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Meeting a ‘big-headed ghost’ in southeast Thailand

On the bank of the Ao Luek River, on the Andaman Coast, mysterious art in once-forgotten caves provides a glimpse into the region’s shamanic past — and offers worthwhile ideas for conservation, too.

By Dom Tulett
Published 25 Jun 2022, 06:03 BST
Cave art in Tham Phi Hua, otherwise known as the ‘big-headed ghost cave'.

Cave art in Tham Phi Hua, otherwise known as the ‘big-headed ghost cave'.

Photograph by Alamy

I feel queasy as I climb into my kayak on the western bank of the Ao Luek River, an hour’s drive north of Krabi town on Thailand’s Andaman coast. The water’s a shade of creamy brown, like an over-milked mug of tea. I can’t tell if it’s the colour of the water that’s unsettling me or the fact that I’m setting off in search of a ghost.

The sun hides behind faceless clouds as my guide, Theo Phupakorn, leads me out onto the water. My destination is Tham Phi Hua To — the ‘big-headed ghost cave’ — a hollow segment of limestone mountain accessible only by boat. Theo eases her kayak ahead. She looks back at me. “Are you ready?” I don’t think I am, but dredge up the courage to nod.

We paddle for an hour through sticky heat, snaking down half-hidden creeks, moving deeper into ghost country. Blocks of thick mangrove line the way, their knuckled roots clawing into muddy banks. Limestone stacks rise all around, looming over us. The route narrows, branches reaching out to grab us as we approach a wooden sign announcing that we’ve reached the cave.

Tham Phi Hua To is bigger than I’d imagined, open and wide at the entrance. Stepping inside I can sense the slow geology, the passing of time creating unusual formations, the limestone having folded over itself, piling and drooping like scoops of meringue. Sections are dark, dank, dirty. Sharp teeth of hanging rock close around us. It’s easy to believe in ghosts in such a setting.

As well as an unusually large human skull — which gave the site its ominous name — cave paintings were found here when the site was unearthed in 1954. Over the following two decades, archaeologists recorded a total of 238 images scattered throughout the cave’s twin chambers: blood-red depictions of marine life, birds, and anthropomorphic figures. The quantity makes it one of the most important pictograph sites in the country.

Theo shines a light around the cave art. I see a lobster, an elongated bird, a pair of hands — one with five fingers, one with six — on the upper walls of the chamber. I ask Theo which are her favourites. “The sea creatures,” she says, turning the torch onto an image of an octopus. “They show the richness of nature at that time.”

The beam shifts to the ceiling where, high among the stalactites, Theo highlights a horned figure, wearing a striped-red cloak. This is Khun Lai Sen, or ‘Mr Lining’. Some of the etchings are crude, stick-like drawings, but Mr Lining is carefully detailed; more attention went into this painting. Theo answers my question before I ask it, “Some say it was the god they worshipped to keep them safe.”

Although adopted as an informal tourism mascot by the region, Mr Lining — thought by archaeologists to represent a shaman — isn’t exclusive to Tham Phi Hua To. A similar image was found in 2021 at an island site further down the coast, revealing more about the people who lived here 3,000-5,000 years ago when the images were made. The drawings suggest these people lived a nomadic lifestyle, reliant upon the sea and rivers for transport and food, and the caves for shelter during storms.

The protection theme lives on. Guide ropes and a raised walkway keep visitors not just safe, but away from the art. They’re recent additions, part-funded through tourism income. Other rock art sites — more than 500 have been catalogued across Thailand — have been damaged by people touching the paintings or adding their own artistic contributions. By implementing protection measures like these, Mr Lining and the big-headed ghost cave can offer a conservation example to other sites, one that can also boost archaeological research: if there’s an incentive — through tourism — to report previously undocumented pictographs, sites can be properly preserved.

I step back out into the bright, living world. The route back looks clearer now: the clouds have burned away, and the river’s green, reflecting the mangroves with a sparkle of sun. Any sense of queasiness is gone. No ghosts today. Mr Lining’s keeping an eye out for me, too.

How to do it: G Adventures offers the 14-day Hike, Bike & Kayak tour, starting and ending in Bangkok, from £1,143 per person. Includes accommodation, activities, some meals and transfers within the tour. Excludes international flights.

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