The Thailand Project

John Spies explores the Tham Lod cave in Pang Mapha, Thailand.
John Spies explores the Tham Lod cave in Pang Mapha, Thailand. See more here.

25 years of progress: a personal retrospective


This material was presented at the 27th Biennial Conference of the Australian Speleological Federation Inc. at Sale, Victoria 4—9 January 2009 and is included in the proceedings, which are currently being produced as a DVD.


Twenty-four years ago I presented a paper at the ASF Conference in Hobart on the potential for speleological exploration in Thailand.

While there have been more than 60 publications deriving from the ensuing Thailand expeditions, this is the first overview of the whole project other than for a nostalgic record printed privately in 1999 for expedition participants only. This is a summary of a more comprehensive account of the Project published in Caves Australia in 2009 with a complete bibliography.

Not that we were first on the scene. Many caves in Thailand have been known to the local community for more than a thousand years, and monks explored deep within caves such as Tham Tab Tao north of Chiang Mai, but until very recently there was little indigenous interest in systematic documentation of caves and karst.

As late as 1982, the efforts of Austrian caver Heinrich Kusch, who had travelled widely in Thailand, resulted in a list of only 94 recorded caves.

By 1997, when I produced The Caves of Thailand, there were 2000. We now know of about 4000, still a fraction of the potential.

Kusch did not appreciate that even then there were probably more than 100 caves at least partially developed and open for a form of tourism in Thailand. Nor did I until I witnessed the arrival in 1983 of four large tour coaches at the great cave at Chiang Dao, north of Chiang Mai, where perhaps 10 or 12 souvenir and noodle shops were reliant on the domestic tourist trade.

But further out in the remoter provinces there were vast tracts of virtually unexplored limestone. This paper summarises how the Australian-led Thailand Caves Project contributed over a 25-year period, so it is inevitably personal.

Indeed, there is nothing new here. I have to emphasise also that the Project was an idea and an ideal, not an institution. It grew organically, shooting branches from exploration to surveying, geomorphology, archaeology, prehistory and to conservation and management.


I first visited Thailand in 1969, noting the limestone outcrops near Kanchanaburi from a sedate wood-fired steam train, but it was late 1981 before a friend in Canberra teamed me up with some Thai contacts for a visit to northern Thailand’s caves.

Not so long ago, but mass tourism had not yet arrived: we travelled by local bus, motorbike and the ubiquitous songthaew, visited tourist caves in Lampang and Chiang Mai provinces, and stayed in hilltribe village houses and local Chinese hotels. Only later did we move on to aircraft and 4WDs.

But in the shadow of Doi Chiang Dao, a solid limestone peak towering 1,700 m above the plains north of Chiang Mai, I first heard the rumours of vast limestone plateaus and sinking streams near Mae Hong Son to the west.

It was time for some research. Caving is full of the joy of discovery, moments of elation, a certain amount of obsession, and maybe the reflected pleasure of publication.

Many of us have experienced moments of serendipity or perhaps even epiphany in our caving careers. One of my serendipitous moments came in the National Library in Canberra in the winter of 1982.

Poring over their maps for potentially karstic areas of northern Thailand, I searched for depression contours. Well, there they were. Four of them, 100 m each, and a 400 m deep doline draining over 400 sq km!

Around the same time an article appeared in Geo magazine about the drug trade in far north-west Thailand. I made the acquaintance of the author, John Spies, and in late 1983 we reconnoitred the area, discovered Nam Lang Cave and explored 3.5 km of its massive passages in a single day.

From there it all developed. Still suffering an adrenaline rush, I flew straight back from Bangkok to Melbourne, ferried across to the 1984 ASF Conference in Hobart and gave a talk. Four people came out of the audience and signed up for an expedition: Kevin Kiernan, Dorothy Nichterlein, John Taylor and Kerry Hamilton.

We left four months later, in May 1985. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful era.


In all, there were eight major expeditions and 18 smaller ones emanating directly from this Project and led from Australia. Most took place before 2000 but individuals who had participated joined or led other expeditions later in a few cases.

One of the expeditions waiting. Who can you recognise?
One of the expeditions waiting. Who can you recognise?

The earlier trips concentrated on Mae Hong Son province which, except for a seminal archaeological dig by Chester Gorman in 1969, was then virgin territory for westerners and difficult of access.

Shorter side-trips expanded to the better-known but still little documented provinces of Kanchanaburi and Phangnga, and later to Phitsanuloke where Australian cavers were instrumental in surveying Thailand’s now longest cave, and to Nan with Thailand’s deepest.

We even diverted to Myanmar, still the only significant caving expedition to that benighted country.

Crossing a stream, Northern Thailand?
Crossing a stream, Northern Thailand?

In the early trips we discovered and surveyed over 50 km of new caves including the deepest, 10 of the then 17 longest in the country, and the tallest column in the world (61.5 m).

In time seven books, 22 research papers and about 30 articles were published as a direct outcome, along with six unpublished reports to management authorities.


Kevin Kiernan alone published 14 professional papers, primarily geomorphology and archaeology, notably drawing attention to the coffin sites which proved to be between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. But there were lighter, less focused side trips to places such as to Phangnga and Three Pagodas Pass.

Kerry Hamilton and John Taylor discovered two new species of troglobitic cave fish in the genera Nemacheilus and Homaloptera, one of which eventually starred in the Caves episode of the BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’ television series.

The included footage of the ‘angel-fish’, as the Thais called it, or ‘waterfall-climbing fish’ (H. thamensis n.sp.) as we referred to it, involved perhaps a couple of man-months of work for just 30 seconds of broadcast footage. John Spies made his own video of the production of this segment of the program.

As a base we used the renowned Cave Lodge at Ban Tham (‘Cave Village’) in Pang Ma Pha district. We owe a great debt to its owner, Australian expatriate John Spies and his then wife Diu Wilaiwan Intikat for organisation of the early expeditions.

John insists that he ‘converted’ to caving as the result of our trips.

Aided largely by their enthusiasm, linguistic skills and local knowledge, we surveyed caves, documented coffin sites of Mae Hong Son province and encouraged professional study and management which had previously been totally lacking.

When we started there were no published records of the existence of the coffin sites in northern Thailand, although several studies had been made of those along the Khwae Noi (River Kwai) in Kanchanaburi Province.

John later put huge footslogging effort into locating new coffin sites in particular, promoting scientific research, conservation and sound management of Thailand’s caves and karst, and gaining wide respect from Thai authorities for his expertise and advice.

This eventually led to a grant of $300,000 from the Thai Research Fund for professional research and protection of the sites in the province’s Pang Ma Pha district.

In 1997 the ASF honoured their work with Awards of Distinction to John and to National Parks officer Nopparat Naksathit. John’s Award can still be seen hanging in Cave Lodge.

In 1995 John Spies, Elery Hamilton-Smith and I ran what was probably Thailand’s first workshop on cave and karst management at Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi province.

In 2006 the Thai Research Fund sponsored a superbly illustrated book called Caves of Northern Thailand, available in both Thai and English versions. Drawing on some of our earlier work, this is a far more comprehensive and enlightening book than the name suggests and it is highly recommended to the general reader.

Although not available in Australia, it can be obtained through Amazon. It includes the ASF’s Minimum Impact Caving Code and should go a long way towards raising consciousness of the cultural and natural heritage significance of Thailand’s karst resources.

The exploration of the caves of Mae Hong Son province paralleled the march of Thailand’s economic development. In 1982 the dirt track from Pai and Mae Hong Son had not been improved since it was built by the Japanese in the 1940s; huge bamboo completely covered its narrow footprint in places, it was often impassable in the wet season, there was no sealed road within 50 km, and almost no motor traffic.

There was no electricity in Pang Ma Pha (indeed, Pang Ma Pha district as such did not exist), only three or four tiny shops, and the access ‘road’ morphed seamlessly into the rammed earth floor of the one noodle shop in Ban Soppong.

There were only one or two primary schools, no government agencies, nowhere to stay other than on the floor of a village headman’s house. There simply weren’t any tourists, not even backpackers.

We were shown spectacular sites like the Spirit Well (a huge collapse doline above Tham Nam Lang) and told we were the first foreigners to see it. Barely a few dozen western adventurers had ever seen Tham Lot, now a major tourist attraction.

In places there were still a few vestiges of hunting and gathering societies. And there were still many hectares of opium poppies. The infamous Golden Triangle soon graduated from drugs to tourism. Cave Lodge appeared in 1985. By the turn of this century Mae Hong Son was taking Boeing 737s

The road was sealed and now sports several passing lanes. Most families own at least a motor cycle, with several pickup trucks in every village and everyone has television.

Tham Lot is on the itinerary for numerous coach tours, hosting tens of thousands of tourists every year, providing employment for 40 or 50 local residents, while the restaurant can handle probably 200 at a time, and you can even kayak through the cave.

At Cave Lodge microwaves, freezers, satellite cable television, running hot water and a more upmarket clientele and their 4WDs have arrived, displacing many backpackers and replacing their $2 a night bamboo and thatch dormitories with cement bungalows, ensuites, fans, wide menu choices and even selected Australian wines.

It gave me and many others great satisfaction to see that our expeditions led to so much local interest. Inevitably, though, in time our pre-eminence passed to others. Dean Smart found employment for several years with the Royal Forestry Department as a cave specialist.

On Dean’s return to Britain, Martin Ellis bought his records and is the current guru and a wonderful fount of knowledge. Martin has published extensively in Shepton Mallett Caving Club’s journal and has nearly 4,000 caves on his database. He believes there are still several times as many awaiting discovery, and he maintains a long list of leads.

Why was it so successful?

We never considered mega-expeditions, generally leaning to Eric Shipton’s minimalist model of self-reliance. Our largest contained only 15 people; most had only half as many and many had only one or two. The Thailand Project was unusually productive for several reasons:

  1. The advent of cheap air travel
  2. A country where foreigners with strange habits and motives were welcomed, often with curiosity but never disdain or antagonism
  3. A country with reliable and universally good public and private transport
  4. We concentrated on a thorough exploration of just one major karst area, with only minor forays elsewhere
  5. We had reliable local logistical support to provide a base and sustain the effort over many years
  6. There was a growing local environmental awareness translating into official recognition and support.

What lessons are there?

It is best not to become too tightly organised — be flexible and organic. The Thailand Project was an idea, not an institution.
Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Or, as the military tells us: eight Ps: proper prior planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance.

Small expeditions, even solo ones and especially reconnoitres, can be
very efficient, flexible and productive.

Official sponsorship has limitations and may be more trouble than it is worth. We never sought any.

What stays in the mind

  • Conductors on the government Bor Kor Sor buses, leaning out of the front door as they round up prospective patrons, or waving furiously as the bus overtakes and cuts in front of trucks, cars, songthaews, samlors, motor cycles and buffalo.
  • Sipping Singha or Mekhong & Nam Soda in the restaurant car of the Chiang Mai Express, or on the verandah of Cave Lodge.
  • The wonderful seafood lunch buffet at the Talay Thong Restaurant in the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, sadly now demolished for a shopping mall.
  • Breakfast at sunrise and drinks at sunset on the river-side terrace of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok — not that we ever stayed there, although Martin Ellis tried it once.
  • Floating down the Nam Khong, cooling off under the travertine waterfalls below Susa Cave, or basking in the river below Nam Lang.
  • Kevin’s ability to write and publish a 20-page paper on mangroves, mountains and munching molluscs, based, so it seemed, on 20 minutes of field work
  • Seeing the Spirit Well for the first time and being told by the Lahu that we were the first foreigners ever to go there.
  • Staggering out of Nam Lang Cave at 3 am to an instant nourishing meal and hot drinks prepared by the Thai camp assistants
  • The infamous Miami Hotel on Sukhumvit 13 in Bangkok. Readers might be interested to know that this historic relic of the Vietnam War R&R days is still operating unchanged, although the ghastly air-conditioners were replaced in the 1990s. I have even heard that the transvestite at reception is still there.

Finally …

I eventually tired of the Project — just grew out of it. By the turn of the century the forest, the hill-tribe villages, the caves, the coffin sites, the atmosphere and the excitement remained but were now shared with and enjoyed by many more people, and in that sense diminished.

Mass tourism arrived and others took over the exploration and I felt a bit out of place. The obsession had faded and the Great Adventure was not quite the same. But I wouldn’t have missed it for quids. It was a high point in my life and, I know, of others who went, and therefore were bitten or smitten. One of the reasons for giving this talk is to emphasise that the world still has plenty of karst areas where similar results could be obtained by motivated speleologists without the strictures of China.

Exploration does not have to be of the gung-ho hard-man variety evidenced in Abkhazia, Mexico and Patagonia. In our region I investigated Myanmar and the Philippines in the wake of the early Thailand expeditions.

In 1988 four of us published a report on what remains the world’s only real speleological expedition to Myanmar, but the country is still largely undocumented despite widespread limestone occurrence. Indonesia and the Philippines still have massive potential, notwithstanding logistical and political problems.

Laos is now relatively easy to visit, with some truly huge caves and massive potential despite several major expeditions.

There are local sensitivities to take into account, but several Pacific islands beckon: only a little and nothing definitive has been published on Niue and the extensive caves in the Cook Islands, where there have not been any strongly focused expeditions. The more daring might turn to the Solomons or rethink New Guinea.

For something really exotic further afield, very little attention has been given to Central Asia since the end of the Soviet Union, despite greatly improved access. There is some impressive looking limestone in the Pamir Mountains of Tadjikistan.

In Thailand, though, there is still huge potential.