Beyond the Deck Chairs and Mai Tais: A Day Trip from Hua Hin
This was going to be my last day in Hua Hin for this trip and as I sat eating my breakfast with Jim at the Baguette, I kept looking nervously across at the mountains towards Burma for any signs of rain clouds. By 10:30 AM the western horizon was still clear of any cumulus buildup and our trip to Pala-U waterfall had the green light. I was still feeling a bit zapped after the previous day's longer than anticipated ride down to Sam Roi Yod National Park. It ended up being a 140-kilometer round trip, a lot of it in the blazing heat and I was still the effects of sunburn and dehydration. Not to be deterred, we hit the road for the 60 km run up into the mountains. Even though I was feeling a bit fatigued I was being spurred on the possibility of seeing wild elephants on a remote part of the road up to Pala-U. Jim had mentioned they were quite often seen later in the day feeding on the lush grass growing along a jungle encroached stretch of road 20 or so kilometers before the waterfall. The road to Pala-U was the same as the one used to get to the caves I’d been to with Jim a few weeks earlier but instead of taking the right hand turn, some 30 kilometers out of Hua Hin, we kept heading straight as the highway led up into the mountains. Two to three clicks after the caves turn off we passed the entrance to the Tibetan Temple; the location of the mummified monk.
The jungle encroached road on the way to Pala-U waterfall
The road beyond the Tibetan Temple rose steadily up into a string of smaller peaks running from north to south. Karst in origin, this porous terrain was the location of the hundreds of caves found in the lesser coastal ranges. Beyond was a fertile plateau and another range of harder, granite peaks.
After 40 minutes of steady riding we were over the coastal ranges and up on to the fertile plateau. We passed through a small check point – apparently set up to stop illegal Burmese Hill Tribe people entering Thailand – and were cruising along the isolated 25-kilometer stretch of road that was the location of the wild elephants. Even though it was officially the dry season, I could see there was still regular rainfall in the area; there was lush, green vegetation crowding both sides of the road. As we continued on Jim was slowing here and there and pointing out piles of old elephant dung. There was also what looked like crash trails directly off the road into the encroaching Jungle; as if something large had just bulldozed a trail straight through the thick growth and left crushed and broken flora in its wake.
We continued to cruise slowly down the uninhabited stretch of road but it was fairly obvious that the heat of the midday sun was keeping the elephants hidden in the shade of the thick jungle. Another checkpoint appeared up ahead and we were soon riding through the final village – Huai Sat Yai – before the run up into the next mountain range and further on to Pala-U waterfall.
A cooling dip at the bottom level of Pala-U
Pala-U waterfall and the encompassing National Park is approximately 10 kilometers further on from Huai Sat Yai Township. Getting there is a relatively straight forward exercise; take hwy 3219 out of Hua Hin, follow the signs, and you’ll eventually reach the end of the road at Pala-U. There is a checkpoint for paying the park entry fee roughly 1 kilometer before entering the waterfall area proper. After paying the obligatory 200 THB each we cruised on up the last stretch of winding, jungle shrouded road. As we pulled into the parking area we both commented on the cooler atmosphere in amongst the luxuriant green foliage surrounding us; was a welcome relief from the heat encountered during the ride up from Hua Hin.
There was a small park ranger’s office with maps on the outer wall detailing the course of the river and the trail to follow as you worked your way up the levels to the head of the waterfall. According to the map there were 15 levels to negotiate before arriving at the top of the rivers course. After taking a couple of minutes to familiarize ourselves with the major points of the map we entered the park and began working our way along the well worn trail. A couple minutes on and we reached the large pool, at the first level, where there were quite a number of locals taking a dip in the cool, flowing water. The trail, by way of a properly constructed concrete bridge went from the left to right of the river, and then ascended to a jungle path a few meters above.
Jim swinging on the massive vines hanging down from the jungle canopy
Safety ropes in place to get around the slippery sections
We continued along he rocky track which rose and fell with the contours of the terrain. The sky was barely visible through the thick, green canopy above and in many places the ground dropped away steeply to the river below. Thick vines hung down from tree branches above and the dampness from recent rains meant the going was often slippery under foot. As we approached each higher level the trail dropped down to meet the pools formed by the cascading water. In some places knotted traverse ropes had been installed to ensure stable footing as we worked away across the moss covered rocks skirting the river’s edge. Roughly 45 minutes after leaving the parking area we were looking down at level five falls. The pool below was teeming with fish as Jim and I stood there taking a few gulps of water and enjoying the ambience of the natural world surrounding us. A tree next to the trail had a large yellow sign declaring the way further ahead was slippery and to be careful as you go. As we pushed on again, we understood why; there was basically no trail or, what little there was of it, was overgrown with tree roots and festooned with boulders. The map on the wall of the park ranger's office had depicted a trail all the way up to the 15th level but as we carefully negotiated the ever steepening valley, it became apparent that there wasn’t really a trail anymore. Eventually, the way ahead was a jumbled mass of large boulders and increasingly denser jungle as the canyon became steeper on both sides. We realized that it would be easier to make our way by hugging the river. After 20 minutes of reasonably hard slog we were standing next to the pool at level number six.
Jim taking a closer look at level five waterfalls
Jim working his way over the river boulders towards level six
Dense jungle surrounding the waterfall and pool at level six
After another drinks break I was keen to push on but Jim had decided he’d gone far enough; a previous knee injury was slowing him down. While Jim jumped into the pool to cool off, I started working my way across the moss covered rocks towards the next level. The going was getting more difficult and as the jungle got thicker and the canyon walls got more acute I was forced to stick to the edge of the river. After slipping a couple of times, and getting immersed up to waist level, I got to a point roughly 50 meters beyond level six falls. It was hard work and as I stopped to look back at Jim a group of Thai boys appeared out of the jungle. After a couple of minutes conversing with him they began working their way up towards me. The agility of youth was to be admired as they nimbly bounded over the rocks and joined me in half the time it had taken me to arrive at the point I was presently at. There were smiles around as I conversed in my limited Thai, and I had to admit I was happy to have them join me; it looked as though I’d have company for the climb further up the waterfall.
They hared off, in bare feet, over the rugged, slippery rocks and I did my best to keep up with them. In the end I realized it was quicker and easier for me to just wade through the water instead of trying to jump between the rocks as they were doing so easily. We kept pushing each other on to each next level. When they got tired, I’d lead off and when I got tired, or felt unsure in which direction to take, they’d take the lead. In a couple of places there were fallen trees which we used to cross a couple of the more difficult sections of the increasingly faster flow of the river.
My fellow canyoners and the increasingly more rugged terrain beyond
The way up got even steeper and the canyon even more acute. Eventually, we were high enough up to see the top of the jungle clad peak. I lost count of how many levels we passed and after roughly an hour and a half since leaving Jim, down at level six; we arrived at a point which looked almost too difficult to get beyond. Whether, or not, it was the 15th level I no idea but it definitely looked like a headwater; the flow had diminished to a gush coming out of the steep, narrow canyon above. We were all beat and decided we’d come far enough as we sat down in the cool water for a well earned rest.
The head of the river at Pala-U waterfall
I was feeling foot sore and weary and wasn’t exactly looking forward to the trip down. The only encouraging fact was that the going would be down hill instead of up. After banging off a few shots, and a few more minutes spent cooling off, it was time to be on our way back. Once again my younger team mates bounded ahead while I brought up the rear slipping, sliding, tripping and stumbling over the jumble of rocks, tree roots and logs on the descent. The way down began to level out and with my knees aching and muscles beginning to throb, the pool at level six eventually came into view. When I finally got back there, some two and a half hours after setting off, Jim was still relaxing where we’d left him. I removed my backpack and immersed myself up to my neck in the cool, soothing water. Even though I was hot and the muscles ached, it had been an outing to remember as my young team mates splashed around beside me.
My team mates taking a well earned rest at Pala-U waterfall
All of a sudden there was a loud boom over head. I looked up and the sky had darkened with heavy cumulus.
“We’d better make a move, it’s going to bucket down,” said Jim, as drops off rain began to hit the surface of the water around us.
Reluctantly I hauled myself out of the pool and began preparations for the trek down to the parking area. My friendly team mates bade farewell and took off down the trail as Jim and I began working our way back in the steadily increasing downpour. It was a thunderstorm and, by the time we reached our bikes it was belting down. I was thinking of taking shelter under one of the covered picnic facilities but Jim with the assuredness of someone knowledgeable of weather conditions in the area said it would be better to get going; the rain was mainly confined to the mountains and we’d eventually out run it. Without further ado we got on our bikes and drove off into the downpour. By the time we’d got back down to Huai Sat Yai Township the rain had all but disappeared. It was still overcast and the atmosphere was still heavy with humidity as we cruised along the damp road leading into the wild elephant area. A couple of kilometers beyond Huai Sat Yai and in the grey light of the late afternoon we picked up movement ahead; it was a couple of wild elephants feeding on the side of the road.
Jim had mentioned the wild elephants in this area a few times before we came up but I was actually thinking that the odds of spotting one on my first trip would be fairly slim. To actually see them, moving about and larger than life, was quite an amazing thing to behold. Unfortunately Murphy’s Law also dictated that the battery in my camera would be dead; it couldn’t have happened at a worse time and I was ruing the fact that I hadn’t bought a spare before leaving Bangkok. As we moved in closer on the bikes I pulled out the only available option I had for getting some shots; my two megapixel mobile phone.
As we inched our way closer the sound of the bikes engines were making the pair of feeding beasts shy away back into the thick jungle until. About 50 meters short of their position we stopped the bikes and turned off the engines in an effort to entice them back out on to the road side. We free-wheeled the bikes closer until we could hear the pair of them crashing about and snorting, a few meters back into the jungle. It was a waiting game as we sat there patiently waiting for them to reappear. For some reason they continued to shy away so we reluctantly started the bikes and continued on down the road. Our disappointment was short lived when we crested the next rise and came face to face with a massive, bull elephant ripping up clumps of grass on the roadside up ahead. It was without doubt one of the largest elephants I’d seen in Thailand as it took up half the width of the road.
A large beast taking up half the width of the road
A close-up of the six ton beast
For safety, Jim and I did an initial drive by, at a reasonable speed, and stopped a couple of hundred meters beyond the behemoth. Unlike the two previous shy beats we’d seen earlier, this one seemed completely unperturbed by our presence as it wandered up and down the road swinging its trunk and snorting at the other vehicles passing by. After a few more minutes spent assessing its demeanor we decided to try for a few shots. Jim did a drive by and parked a hundred meters beyond it; the plan being that he might distract it while I slowly maneuvered towards it banging of shots with the mobile phone. I moved in slowly; sometimes stopping to get a steady picture before getting a shot. Eventually I got close enough to get a couple of reasonable shots but my nearness must have agitated it. Without warning, it pinned back its ears and began to move towards me at a quicker pace; it was time to beat a hasty retreat. At a safe distance I parked up and waited for it to lose interest in me. A few minutes later, as it started working its way down into the jungle again, I motored back past it to join up with Jim. We agreed to a final drive back along the road to see if the previous pair had reappeared. We were in luck; as we drove back over the rise the pair was back out on the road and busy feeding. We slowly moved right in on them and this time they didn’t shy away as we got within a few meters of their position.
Feeding wild elephants at the roadside
As we sat there watching them I thought about all the documentaries I’d seen about wild elephants in Africa. It was amusing to think that people travel great distances and spend a lot of money to go there and yet, at a very small cost one could see the same at a location easy accessible from a nearby large city in Thailand.
With the rain setting in again, and skies beginning to darken, Jim and I decided to be on our way. With the exception of the camera battery it had been another great day out from Hua Hin.
For day trips out of Hua Hin you can contact Jim Currie directly:
+66 (0) 811914627
Wow, now that's a really great day out!