting or elephant riding can be included in most treks.

Hiking routes are plentiful in the Soppong and Tham Lod areas, and trekking independently is a great way to explore the jungle at your own pace. Most hill tribe villages around Soppong are friendly and accustomed to visitors, so your presence will be no great intrusion.

By Cindy Tilney


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