Asia Inner sanctuaries

Exploring caves is a cooling and calming travel experience.

Exploring caves is a cooling and calming travel experience.

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If you are visiting Asia and looking to stay cool or just head for the shade; there are plenty of natural options on offer. You can scale high mountains, swim in the open sea or dive into rivers that cut through deep tropical forests. Better still, you can explore deep into a massive cave.

Nothing quite makes you feel as removed from the sun’s glare as a journey toward the centre of the earth and Asia boasts a wealth of interior natural wonders to explore.

Not being an expert spelunker, I recently decided to investigate some Asian cave attractions in order to better understand their appeal.

Here’s the “heads up” on a few places to “head down” for some cool exploration.

Vietnam’s stunning cave scenery

For some lovely subterranean adventures, take in the wonders of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam, which boasts a complex connecting string of some 300 limestone caves and stony nooks, filled with intriguing karst formations.

Affable tour boat drivers will row you through cool caves while you take in the space-like scenery and photograph the strange shapes and formations. Almost all of the caves are well lit, sometimes with colorful bulbs. I particularly enjoyed the walking sections, where we could take close-up pix of the rock formations.

Be sure to take in all three of the park’s caves to get a feel for their different stalactite and stalagmite limestone “art”, which has dripped over centuries into sometimes baffling shapes.

I was first drawn to Tien Son Cave for its still air, and the several hundred foot climb is well worth the time and effort. It’s much less crowded than Phong Nha Cave and the more recent discovery, Paradise Cave.

I must also mention that the plain, less circus-like lighting in Paradise Cave appealed to me. It makes it easier to see and appreciate the fine work done by nature. Large, well-constructed stairs allow access to the grand spaces that you can literally take hours exploring. Go later in the day and on a weekday, not on a holiday. Then you’ll enjoy more peace, as I did.

World’s largest cave

Unfortunately, you can’t just wander into Vietnam’s most famous cave – Son Doong, as trips are highly sought after and book up fast. However  the government is quickly aligning with travel agencies after the first trial tour in 2013 so more opportunities are coming online to visit this incredible attraction. If you’re fortunate enough to go, this is surely the most amazing natural wonder you’ll ever see underground, maybe even above.

At over 200m wide, 150m hight and over 6.5 km long, Son Doong Cave now tops the global list, and it’s much larger than the previous record-holder – Deer Cave in Malaysia. In fact, one section of this huge cavern alone beats the record once held by the entire Malaysian cave.

A local man discovered, lost, then re-found the cave only a few years ago. Then 2009 saw experienced English husband and wife spelunkers Deb and Howard Limbert begin to explore it. Since then, it has become a “must-see” attraction for many visitors to Vietnam.

India’s carved caves

Spiritual journeys are often associated with caves, probably due to the peaceful inner nature of their natural architecture. Indeed, in the Far East, many Buddhist monks still follow the ancient tradition of living in a cave, whether for a few days or for several years. The Lord Buddha himself is said to have lived in a cave in Rajgir, located in Bihar, India.

Outside Bihar’s spiritual landmark, the inspiring and stunningly built Vishwa Shanti Stupa pagoda stands as a monument to universal peace. A Japanese Buddhist sect erected the structure in 1988, and dedicated it to the lessons of peaceful co-existence that their spiritual leader taught. Once you set eyes on the marble stupa, with its four glimmering statues of Lord Buddha, you’ll most likely feel a deep reverence for the place – as most visitors do.

The pagoda is very sacred, and feels like a 3-dimensional mandala, instantly transporting you into a calm and focused place. However, I was equally stunned upon entering nearby Saptaparni Cave. The Lord Buddha is said to have stayed in this cave while meditating and transcribing the first compilation of his teachings in writing. Once used as a guardian station to protect these jewels of knowledge; the caves eventually became home to hermits on the Buddhist path.

Stone columns are delicately carved all along the cave’s walls, with tiny figures and scenes gracing each one. As the source of Rajgir’s famous hot springs, which Lord Buddha is reported to have used to heal suffering and ill people, the cave also holds special significance to Hindus.

Thailand’s mammoth caves

Tham Lod in Pang Mapha, Thailand, is an impressive example of nature’s timeless beauty. In fact, Sir David Attenborough’s famed “Planet Earth” series shared the wonders of the region’s prehistoric caverns, where astonishing rock features hang from the height of multi-storey buildings, reflected in cool waters with hardly a sound to disturb the scene.

Tham Susa is one of several caves in the area that were discovered by Australian John Spies, who now runs adventure tours to a selection of incredible caves in Northern Thailand. Personally, I was overcome by the eerie shapes sprouting all about in Tham Pha Puak, where you have to walk very slowly to avoid stumbling into the craggy rock formations.

Even after seeing famed Tham Lod and the blue stalactites hanging in many other caves; my favorite “hole in the wall” was Tham Lum Khao Ngu (Snake Mountain Cave), home to Earth’s highest cave column, at 200ft (62m). The golden glaze of the sun beaming into the cave’s long entrance provided photos I could never hope to capture elsewhere in the world, and believe me I have tried, in places as diverse as Australia, Mexico and the Grand Canyon.

Many of Asia’s caves are also decorated with works of art and statues of spiritual deities, as well as carvings and ancient objects rarely seen even in the finest museums. You’ll enter with a sense of wonder, and leave with a feeling of awe. What’s more, you’ll be a bit cooler on the inside as well as the outside after the experience.

Caves are regarded as spiritual sanctuaries in many Asian countries and they are also among the most historically significant sites you are likely to visit on a trip to the region.

  • In Tham Lod and other caves nearby, coffins carved form teak have been found which are thought to have been carved by people form the Lawa tribe thousands of years ago.
  • Malaysia’s oldest rock paintings, include Gua Tewet, the tree of life, at Gua Tambun caves in Perak province. Time-dating shows these paintings to be about 2,000 years old.
  • China has countless temple caves and underground Buddhist sanctuaries. At Datong, in Shanxi Province, you can visit Yungang Grottoes. These arching mountainside caves hold 51,000 Buddha rock-cut statues, statuettes and related carvings.
  • Nenang cave monastery, the seat of the Nenang Pawo, a primary tulku of Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kagyu school, sits west of Lhasa in Doilungdeqen county. It  is home to nuns and monks of the Sera Monastery and one of the highest locations in the world where Buddhist students and teachers reside.
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