Another day of jungle trekking was upon us; water scorpions, bats, deep caves, slingshots and knife work were all ahead on the trail. We were making our way toward the Thamtaralod Forest Park in Northern Thailand, not far from the border with Myanmar (Burma). The park is famous for it’s cave, which would be the highlight of our adventure.
Our guide Ting, explained the route… sort of, and we set off from the hill tribe village, giving our thanks for the fresh breakfast of mango, rice and greens we’d enjoyed. This morning we were joined by Djoe, whose family had hosted us the night before. Also joining us was Dham who must be in his early twenties and far fitter than me. Each of them carried their own machete, rather than being kept in a leather sheath as we would back home, they wrapped their prized tools in cloth and stuffed this into their belt. Later on that day, we’d get the chance to see that these tools were not just for hacking and slashing but could be put to fine whittling work in skilled hands.
Soon into our trek I spotted some dead tree stumps which had been hacked into with a machete. Ting explained that this was where local people were searching for burrowing grubs, deep inside the deadwood. These grubs were a valued food source. Thankfully, we didn’t find any ourselves, so I was spared the embarrassment of having turn one down.
Much of our route today would take us along the river, with plenty of opportunities to cool off. The water was warm and refreshing, with shoals of little fish darting in and out of the rock cover. I noticed our hill tribe guides were naturally very aware of their surroundings, always looking about them, ever alert, where as I found myself looking down at my feet more often than not to ensure a steady footing. Djoe and Dham moved with much more confidence though and I watched them scanning the tree tops, with an eye for opportunity. These guys were naturally suited and adapted to their environment, just a quick look at the muscles on their legs was testament to that, shaped by years of walking up and down the steep jungle paths.
Our youngest guide stopped and pulled out a simple slingshot from his pocket. Grabbing a few river pebbles he started launching the stones at a target high up in the trees above him. Ting told me this was an ants nest and these ants were another potential food source. Whether it was the young grubs or the ants themselves that Dham wanted I wasn’t sure. Either way, after a few attempts, he gave up and the ants were left to continue their daily lives. The opportunity to try the slingshot for myself was to good to pass up though, so we had some fun doing target practise at a tree across the river.
We stopped for our mid morning break and our guides unwrapped their machetes and started work whittling away some fresh (green) bamboo. They were making chopsticks, ready for our lunch later and as I’d brought my own knife along I wanted to give it a go. I found bamboo easy to carve and we made short work of the chopsticks, including a few fine details here and there. However, whilst I was using my small Swedish whittling knife, our guides were using their much larger machetes and getting the same (if not better) results which shows how in the right hands this large tool can be used for fine work. I guess it shows that when you’re in the jungle you don’t want to be carrying multiple tools around. As the old saying goes, “The more you know, the less you need.”
It was a real treat to watch this simple craft being done by local people in such a natural setting and I was looking forward to seeing their bushcraft in action again later as we were going to need to fashion some torches ready for exploring the cave toward the end of our journey.
Whilst cooling off my toes in the river, I spotted what looked like a water scorpion, with pincers just large enough to give my little toe a nip. Ting grinned, saying “they could give you a nasty bite” but with the look on his face I think he was having me on. Best to play it safe though, time to move on. We came across a tree that Ting cut a small slice from, telling us that the bark is used locally as a medicine, boiled in a tea. Or you could chew the bark to release the medicine. It tasted bitter and reminded me of how willow was used in our past for similar purposes. Willow bark contains a chemical similar to aspirin. Whilst walking I’d noticed Djoe heading off trail here and there to inspect dead bamboo trees, he was clearly searching for the right one. After a few non-starters he hacked into one and selected a length to take with him. The reason for this would become clear later.
Here and there along the river’s length I saw the remains of what looked like simple bamboo frames spanning the width of the river. I asked Ting what these were and he explained that the local people had made fish traps. Having built a bamboo fence across the river, earth would then be piled up to block the river flow. Downstream the river would temporarily dry out so that fish could be picked easily from the mud. Once the catch was done, the river would be unblocked. I wondered if the the bamboo frames get used more than once? That would explain why they’d been left in-situ.
After some hopping from boulder to boulder and crossing precarious fallen logs over the rushing river water we reached a little patch of paradise… a small waterfall, complete with natural swimming pool. This is the stuff that old Bounty chocolate commercials were made of. We stripped off and enjoyed the cool water, trying our best to ignore the large spiders suspended in webs not far above us – I never saw them on a Bounty advert. Seriously though, it doesn’t get much better than this, being able to enjoy this special place, with river water just the right temperature. Exactly what you need after half a day’s hike in the tropical heat.
There was another surprise waiting for us when we finished our dip, lunch was served, wrapped in banana leaves. Rice with tofu and greens, cooked fresh that morning. Time to use our chopsticks and see if mine were up to scratch. I’m pleased to say they performed well, though whether I was doing it entirely right, who knows? Dessert was fresh pineapple – which of course over here tastes so much better than what you can buy at home. This was true of all the fruit on our Thailand travels.
Rested, fed and watered we set off to find the highlight of the trip, the Thamtaralod Cave, complete with bats and rushing water. On our way we stopped at another beautiful location, a bamboo camp. This place was used by trekking groups taking longer trips. We were just passing through but it was great to see how the structure was put together, highlighting again the amazing properties of bamboo as a building material. Being naturally cylindrical it’s very strong and being hollow it’s light to carry. Even the young bamboo shoots can be used for food. I might start calling bamboo the tree of a thousand uses. It seems to be intrinsically linked with the history and way of life of the local people. We stopped at the camp for a short while to make preparations for entering the cave. This is where I got to see some real bushcraft in action.
It was time to put the dead bamboo rod, that Djoe had carried with him, to good use. Ting explained that they would be making bamboo torches which would be lit to explore the cave safely. This explained why the bamboo needed to be dead, so it was dry and took a flame easily. Our guides set to work with their machetes splitting the lengths of bamboo into thin sticks. I had a go myself and once again the bamboo responded very well, being easy to split and running straight. I’ve split hazel rods before for hurdle-making back home but this task was much easier. The broad nature of the machetes also aided easy splitting as a quick twist of the blade would encourage the dry wood to split down it’s length, without the need to cut much further into the wood.
Split sticks were then bundled together and these bundles were tied together using natural cordage. This was more bamboo, but fresh and green this time, which had been soaked in the river. I imagine the soaking served one or both of these jobs; to make the cordage flexible for us and/or to help prevent the flames from burning through the cordage once it was holding the torch together.
Setting off again, torches over our shoulders, it wasn’t long before we came to the cave entrance, and it was an impressive site. The river flowed out of the base and sound of the rushing water could be heard coming from the dark depths within. We could not see any light inside, so who knows how long the cave was. Ting told us that bats roost above among the stalactites and we could see the evidence of their droppings on the cave floor below. Time to use the torches!
They lit easily and gave off a steady flame, burning for the good 20 minutes it took to reach the other cave side. Plunging into the cave with a flaming torch, whilst deep in the jungle has got to be an Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one – I was in my element and grinning from ear to ear. The cave roof was high above us, so the smoke wasn’t a problem. The main hazard was watching where you put your feet as the rushing water covered treacherous rocks and ledges – so we took it slow. Any points I gained for looking cool whilst brandishing a flaming bamboo torch in a jungle cave would have been swiftly lost if I stumbled and snuffed it out in the dark water. I loved it all though , and felt like an explorer discovering a brave new world.
We made our way around another rocky bend, then we could see the light at the other end of the tunnel, which revealed a huge cave opening bigger than my house. The bamboo torches were brought together and placed in an old fire pit which gave us some more light to see by. We sat down for a rest on a large ledge within the cave mouth. As we took in the scenery around us it struck me how people from ages past must have used this place as shelter and refuge. The ledge was large enough to accommodate many people and the fireplace our torches flickered away in sat on a raised bowl of earth, and I wondered whether this was a recent addition or something that had been formed by our guides ancestors generations before. Between the fresh water supply, the fish that were abundant in the river, the bamboo growing all round us and the shelter the cave provided I thought this must have been a place where native peoples had lived in the past. I should have asked our guides, but I was too caught up in the moment.
It was time to say farewell to Djoe and Dham, whilst Ting would lead us up the final hill toward our waiting vehicle. Our guides for the day waved farewell and took their bamboo torches back into the depths of the cave. The image of the flicker of red flame against the natural rock will stay with me for a long time.
Our final trek up the hill was a bit of a scorcher in the afternoon heat, with little shelter as more trees had been cut back in this area to make way for rice fields and grazing. The signs of human habitation were definitely showing again. The final give away was the pick up truck waiting for us at the top of the hill… a welcome sight by that time I must say. After a very bumpy and dusty ride in the truck, we pulled up for a cool Chang beer in a roadside cafe. As you can imagine, it tasted great.
Thanks to our guides Ting, Djoe and Dham for answering all my endless questions and letting me get stuck into the activities. Thanks also to Pooh Eco Trekking for a great experience that I won’t forget. I’ve loved exploring the jungle, if only for a brief time, but it’s also made me feel eager to get back to my native broadleaf woods and get stuck into bushcraft over the coming spring and summer. I know where I belong and my heart lies in the woods of Britain… plus the spiders are much smaller there.
Thanks for reading.
James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.