Delightful Northern Thailand (2) Inthanon And Expensive Waterfalls
By Hans Meier
Enough of highway 108. Near Chomthong, we turn east towards Doi Inthanon National Park – I now manage to set the blinker without starting the windscreen washer first!
— Doi Inthanon —
After one hour uphill driving on a perfect road, we make it to the park headquarters at KM 31. They say all of their sleeping cabins are booked for the night – somehow I feel they just don't like me. We then ask for accommodation at Mr. Daeng's Birding Center a little further; we get a key and finally discover a grotty filthy goat cage which had been declared a hotel room. Even my frugal Norah, who always opts for the cheapest solution, frowns with disgust. (Clean it must be.)
The problem: right here in the high altitude they don't offer much accommodation at all. All the pleasant hotels are down on the foot of this mountain ridge. But I prefer to sleep right in the middle of the scenery. To be honest, I also want to check how Norah fares in very cold weather.
Finally we get an overpriced hippie cabin at a neglected place that sometimes appears as Siam Ecolodge. But clean it is. The mattress lies flat on the floor, which consists of a plastic sheet nailed onto wooden planks; local Isaan style at Samui prices. After the caretaker has disappeared to nowhereland, I notice the lack of toilet paper on the attached loo. But of course – there is my Norah: "No problem, darling; I brought this one from hotel!" She stole two roles of pink toilet paper from our Chiang Mai lodge. The night is chilly chilly cold, but we have each other.
The chedis near the summit offer fine views and a most interesting sight into modern pagoda styles. Norah, despite being a devout Buddhist, doesn't think much of the place. As for pagodas, she only shows interest if lots of sheer gold are shown off. The many Thai tourists up here drop a flower at the pagoda, but mainly they use the uninspiring gardens with the man-made micro-waterfall to do what they do best: snap each other.
For entrance to the chedi area, we pay 20 Baht each without dual pricing. Within the area there is an overpriced unfriendly canteen with soapy coffee. The toilet next to the canteen charges extra Baht.
Maybe I missed something, but nature-wise I don't see what one could do on Doi Inthanon's higher reaches. The recommended Kiwi Mae Pan trail is closed due to fire damage, or so they tell us at the ranger station. Then there's the short Aangka Nature trail: Norah follows me patiently into the thicket, but she clearly doesn't understand why this walk on planks should be worth her effort. It's harmless and offers not one long distance view.
When you reach the very top of Doi Inthanon, at 2590 meters the highest place in all of big and beautiful Thailand, you see:
1) a pile of rotten construction machines, a dusty parking lot, a fenced-in radar station
2) no panorama somewhere, the horizon is marked by shrub and antenna towers.
It's so ugly that photography is forbidden.
So, most of our Inthanon time we spend on a little rock next to the road not far from the chedis. Here the view goes far into the distance across miles and miles of blue ridge mountains, and then more miles and more ridges. It has impressive fern trees and colorful little flags flapping in the wind as if it were a high pass in Nepal, Tibet or Ladakh. There is no parking and no cappuccino. It's windy and chilly, but it puts lovely smiles on lovely Asians even though they feel oh-so cold. It's Doi Inthanon's most beautiful place.
— Nam Tok —
Not on it's top, but along the flanks Doi Inthanon National Park offers a dozen waterfalls. Dutifully we hike down to Mae Klang and Vachiratarn Falls and walk around for a few minutes.
On a general note, of the estimated 33 dozen waterfalls on our Tour de North, between Ob Luang and Mae Sai, not one is spectacular. They are surely pleasant and the spray is a welcome cool-off in the mid-day heat. They are used best as breezy eye-pleasing picnic spots with great air-water cooling. Asians of course use them as a self-portrait backdrop.
One of the nicest waterfall picnic settings are the Mae Sa Falls north of Chiang Mai. We don't know much about that area when we stop the Vitara at the parking lot one early afternoon. 20 fried-fish sellers scream for our attention, as we walk around undecidedly. At one stall Norah comes to a stand-still and intensively stares at a sweating, black fried fish on the grill.
"I am not really hungry, darling, I guess a mixed fruit bag would be enough"; that's what I just want to say. Then I notice Norah already fell in love with the black frying guy on the rustic rottisserie. I swear, those two twinkle at each other. She has no eyes for me any more, so I decide to swallow my rival: "Darling, how about a fried-fish picnic by the waterfall?" Immediately, Norah points to her black frying sweetheart. Together with her sweltering buddy we also buy rice, vegetables, fruit and cold drinks, all stuffed into plastic bags, together with toothpicks, tissues, straws and small bags of sauces and spices.
Free of charge comes the dirty picnic mat they lend us. "Look, there is a cleaner picnic mat right under their table", observes Norah and says nothing more. I know my duty. I return the old mat back to the surprised fish lady, grab the new mat and off we walk without further discussion.
After a pleasant ten minutes stroll, the picnic mat is spread out on a pebble beach in the cascades of Mae Sa river. Norah's handles the supplies. Soon we lounge on the mat and indulge in our afternoon outdoor feast; soothing cold water flows around us, a leaky leafy forest roof provides a great mix of sun and shadow, and I am fed to 'plode by my caring Asian lover. On rocks more Thai families munch away. After the last piece of pineapple, I wash my hands in the cool water and lay back again for siesta. This is Thailand lifestyle as delightful as it gets. If I were an expat in Chiang Mai (sigh), I'd spend many a relaxing Sunday afternoon at one of the area's pleasant drive-in waterfalls.
Or maybe I wouldn't, because there's always the issue of the
— National Park Entry Fees —
"Norah, please sleep now", I say when I spot the National Park ticket booth in the distance. Nothing she'd do more happily!
I stop rot Vitara at the booth. For the national park ranger, I have prepared 220 Baht: 200 Baht entry fee for me rich long-nosed Farang. And 20 Baht entry fee for Thais. Norah isn't Thai, but she looks like a Thai. And Thais *never* believe that someone with a Thai face is *not* Thai. The ranger can't talk to her, because she's sound asleep. She must be Thai, in her innocent sleep. I nod "Sawasdee khrap", and my 220 Bath are promptly exchanged for the appropriate tickets. Ten meters beyond the gate I say "Norah, please wake up now". – She opens her eyes: "One more expensive waterfall place, darling?"
Are we cheating the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment? Usually I pay all fees in all countries. But with the national parks, I am sceptical. Pleasant as they are, some National Parks are merely more than drive-in waterfalls with steep dual-pricing. Take the mellow Si Sangwan Falls next to Chiang Dao National Park headquarter (far away from mount Chiang Dao); a very unspectacular waterfall and an *extremely* unspectacular "Nature Trail". Is it worth 200 Baht?
Just one day of touring delightful northern Thailand can take you to three or four national parks in a row, each worth no more than two hours of sightseeing. Each worth 200 Baht?
And after having paid 200 Baht Farangs' fee for just one of these pleasant harmless nature spots, it's always a bit of a gnawing feeling to see sign after sign – in Thai only. Thai only, even deep in the lonesome bushes where you'd want to see reassuring English.
And if the national parks actually do cough up home-mixed English, it's of the kind that self-catering enthusiasts like us honestly don't care for.
Wow, that's a lot of pictures!