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Between Pai & Mae Hong Son

Either as a day trip from Pai or as a stop on the way to Mae Hong Son, the best little detour going is Tam Lot, or Spirit Cave, off Route 1095 (about 30km/19 miles northwest of Pai on Route 1095 in the town of Soppong, and then about 8km/5 miles north of the highway). This large, awe-inspiring cave filled with colorful stalagmites, stalactites, and small caverns will keep you exploring for hours. The cavern was discovered in the 1960s jam-packed with antique pottery dating from the Ban Chiang culture. There are three caves. The first chamber is a magnificent grotto and the second contains a prehistoric cave painting of a deer (which unfortunately has been largely blurred by curious fingers). The third cavern contains prehistoric coffins shaped like canoes.

A guide to all three caves costs 150B, with lantern rental included. ‘Guide’ in this case is more a literal guide and not so much a tour guide to who will highlight key features, though some English-speaking guides will offer a few insights. If you want a proper guide, hire the pros from Cave Lodge (see below). Be sure to take the canoe ride to the third cave (the ferryman will hit you up for an extra 300B one-way and 400B return), where, especially in the late afternoon and evening, you can see clouds of bats and swallows vying for space in the cave's high craggy ceiling (the boat ride is fun, too). Pay again to get back by boat, or you can follow the clear jungle path a few kilometers back to the parking lot. Important: Self-exploration of the caves is no longer allowed; and some smaller chambers can only be reached by ladder, so the tours aren't for everyone.

There are lots of little guesthouses along the road near the entrance to the Spirit Cave in Soppong; hands down the best is Cave Lodge (15 Moo 1; www.cavelodge.com; tel. 05361-7107) within walking distance of Tham Lot. It offers a variety of room types, all loosely based on hill-tribe architecture, with rates ranging from 180B for a dorm bed to 700B for a bungalow. More than just a agreeable place to rest your head, the lodge is run in part by John Spies, a longtime resident who studied the area’s caves for more than 30 years and is a true expert (he enjoys sharing his insights with guests). Everything from cave tours to kayaking and multi-day hill-tribe treks can—and should—be booked through the lodge, and they offer handy maps for self-exploration, and copies of Spies' book on the region's caves, called Wild Times.

As the road curves south heading into Mae Hong Son, Tham Pla Park (17km/11 miles north of Mae Hong Son on Rte. 1095) is a small landscaped park leading up to the entrance of Tham Pla, or Fish Cave. It is a small grotto crowded with carp (legend says there are 10,000 of them) that mysteriously prefer the cave to the nearby streams. You can buy fish food in the parking lot (10B per packet), but the fish don't eat it. Have a look -- it is meant to be good luck (and is also a good leg stretch after the long drive). The grotto, once unsuccessfully explored by Thai Navy divers, is said to be several meters deep and extends for miles.

Ten kilometers (6 1/4 miles) away in the Tham Pla Park interior is the huge Pha Sua Waterfall, which tumbles over limestone cliffs in seven cataracts. The water is at its most powerful after the rainy season in August and September. The Meo hill-tribe village of Mae Sou Yaa is beyond the park on a road suitable for jeeps, just a few kilometers from the Burmese border.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.