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National Parks for you Northen Adventure - Chiangmai's Northern Areas

The United States of America was the first nation in the world to create a national parks system, and that system was the brainchild of a Scotsman, John Muir from Dunbar. I just thought you had to know this before I wax eloquent about the magnificent national parks to the south of Chiangmai.

National Parks in this kingdom are as exciting and varied as Thai food. The latter can come hot and spicy or subtle and rich; the former can be rugged and challenging or tranquil and serene. I have tramped across a number of national parks in Thailand and never cease to be amazed by the stunning flora and intriguing fauna to be found therein.

Thailand, prides itself in the number and condition of its national parks. There are no fewer than 23 such sanctuaries spread across the provinces of Chiangmai, Lumpoon and Mae Hong Sorn. Most national parks were designated by royal decree in this region. Apart from that, other fantastic national places have been taken to prepare for proclamation as national parks. Most areas are steep and ruggedly mountainous. Furthermore, they are very important as watershed of main rivers.

Chiangmai is mostly surrounded by countryside, so it doesn't take long to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Visitors have several national parks, mountains, small quaint towns, rivers and lakes to enjoy in this region; all within a few hours drive from the city. Here's an idea for those staying in Chiangmai for a while who want to experience a little getaway from city life.

The Festive season is fast becoming a distant memory although most of us will still have our recently expanded waistlines to remind us continuously of last year’s New Year resolution to eat less over the festivals. So what better way is there than to head off to mother nature and walk it off.

Located East of the provincial capital, Mae Hong Sorn, Mae Surin National Park covers 397 square kilometers of rugged terrain within the Khun Yuam and Mae Hong Sorn districts. Established in 1981 as the 37th National Park of Thailand, the Park encompasses peaks of the Thanon Tong-Chai range with elevations varying between 300 and 1,700 meters above sea level. Drastic variations in topography and soil types in this region have created numerous habitats within the Park’s borders ranging from sparsely vegetated broadleaf deciduous forest to lush tropical evergreen forest. The range also gives birth to numerous streams and small rivers which are important tributaries of the Pai river.

Flora of interest to the visitor include increasingly rare stands of Teak, Upland Pine and many species of orchid and wildflower, including an indigenous and rare Lady Slipper Orchid. According to the Park’s Headquarters, sightings of animals include: Malayan Sun-Bear, Serow, Golden Cat, Common Muntjac, Gibbon, Barking Dear, Wild Boar, Python and Cobra and it is estimated that there are as many as 386 bird species to be found in the area (See Mae Sakeud Nature Trail information below).

The three seasons of Northern Thailand offer varied conditions within the park throughout the year. With the mountain tops and river valleys often wreathed in mist, the cold season (November to February) offers beautiful scenery, lush vegetation and comfortable temperatures for hiking and camping. The temperatures during the hot season (March-May) can be somewhat oppressive in the lowlands of Mae Hong Sorn. Exploring the highlands or relaxing on the banks of the Pai River are a great way to beat the mean high temperature of 39บC in the month of April. With the majority of the 1,230 mm of annual rain falling during the months of June through September, the rainy season brings the forest into vibrant life and fills the rivers and their waterfalls to full capacity. While nature is at this time in its grandest state, hiking along the mountains will be quite challenging. Rafting on the Pai river is a popular activity during the rainy season (see below)

Directions and Suggested Itinerary

It is best to use the provincial capital of Mae Hong Sorn as a base for exploring the park. As Mae Hong Sorn is pretty much in the middle of the Chiang Mai_Pai_Mae Hong Sorn_Mae Sariang loop you could go either North or South. The fastest way is along the scenic route from Chiang Mai via Hord and Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Sorn (Highway 108, 360 Kilometers).

Alternatively head north from Chiang Mai to reach Mae Hong Sorn via Pai and along one of the most beautiful, breathtaking and challenging driving experiences in this area (Highway 1095, 274 Kilometers).

For the more adventurous and especially if you are planning to do this trip on a motorbike, a back-country route through Doi Inthanon, Mae Jaem and Khun Yuam is highly recommended. Highlights of this ride are the roads themselves and the stunning scenery. Route 1192 is one of the tightest, narrowest, winding, roller coaster roads in the North and Route 1263 winds its way through some of the best forest cover in the North with plenty of Karen Villages along the way.

Mae Surin National Park

The Park itself has two main locations with visitor facilities. The main Headquarters is located just North of Mae Hong Sorn along Route 1095 and beside the Pai River. At Mae Surin Waterfall, there is another information centre and visitor facilities. Both locations have accommodation available. The Headquarters has three bungalows overlooking the Pai river. At Mae Surin Waterfall, there are 2 new Bungalows and 2 basic Adobe huts available (There is no mainline electricity at this location. A generator provides electricity from Dusk until 22:00 hrs.). Both locations have camp grounds and tent rental.

The highlights of the Park include Mae Surin Waterfall, Doi Mae U-Kor, Mae Sakeud Nature Trail, Rafting and the Huay Fai Kor Wildlife Conservation Project.

Mae Surin Waterfall

Mae Surin Waterfall is a not-to-miss attraction in the Park and is set amidst towering limestone mountains. The waterfall is one of the tallest and most beautiful single-tier waterfalls in Thailand comprising of a single jet of water leaping off the cliff face plunging gracefully to the rocks in the green valley, 100 meters in below. There is an impressive viewing point just above the campsite or if you are more energetic, you can trek down along the steep path that cuts down the ridge of the hill. The distance is about 3 kilometers and journey will take at least 2-3 hours. If you are interested, contact the resident National Park Ranger unit for guidance.

Doi Mae U-Kor

Travelling to Mae Surin Waterfall, visitors will pass several interesting Karen and Hmong Hill Tribe Villages as well as the famous Thoong Bua_Tong (Wild sunflowers fields) of Doi Mae U-Kor, which bloom for only a few weeks in the months of November and December.

During this time, the mountainous region turns a brilliant yellow. Interestingly, seventy years ago, this area was devoid of this species of flower. It wasn’t until later, when missionaries in the area planted them, that they became the attraction they are today. Bua-Tong is the Thai name for the Mexican Sunflower which is indigenous to Central America the Western Indian Islands.

To reach Mae Surin Waterfall and Doi Mae U-Kor from Mae Hong Sorn, take Highway 108 South to Khun Yuam (64 kilometers). One kilometer before you reach the town, turn left onto Route 1263. Drive on 1263 for 26 kilometers passing Mae Yuam Luang Waterfall, Baan Pang Tong and Baan Hmong Mae U-Kor until you reach Doi Mae U-Kor. From here, the road carries on to Mae Surin Waterfall which is a further 15 kilometers.

Mae Sakeud Nature Trail

If you are interested in bird watching, take your guide book and field glasses to Mae Sakeud Nature Trail. Running along a small river, the trail winds its way through a lush tropical valley which is home to a vast array of bird species. For the non-birder, the trail offers a peaceful retreat into nature with a small waterfall at its end. Located at the trail head is a recreational area and a visitor centre which has a great pamphlet in English on the trail and the signed stations along the way (if in stock!)

Huay Fai Kor Wildlife Conservation Project

Located at the Park’s Headquarters and bordering the Pai river is Her Majesty the Queen’s Project dedicated to conservation of flora and fauna. About 200 meters away on the bank of the river is a recreation area which is an excellent place for swimming, picnicking and relaxation.

Rafting on the Pai River

So after all the bird watching and trekking, looking for something to get the heart racing a bit. The National Park also offers Rafting along Pai River which is best done during the rainy season but is enjoyable all year around. A longer trip lasting 3-4 hours starts from Baan Huay San with an easy and unhurried sail along the khong River, the banks covered in lush forest. You will visit a small waterfall called Naamtok Susa, then it gets a bit more exciting when the boat enters the Pai River. The trip ends at the Park Office and costs 1,000 baht/person (6 persons minimum). This rate includes lunch, rafting equipment, life jacket, helmet and boatmen.

A shorter trip lasting about an hour leaves from the National Park office and ends at Baan Thoong Gong Mu. This trip costs 300 baht/person (6 persons minimum) and includes only rafting equipment, life jacket, helmet and boatmen.

Other Attractions

Mae Yuam Luang Waterfall is located around 500 meters further from the turn to Doi Mae U-Kor. It is surrounded by cool and shady bamboo woods. Bha Bong Waterfall (Dum Khawn Waterfall) is 17 kilometers from Mae Hong Sorn, south along Highway 108. You can park the car at the rest area above (KM 249) and hike down into the beautiful mountain valley and small reservoir. The 3-tier cascading fall plummets 40 meters. Doi Pui, at 1,700 meters is the highest peak in the park and offers commanding views of the surrounding countryside. Its high altitude contains unique upland pine and the peak is covered in meadows of wildflowers which bloom during the hot season. As of now, Doi Pui is not easily accessible, but those interested in a rigorous hike can contact guides in Mae Hong Sorn for information.The Wild Orchid Conservation Centre near Doi Mae U-Kor was founded in 1994 to preserve wild orchids from extinction and to distribute orchid shoots to help local people. It can be reached by driving 2 Kilometers from Doi Mae U-Kor. After one Kilometer you will pass the side road to Mae Surin Waterfall and after another Kilometer there will be a right turn that leads to the Wild Orchid Conservation Centre.

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