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.
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. The magnificent national parks scattered throughout the province of Chiangmai ensures all residents can get away out of the hectic city using little travelling time. The magnificent national parks in the province of Chiangmai.
Thailand, prides itself in the number and condition of its national parks. There are no fewer than 19 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.
Winter is upon us up here in the North of Thailand. The cold season (November thorough January) may bring out the trousers, jumpers and even the occasional wooly hat, but it also brings a whole different look to mother nature. Early morning fog, hills covered in yellow sun flowers, raging waterfalls, stunning sunrises and sunsets "" all make for a great opportunity to head out on to the road after the rainy season.
Salaween National Park (recently renamed back to Salaween from Loom Naam Cong which was the name given to Salaween when the National Reserved Forest gained National Park status with the termination of logging concessions in the 90’s) may be one of Thailand’s smaller National Parks (721 square kilometers) but it is none the less impressive. Located around 165 kilometers south of Mae Hong Sorn, in the Mae Sariang and Sob Moei districts, the Park is set in dense jungle forest with the beautiful Salaween River flowing through it. The River (known to locals as Mae Naam Cong) has as its source, the majestic snowy mountains of Tibet and along its 3,151 kilometer journey to the Gulf of Mataban, meanders its way through Tibet, China, Myanmar and Thailand. For about 125 kilometers it serves as a border between Myanmar and Thailand and it is the river which is the highlight of any visit to the Park. In the Winter, the river has a mysterious air about it, covered in mist in the mornings and fast flowing after the rains. The summer sees beautiful sandy white beaches and huge boulders emerge from the receding waters, the beaches providing a perfect location for a day of picnicking, relaxing or camping.
Directions and Suggested Itinerary
As with the other articles in this series, I suggest getting there is half the fun and there are several ways of reaching the Park, depending on your available time and preference. The driving is exhilarating, the scenery breathtaking and which ever route you take, this part of Thailand is glorious. Magic is just around the corner (and there are lots of corners!!!!); awesome vistas await.
The most direct route to the Park is on Highway 108 (Chiang Mai-Mae Sariang) and the Park’s Headquarters is just a few kilometers outside of Mae Sariang. Depending on time constraints, you could visit the Park as part of a number of multi-day loops; The northern loop takes in Chiang Mai, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Sorn City and Pai (Highway 108 and Route 1095); The southern loop through Chiang Mai, Mae Sariang, Mae Sord and Sukhothai (Highways 108, 105 12, 101 and 11) or a shorter loop that cuts through the Doi Inthanon National Park and takes you through back country to Khun Yuam, half way between Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Sorn (Highway 108 and Routes 1009, 1192 and 1263). See our Northern Thailand Map.
Salaween National Park
As with most of Thailand’s National Parks, accommodation is available to suit most tastes and given the Headquarters proximity to the town of Mae Sariang, there is a selection of local eateries and shops for supplies. If you are planning to stay overnight in the area, then you have a couple of options. For those seeking nature and a romantic setting, there are three park lodges within the National Park. The National Park Headquarters has the best accommodation with several beautiful wooden bungalows with 2 or 3 bedrooms. You can either just rent one room (300 baht) or take the whole bungalow (600-900 baht). Its a beautiful place to spend a night and I recommend getting up at dawn and heading off on the well sign-posted circular nature trail that takes you up around the hills on a 2 hour hike. (There is a trail guide but unfortunately for anyone not fluent in Thai, there is no English version). To get to the National Park Headquarters from Mae Sariang, head out of town along Route 1194 and after 1500 meters, veer right onto a cement lane and drive 4 kilometers to the entrance. There is also accommodation available at both Baan Tha Ta Faang and Baan Mae Saam Laeb, although these are more rustic. (See below)
Attractions at the National Park
Although the National Park has the usual waterfalls and caves, which are standard after all for this area, the main attraction is the Salaween River with its white beaches pristine jungle and off-the-beaten-path trekking. There are a couple of villages that are within the Parks vicinity which lends an ethnic and cultural flavor to the spectacular nature.
Baan Mae Saam Laeb
Mae Saam Laeb (known locally as Taw Lay Hta) is the main village in the National Parks vicinity, sandwiched between the Salaween River and the hills of southern Mae Hong Sorn province and is a small river port for cross-border trading. From Myanmar come cattle, wood, bamboo, bamboo shoots, chillies, and some rare plants and flowers. From Thailand fuel oil, boat and engine spare parts, cooking oil, food stuff and household items go to Karen state. Mae Saam Laeb is about an hours drive (46 kms) west of Mae Sariang along route 1194. There is an eclectic mix of Thai, Karen, Indian, Shan (Thai Yai) and other minorities. Walking along the street you will likely to hear conversations in two or more different languages. Shops sell Karen hand made products like blankets, shoulder bags and so on as well as Indian food and betel nuts.
There is a National Park Ranger Station on the hillside overlooking the village where basic accommodation is available. Before entering the village (there is a signpost to the Boat Pier), carry on past it for a couple of kilometers to a great view point where you can see the River in all of her majesty.
Close to the ranger station is Mae Saam Laeb Pier where there are long-tailed boats for hire (650-1300 baht per boat depending on destination " all the prices are fixed on a board in front of the office). This is a highlight of any trip to the area as you speed down the river, pristine jungle rushing by, Thailand on one side, Myanmar on the other, buffalo cooling down in the water and the occasional fisherman from either side waving the boat down to sell you fresh fish for dinner!
A trip south to Baan Sob Moei takes about 45 minutes and on the way you get to visit Myanmar "" well sort of. The boat stops at an army post on the Myanmar side where every Thai boat has to report. (Currently the boats on the Salaween River can only run between 08.00 and 18.00). The soldiers, who are more interested in selling water, snacks and souvenirs are actually members of the Karen Militia. It makes a nice photo opportunity and at least you get to go abroad!.
Baan Sob Moei is located at the confluence of the Moei (“Thaung Yin”) and Salaween Rivers and its residents are mainly Karen, Shan and Thai.
If you have time, you can arrange to stay at the village overnight. There is a small resort that keeps several wooden guest rooms near the river bank facing the Myanmar side. The toilets and bath rooms are outside and there is no electricity but they will arrange meals and drinks. Alternatively, I suggest camping on the beautiful white sandy beach in front of the village, where you can sit around a fire and eat the fish you bought earlier!!.
There is also the option of continuing further south along the Moei and Yuam Rivers to visit a large Karen refugee camp called Mae La Oon although you will need to get clearance from the security outpost just outside.
Baan Tha Ta Faang
Baan Tha Ta Faang is 45 minutes upriver from Mae Saam Laeb or it can also be reached by a 4X4 track from the National Park Headquarters. There is also a ranger station in the vicinity where lodge accommodations can be obtained.
The village is on a beautiful beach with sands and pebbles and is known as Mae Ka Hta by its mostly Karen residents. On the river bank is a small museum/tourist office with the only phone in the village. There is a walking trail along the river which offers several hours walking with both sides of the river covered in teak (Mhai Saak), soft wood trees and bamboo.
There are a couple of great options for those of you interested in some serious off-the-beaten-track jungle trekking. One trail runs between Mae Saam Laeb and Mae Sariang (National Park Headquarters) that takes two or three days (about 46 kms). The trail runs along the streams that flow down the mountain valleys to the Salaween River. A shorter alternative is to walk between Mae Saam Laeb and Tha Ta Faang. Please note that as this area is near the border and is thus quite sensitive and you should not undertake these treks on your own. These treks need to be organized as you will need to carry all food and supplies and you can contact the National Parks Headquarters for more information.
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