Diving the Caverns of Thailand’s Thong Pha Phom (Feb. 2009)

Posted on 03/15/09 5 Comments

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Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Pattaya, a group of Aquanauts instructors and interns last month embarked on a four-day expedition to the scenic mountains of western Thailand’s Kanchanaburi region for the ANDI Cavern Diver course. The site was the network of caves and caverns at Thong Pha Phom.

cavern-mapANDI Instructor Roger M. Smith lead the course for Aquanauts’ PADI IDC Staff Instructors Dan Beldon and Meg Smith, MSDT John and intern Frank Smit. The trip began at 9am with a quick stop of at the Aquanauts workshop to collect standard and enriched-air tanks as well as specialized equipment for the course.  Another stop at Foodland to stock up on supplies and we were on our way with driver Tuy in the back of the Aquanauts taxi.  Eager and curious about the following days, the conversation flowed amongst the excited interns, although it wasn’t long before we settled down and were all soon sleeping in the back of the truck.

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A few stops later, we arrived at Thong Pha Phom, a sleepy little village 450 km northwest of Pattaya.  For some, this was their first experience with Thailand outside of Pattaya and it was a real an eye-opener to see the beautiful scenery, peace and quite that Kanchanaburi offers.  We quickly settled into our basic, but comfortable accommodations (US$5.55 a night) where the course began with a theory session.  This, along with the confined water sessions conducted in Pattaya, prepared us for our first experience inside the cavern the following day.

Later in the evening, the whole group met and all went out to dinner in a nearby Thai restaurant.  No English speakers here, so we were grateful to have Tuy with us to order our food.  We sat down to a traditional Thai meal of multiple dishes, ranging from very spicy soups and fish dishes to blander (but still incredibly tasty) fried rice, sweet-and-sour dishes and omelets for the less adventurous in the group. A couple of hours later the interns were pleasantly surprised when the check arrived and it was just working out to a mere 100 baht ($2.75) each, including our drinks!

Tired from the day’s journey, we turned in early, eagerly awaiting the next day’s diving.

The First Caverns

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We arrived at our first cavern after a picturesque “longtail” boat ride of about an hour. A local fisherman was our guide to the caverns and, having visited the sites the previous year, Roger gave us a thorough briefing on what to expect when we arrived at our destination.

rogerUpon arrival, we turned off the boat engine and sat in silence for a moment, amazed at the scenery and the total peace and quiet on the lake.  The dive, however, proved challenging due to the depth, limited light and visibility.  It was an eerie feeling diving in the green waters of the lake, unlike anything we had experienced before.

Down at 20 meters and diving with nitrox, the darkness of the cavern took a little while to become accustomed to, but we were soon enthralled as the new sensations of cavern diving and its incredible formations.  However after completing the skills in these tough, yet exhilarating, conditions, we all felt much more confident for the next cavern.

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We pulled up to a floating restaurant for lunch, and sat down to our packed lunches courtesy of good ol’ 7-Eleven!  Once again, the scenery and quiet was wonderful; the perfect spot to relax and then gear up for the next dive.

reelAfter lunch, we prepared for cavern No. 2 just opposite the restaurant.  Laying the guide line seemed a much simpler task the second time around and we were able to enjoy the stalactites and stalagmites along with the aquatic life inside the cavern.  The only complaint of the day was down at 5 meters where the water temperature dropped from a blissful 28 degrees Celcius to a bone-chilling 23 degrees!

Later in the evening we all met up and decided to visit the same restaurant, due to the immense amount of food and ridiculously low prices.  The meal did not disappoint (thanks again to Tuy) and we had a comfortable evening chatting late into the night in the open-air restaurant.

Day Three

Day Three began at 6 a.m.   We set our equipment up at the side of the lake much to the amusement of confused looking locals waking up to start their day.  It was only a  10-minute longtail ride to the first cavern of the day, so we were soon back in the water.  After laying the 30 m. line inside the cavern, we performed the most-demanding skills, including out-of-air drills, no-mask swimming and buddy-team procedures following the line.  Being a shallower cavern than the previous day, we were able to enjoy a longer dive using standard air tanks.

After exploring the caverns in 23 degree water, the divers are a bit cold.

Cavern 4 followed swiftly after. Inside it we discovered three routes through the cavern to navigate.  Having successfully completed the required skills during the first three dives, this left us an entire dive to explore the cavern and enjoy the aquatic life.  By torch light we spotted many species, including several large catfish.  We also discovered different routes into the cavern which took us by more amazing geological formations.

We returned to the hotel to shower and pack for the journey home.  Tanks, scuba equipment and bags were all loaded into the taxi and we were on our way by noon.  After a six-hour journey, we arrived back in Pattaya, a little tired, but exhilarated as four new ANDI Cavern Divers.

Aquanauts regularly offers cavern diver courses and excursions. The price is 18,000 THB ($500 at 36/THB per US$1) and includes everything except for accommodations and food and equipment rental. Contact us with questions and watch this website for the next scheduled course.
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