Phraya Nakhon – Cave of Wonders

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“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Joseph Campbell

As the boat rounded the small jetty, we got a splash of sea water. The captain righted his course and pulled around toward the bay. The sandy beach lay before us, its white sand sparkling in the afternoon sun. Being on the East Coast meant that the darkness would only come quicker, especially with the tall mountain shadowing the shore.

As we ground to a soft halt in the shallow water, we looked at our destination. Somewhere in front of us, set into the rocky promenade was a cave. A hole in the ground that we meant to explore.

Our way there.
Our way there.

Earlier that day, we had almost decided against it. To be honest, I was feeling a bit apprehensive. I used the excuse of not wanting to leave Zoë and Jenny by themselves, but that was quickly dismissed by my giving wife. Jenny and I had wanted to explore the Tham Phraya Nakhon Cave since we had arrived in Hua Hin, but we were worried the hike might be a little much for our young daughter’s legs.

If you read this blog often, you might realize that there are very few things we won’t do with the little one. We firmly believe that kids should not be an excuse… even if occasionally we would like to blame her for our own lack of enthusiasm at doing something strenuous. We aren’t lazy, we just prefer lounging on beaches, or navigating city sidewalks, or perhaps dining on foreign delicacies. Hiking isn’t really either of our strong suits.

However, this cave had piqued our curiosity. It had been discovered over 200 years ago by a stranded sailor, and in 1896 the Thai people had erected a pagoda for a visiting King Rama V. A pagoda in a cave, with natural lighting from the holes in the ceiling was enough to make us almost eager for a grueling trek adventure. But we read that the hike was almost 500 meters up a steep, rocky path and that was the easy option. One could take the long hike, without the boat ride, and then the climb would double. Just what we dreamed of…

Steep, but doable.
Steep, but doable.

So when our two friends arrived, we realized that if we were ever to explore this hidden gem, then one of us would have to do it without the other, since we didn’t want to risk getting halfway up the mountain with an exhausted toddler. I was the designated photographer, so we decided I should take our guests on an exploratory mission.

First off, the state park that houses the cave is one of those places that takes your breath away as you approach. The drive south from Hua Hin is very pleasant, and takes about 40 minutes upon a very well paved road. As we passed coconut farms, and several wats and villages, I was impressed at just how easy it was to get there with nothing more than a simple map to guide me. But nothing could have prepared me for the dragon-spined mountains, or the stunning beaches and islands that they sheltered. It was one of those moments, that happen often in this Land of Smiles, where I was simply awed at the natural treasures the land held.

The road led to a small beach-side market, with a few restaurants, shops, and fresh coconut merchants hawking their wares. I was even surprised to find the nicest outdoor playground I had seen in Thailand. I instantly regretted not bringing Z and Jenny along, as they could have easily spent the afternoon on the playground and in the shops. Jenny cannot get enough of slides and swings, and Zoë is glad when her mom burns off some of her extra energy…

Anyhow, there was a quaint hand painted sign that indicated where the boats could be found, and another sign with an arrow leading into the much longer path over the mountain and to the cave. We of course elected for the boat ride. I am a sucker for boats and take every opportunity I can to be on the water.

Follow the signs for service.
Follow the signs for service.

The boat was 500 baht, or more depending on our itinerary. We could have optioned to see a couple of islands as well, but decided we would save that for another day. There was also an additional 200 baht fee, per person, for the state park entrance fee. It seemed steep, but we forked over the cash and moved ahead.

So it was that we reached the other beach after the boat ride. We had to wade through knee-high surf, with cameras held high above our heads but it was refreshing and added to the sense of excitement of the journey. As we reached the path that led to the cave a guide came forward and offered assistance for a few hundred more baht. We politely declined and decided on going our own way, even though it was getting late and we were a bit worried about finding our way back in the dark.

Boats and friends. Great times.

We met a few other travelers, all coming back from the cave, and they assured us it wasn’t too much of a climb. One group did recommend we take more water as it got hot and we would probably need it. We heeded their advice, and stopped at a restaurant that was at the beginning of the trail. There were some nice bathrooms, and even a few bungalows for rent, but it did look like the park was being deserted and once again we worried it was getting too late.

So we hurried up the path. The steps were man-made, but had been worked into the rock in a way that almost seemed natural. Also the stones were well-worn and at times fairly slippery. We quickly were covered in sweat, but pushed on as fast as we dared as the afternoons shadows were growing long. The hike in total took about 30-45 minutes, which isn’t much but it was all uphill until the end. There was a small stopping point, half-way up the trail that offered a magnificent view of the coastline and islands below.

Stunning. I want to go back.
Stunning. I want to go back.

As we reached the caves, there was an overwhelming sense of silence. The first turn downwards revealed stalactites and stalagmites that formed the walls around the entrance. Little statues of tigers and Buddhas marked the turns down into the caves. My ears popped as we descended as it was quite the change in altitude, and I watched my footing closely on the slick stones.

Tiny Statues

And then we entered the cave.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer awesomeness of what we beheld. The light poured in through the collapsed dome of the first cave. Staring straight up I could see what was called “Death Bridge,” a bridge of stone that separated the ceiling into two and was aptly named. It was eerie and stunning at the same time, and none of us spoke much… Just enough to dispel the silence of the massive cave.

Don't fall...
Don’t fall…

And it truly was much larger than we had previously thought. There was actually two caves, and the first was just a teaser for the second. The second required walking down a short wooden path, and under a narrow ceiling and that was where we found the pagoda. It was like walking into a scene from Indiana Jones, where at any moment I expected them to pull away the curtain or for someone to shout “action.” The little pagoda sat on a small dirt mound, surrounded by vegetation and stones. It was all so clean and surreal, and there were paths leading around and about the room.

We made our way in.
We made our way in.

Pagoda. Laura.

We explored quickly, it wasn’t dark, but it was fast approaching and we still had to make it back down the hill. One of the most fascinating things we found was the hand painted insignias of the last three kings of Thailand. It would have been harder to leave, there was so much to explore, but the coming night, and the presence of a creepy blind eyed dog wearing a t-shirt made us want to leave. Plus there were no other tourists and we felt a slight sense of unease.

So we bustled back out of the underground wonder, and rushed down the path to the campground. Supposedly there are cute monkeys that play along the trail, but we saw only a squirrel who made us all jump as it bustled about. We reached the beach without any further ado, except that the strange dog followed us down, but he probably was as bothered by us as we were of him.

He was sweet... I hope.
He was sweet… I hope.
Wish we had seen these... but that squirrel was entertaining.
Wish we had seen these… but that squirrel was entertaining.

As we waded back out into the ocean we noticed that our boat wasn’t there. We had a number that was supposed to indicate our return boat, but the only one left was broken and the captain was trying to fix. We stood like awkward beggars, and finally he allowed us on, which was a relief as there simply was no one else around. We worried we may have been forgotten if we hadn’t pushed our way aboard, and were very glad to see our car in the parking lot were we had left it.

It wasn't as late as I feared, and the sunset was spectacular.
It wasn’t as late as I feared, and the sunset was spectacular.

In all it was an amazing trip, and one I would highly recommend. I think Zoë could have handled it just fine, but I am glad we didn’t dive into the unknown with her there. I would have probably been very anxiety ridden concerned if she had been there, but overall she would have been fine. If we do go back it will be in the early part of the day, with plenty of time to spare. But a rushed adventure is still a journey, and I for one am glad we went.

If you have been to or know of any other amazing hidden gems here or elsewhere in the world, please drop us a line and let us know what they are! To future adventures!

Chad R. Mitchell

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