Thi Lo Su Waterfall
Thailand’s biggest waterfall
Thi Lo Su Waterfall is located within a pristine jungle area of Thailand, called Umphang Wild Life Sanctuary. According to Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umphang_District – Thi Lo Su is Thailand’s largest waterfall. Its spread is equivalent to the area of five football fields and, at its peak flow time (June – November), releases the greatest water volume of any complex of falls in Thailand. And even though its location is well known, and advertised, in terms of accessibility the site is definitely off the beaten track. The final twenty seven kilometres of dirt track make it as such. For those patient enough to commit to the fairly lengthy journey to get there you will be well rewarded for your efforts as this waterfall, particularly in the peak flow times, is truly spectacular with its multiple levels and drops. It is also in a beautifully untouched jungle area of Thailand. Once there it’s well worth hanging around for at least a couple of days (overnight) to enjoy the tranquil ambiance of the site. Being there is a memorable experience; it’s just the getting there which seems like hard work at times.
There are two generally accepted ways of seeing the falls. The first and possibly the least problematical for overseas visitors are going with a guided tour. Tour companies such as Max One Tours – http://www.maxonetour.com/contact2.html – operate two and three day outings to the site which also include English speaking guides, camping equipment, and food. Besides a full morning spent at the falls the tour also includes visitations to a local hill tribe village, a cave tour, a soak in a natural hot spring and a raft trip along the river which is formed by the outflow of Thi Lo Su. The start point for these tours is from Umphang Township; approx. forty five kilometres from the falls site. A definite plus for doing one of these guided tours is that it cuts out fifteen kilometres of the final arduous dirt track into the site. The fairly sedate flow of the river, downstream of the falls, also allows for an easy paddle along the jungle enshrouded watercourse to the campsite. For those, such as myself, with a do-it-yourself bent and a masochistic streak, there’s the individual approach to getting to the falls. This will involve the use of a vehicle but please take note, in a normal car or sedan it is virtually impossible to negotiate the final twenty seven kilometre stretch of unsealed road. This is SUV territory only; particularly in the rainy season between June – November.
If you are an overseas visitor your trip to Thi Lo Su will actually begin from Bangkok. For those preferring to use the services of a guided tour, you will need to make your way to Umphang Township. Travel options from Bangkok include bus, taxi and the very affordable local carrier Nok Air – http://www.nokair.com/nokconnext/aspx/Index.aspx For those wishing to do-it-yourself you will obviously need a vehicle. My own recommendation is to hire an SUV at Mae Sot Airport; hire rates with Hertz were approx. USD 100 per day. You then have the option of spending a day or two around Mae Sot Township before commencing the 5 – 6 hour road trip to the falls. The Irawdee Resort – http://www.irawadee.com/ – is highly recommended as an accommodation option while in Mae Sot. Once underway the road trip can be broken down into three sections in the total 204 kilometre trip to the Falls. The first and probably the part which demands the most patience is the traverse of 80 kilometres of winding road across two mountain ranges. This is actually the main route south from Mae Sot on Highway # 1090. The first fifty kilometres, out from Mae Sot, is relatively sedate as the highway passes over undulating rural terrain. It will then rise abruptly into the mountainous section where you are advised to drive with due care and avoid the temptation to travel too quickly. Although sealed, some of the sections of this road are pot-holed and there are sharp bends and steep drops into oblivion on many of the corners. The road is also narrow in many sections and caution is advised when attempting to over-take another vehicle.
Although being a patience testing three to four hours of travel, this mountainous section offers some spectacular vistas across the surrounding terrain. Towards the end of this mountainous traverse highway # 1090 joins highway # 1167. Directions to Thi Lo Su are well sign-posted and after taking a sharp right onto # 1167 you will continue on for another thirty kilometres before turning left onto Highway #1288; the final short run to the entry point into the falls site. The falls site office, which is also the national Park H.Q., is a required stop before embarking on the arduous final unsealed stretch of road to the falls. You are required to pay an individual entrance fee (200 THB) and a fee for you vehicle (30 THB). The road down to the camping area is right next to the park H.Q., and is well sign posted with a directional arrow and distance in bold yellow lettering. There is a check point, one hundred meters in from the main road, where you must show your entrance tickets and then it’s the last arduous leg to the waterfall. There are, at sporadic intervals the remains of what was once a sealed road but mostly its potholes, mud filled pools and wash outs interspersed with the odd stretch of flat track. Take your time and don’t speed. The track for the most part is narrow and there is always vehicles coming from the other direction, particularly later in the afternoons. There is a definite risk of collision or worse, careering off the track and into the jungle if you are going too fast and lose control. The 26.5 kilometres should normally take about 1.5 hours to complete safely. It will be a welcome relief when you finally arrive at the camping area. It is well set up to cater for visitors with basic amenities which include toilets and cold showers, a restaurant (0800 – 2100) and a covered communal area, with tables and bench seats, providing cover if the weather is inclement. Most, as I was, will probably be quite hungry after the long drive from Mae Sot. The restaurant isn’t flash so don’t go there expecting a three course banquet. It only provides basic Thai food such as chicken fried rice and the like.
The only negative aspect of the camping area is the pack of scavenging dogs which have made the location their home. Once you’ve got yourself settled in, you will probably be keen to get on with the 1.5 kilometre trek down to the waterfall. The walk through the jungle is easy enough as a cement pathway runs from the outskirts of the camping area and all the way down to a wide viewing platform directly in front of the falls. If you arrive late in the afternoon it’s probably better to wait until the following morning before making your way down there. The risk of a thunderstorm is always greater in the humid conditions late in the day and, as I found out after making a quick dash along the cement path at 5 pm, the heavens often open up to give late afternoon viewers a good soaking. Thi Lo Su Falls is situated 900 meters above sea level and is completely surrounded by dense jungle so it can often have its own micro climate, which includes greater levels of precipitation, when compared with areas surrounding the park.
The covered communal area which is probably the central feature within the camping area has a large open, cement floor area which some of the enterprising campers utilise to pitch their tents on when the rains are heavy in the area. The roof overhead provides additional cover and ensures an extra measure of protection from the rains. The nearby restaurant pulls its shutters down at 9 pm and most who staying overnight in the camping area generally have their lights out not long after. An additional consideration for those who aren’t fond of crowded camping grounds; avoid going to Tee Lor Su over the Kings Birthday weekend. According to a tour guide from Max One Tours I befriended at the site, there are normally upwards of 5000 campers jammed into the camping area between the 5th – 10th of December each year.
The above-mentioned tour guide was with a small group of Europeans and when I said I was there to do some photography, he suggested I join in with the group to take advantage of his wealth of knowledge of the site. Although at first slightly reluctant, in the end it turned out very well as he was able to get me up into some of the higher levels of the falls for some memorable photography and a great day out. The morning, according to the guide, was the best time to view the falls. Not only because there was less likelihood of rain occurring but also because the ideal time for seeing rainbows created by water mist and the morning sun was at around 10 am. With that in mind we set out from the camping ground at around 8.30 am, the following morning, and enjoyed a very insightful jungle appreciation walk along the trail with the guide.
The trip along the 1.5 km cement track should normally take about 15 minutes at a sedate pace. The guide slowed things down somewhat with his interesting anecdotes about the local fauna and flora. I didn’t mind so much as I was getting a few good shots along the way but it was quite obvious his small group were champing at the bit to get to the waterfall. After a couple of interesting bush craft demonstrations from the guide, including drinking water from a cut off piece of jungle creeper (vine), we finally arrived at the viewing platform directly in front of the falls. The sun was out, the sky was relatively clear and view of the waterfall was quite spectacular. I spent a bit of time taking some shots for the group and then the guide said he’d take us to the upper levels of the falls where the biggest spill pool was located. Apparently he didn’t take every group up there; only those he considered physically capable of making the climb up. To be honest it wasn’t all that difficult compared with some caving trips I’ve done but the slippery terrain, coupled with the occasional short ascent up vertical rock faces, meant negotiating the trail up had to be done with care. The final stretch involved a short scramble across the edge of the falls before we finally reached a large group of boulders directly in front of the upper level of the falls. We spent about an hour up there swimming and getting some great shots. Just before departing the guide, after sending his group back down the trail, invited me up to a special spot for a few final shots. At the left side of the spill pool sat a large boulder and, after a bit of effort to scramble up its slippery face, we were standing on top and looking out across the pool and the face of the falls. And, as he’d predicted, there was a rainbow being formed by the mist coming off the falls and the angle of the morning sun. It was a memorable occasion.
Tee Lor Su Waterfall
Location: Umphang Wild Life sanctuary, Umphang Province, THAILAND.
Nearest ATM and accommodation: Umphang Township – approx. 45 km from Tee Lor Su Waterfall
Nearest Airport: Mae Sot domestic
Nearest rail terminal: Phitsonulok
Getting there from Bangkok:
- Fly with Nok Air to Mae Sot Township.
- Take a train to Phitsonulok, and then catch a mini-bus to Mae Sot.
Recommended accommodation in Mae Sot: The Irawadee Resort
Getting there from Mae Sot: Go south on route # 1090 for approx. 3.5 hours (distance = 164 km) until T-Junction with route # 1167. Turn right at route # 1167 and follow for approx. 10 minutes (distance = 8.6 km) until turn off on to route # 1288. Turn left at route # 1288 and follow for until arriving at Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary HQ.
NOTE: Umphang Wild Life Sanctuary H.Q., is where you turn off the sealed road to begin the final 26.5 km of travel over unsealed track to the waterfall. The track to the falls is immediately to the right of the Park H.Q., grounds. Entry Fee: 200 THB per person plus 30 THB for vehicle fee
Distance from Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary HQ to falls campsite: 26.5 km
Camping ground amenities: Toilets, cold-water showers, restaurant and covered communal area
Distance from camping area to falls: 1.5 km on a cement track