Tales of Waterfalls and Leeches: Kao Yai in the Wet – Part 2
After a solid night's sleep I rose early in anticipation of a full day ahead of me back in the park. After reading through the info brochure again I’d put together a schedule which would see me first drop into the park HQ and then visit two waterfalls before finishing the day off with a drive up to one of the park view points. Even though the hotel rates were a bit on the pricey side I had to admit the rooms were very well appointed. The view from the patio, even though the mist was hanging low on the peaks, was quite serene as I looked out over the pool and golf links beyond. I’m not much of a golfer but I would imagine that for those that were keen on the game, the Kirimaya was probably a great place to visit for a long weekend away from Bangkok. The bathroom also had an impressive size tub to help soothe away the aches and pains of a full day's physical activity. As I got myself ready to head out into the day I looked at the large red smear on the bed spread. Unfortunately I hadn’t noticed the leech I’d picked up during the trek to Haew Narok waterfall. Even though the pathways were well constructed all the way down to the falls, and one didn’t need to go scrambling through the bush, the fact that it was the peak of the wet season meant that leeches would be out in force. I’d been wearing high cut boots, long socks and full length cargos but one of the blood-sucking little critters had still managed attach itself to the back of my calf. It must’ve been there for a couple of hours and really got its fill before being exploded all over the white bedspread when I’d flopped out for a bit of a cat nap after getting back from the afternoon's outing. It was a bit off a mess to say the least. The mist was still hanging low over the nearby hills as I made my way over to the restaurant for breakfast. Towards the north, my intended destination for the day, it was looking ominously dark and no doubt it would be bucketing down up on the peaks. As a side note, for anyone considering staying at the Kirimaya, the buffet breakfast is included in the room rate but is put on at the club house; a 200-meter walk from the accommodation. At just before 8 AM the clubhouse was still fairly quiet save for the odd group of hi-so type Thais getting stuck into their eggs and toast. I piled my plate high with the buffet offerings; washed it down with a cold coffee and was soon on my way to the park entrance again.
The misty view from the hotel room at 0700 am
Breakfast time at the clubhouse restaurant; fairly quiet in the wet season
The Kirimaya Resort is approximately 7 km down a side road just a couple of hundred meters to the right of the park entry point. By the time I reached the turn off the rain was absolutely torrential and mused that the day ahead should be interesting. Luckily I’d brought my North Face gortex parker with me so the treks through the jungle would be wet but doable. Thankfully the fee booth sits under a wide roof so one is able to avoid getting soaked when paying the entry fee. I powered the window down to be greeted by a smiling, efficient looking male park employee.
“See roy ha sip baht krap.”
Luckily I’d kept my previous days tickets and, as I handed them over to him to inspect, looked back with a shit eating, smarmy grin.
“Hmmm, Thai driving license mee mai?” he said, handing back my tickets.
“Chai krap,” I said as I held it up for him to see.
“Gow sip baht krap,” he replied, seemingly satisfied with my commitment to becoming Thai.
With the entry fee for the day sorted I powered off up the road into the still heavy rainfall. My first destination was the park HQ; approximately 17 clicks from the gate. Getting there involved a drive up through a twisting, turning mountainous road and, with the weather conditions being the way they were, I decided to forget that I was some kind of hotshot rally driver and just take it easy. Roughly 5 km in the rain eased up and by the time I got up onto the elevated plateau it was non-existent and proved that there were, perhaps, mini climates caused by the elevation differentials within the park. In fact, as I traversed the flat expanse of the plateau area bright sunshine beaming down from the partly cloudy skies above had me thinking that it was going to be a trekking friendly day after all. My optimism was short lived; as I began the ascent into the last couple of kilometers of peaks before the park HQ, the weather had closed in and light rain was beginning to fall again. Approximately 30 minutes after paying my entry fee I was pulling into the visitors center car park. Light rain was still falling as I climbed out of the car and took a moment to get my bearings. If you are coming from the Pak Chong side, as I did, then the visitors center, park HQ building and some eco-style accommodation is on the left hand side of the road.
Khao Yai Park HQ; approximately 17 km in from the entry gate on the Pak Chong side
Inside the visitors center at Khao Yai National Park HQ
The Thai Gaur; being eaten to extinction?
All in all the HQ area is very well set up and I could see that during the dry season the place would be crawling with visitors. The visitors center has plenty of info about the park, the waterfalls, and the type of wildlife one can expect to see during a hike through the jungle. There’s even a 3D relief map showing the elevations, trails, rivers and roadways. Unfortunately it’s all in Thai so it’s meaningless to the average foreign visitor. In one corner of the building I spotted something that looked interesting; a skeleton of what appeared to be a buffalo. A closer inspection revealed that it was what was known as a Gaur. According to Wikipedia there were less than 1000 beasts estimated to be alive in Thailand just twenty years ago. If they do eventually become extinct I would bet it would be simply because they were eaten out of existence.
I wanted to push on to my next location, Haew Suwat Waterfall, but just as I was about to head out to the car park the heavens opened up. It was time for a coffee and the ideal spot was the little open air cafe at the rear of the visitors center. I ordered an espresso and sat there under the dry comfort of the roof above looking out across the small river to dense jungle beyond. Every now and again I heard a hoot, or a screech, and wondered if it was one of the Hornbills which, according to the visitors center advertising, are quite popular in the general vicinity of Khao Yai. A few minutes later the rain had eased up and I was on my to Haew Suwat waterfall; a short 12 km drive further up the road from the park HQ. The waterfall site is well set up with toilet facilities, restaurants and an information center bordering a sizeable, sealed parking area and I arrived there just in time for the next downpour. With the rain looking as though it was setting in for a while I decided to chill out in one of the restaurants and ordered a kao pad gai. The two young ladies manning the restaurant had their faces stuck in a laptop and, sure enough, they were absorbed with Facebook. The wonders of the modern age; even out in the middle of nowhere they had a wi-fi link. My fried rice was plonked down in front of me just as a bunch of young Thais, thoroughly drenched, came dashing in out of the downpour. They’d come running across the car park and from the general direction from which they’d come I surmised that they had just been to have a look at the waterfall.
The most popular and easily accessible waterfall site at Khao Yai
One of the things I’d noticed about the locals is that they all seemed fairly blasé about their attire, or lack of it, for the terrain and the conditions they were moving about in. The fact was it was the wet season and leeches were thick on the ground. I looked at their exposed legs and flip flop-shod feet and thought that maybe they were confident in the idea that leeches didn’t like Thai blood; too much chili perhaps?
With the kao pad gai polished off and the rain easing up, I made my way across the car park to the directional signage for the Haew Suwat Waterfall. There was a short flight of stairs leading down to a viewing point at the top of the waterfall. As if on cue the sun came out and I got the camera to work as I inched my way right onto the very edge of the falls precipice. With the volume of water plunging over to the depths below it was certainly an impressive sight but I knew that there would almost certainly be a stairway down to the bottom to enable visitors to get an even more impressive view of the falls. After banging off a few more shots I made my way back up to the road following more directional signage to another trail a short distance away.
The view over the falls to the plunge pool below
A cement footpath angled gradually down along the side of the hill, and through a canopy of jungle. One hundred meters along there was another properly constructed viewing platform, with safety rails in place, jutting out over the steep drop. I stepped down onto it and the sight through the canopy, of surrounding trees, was quite spectacular with the sheer volume of water spilling over the falls. After banging off a dozen shots I stepped back onto the footpath and continued following it’s gradual downward gradient along the side of the hill. Approximately one hundred meters further on I found what I was looking for; the stairway down to the base of the falls. The stairway, like the one at Haew Narok, was a very solid cement and steel construction with interspersed landings, and continuous safety rails, all the way to the bottom. As I worked my way down the near vertical 150 steps I kept a good grip on the handrail as the step surfaces had become slippery with all the moisture of the rainy season. As I got closer to the bottom the roar of the falls got louder. So much so that when I arrived at ground level, and began moving towards the plunge pool, the draft and fine spray in the air was creating a misting effect.
The view from the intermediate level viewing platform
The sheer volume of water coming over the falls was highly impressive
The following link to Wikipedia is the page for Khao Yai National Park. At the very top of the page is a photo of Haew Suwat falls during the dry season. The above photo was taken at the same location, save for a few meters to the right, and the difference couldn’t be more pronounced. During the dry season I had no doubts the plunge pool would be teeming with swimmers and the grounds around overwhelmed with visitors eating, screaming and running about. As I worked my way over the slippery terrain, towards the very edge of the plunge pool, the site was completely deserted apart from yours truly. Just as with Haew Narok waterfall the spray coming off the powerful volume of water cascading over the falls hung in the air and had the effect of slowly soaking everything in the general vicinity. Within a few minutes my clothes were becoming noticeably damp so I decided to call it a day at Haew Suwat waterfall and head back up to the car park.
My next and final waterfall site to visit was just three clicks back up the road towards the park HQ. The site at Pha Kluai Mai, just like the previous two, was very well set up for visitors and included plenty of parking, toilet and showering facilities, restaurants and a large camping ground surrounded by the lush jungle. The weather, while still okay when I pulled into the car park, was beginning to close in again. I stuffed my parka into the ruck sack and ambled over to the restaurant facility to pick up a couple of bottles of water before heading down the track. I also did a leech check. Even though the trail at Haew Suwat was paved all the way down to the falls plunge pool it was no guarantee that wouldn’t pick up an unwelcome hitchhiker; the trip down to Haew Narok was testament to that. I rolled up my cargo’s and did a thorough inspection around the lower leg / calf area; I was clean.
The trail down to Pha Kluai mai falls will actually take you all the way around to Haew Suwat falls. In hindsight it would’ve been better for me to have started here and done the full six kilometer loop taking in Haew Suwat falls. As they say, hindsight’s a beautiful thing; perhaps next time. The track started off okay but within 150 meters of leaving the car park it was obvious that a lot less effort had gone into maintaining this site; the trail quickly deteriorated into a jungle encroached, muddy track.
The start of the trail down to Pha Kluai Mai Falls
Obstacles on the jungle encroached trail
But, in a way, that was okay because it was actually more of a challenge with fallen trees across the trail; pools of mud to squelch through and stands of bamboo to brush aside. Every now and again I heard something go crash in the jungle on the hillside above me and I couldn’t help thinking that there was a distinct possibility it was elephants. There was plenty of evidence of elephant activity in the area as I pushed on along the trail. Every so often I came across an area that looked as though it had been flattened by a bulldozer. Elephants, by and large, aren’t all that eco friendly and they’ll leave a swathe of destruction behind them as they bash their way through the scrub to access water or the tasty morsels they get a hankering for. Not much, apart from the largest trees, slows them down and they are, surprisingly enough, quite nimble in even difficult terrain. The other dark thought that kept nagging away at me was the possibility of tigers. Stick had mentioned before I came up here that there were still the odd tiger about in Khao Yai. Whether there was or not, one could never really know because most experts will tell you that the time you become aware of a tiger is when the thing is chomping into you. I didn’t fancy my chances of surviving a tiger attack with only a Swiss Army knife to defend myself with. Although, I once met a of couple Korean special forces black belts who swore that it was entirely possible to defend oneself against a tiger attack. I had extreme doubts about their theory but they explained it thus: “sure no problem. You get a short stick, about eight inches long, and hold it in your clenched fist. When the tiger attacks, you drive the clenched fist sideways into it’s mouth then rotate ninety degrees. The stick jams the tigers mouth open and you pull out your hand. No problems,” they said completely convinced of what they were telling me. Somehow I think I’d stand a better chance with the Swiss Army knife.
The trail was skirting the river and it rose and fell with the undulations in the terrain. Most of the time the river was obscured by the dense jungle but, every now and again, there was a break in the foliage at a spot which I assumed was some kind of viewing point. Unlike the previous two waterfall sites I’d been to this one had no properly constructed access down to the viewing points; just a rough hewn track with the odd step cut into the sloping, muddy terrain. To get down to the river I had to push my way through the foliage and scramble down the slippery embankment.
Plenty of evidence of Elephant activity in the area
The path down to the falls smashed up by elephants
Jumbo dung nearby the falls
There was a series of falls along the trail and to be honest they were nowhere near as spectacular as the previous sites; more like a gradual decline of turbulent, gnarly rapids. At what I estimated was probably one kilometer in there was a properly constructed path leading down to the river. The problem was that the stairway had incurred significant damage from the intrusion of elephants. The cement stairway slabs were strewn about and there were large footprints in the squelching mud all the way down the twenty meter slope to the river. There was also piles of elephant dung everywhere and the site had a bit of a pong about it as I estimated that the elephant activity in the area must have been fairly recent. I clambered down the slope and found a large rock to rest my rucksack on as got the camera ready to get a couple of shots. In keeping with how things had been going, the rain started to come down again just as I was about bang off some shots. Even though the falls at this site had proven to be a bit of a disappointment, when compared to the other sites, I’d actually enjoyed the walk in more than anything else I’d done so far.
Pha Kluai Mai falls; a bit underwhelming compared to the previous two sites
I was soaked through and covered in mud but that didn’t matter as I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I felt alive and completely invigorated buried deep in the jungle and the fleshpots of Sukhumvit seemed another world away. With a few shots taken and the rain becoming constant, I decided it was time to head back to the car park. I took my time getting there as I wanted to enjoy the freshness of the jungle for as long as I was able to. Thirty minutes later I was back at the car park and it was time to do a serious leech inspection of the lower legs. Taking a seat at one of the open air restaurants, I kicked off my boots to find that I’d picked up a few blood suckers during my hike. They were all around the ankles, and lower calf area, and some had even attached themselves through my socks. I reached into my ruck sack and pulled out the small container of table salt I’d bought with me. When it comes to removing leeches there are a couple methods that prove effective. Some say a burning cigarette is the best way to attack them but, if you’re a non-smoker, salt is the next best alternative. I poured a measure into one hand and then began sprinkling a few grains on the engorged little suckers. Normally it’s only about 4 – 5 seconds before they detach themselves and begin running for cover. A quick flick with the forefinger and they’re history.
A unsuspecting leech about to get the salt treatment
After checking my boots and socks thoroughly, for any hide-outs, I put my footwear back on and took a few moments to assess the weather and the hour. I had planned on driving up to the lookout but another dark, ominous looking cloud bank had started gathering over the peaks again and I knew that another downpour was not far away. It was getting closer to 4 pm so I knew that the light wouldn’t be too good by the time I got up to the viewpoint. With that in mind, and the fact that I was soaked through and covered in mud, I decided to call an end to the days activities. All in all it had been a successful day’s outing. I’d seen a couple of impressive waterfalls and been on an invigorating trek through the jungle. It was time to head back to the hotel for a hot bath and a sundowner.
Observations: There’s only one really; the rainy season is the best time to check out waterfalls – period – and don’t forget the salt.
Wonderful, and I really wish I'd been able to join you.