With more than 30 years of experience as a cave explorer and guide under his belt, Australian photographer John Spies is an expert at navigating the incredible formations and winding passages of underground sites never before seen by man. Camera in hand, the adventurer has journeyed into the depths of over 80 caverns in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam–including a few caves previously undiscovered by humans. His remarkable explorations have included trips to Tham Xe Bang Fai–a cave in Laos containing the world’s largest gour pool–and Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong, the largest known cave in the world.
Entirely new worlds can be found in these magnificent caverns. Enormous stalactites hang over underground rivers, pools, rocky terrain, and plains covered in lush vegetation. Some places can only be accessed using kayaks or skilled climbing techniques, making each location a rarely seen treasure earned by very few. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring to gaze at these stunning images of the otherworldly realms hidden deep beneath the sunlit surface.
Although Spies has traveled all over Southeast Asia, his home base is in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, where he runs a guesthouse called Cave Lodge. Visitors can relax in bungalows, enjoy the natural surroundings, and experience the wonders of caves on adventure tours guided by Spies himself.
Edit: We got in touch with the photographer to ask a few questions about his extraordinary experience exploring caves. Read the exclusive interview below.
Above: The main river passage in Tham Lod, Mae Hong Son, Thailand.
A massive bank of flowstone in the main river tunnel of Tham Xe Bang Fai. With over 15kms of surveyed passage the cave is not only one of the largest subterranean river passages in the world, it is also one of the best decorated with fantastic calcifications clinging to the passage walls.
The inflow, upstream entrance of Tham Xe Bang Fai, Laos. The main 7 km long river tunnel section is best accessed by kayak.
Tham Huep is a 1.3 km long cave tunnel that has been used for centuries by Laotian villagers to access their remote, crag-encircled village on the far side of the limestone mountain. The ruins of an ancient Buddhist temple in the hidden valley attest to the antiquity of this underground route.
American rock climber and cave explorer Josh Morris stands amongst stalagmites and dripstone formations in Hang Son Doong, Vietnam.
How did you first get started exploring and photographing caves?
I first started exploring caves in Thailand in 1977 when I was working with my Thai partner running multi-day treks to remote hill tribe villages. We trekked on small mountain paths in many parts of Nth Thailand for up to 14 days, but my favorite region was in Mae Hong Son province near the Thai-Myanmar border. This area is dominated by rugged highland karst and there are hundreds of caves, most of them unexplored beyond their entrance chamber. Some of these caves were carved out of the limestone bedrock by active streams, while others are dry caverns high on the rocky crags. Of particular interest to me were caves that had preserved the artifacts left by past cultures. I have found the remains of prehistoric teak-wood log coffins in over 80 caves in Pang Mapha district of Mae Hong Son Province. The burials, complete with bones, pottery, tools and decorative items are between 1500 and 2200 years old. Ancient rock art has survived in a few sites and stone tools up to 30,00 years old are common in cave entrances and overhangs.
For some of the early discoveries in the 1980s I was joined by Australian cave explorers, and over many expeditions we explored and mapped scores of cave systems. The natural values of the caves are outstanding. Some are decorated with world-class formations, others are the habitat of new species of eyeless cave fish or other troglobytic creatures. Two caves are the sole known habitat of a new genus of cave fish that has adapted its fins to climb cave waterfalls. I spend 6 days in one of these caves, where the levels of carbon dioxide were a constant 5%, with the BBC Planet Earth team filming eyeless fish. They used around 15 seconds of the footage for the program.
View from the ‘dragon hatching balcony’ of the Tham Xe Bang Fai entrance chamber.
Khammuoane Province in Laos is riddled with caves. This one needed a kayak to explore.
The world’s biggest gour pool in Tham Xe Bang Fai, Laos, fills with water during the wet season, depositing a thin layer of calcite crystals on the rims of the pools each year.
1380: An enormous sky hole, 100 meters higher than American adventurer Megan Ross, allows light into a collapsed section of Hang Son Doong called “Watch out for Dinosaurs.” The unique spiral-shaped stalagmite is coated with ferns and mosses.
Climbing a chock in Tham Pang Kham, Mae Hong Son, Thailand.
Your experiences in these hidden caves must be out of this world. What are some of your thoughts and feelings whenever you set foot in these incredible places?
The biggest thrill for cave explorers is to find a cave or passage that no humans have ever entered or illuminated before. If it keeps going it is hard to stop, and if it is big with beautiful formations the thrill of discovery is amplified. For many cavers, the underground is literally the last frontier for human exploration of our planet..the last unknown. The rest is visible via human eye, satellite, sonar or some other detecting device. Caves are also the darkest place in the universe that we can experience, and they can also be one of the quietest. I find them so absorbing on many levels that it is easy to forget about the outside world. After a few days underground the feeling one gets when exiting a cave is akin to rebirth.
Kayaking in the downstream entrance chamber of Tham Lod, with mist swirling on the cool waters of the Nam Lang.
A fossil passage, adjacent to the inflow entrance of Tham Xe Bang Fai is big enough for light to penetrate and allow a verdant garden of low light plants to flourish.
Reflections from a karst window in Hang Son Doong, Vietnam.
The enormous river tunnel of Tham Xe Bang Fai is decorated with magnificent flowstone draperies.
The downstream entrance of Tham Xe Bang Fai, Laos.
What’s one sight or experience that sticks out in your memory from your years of exploring caves?
Last year I had the opportunity to visit Hang Son Doong in Vietnam, the world’s biggest cave. This cave has 2 giant sky holes that let in light deep inside the cave passage. One of these has supported a forest of tall trees, 100 meters underground. The temperature differences above and below ground cause clouds of swirling mist to form near these giant karst windows and the surreal view from inside the cave looking towards a Hang Son Doong sky hole is sublime. Equally impressive, Tham Xe Bang Fai, in the same massive bed of limestone as Hang Son Doong just across the border, has 15 kms of huge passage including over 7kms of gigantic stream passage. This cave, considered by the National Geographic exploration team as one of the world’s greatest river caves, is extraordinarily decorated with flowstone, dripstone and stalagmites of proportions rarely seen underground.
Every cave is different and some of the most beautiful are small with delicate formations such as cave pearls that form like pearls in an oyster or spiky aragonite crystals that are incredibly fragile. When exploring new cave, you never know what you might find. What is certain though is that caves are very sensitive environments and it is easy for visitors, no matter how careful, to cause damage or impacts to formations, habitats or archaeological remains. To minimize the risk of damage, I prefer to visit caves that have active streams that flood the main passage every year, rather than fossil sections where every step leaves a mark.
Caving is not the safest sport, and I have had to retrieve a corpse and help in several rescues of injured friends, a very sobering experience. Vertical caving is a challenging activity where things can go wrong, but it is a means to an end and few cave explorers can pass up a chance to push a cave deeper. Addiction to discovery is what it is all about. The experience of being the first human to ever see or visit a remarkable place is hard to duplicate…unless you go caving.
Photos and captions courtesy of John Spies. Thanks so much for the interview, John!