He told us that if we waited until twilight, the birds and the bats would change places. The swifts, eager for a rest, would come spiraling out of the sky towards their home for the night and the bats would briefly join them in the air before diving into the sky, rested, and ready to drink in the stars.
And so, we arrive at Tham Lod, late in the day. The smell of kerosene hangs in the air as our tour guides from the village light their lanterns and prepare to take our group into the cave. Outside the main entrance, villagers call to us, holding up bags of large pellets.
“Fish,” a woman says simply, pointing at the bag.
I follow our guide down a dirt path, that quickly leads us to a shallow river. There, we find long bamboo rafts waiting for us along the rocky shore. I eagerly climb on behind our guide, who placing his lantern next to him, lifts a tall piece of bamboo to his side and pushes us off into the river in one smooth motion.
I am momentarily disoriented when we glide into the cave. There is still light here, but my eyes used to the bright Thai sun, have not yet adjusted to the dark. As we move further into the cave, the temperature drops and dampness settles onto my skin.
We are almost in pitch darkness now, except for the flickering lanterns. A small amount of light reflects on the water and I peer down into it. For a moment, I’m enamored with the silence as I watch the huge catfish float by like large shadows in the river.
The moment breaks with the gentle spattering sound of fish pellets landing on the water next to me, and the sudden teetering of the raft as the large fish begin to leap towards their meal. Our guide steadies the raft with his bamboo pole and begins to push us towards a bank.
We climb tall rickety staircases deeper into the cave. It is truly dark here and the pungent smell of guano contrasts the beautiful art that surrounds us; stalagmites and stalactites in all shapes and formations.
I lose my guide for a few minutes and understand suddenly, why they are mandatory. The cave has not been dressed up in tourist clothes. There are no modern pot lights to guide our way or exit signs to guide us out.
We make our way to the last stop; the exit of Tham Lod. I watch as the sun teeters on the edge of the skyline and slowly disappears. In an instant, the birds arrive and the show begins.
When the bats are all gone, somehow I expect to be standing alone in silence, but we are all still there listening to the birds.