A Visit to the Mysterious Cave Of Teeth in Laos.
Some of the unlabelled display cases, full of ancient teeth and bones. To the left of the photo is the tunnel which went far into the mountain.
Millions of caves honeycomb the soaring limestone karst mountains of Laos, most of which remain uncharted and unexplored by experts. Many are shrouded in mystery, local lore, rumours of American POWs being held in them long after the Vietnam War, and some contain fascinating prehistoric artifacts.
Of all the caves that have been explored, one of the most intriguing is the Cave of Teeth, in Luang Prabang province in the north of Laos, about which almost nothing is known publicly.
Only opened to Laos’ booming tourism market in 2012, the cave isn’t mentioned in travel or guide books and there’s no factual information about it on the internet. I was only told of its existence by a friend, and I wrote an article about his visit previously, in a different context.
Nobody I spoke to in the tourist industry in Vientiane knew anything about the cave or its mysterious contents, so I decided to head north to find out for myself.
The closest town to the cave is the tourist mecca and former royal capital, Luang Prabang, where I made enquiries of twenty travel agents, and only one person had heard of the Cave of Teeth, and he’d never been to it.
Eventually I made arrangements and headed out of Luang Prabang, along Route 13, driving some of the way alongside the muddy Mekong river, before turning onto an anonymous road 20km from town. This road wound through rice fields, jungle, teak plantations and stunning mountain scenery for a couple of hours.
A few more kilometers, and the metalled road ran out. We drove the rest of the way on mud-thick dirt roads made slippery by recent rain, although a new road is being cut through the mountains, which should make future access to the cave easier.
My travel guide had called ahead to ensure the custodian from a nearby village had unlocked the gate to the cave, and when we arrived at the site, and its misleading sign (which points the wrong way) I realized I had to now negotiate a long, rickety bamboo bridge to reach the cave.
After the bridge, a walk through fields brought me to the mountain containing the cave, and, after a short but steep climb through tropical vegetation, on slippery limestone steps, I arrived at the cave entrance, when I realised there were in fact two caves of teeth, not one.
The first cave was very easily accessed from the pathway.
Guarding the entrance was an unusual seated human-pig clay figure, which our guide told us was the cave’s guardian. He also told us the caves were believed to be haunted (a common belief in Laos) and that people who steal the teeth will have a curse put on them.
That struck me as a cheap and effective deterrent – if determined teeth thieves believed it, that is. If not, it’s open season in the caves, as there’s no security, and who knows how many teeth and bones have already been stolen or removed from the damaged displays.
Using a torch, I saw there were six glass-topped wooden display cases containing teeth and bones, ranged around the walls, and that two of the display cases had already collapsed. None of the cases were labelled in any way, and the contents were all unidentified.
At the rear of the cave was a small, round tunnel, which I planned to check out later.
Very little could be seen through the thick layer of dirt and bat shit on top of the glass on each case, but, forewarned and forearmed by my friend Chris’s previous visit, I’d brought along a water bottle and a towel with which to clean the cases so I could take photographs.
I’m not excusing my photography, but it was extremely difficult to take good photographs in the cave, because of the dirty display cases, which, even when ‘cleaned’ remained difficult to focus through.
There were hundreds of teeth and bones in each case, some of which may have been human, some of which were definitely animal, and all of which looked Prehistoric to my untrained eye.
I also noticed there were no pieces of pottery in any of the cases in either cave.
A local farmer, Heng, accompanied us into the caves. He said the teeth and bones had been excavated only four years ago, which I found hard to believe given the state of some of the display cases and the relatively amateurish way the artifacts had been displayed.
Although he lived nearby, Heng had never ventured into the caves on his own, as he believed they were haunted, but he took this opportunity to gleefully collect as many bat droppings as he could fit into his shirt, which he’d fashioned into a sack, so that he could later spread them on his field.
After looking at all the cases, I entered the narrow tunnel at the end of the first cave, although both my jumpy guide and Heng refused to go with me.
I walked and crawled along it for a few minutes but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere, so I came out and went to visit the second cave, after a quick trip down to the river to refill my water bottle, suspecting more display case-cleaning would be necessary.
The second cave was more difficult to reach, and it involved much crawling through a tight, cramped tunnel which wound deep into the limestone.
Accessing the second cave isn’t recommended for the claustrophobic, or for those who don’t like large bats flying at them as they sweat their way through a dark, confined space, while being bitten by a myriad of insects.
Eventually, the narrow tunnel ended in a large cavern, partly lit by daylight, where the display of more teeth and bones repaid the effort of the tight, sweaty squeeze to reach it.
In this second cave, there were six more display cases, in slightly better condition than in the first, but all equally filthy, entailing more cleaning, with the same mixed photographic results.
In each of the six cases, there were yet more teeth and bone fragments, some big incisors, and many smaller teeth, some of which may have been human; although I’m certainly no dentist.
Some looked like they’d come from tigers and other carnivores, and in one case there was a tooth that looked like it had come from a woolly mammoth (I have such a tooth in London and it looked identical).
I took as many photographs and as much video as I could, before exploring another tunnel in the cave. This one led to a dead end, consisting of a straight drop into a pool of water, which disturbingly containing two, two metre-long shedded snake skins.
Taking this as a warning to be a little more careful, I returned to the cave, sweated my way back down the narrow tunnel, and out again into daylight, none the wiser about the remarkable exhibition I’d just seen.
It was impossible to count all the pieces of teeth and bone in the caves, but there were many thousands of them.
Unfortunately, answers to the numerous questions posed by these exhibits, such as what they are, who discarded them and from what period of history they come, will have to wait until someone can launch an expedition to properly examine and identify all these remarkable artifacts – if there are any left by then.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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