by Ben Reymenants:
Thailand will always be seen as the exotic country fringed by white sandy beaches, with honeymooners drinking from a coconut while petting a baby elephant. Tourists are drawn to the turquoise waters rather than the idea of jumping into a black hole in the ground. Thais translate the word “diving” as, “Dam Narm,” literally meaning “black water,” ironically as they point to the clear, blue ocean water.
The term “cave diving” itself draws wide eyes. Most rural farmers firmly believe dragons and ghosts live in those bottomless pits deep in the jungle, and jumping into one of them resembles suicide rather than stimulation to the explorer’s mind.
It’s no wonder Thailand isn’t synonymous with cave diving like Mexico and Florida seem to be. Few explorers over the last two decades have ventured into the jungle at their own expense to lay lines and teach cave diving. Unfortunately, very little information was shared and when the next generation of cave divers came along, and caves had to be rediscovered all over again. Luckily some GPS data was passed on, and cave instructors have driven days through the jungle to locate one of the hundreds of caves. Even today, we still come across old brown lines in passages we had believed to be previously untouched.
Having dived over a decade in Thai caves, we are still finding new caves and passages, some deep, dark and murky, others shallow and crystal clear. We have replaced a lot of the old lines, as well as put markers in place, and have started documenting the most popular ones.
Thailand has enormous limestone formations, generating its unique topography. Limestone is the perfect breeding ground for dry caves to be formed. National projects have flooded entire valleys to supply hydro-power and preserve the rainforests. A lot of the previously dry caves in these national parks are now flooded and dive-able. Besides stunning panoramas resembling Lord of the Rings scenery, the caves now offer the prefect training grounds for shallow cave training with plenty of the decorative stalactites the novice diver expects to see.
Cave life seems to thrive as well in these caves flooded just over two decades ago, as shrimp, catfish and other fresh water fish come to inspect you.
Visibility may not always exceed 100 feet/30 metres, as some of the caves in the West may offer, but in return, the warm water temperature means most divers can shed their drysuit for a 3mm or 5mm wetsuit, or even board shorts for some of us die-hards.
Most cave courses or trips will start in the more shallow caverns, before heading to one of the many deep, dark sinkholes and thermal vents located further south.
The limestone ridge, stretching throughout southern Thailand is very old and has acidic water from the rainforest above which has carved enormous, mostly unexplored tunnels. Because of the limestone, Thailand has over 2000 caves, both wet and dry. Today less than 10% of these are known.
Thermal vents are deep springs, bringing up a variety of minerals and gases. This usually provides a turquoise, slightly milky water. And these vents are deep, very deep. One has even been explored up to 788 feet/239 metres. They also seem to offer a perfect source of nutrients as the surrounding jungles flourish. Divers often have to swim between water lilies, or have their nails manicured by fresh water cleaning shrimp.
Other sinkholes are enormous with entrances well over 300 feet/100 metres in diameter. Divers can easily enter scootering side by side, as the visibility can be well in excess of 100 feet/30 metres.
Most of the caves being dived now are easy access and have no strong flows in or out. This means the caves are dive-able for everyone year-round, as we are not limited by weather conditions.
If your holiday, however, isn’t solely focused on cave diving, Thailand also offers a fascinating culture, where everyone is smiling the entire day, and is ready to help out a total stranger. Thai food is rated best and most varied in the world, and even the pickiest among eaters will find mild, easy to digest meals. For the true adventurer, there are of course the spiciest of curries. One thing is sure; it is impossible to get hungry in Thailand. Thais love their food and will eat around the clock.
Logistics in Thailand can be a bit challenging, but I strongly believe that it is all part of the Thailand cave experience. Four-wheel drive trucks are used to haul compressors, gases and cylinders from one cave spot to another. Lodging can be in true Indiana Jones’ style on a floating bamboo raft on a jungle lake, without cell phone coverage. Where this might be a desirable escape for most, the more discerning traveler can find cover in the most comfortable lodging with air conditioning, 3G, WiFi and fresh brewed coffee.
The variety in cave diving experiences found in Thailand are unequaled in comparison to any other part of the world.
Some information about the 2 most famous caves in Thailand:
Sra Keow Cave Details:
Distance from Phuket: 2.5 hours drive by car
Transportation: By car. The lake is 10×10 metres diameter.
Closest Town: Ao Nang
Depth: 249 meters 829 feet
Visibility: Between 3-20 metres
Temperature: Between 23-29 Celsius
Entrance: 2 small lakes connected to each other at 70 metres and at 205 metres depth.
Song Hong Cave Details:
Distance from Phuket: 4 hours drive by car
Transportation: By car. The lake is about 50×50 metres diameter.
Closest town: Thung Yai
Depth: 177 metres 589 feet
Visibility: Between 10-80 metres
Temperature: Between 23-29 Celsius
Entrance: 2 small lakes connected to each other at 40 metres depth. One entrance at the north-east side at 80 metres depth. (unexplored yet)
Thailand has 10 multilingual TDI Cave Instructors in all parts of the country that can offer a variety of specialties as Cave DPV, Cave Sidemount, CCR Cave and support for deeper expeditions. These instructors have actually set up their own cave instructors group and maintain a healthy communication on cave access, repairs and incidents.
For any information on trips or courses, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.