The Wisdom of the Ancestors
The dark dampness of the cave presses like a weight upon Little Red’s skin. The pungent smell of burning herbs, mingled with the damp earthy scent of moss-covered stones, stings his nostrils. A low groaning hum resonates from deep in the shaman’s throat, echoing mysteriously in the dark abyss. Little Red’s father is draped by a leather cape made from the skins of small deer that once roamed the jungle in abundance; his head bears the horns of a beast whose spirit leads him on the journey to the other side…a journey Little Red longs to also take some day in the steps of his ancestors.
The Seer cradles a stone pestle filled with smoldering plants. He slowly shuffles around the fire, chanting, deeply inhaling the strange smoke. His eyes reflect the flickering flames, which seem to ignite something deep inside of him. Little Red feels a little dizzy now in the thick atmosphere, but he knows he must concentrate. He is there to learn, and to help his venerable father to safely communicate with the nature spirits, to ensure their successful hunting-gathering lifestyle and protection from evil.
Little Red is frightened but stands his ground. His father is in another world now. Eerie noises escape his shaman father’s throat, rising and falling in uneven breaths…sometimes panting furiously, sometimes slowing to a near dead stop. An occasional scream emerges from deep inside his chest, bouncing through the cavern, interspersed with chants of both recognizable and unfamiliar tongues. Time imperceptibly floats by while Little Red’s father journeys through the boundaryless spirit world, where the distinction between human, animal, plant, rock, and stream…the dead and the living…is blurred and crossable. The father’s important mission now is to negotiate with these unseen powers to secure the favorable conditions that provide the tribe with fish, mollusks, forest animals, and other bounties from their shoreline lifestyle. The boy hardly notices that the night sounds of frogs, lizards, crickets, and numerous other living things drifting from the cave entrance have become swallowed by the silence of the night, and he drifts into his own dreamworld.
Like a morning sea fog slowly burned away by the sun, Little Red gradually becomes aware of the first sounds of morning outside, at the same time his father begins to regain his consciousness of this realm. He grabs his father’s hands and offers him the specially prepared drink. The shaman quaffs the deep purple liquid thirstily, and his eyes return a calming look into his son’s worried gaze. It is time to record his fantastic journey.
He carefully shows his heir how to mix the red and black paints, and how to prepare stones and branches to apply the paints. They lash strong branches together to form ladders that reach to the high cave ceiling. With the images fresh in his mind, he begins to recreate as best he can those fleeting images of the animal spirits with whom he has just communed. Little Red is excited to see the pictures emerge from his father’s hand. He feels the strong invisible force that his protector has summoned for their family and tribe’s well-being.
The cave’s gallery includes simple line drawings of birds, fish, reptiles, and fantastic creatures—all seen by other spirit guides from ages past. Ancient people, perhaps Little Red’s own direct ancestors, depicted themselves as a memorial of their time in this sacred space, with their wavy hair and strong torsos. Over here is a man catching a fish—over there an outline of a pair of people, one big and one small, just like Little Red and his father.
To this collection his father adds a figure in his own distinct style. He outlines a robe with red parallel lines flowing up over the head to a set of horns. The figure mysteriously floats forward on the rock. The set of open lips recalls the strange voices that emitted from his father’s mouth last night. His father explains that the stripes are to show that he had crossed over to another realm…he wasn’t completely sure who it was during the experience, for he felt it was as if he had departed this world and entered into another.
The ceremony complete, the father-son duo retreat further inside from the rising heat outside to a shady corner, and collapse exhausted. This cave was not their home…mostly they felt more free and relaxed outside in their wood shelters…but Little Red enjoys the adventure of coming for spirit ceremonies, and despite his fear of any lingering spirits in the cave, he begs father for a story of their ancestors.
“Many many monsoons ago, more than one can count, our ancestors traveled from a distant land. They crossed places that weren’t like our forest. They crossed high places that touched the sky, where the cold spirit of the earth could defeat the warm spirit of the sun. Our people say that the sea has not always been here. They say that before, in time longer than memory, you could walk toward the setting sun for days and not find the sea. The waters hid themselves from us, and wide open spaces opened up where huge wild beasts prowled. Beasts with huge claws that could rip a man’s arm off with one slice. Giant beasts, like the great elephants that I have told you about, but bigger and covered with long hair…so big they could never fit in a place as big as this cave, with legs like the biggest tree trunks, and fearsome horns that could pierce the bodies of four men at the same time. Many heroes led our people and fought these wild beasts. They conquered the beasts and the land, and learned the ways of the spirit world, too. We have never seen these beasts, but they are in the memories of our people, and this is why you must remember, too.
Even the waters saw the bravery of our people, and rose again, bringing us all those things you love to eat…the turtles, the crabs, the shellfish, the many many kinds of fish. The sea spirit provides everything for us, and we must always please her and talk gently with her, for she is terribly fearsome when she gets angry. When she is displeased with us, she shakes the ground fiercely and sends her waters to cover the earth everywhere. I spoke with her last night, like an obedient boy, even like a lover, praising her loveliness and grace.
There is great wisdom in our ancestors, son, who learned to talk to the spirits like this, who learned the ways of the sea and forest…it’s what I learned from my father, and you must remember also. There is so much for you to remember. Remember how we fix our tools. Remember the lights in the sky in their seasons. Remember the shape, smell, color, taste of the animals and plants that feed us. Remember how we find them, how we raise and plant, how we prepare and cook. The wisdom of our ancestors is your life, son.”
Little Red furrowed his brow, trying to picture all the things his father talked about. It felt like a great burden sometimes…he felt his small head could not contain all those things he must place there. But his face relaxed into a smile, for he trusted his father. After all, life was not so hard here. Food was not that difficult to gather. Though the sun sometimes burned, the spirit wind blew cool breezes from the sea. And his people cared for and protected one another. This place of caves and cliffs, where the sea kisses the earth in green mangrove forests, is blessed by the spirits, and Little Red knows he will not fail in his future role as his people’s communicator with the other side.
Krabi Before History
Many people have come to love Krabi as a tropical paradise…blessed with emerald seas gently washing upon glittering white beaches, and fantastical rock formations, called karsts[i], soaring nearly vertically from sea or land. And yet, many are unaware of the complex natural forces and rich history that result in this paradise.
[i] The word “karst” comes from a European region around Italy-Slovenia where they were first scientifically described.
A Little Bit of Geology and Chemistry
The secret of Krabi’s stunning scenery starts nearly five hundred millions years ago, when a section of the earth’s crust split off from the tectonic plate containing Australia in the supercontinent Gondwana. Geological scientists call this piece of crust the “Shan-Thai Terrane.” (Terrane—not to be confused with terrain– means a mass of earth’s crust that has broken off of one tectonic plate and become attached to crust lying on another plate).
That bit of crust became an archipelago in an ancient sea called the Paleotethys. As the terrain drifted northward through hundreds of millions of years to eventually join the Indochina Terrane (to the east) and South Chine Terrane (to the north), it was often inundated by the seas, when ages of marine life—mostly tiny shells made of lime (calcium carbonate, CaCO3)–accumulated. Over eons of compacting, these fossilized shells, along with mud, became limestone.
Starting about 100 million years ago, the Indian subcontinent began a race from south to north, to come crashing into the Eurasian continent. The violence of this slow-moving but powerful impact formed the Himalayas, and also twisted and uplifted the Shan-Thai terrane to form the complex mountain structure we see in today’s Thailand. You can view a computer graphic of this collision here (the video starts from present to 100 million years ago, then reverses back to present):
Why do Krabi’s karsts soar in such fantastic shapes and have so many caves that sheltered ancient humans here? It starts because limestone, as a chemical base, reacts with rainwater, which is slightly acidic (carbonic acid (H2CO3) because it picks up Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere or ground. This acidic water seeps into fissures in the limestone and widens cracks over time as the surface dissolves, forming caves and intricately sculpted surfaces. Krabi’s topography and climate provide ideal conditions for karst formation—relatively pure limestone, abundant rainfall, and mountainous terrain that was exposed by the Indian subcontinent collision. This process built the limestone formations that soar dramatically above Krabi’s landscape, and that provided shelter, places for religious ceremonies, and burial sites for ancient humans.
A Little Bit of Paelology (The Study of Really Old Things)
The story of Little Red above reflects the importance of Krabi’s rarely-visited paleological sites, where scientists have discovered evidence of some of the oldest human habitation in Southeast Asia. Krabi’s various excavations tell a somewhat obscured story of ancient life here. The caves may have been used as primary residences or encampments in very ancient times, but evidence suggests that open air settlements became more common, probably from about 6 – 4,000 years ago. Stone tools also transform over the ages from chipped stone to more technically produced grounded stones, which may be related to the transition from strictly hunting-gathering activities to purposely cultivating roots and plants.
Several studies have looked at the possibility that significant changes in sea level affected the use of caves and the transition to agriculture over a long period of time as well. Around 26,000 to 22,000 years ago (when humans were already living in the area), the Last Glacial Maximum had locked up so much ice into glaciers that the sea level may have been 90-100 meters below present in the Phang Nga Bay/Andaman Sea area around Krabi, so that there was land consisting of dry or monsoon forest out to well beyond Phuket. To the east, the present Gulf of Thailand was filled with tropical grassland.
Even after the last glacial period, sea levels have risen and fallen over the centuries, which can particularly affect the shallow coastal area and vegetation around Krabi. When the sea levels are lower, the dryer conditions allow foraging animals to inhabit the environment. Excavations show that diet included deer, monkeys, and other forest-welling mammals. When the levels are higher, the mangrove environment encroaches further inland toward the Krabi cave areas, and the effect can be seen as the diet takes advantage of the availability of freshwater shellfish and turtles. Approximately 6-5,000 years ago, there was a highwater point, where the sea level in some areas around Krabi may have been 2.5 to 5 meters above present. This receded by 3-2,000 years ago when conditions became drier.
Little Red’s story takes place at the end of this transition period, when the paintings at Phee Hua To Cave were probably drawn. By this time, the caves were probably abandoned as living quarters, but they were still used for brief shelters (maybe during heavy monsoons), and especially for religious ceremonies and burials. The story is fantasy, of course, but based on theories that paleoanthropologists describe of ancients who practiced cave painting and shamanism.
How to Experience Ancient Krabi
Despite the huge significance of Krabi’s paleological sites, there are only a few accessible areas or activities available to the curious explorer. A site just beyond and up the road from the Tiger Cave Temple, known as Moh Kiew Cave, has burial remains carbon-dated to 25,800 years ago. On the other side (to the west) of that mountain range is a site known as “Tham Lang Rongrian,” or “Cave Behind the School,” where, judging by the silt layers, evidence of human activity reaches back 43,000 years. Both of these sites are currently unoccupied and unattended, and it takes a bit of searching and hiking to find them.
The linked tourism site gives a description of how to find the Moh Kiew Cave, although I have not yet been able to confirm its accessibility.
The Lang Rongrian Cave location is depicted on this Google Map screen shot. I have visited the school, but not made it to the cave. There is an overgrown trail next to the school that leads to the cave, but jungle hiking gear should be worn for access.
A more accessible paleological site that makes a very worthwhile excursion for those wanting to get to know Krabi more deeply can be found about an hour’s drive from Krabi Town in the direction toward Phang Nga, in Ao Leuk. At the small pier, one can hire a guided kayak tour, or a long-tail boat. Most of the tours will take you to several cave sites, not all of which have cave paintings. Accessibility depends on tides—it’s best to go at high tide.
The site is a national park location, so the racist/xenophobic unfair pricing applies (adult foreigners are charged 300 baht, versus 60 baht for Thais). In the off-high season (early November), I drove to the pier and hired a long-tail for myself and my Thai wife to go only to the Phi Hua To cave for 600 Thai baht, which included the cave admission. Prices may vary for different time periods and different agendas.
The cave has a well-built walkway structure, although it keeps one a bit far from the paintings. (Given the propensity for tourists to do destructive things to artifacts, such as touching them, this is a good thing). The cave is naturally beautiful and cool even on a hot day. I encourage you to take a tour, and let your imagination run with images of ancient peoples living their lives among the natural wonders of Krabi!