The cave is enthralling. Its entrance is broad, like a cathedral door, and during the rainy season the humidity pours out of it like steam. It looks like the gateway to another world. In some senses, it is.
I started down the rocky descent toward the entrance, drawn in by its vast scale and emptiness. Only my companion, having heeded a sign forbidding entrance during the rainy season, called me back. I returned reluctantly. But retreating was the right move. As the schoolchildren found out, during the rainy season the water levels at tight spots in the cave can rise dramatically, trapping would-be explorers inside.
Afterward, I spent a great deal of time in other caves around the region, interviewing religious attendants and local guides about how people in the region understand the power of caves and other sacred sites, and what their role is in Northern Thai mythology.
Just south of Nang Non Cave and about an hour north of the city of Chiang Mai, the capital of Thailand’s northern region, is Chiang Dao peak. It is an impressive mountain, rising straight up from rice fields, with sheer drops on most sides. And, like many such mountains in the region, there is a cave that winds down into its heart.
Local chronicle and oral legend varies on the exact story of the place: Some say the cave was the home of demonic giants—“yaksha”—who were nonetheless ruled from within the cave by a noble king. Others have a noble ruler founding the kingdom of Lanna (Northern Thailand) and then retreating to the cave only to have his realm fall into disarray.
My favorite such story has a Northern Thai lord—Jao Luang Kham Daeng, the Lord of Burnished Copper—who was tricked into following a beautiful woman into the cave, where he was later devoured by the spirits within. However, in his death, according to one version, he became its ruler.
In each of these stories, the cave becomes the home of a powerful but sometimes dangerous spirit, who keeps the Northern Thai region safe, prosperous, and healthy so long as the spirit and the dangerous power of the mountain is respected.
It might be tempting to infer that Northern Thai caves, then, have little to do with Buddhism. But religion in Thailand and especially the North is, as scholars such as Pattana Kitiarsa, Erick White, Justin McDaniel and many others have pointed out, a blend of different influences: a belief in the power of particular people and places, a respect for Buddhist teachings, and a model of kingly power based on older Hindu traditions in the region.
The caves of Northern Thailand are places where these religious traditions blend: There are shrines to the Buddha, Hindu hermits, and the spirit lords of the mountain, all in the same space. These are not, as some might expect, three separate traditions. They fuse together, especially in cave legends.