Tham Pla Fish Cave of Mae Hong Son in Thailand

Located in Tham Pla Forest Park of Mae Hong So, Thailand, The Fish Cave (Tham Pla Cave) is a stream filled with freshwater fish especially the sacred Soro Brook Carp.

Tham Pla, also known as the Fish Cave, is a natural and cultural wonder located in the Mae Hong Son Province of northern Thailand. This serene destination is part of the Tham Pla–Pha Suea National Park, which spans an impressive area filled with rugged mountain landscapes, lush forests, and striking karst formations. Tham Pla is specifically known for its mesmerizing underwater cave system, which is home to a unique species of fish that holds significant value to the local folklore and religious beliefs. (Featured image credit: Wikimedia)

Tham Pla Fish Cave of Mae Hong Son in Thailand 1
Pha Sua Waterfall – Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Visitors to Tham Pla are greeted with the tranquil sounds of a stream that flows out from the cave’s entrance, set against the backdrop of towering limestone cliffs. Inside, the cave is a spiritual sanctuary, housing various Buddhist shrines that are frequently visited by pilgrims seeking blessings. The clear waters teem with the sacred Soro Brook carp, which are believed to be protected by the spirits of the cave. The fish are so revered that fishing is strictly prohibited, ensuring their safety and the preservation of the cave’s spiritual ambiance.

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History of Tham Pla Fish Cave

Origins and Local Myths

The history of Tham Pla is steeped in local legend and spiritual beliefs that have been passed down through generations of the Shan people, the ethnic group native to the Mae Hong Son region. According to local myth, the cave is believed to be the abode of powerful spirits. The Soro Brook carp that inhabit the cave’s waters are deemed to be sacred and are associated with a legend involving a hermit who was said to have lived in the cave. It’s believed that the hermit’s spirit still guards the fish, which is why they remain unharmed by the local people, who consider it taboo to catch or harm them.

Another local story suggests that the fish are the reincarnations of a group of ancient humans who were transformed as a divine punishment for transgressions. Due to these myths and the religious significance of the cave, Tham Pla has been a site of worship and a destination for pilgrimages for many years. The local people hold ceremonies and festivals at the cave, particularly during important Buddhist holidays, when they come to pay homage to the spirits and the revered fish.

Fish Cave in Mae Hong Son
Photo by © James Antrobus via Flickr

Discovery and Tourism

Tham Pla came to the attention of the broader public and international tourists relatively recently, as the area opened up for tourism. The actual ‘discovery’ by outsiders is not well documented, but the rise in visitors began in earnest in the latter half of the 20th century as Thailand’s tourism industry started to take off. The national park in which Tham Pla is situated was established in 1981, which further increased the cave’s visibility and accessibility to tourists.

The development of Tham Pla as a tourist destination has been carried out with a deep respect for the natural and spiritual importance of the site. Infrastructure such as walkways and signage has been added to guide visitors while protecting the cave’s delicate environment. Efforts have been made to ensure that the influx of tourists does not disturb the sacred fish or pollute the waters, with strict rules against feeding or touching the fish being enforced.

Today, Tham Pla is an essential stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop, a popular travel circuit in Northern Thailand. It offers a unique blend of natural beauty, spirituality, and cultural heritage, attracting visitors who are interested in exploring Thailand’s rich biodiversity, as well as those seeking to learn about the country’s myriad of local legends and religious practices. The site’s management works to balance the needs of the local ecosystem with the benefits of tourism, preserving Tham Pla’s historical and mythological legacy for future generations.

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Travel Guide

How To Get To The Fish Cave

The fish cave is 17 kilometers (10 miles) away from town. You can catch a ride to almost anywhere in the town center; however, if you have a vehicle, you can find it by following Highway 1095. After getting to the national park, you will need to walk for some time to reach the Fish Cave.

Prices & Opening Hours

Opening Hours
Every Day 8:00 – 16:00
Entrance Fee
Adult 100 Baht
Children 50 Baht

The fish cave is not a great wonder of the world, but it is an exceptional experience if you enjoy spending some time in nature. Besides, walking in this National Park is considered one of the most enjoyable activities for visitors.

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Exploring the Fish Cave

Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit Tham Pla is during the dry season, which typically runs from November to February. During these months, the weather is cooler and more comfortable for exploring the outdoors, and the risk of heavy rains and potential flooding in the cave is minimal. This period also coincides with the peak tourist season in Thailand, so visitors can expect more services to be readily available, although it can also mean the site might be more crowded.

Another suitable time for a visit is at the end of the rainy season, around October when the surrounding landscape is lush and green, and the water levels in the cave are stable. If you’re interested in experiencing local culture, plan your visit to coincide with one of the religious festivals or holidays, as they often involve special ceremonies at the cave.

What to Expect During a Visit

Upon visiting Tham Pla, you’ll find a serene and picturesque setting that offers a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. The entrance to the cave is surrounded by a well-maintained park with walkways and bridges that allow easy access to the site. As you approach the cave, you can expect to see the clear waters teeming with the sacred Soro Brook carp. Visitors are welcome to watch the fish but are reminded to respect the sanctity of the site by refraining from attempting to catch or touch them.

Within the cave, the atmosphere is tranquil, and the silence is only broken by the gentle sounds of flowing water and the occasional murmur of visitors and worshipers. The cave itself is adorned with Buddhist statues and offerings, creating a spiritual ambiance that is both calming and awe-inspiring.

For the more adventurous, there are opportunities to explore the surrounding national park, with its rich flora and fauna, offering hiking trails and the chance to spot other wildlife in their natural habitat. However, the cave’s interior beyond the accessible areas is not open for public exploration to ensure the preservation of the environment and the safety of visitors.

Facilities at Tham Pla include restrooms, food stalls, and sometimes local guides who can provide additional insight into the history and significance of the cave. It’s a good idea to wear comfortable shoes and bring water, especially if you plan to enjoy the walking trails around the park.

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Importance of Fish Caves in the Local Ecosystem

Fish caves like Tham Pla play an integral role in the local ecosystems and the broader environmental landscape of their regions. These subterranean aquatic systems are biodiversity hotspots, supporting a wide array of species that are specially adapted to life in dark, often isolated, underwater environments. The Soro Brook carp, for example, have evolved to thrive in the cave’s unique conditions, contributing to the cave’s ecological balance by feeding on algae and other organisms within the cave system.

The presence of such fish caves has a direct impact on local water quality and the surrounding habitats. They act as natural water filtration systems, where the fish and other organisms help to maintain the purity and clarity of the water. This, in turn, benefits the local communities who often rely on these water sources for their daily needs.

Tham Pla Fish Cave of Thailand
M.inse31, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, fish caves like Tham Pla are critical to the local communities not only for their ecological value but also for their cultural and economic significance. They attract tourists from around the world, which helps to support local economies through eco-tourism. This encourages the protection and conservation of these unique natural resources, fostering sustainable practices that benefit both the environment and the inhabitants of the area.

Preserving fish caves is vital for maintaining the delicate balance of the ecosystem. It ensures the survival of endemic species, protects spiritual and cultural sites, and sustains the livelihoods of local communities by promoting sustainable tourism and environmental stewardship.

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The Fish of Tham Pla

Species Found in the Cave

The primary inhabitants of Tham Pla are the Soro Brook carp (Neolissochilus stracheyi), a species of fish that is particularly adapted to life in the cave’s aquatic environment. These fish are characterized by their resilience and ability to navigate the dimly lit waters within the cave system. Their presence in Tham Pla is quite remarkable, considering the generally scarce food resources available in such environments. The carp primarily feed on algae, aquatic plants, and small organisms that are found in the cave’s ecosystem.

Tham Pla Fish Cave of Mae Hong Son in Thailand 2
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

In addition to the Soro Brook carp, the waters of Tham Pla and its surrounding streams might also host other aquatic species that are typical to the region’s freshwater ecosystems, although the carp are the most visible and culturally significant inhabitants. The biodiversity within these waters reflects the health of the local ecosystem and the effectiveness of the conservation efforts in place to protect this unique environment.

Significance of the Fish to the Cave and Locals

The fish of Tham Pla holds a profound significance to both the cave itself and the local communities. Spiritually, the Soro Brook carp are seen as guardians and symbols of good fortune. Their continuing presence is considered a blessing and an indication of the spirits’ favor. This has established Tham Pla as an important religious site for the Shan people and other Buddhist pilgrims, who often come to the cave to offer prayers and release captive fish into its waters as a merit-making act.

Culturally, the fish are a source of local pride and are integral to the identity of the community. They are featured in local folklore and ceremonies, and their protection is a community effort, reflecting a deep respect for nature and local traditions.

Ecologically, the Soro Brook carp are a key species within the cave’s ecosystem. Their feeding habits help maintain the clarity and quality of the water by controlling the growth of algae and other microorganisms. This, in turn, affects the overall health of the cave environment and the surrounding forested areas, as the waters from Tham Pla feed into larger rivers and contribute to the region’s hydrological health.

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Accommodation Near The Fish Cave

There are several places to stay in Mae Hong Son, both for more economic traveling experiences and luxurious ones.

Boondee House Guesthouse

If you are only going to need a place to sleep, maybe you should head to the Boondee House Hotel. It is a 1.5-star hotel with free Wi-Fi near the center of Mae Hong Son.

Ngamta Hotel and Palmhouse

Other suitable places to stay near the center of the city are the 2-star hotels by the names of Ngamta Hotel and Palm House.

B2 Mae Hong Son Premier hotel

There is also a 4-star hotel with better facilities if you do not mind spending more money. This hotel is called the B2 Mae Hong Son Premier Hotel, located near the center of town.

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