We’d been in Chiang Mai for five weeks and, other than the obligatory trip to Doi Suthep, the mountain overlooking the city, and a nighttime outing to the Huay Tung Tao lake for a “Smile Party”, we hadn’t been out into the supposedly stunning countryside around Chiang Mai.
Since we finally decided to rent a motorbike we’re now much more mobile and I was feeling the urge to explore a little further afield. I hatched a plan to visit the wood carving village of San Patong followed by a trip to the canyon at Ob Luang National Park and started working on tearing Stacker away from our condo’s pool. Having been dragged around one too many busy handicraft markets though he didn’t seem overly buzzed by the wood carving idea. “Lets skip the village and get out into nature instead” he suggested and so I launched the Plan B that was already mapped in my browser for this eventuality: a roadtrip to Bua Tong Waterfall.
From what I’d heard from friends and reading online, the waterfall had a weird ‘sticky’ property that made it easy to climb up the face of the falls. Despite not being entirely sure what that meant, I managed to sell the idea to Stacker and we donned our helmets, revved up the bike and headed out onto the 107 highway going North, planning to score some lunch along the way.
After 45 minutes of riding up the clogged, polluted highway that went from Chiang Mai’s urban to suburban without a gap in the concrete, I was starting to wonder where all this amazing countryside everyone raves about was. Little did we know then that we had chosen possibly the least scenic route to the waterfall. The road was pretty stressful and I clung to Stacker while peering over his shoulder at the erratic traffic in front. While there was a moped lane for most of the way, it also seemed to double as an on/off ramp, stopping lane or, for some, a convenient lane for going against the flow of traffic.
Until he started to get used to people pulling over right in front of us before slamming on their breaks, Stacker’s head was permanently shaking in disbelief. Had this been a road in Rome or Beirut, the air would have been screaming with the sound of car horns but here I’ve yet to see any road rage. The locals were zen in the face of a moped cutting diagonally across two lanes of traffic in the wrong direction and the passengers of said moped were cheerily unconcerned about the fact that they only narrowly escaped death, throwing us salute as they cut within a metre of our front wheel.
Eventually Stacker scolded me for weighing the bike too much to the left while looking over his shoulder so I contented myself with just peering at the back of his helmet, which actually turned out to be quite fun as its curvature made my reflection look like Lara Croft – narrow shoulders, an enormous chest and a minuscule waist. Occasionally the telltale glint of a temple roof would catch my eye and distract me from myself. Unlike Stacker, I would have the luxury of turning my head to examine the ornately decorated wat with its accompanying golden buddha or glittering mosaic dragons.
Finally we reached the tiny road that was to be our turn off from the madness of the 107 road and there it was – the scenery we’d been hoping for, which had probably accompanied us a good chunk of the way but which we couldn’t see from the road. We zig zagged through small streets of a sleepy village that quickly gave way to fields, trees and ferns. For a second I thought we must be coming up to a bird sanctuary before realising I was ridiculous and what I was hearing was simply the sounds of the countryside. Had I really become this un-accustomed to nature?
Suddenly the road emerged from the trees and onto a bridge over the River Ping – the very same river that we’d floated a lantern on during the festival of Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, only here it looked – perhaps deceptively – slow and lazy and the brown waters were choked with sandbanks.
As we crested the hump of the bridge, we could see the golden spire of a chedi and the tips of a pagoda signalling a wat ahead. The grounds looked deserted, as did the restaurant inside the wooden shack opposite. The silence was suddenly roaringly obvious after our long noisy drive down the highway and we lingered a little, taking photos and soaking up the sound of nothing. When the occasional bike or moped did come by, kids on the back would wave and grin and greet us in English. As we enthusiastically reciprocated, I wondered how out of place we must look to warrant the attention.
By this point we were seriously hungry for some lunch but Stacker has a thing about not eating in empty restaurants so we continued on to join highway 1001 towards the waterfall. Highway it may be but here the scenery was a sight for sore eyes. We went through thick forest, past ravines that sloped steeply down from the road and tall hills that swooped up under a thick mantle of forest. I couldn’t decide if it was tropical or deciduous forest or some mix of the two that isn’t mentioned in GCSE geography but, regardless, it was lush and green and beautiful.
Many trees were hung with creepers and overrun with leafy vines, giving them boxy shapes that like a pair of embracing backpackers here, a buffalo there and – look – is that a person downing a beer? On the way home though, as the sun lowered in the sky and shadows gathered under the trees, the same figures started to look more eerie and sinister.
The forest was broken up by small fields and plantations, irrigation channels and houses with wooden peaked roofs. As we went past a house with a large wooden deck overlooking a vegetable garden, both Stacker and I mentally bought the place on the spot. We slowed down next to a few more roadside eateries but no one was eating anywhere so Stacker kept driving until we came to the turn off for the waterfall – a narrow sun-baked road, its surface cracked like a fresh brownie.
When I’d read about the Bua Tong Waterfall people had warned against going on a weekend due to crowds but when we arrived – on a Saturday afternoon at prime picnic time – ours was the only bike parked in the motorbike pen. At the head of the falls a single family was picnicking and a small group of monks in their habitual orange garb were just leaving.
We bought a dusty bag of Lays “American cheesy paprika” chips to quell our hunger pangs then grabbed our gear and headed to the toilet cabins. I inspected each one, choosing the one with the old, empty egg sack and a living moth instead of the one with the huge discarded spider skin hanging from the door frame – yes, my arachnophobia dictates all my choices – and swiftly changed into my swimming shorts.
Back at the falls we chatted to a group of French tourists who were breathing heavily from racing up the steps beside the waterfall. “On peut se baigner?” Stacker asked them, trying to find out what the swimming conditions were like at the bottom. “It’s more of a shower than a bath,” they told us and recommended we go down to Floor 3 to check it out.
We walked the 150m down the muddy steps next to the falls and found ourselves alone at the bottom. We joked about how stupid we were to come on a weekend when it was so crowded and then stepped into the middle of the clear pool of water and looked around us. It was beautiful and well worth the long ride up the highway. The forest crept up on all sides, sheltering bright green ferns and mossy undergrowth. Slender trees hung over the pool and thick vines looped along the bank. In front of us, crystal clear water cascaded down over bulbous mounds of creamy white rock and into the pool.
It turns out the water is rich in calcium carbonate, which, over time, it deposits on the rocks that it flows over, rounding them out and giving them their white chalky look. As unromantic as this is going to sound, it’s essentially just limescale on a large scale, except it looks a lot cooler than the kind you’d find in the bottom of your kettle. Even the vines and tree roots that happened to poke into the falls had been given the same treatment and had become calcified. If trees had bones, I thought, that’s what they’d look like.
Anyway, it was time to do what we’d come here to do – climb the falls.
I gingerly placed a bare foot on the first smooth, rounded step of limestone. Through the water it looked slick and slippery but, as I put my weight on it, my foot didn’t slide at all. The rumours were true – the rocks really were sticky. We snapped some pictures and then began clambering up the face, Stacker lugging the plastic bag containing all our stuff that we’d inadvisably brought to the bottom with us.
For the most part it wasn’t much steeper than a flight of stairs and each step was as confidence-inspiringly grippy as the last. We began to realise what the French tourists had meant about taking a shower as the water sprayed out over us. It was a really bizarre feeling and so much fun to be essentially walking up a waterfall and not having to worry about slipping down it.
At level 2, another pool opened up and I spotted a small lone brown fish lurking under a vine. For most of the way up we were alone, bypassing only one other group of girls who were taking photos on each of their devices and in every possible group permutation.
At one point the face got slightly steeper and I couldn’t see what it was like above me. I started trying to wuss out and made noises about going back down. Stacker stopped me. “Honestly,” he said “going up is going to be a whole lot easier than going down.”
I had to agree and turned back to the face the rocks. The water was pummelling at my feet and face. I planted my foot at hip height, pushed up and realised I was being ridiculous – this was easy. My back leg followed up but was still a little wobbly from my wuss moment and it trailed against the comforting rock on its way to a foothold. “What the hell?!” Suddenly it felt like a jellyfish had stung me. As my foot had lightly caressed the rock, it had effortlessly shaved off a few layers of my epidermis. As I should have learnt from the Dead Sea, salt deposits can be amazingly sharp!
Only as we reached the top did the stones that were rarely submerged and lightly covered in moss start to get a little slipperier. Wet, a little tired and happy we slipped back into our shoes that Stacker had carried up the falls and trudged over to the cafe to dry off with a mocha-Magnum-float – a Stacker invention that involves chucking an entire Magnum ice cream into a mochaccino and which more than made up for a missed lunch in calories.
Knowing better this time, we drove all the way back into Chiang Mai on the 1001 highway which was massively more scenic than the 107 we’d taken on the way up and a rolling mountain range to our left accompanied us almost all the way home.
Thinking back to the falls as I write this, I wonder how long it took to deposit all that the limestone what the impact to these deposits of tourists climbing up the falls every day is. At the edges of the falls, very thin layers of deposit could be seen branching out over the moss; layers so delicate I could crush them with a finger. It seems likely that, by climbing all over them, tourists damage the existing deposits and probably inhibit the ongoing growth of the deposits.
Little information in English was available onsite about the falls themselves let alone the human impact on them. They are, however, part of the Sri Lanna National Park so I can only assume that the falls are protected by rangers that understand the landscape better than I do.
In any case, if I did do any damage to the calcium deposits, they most certainly paid me back. Slipping off my shoes when we got home, I could see the skin around my grazes was puffed up and radiating the telltale red halo of the beginnings of an infection. A small price to pay for a fun day out of the city.
Now where’s my Hypercal?
The route most people take to get there is the 107 north but we found the 1001 to be less stressful and more scenic. The difference in time (depending on where you start) is pretty negligible.
From the old city, go north to the Super Highway (Route 11) and join it heading east. After it crosses the River Ping, take the split to the left that is signposted for Mae Jo and Phrao. After about 400 metres away, you’ll see a divided highway on the left feeding into Route 11. This is Highway 1001, turn left on to it.
Follow the 1001 north and after about 40 km you’ll start seeing a couple of signs for Bua Tong Waterfall. As you get close you’ll see a group of roadside shacks mostly on the right hand side. Look for a turn off to the right which has huge sign in Thai next to it. There are a number of signs at the head of the road, including one with a picture of waterfalls on it, but we didn’t see any signs in English. Once you have the right road you can’t get lost.. follow the narrow road until you get to the car park and then follow the sound of the waterfall!
- Bring swimming gear to wear in the falls. Wearing a quick drying T-shirt also helps protect you from the rocks.
- Bring plastic flipflops or shoes you don’t mind getting wet and something you can use to attach them to you – string / carabiner / etc.
- Leave your valuables in your car/bike and leave your dry clothes at the top of the falls
- Wear your swim gear and shoes to go to the bottom (Floor 3) of the falls, attach your shoes to yourself or otherwise carry them up with you as you climb up.
- Avoid climbing on the rocks at the edge of the fall that are mossy as they are slippery. Stick to the rocks that get plenty of water over them instead.
- Rainbow Springs is the source of the waterfall. We didn’t see it but it’s also very close by
- Also nearby is the Mae Ngat reservoir where you can stuff your face with fresh fish at floating restaurant Eakachai Houseboats and even rent a floating room for the night. To find it, head back (west) on the 1001 and look for the signs soon after to Mae Ngat Dam (route 1323).