One of my favorite song lyrics during the dreaded working years was from the Canadian band Loverboy; “Everybody’s working for the weekend”. Unfortunately, this is even more true in the developing world where many people work six days a week and leisure time is highly coveted. While Northern Thailand offers a cornucopia of beautiful scenic spots for relaxing, hiking and enjoying nature, the local population likes these beautiful spots as much as expats and tourists. Thankfully, Monday mornings change from crappy to glorious when you no longer need to jump out of bed at 4:20 AM to catch a 5:15 commuter train and everyone else’s work day becomes your quiet time. Having so far lived through four months of heavy rain, dreaded heat and humidity and a strange month of dead sky overcast that looked ominously similar to our disastrous experience with Penang’s worst haze in twenty years, the beginning of this year was a glorious month of perfect weather in Chiang Mai.
Looking and feeling more like Canadian summer days, it’s hard to believe the difference and with temperatures moderating to a comfortable range of 16 to 27 Celsius, January presents a perfect opportunity for day tripping. So we always wait for the least crowded weekday and hop in our 2011 grey Nissan Tiida that we bought from ExpatAuto.com for under $10,000 USD. Unwilling to risk our lives with an entire population of motorbike riders that do stupid stunts often worthy of an extreme sports competition, we highly recommend sticking to four wheels, especially if you’re unfamiliar with That traffic laws. Yes, that was sarcasm. The only rules on Thailand’s roads are do whatever’s most convenient (like riding against traffic on major four lane roads to avoid driving an extra half mile to the U-turn), make sure you put the entire family on one motorbike (including infants and don’t bother with helmets) and most importantly, make sure any accidents you cause involve farangs because it’s always their fault in the eyes of the Thai law.
So the other day we decided to venture out a bit. Opting for a quick workout first at the gym, we stopped at the local fresh market to pick up some snacks for the drive. But before we even got out of the store, our first traffic incident happened when I made a parking spot where there wasn’t one because that’s what you do in Thailand. Usually amazingly agile at navigating around obstacles, a middle-aged Thai woman somehow scratched the side of our car slightly as she tried to drive around the car and merge into the main road. Unfazed and tired after just coming from the gym, I was ready to get in the car and drive off but since they all think Diane’s Thai, the woman apparently panicked and began digging stuff out of her purse. Perhaps thinking we’d want a police report or something, I thought she was reaching for her insurance or license but instead she fished around to see how much cash was sitting in her purse, handed us 1,000 Thai Baht and drove off. Problem solved in quintessential Thai fashion.
Back on the road, we headed down Canal Road well past the last of the suburban moo-baans and to our surprise, we found that past the construction zone where they’re supposedly widening the two lane road, the work ends and it becomes a beautifully paved four lane divided highway devoid of most traffic. Unclear why they started upgrading the multi lane ring road and excellent shortcut at the southern end where nobody needs it, we took advantage and made up for lost time by cranking it up to 110 KpH. A shorter drive than it looks on Google Maps, we decided to visit Doi Inthanon National Park but since we weren’t constrained by a six-hour half day trip in the back of a cramped van, this time I did some research to find lesser known spots. Thankfully, the region is vast and almost everyone visits the highest point in Thailand and the beautiful Great Holy Relics Pagoda Nabhapolbhumsiri. Constructed by the Thai Air Force and Thai people on the occasion of the late King Bhumibol’s 5th cycle birthday in 1987 and Queen Sirikit’s 5th cycle birthday in 1992 respectively, it’s a beautiful sight well worth your time if you’re visiting.
But if you’re like us, once is enough for most major tourist attractions and we usually reserve those trips for “vacations” despite those who’d say that every day is a holiday if you’re lucky enough to retire early. (Not really true; some days we do absolutely nothing). Anyway, waiting about a week or two after the New Year’s holidays makes sense if you like avoiding hoards of loud and pushy tourists. Always a fan of waterfalls despite not being great swimmers, we devised a circuit that took in the best kept secret in Doi Inthanon, a somewhat less hidden place that included a riverside lunch and a very popular but worthwhile waterfall where the key to enjoying it is arriving after all the tourists leave.
About 90 minutes south of Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is one of Thailand’s most popular national parks. Also one of the busiest, there’s a way to take in a three waterfall circuit that’s beautiful but less crowded. Especially deserted on weekdays even in dry and cool season, May Ya Waterfall is the park’s unknown beauty that nobody knows about. Accessible from the main summit road, a better option is pass the dozens of tour buses turning right at Highway 1009 and follow the back way. Turning right about half mile past the intersection, follow the Google Maps recommendation through a small village, make a few turns and pass a sign for the waterfall that’s easy to miss. Not long after leaving the village, you’ll discover a kiosk where you pay Thailand’s ridiculously exorbitant National Park entry fee for foreigners. Priced at 350 Baht plus a surcharge for a vehicle, it’s literally ten times higher than the Thai citizen’s rate and the extremely bored clerk at the booth wouldn’t budge when we showed Thai driver’s licences. Possibly the first person that didn’t even care if Diane might be Thai, this entrance barely sees four cars a day so he probably hates his job and everyone that impedes on his primary responsibility (playing on his smartphone all day).
Fortunately, the fee is good for re-entry to the more popular parts of the park and the serenity found at the unknown waterfall makes it worth the price. After driving another 10 kilometers, you arrive at a deserted parking area where there’s a small visitor center, some bathrooms and a few vendors desperately trying to sell stuff that’s way too authentic for our liking. A 500 meter dirt path leads to the falls and by negotiating a few rocks and possibly a small water crossing, the reward is Thailand’s highest waterfall drop (so they say) and on the day we came, complete peace and quiet.
Spending almost two hours taking in the crisp mountain air, it reminded us more of a Canadian summer day somewhere in the Rocky Mountains from our days of living in the foothills of Banff and Jasper. OK, the falls aren’t exactly the same caliber as spectacular alpine mountains but given the stifling heat of Thailand for three-quarters of the year, it’s a welcome relief. After wasting away the late morning hours, we meandered back and turned left up the main road. Not as crowded on a mid day Monday, we drove about a half hour and turned left to the second waterfall in our hidden gem circuit.
More of a lunch stop where you’ll be dining with the local Thai people, Mae Klang Waterfall isn’t as spectacular as the first stop but it’s situated on a riverside setting and makes a great lunch stop. Ignored by most tourists, the falls are almost entirely dominated by Thai locals and the place gets packed on weekends. But weekdays mean a peaceful lunch sitting beside the flow of the stream. Situated right in the parking area, a bunch of vendors serves typical Thai fare at inexpensive prices and they’ll bring it down to wherever you choose to sit. Somehow described as “Chiang Mai’s most visited waterfall” by this tour company that claims to specialize in seeing “The real Thailand”, we found nothing further from the truth. Although it’s the first waterfall in the park, most day trips and tourists skip it because it’s a long drive to Doi Inthanon and the views are better at higher elevations. Forget what they say and just enjoy some lunch by the rocks.
After lunch, we took a short trail to take that leads to the falls. Not nearly as serene or hidden as the first one, the circuit gets progressively more popular if you follow our route but it’s still worth your time if you enjoy mingling among locals and eating delicious lunches on quiet weekdays.
Wanting to complete an entire day trip and lacking much else to see that doesn’t involve backpacking or off-road trails, we decided to have a look at one of the more popular but very worthwhile falls further up the road. Included as a stop on every guided tour of the park, Wachirathan Falls are very scenic but its beauty often gets lost among the thousands of tourists. Reached by a short but narrow and curvy one lane road, you’ll find yourself sitting in traffic if you go at a peak time so here’s an insider tip. About 80% of visitors arrive on organized day tours that usually use this as their afternoon lunch stop. If lunch isn’t included, they’ll bring you here in the mid morning on the way up to the summit to avoid the lunch crowd. Since every van, bus and red songtheaw wants to return before dark and it’s a long drive, they’ll all leave by 3:30 or 4 PM and the falls are beautiful in late afternoon anyway.
There’s a steep trail that leads up behind the waterfalls that’s worth a hike although the back views of the falls that’s supposed to be visible never seem to come into view. You’ll usually get the trail to yourselves if you hike much more than a few hundred meters since it’s highly unusual to find Asians engaging in heavy trail climbing (or anything that involves more than two steps out of the car) and they now outnumber western tourists by a large margin. No longer constrained by twenty-minute maximums before the van leaves, we arrived at 4:30 and found only a smattering of cars still in the lot. Taking the trail all the way to its end, we didn’t realize it terminates at a dirt parking lot behind the main road and not a vista point. But we sweat enough anyway and enjoyed a peaceful mountain stroll before heading back to the car for the journey home.
Sadly, perfect Thai winters last about as long as an average Canadian summer which means never long enough. So far the evening temperatures continue to be comfortable with sunrise coming in at about 18 Celsius. And although some days are hazier than others, the high AQI 2.5 Air Quality readings that often place Chiang Mai in the “unhealthy” category haven’t materialized yet, there’s no major burn problems so far and the haze is mostly normal inversion layer effects from dry season in a mountain valley of a polluted country. (All Southeast Asian nations have mostly horrible air quality, little or no meaningful environmental regulations and problems with air quality during dry and hot season). And best of all, humidity is much less in winter and the heat is more like a desert dry than the torrid days of rainy season where it’s so hot afternoons often mean hunkering down in air-conditioned coffee shops. Or the computer room to write posts.
But it is beginning to get hotter every day and with the coming hot season, we decided to rent a house in a sleepy beach town for a month once the heat really gets going. With one season left to go before we can say we’ve experienced all of mother nature’s fun I can tell you we like Chiang Mai but if you’re moving here for the perfect weather, I suggest you think again. Tentatively planning to make Mexico our next expat destination, the polluted air of Asia isn’t something we want long-term exposure to and thankfully, we’re not stuck here forever like so many others who justify away the bad and stress the good because they can’t afford to go anywhere else. But when you’re retired they say you should live the good life and it’s almost time for some beach vacationing so Sawadee Khrup until my next post.
Comments always welcome and appreciated.