Thailand's limestone features not only provide uniquely beautiful mountains, but when brittle rock cracks and the rainwater attacks, the elements eventually create cavities known as caves. Over the eons, water passes through, enlarging them along cracks called fault lines. The combination of rainwater percolating through iron-stained rock and the pH differential (acidalkaline) eats away at the limestone. Eventually, some ‘wet’ caves grow large enough to allow human passage – including traversal by kayaks.
In Trang's Tung Wa village, the locals have known the Ste Go Bon as it's called, for eons. It's not rocket science to them! The large cave entrance is obvious as it welcomes the many streams flowing in from the area's dramatic amphitheatre-like valleys. Inspired by John Gray's Sea Canoe's (JGSC) success in Phuket, the Trang pu yai baan (local headman) purchased 25 sit-on-top kayaks for the village. However, the villagers had no training – essential when wishing to promote safe tours along a totally dark four-kilometre-long wet cave.
They contacted JGSC lead guide Tee Ra Yout C and, along with our paddle guides, off we went to Trang with no idea of the treasure we were about to find. Ste Go Bon cave is fairly flat and shallow, making the extremely colourful cavern unusually safe as freshwater caves go. The stream runs through the village, so my first concern was the source. We drove dirt tracks into the jungle and eventually hiked, finding an impressive limestone amphitheatre valley sculpted by numerous high waterfalls.
The valley is so spectacular that I felt I was in a veritable Shangri-la, but training was more important than valley sightseeing so we returned to the village. Since my Thai is horrible, Tee delivered the Thai language training, consisting of kayak skills and safety.
With Tee translating I presented cave safety and conservation. Tee emphasised my points. Land and sea caves must be respected. Taking caves lightly is very dangerous and cave protection amplifies the need for paddling skills.
Land or sea limestone caves are incredibly delicate. Cave conservation is as important as human safety and no responsible person wants to harm cave decorations formed over thousands of years. After training, everyone joined in. There were a couple of tight squeezes but all went well in the end. Village guides helped neophytes negotiate the rocks and tunnels. No problems there. After an uneventful first 30 metres leading to a tight squeeze, Ste Go Bon becomes four kilometres of non-stop eye candy. Fortunately, most decorations are too high to reach, so they should remain intact for decades to come.
The channel is wide, shallow and slow, so getting into trouble requires hard work. Those spectacular decorations are high, beyond reach, and thick. Only a true idiot would clamber off a kayak and struggle up a slippery slope to try to do any damage.
Everybody applied the Golden Rule of kayaking as we all stayed together in the shallow waters. Way too soon there was light at the end of the tunnel, meaning the culmination of a spectacular trip. The cave decorations were varied and spectacular, the village kayakers well trained, helpful and professional, and at the trip’s end we found ourselves in the mangroves of Satun Province – in saltwater, the cave is that long! We paddled to a pier where our trucks were waiting to take the dazzled kayakers back to the village.
The two-province Ste Go Bon cave deserves to be on your ‘bucket list’. Visit it while you can!
If you're part of the five-star crowd, try the Anantara Si Kao. It's spectacular, well designed, on the beach, luxurious and the Italian chef there is crazy enough to have you in tears of laughter. If you’re on a budget try the Pakmeng Resort next door. It has cable TV and air-con.
Please DO NOT visit the Rocha Mong Kon Zoo and Aquarium at the far end of the beach. I'm a grown man and I cried. It was the first time I've ever seen aquarium tanks so small that even the fish were psychotic – and the zoo 'prison' next door is even worse.
This raptor-rehabber was in tears over the zoo’s white belly sea eagle – one of the most majestic specimens I’ve ever seen. It’s never been out of its cage and the staff members are so boneheaded they don’t understand the eagle would return home every night if they treated it right and left the door open!