In the high season, after the rains have stopped, people flock by the thousands to visit the highest point in Thailand, at the top of the mountain, and the twin pagodas built by the king and queen just below it. But in the rainy season, we are told, this is not a good trip, because the views are not good. Of course, we are going anyway.
The itinerary includes a stop at a great waterfall, a local Hmong market, the high point, the pagodas, and–special!–two hours of trekking in the forest.
I have been here before, although the previous itinerary didn’t have the forest walk. That lack, the beauty of the pagodas, and big crowds at each stop are what I remember. The whole experience was enough of a letdown that when I blogged about it I barely mentioned the pagodas. But different season, different companionship: everything is new. With the change of season, the mountain has become a much more magical place; at the same time, masses of people stay away, providing much better space for those of us who love elemental nature. This benefit begins with our tour bus: a 14-passenger van which was packed full in the spring, now there are only six on the tour. We can stretch out on the long drive. (For the record: a young couple from Spain, a father and son from the US, me and my companion, Esso.)
I’m sure my previous tour stopped at Watchirathan Falls, but during the dry season, I wasn’t impressed. Now, it’s gorgeous, with the spray offering a permanent rainbow.
By the time we got to the summit, we were deep in the rain clouds. The crowds of people lining up in front of the summit marker for photo ops were gone. Different experience!
But first, an excursion into the forest. The local guide meets us at the trailhead. The trail starts as a respectable single-track, then becomes an obstacle course of steep steps cut into the side of a canyon, bamboo ladders. At the bottom, a glistening cold-water stream, in a series of cascades (see video pan); a rickety bamboo bridge. At one point, a pool good for swimming. I maintain my Hippie cred by being the first out of my hiking clothes and into the water!
Several ways the local guide is helpful. Showing us which pool was safe to swim in, despite the ferocious current, was one. More important, she kept us from blundering into a number of deadly green vipers along the trail.
Now, just for fun, can you find the spider in these pictures? Three views of the same spider. (HINT: think big!)
(Click on each image to enlarge)
Finally the track emerges from the jungle, into farm land. Views of rice paddies and (less-traditional) plastic-covered strawberry beds. Banana, mango, and orange trees line the trail, not orchard-style, but just blending in with the adjoining forest.
A few more hundred meters across the fields, and we get to a cafe, of all things–that serves (and sells) the local coffee. It’s delicious! If I had a way to carry it around and brew it, I’d buy some.
Then back to our van, and on up the mountain.