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Tourists soak up a waterfall tour in Chiang Rai

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Chiang Rai & Chiang Mai Waterfall


CHIANG RAI, 18 October 2012: I did my homework on TripAdvisor over a late night coffee. Now in its 12th year it commands a monthly audience of around 60 million visits a month and if 10% of them are scribbling opinions on travel I reckon professional travel hacks are in deep trouble. I am mulling over this threat, as my daughter, a self-confessed TripAdvisor blogger, plans the next day’s sightseeing trip in Chiang Rai.

We had a playful wager on who could deliver the best tour of the day. It was not going my way. She is feeling very confident after I took the family on a trip to Chiang Saen that bombed out and was declared busted by an overwhelming vote of everyone in the car except me. I lamely raised my hand in support of my own effort, but had to admit the dreadful state of all roads leading to the riverside town, in far north Thailand, had doomed my choice from the start.

It’s coffee time in the morning and I notice that we are in no hurry to get started on today’s tour. There’s a food hamper on the kitchen table and family members are stuffing it with French bread, cheese carefully wrapped up in tin foil, sandwiches and a bottle of red wine. In go the wine glasses. They are even rolling up a mat to sit on. “Kitchen sink is over there,” I quip as I haul the luggage to the car.

“This is experiential tourism,” my daughter tells me. “None of this sitting in a car for hours watching you drive. We are going to have fun.”

Well we do need to drive but it is a short 26 km from Chiang Rai town past what is popularly called the “white temple” and then west towards the mountains.

The road to Khun Kon Waterfall winds for 12 km through a narrow valley rising in elevation to around 500 metres. It follows a stream that is a raging torrent of dark brown water and in a hell of hurry to get downhill to flood someone’s garden.

Eventually, the road ends at the gates of the forest park where there is a large parking area, a toilet block and a barrier that is permanently open. There are no fees to pay. What a refreshing change from national parks and inflated entrance fees.

The weather is nothing to write home about, drizzly, damp and dreary to be exact, but the car park is jam packed with four-wheel drive vehicles and 60 or more tourists in their walking boots ready for the climb to what guidebooks describe as Chiang Rai’s top rated waterfall.

I am impressed by the sight of the aging Mitsubishi vehicles with their off-road tyres and suspension hiked as high as the shorts on the Israeli tourists who are about to embark on a tough jungle expedition, or so it appears.

Tour companies in Chiang Mai, 180 km south of here, organise overnight adventure tours to Chiang Rai and one of the tours features the hike to this waterfall.

This is wonderful; there are far too many tourists and who knows they might invite themselves to our picnic lunch. My beagle looks up at me obviously reading my thoughts. He is not about to share his snack with anyone.
The advantage of forest reserves is you can take your dog for a run, which is a forbidden in full-fledged national parks. So the TripAdvisor specialist is probably hoping my faithful beagle will raise his paw to cast the winning vote against his master.

As long as there is a snack in sight he will vote for anything and still think he is my best friend.
It is raining and I am wondering if we will find a spot to enjoy our cheese and wine when we arrive at the remarkable waterfall.

I am feeling a mite more confident, the tour guide has not factored in the weather or the crowds of tourists. It gets worse when one of the guides seeing us lugging a hamper along the trail points out there is very little grass space to enjoy a picnic at the waterfall.

The five-star, badged and honoured TripAdvisor blogger doesn’t bat an eyelid. Neither does the beagle. He is probably thinking we might off load more snacks his way if there is no place to sit to and eat.

Shaded by dense rainforest, the trail is remarkably cool, but humid so in no time, we are dripping litres of sweat as we toil up the hillside. The walk is probably no more than 6 km, but it is still a challenge as you need to cross small brooks and negotiate the steep rises and falls of the slippery trail.

The Israeli tourists are having difficulty with the terrain too. Slipping hither and thither they laugh and joke their way along the trail. Unfortunately the guides fail to tell them what they carry in should be carried out. They discard plastic bottles as they go without a care in the world.

Tour guides should adopt the golden rule that you leave nothing behind except a footprint. The company leading this tour went down in my estimation for not training its guides on how to care for a nature trail.

Forest rangers spend considerable time clearing the walkway and even chipping out steps on the steep sections to make it easier, but it was no doddle in the park. You need good, stout shoes and clothes to cover arms and legs.

To make the most of the hike we really need an expert guide to identify the trees and lush plants. The forest is thick and the trail skirts the side of steep hills. Wherever you look there are steep drops off the side of the trail down 50 to 80 metres or more to the fast running stream. The sound of rushing water drowns out the laughter. They must be having fun I think as we act as the rear guard in this long thin line of hikers toiling along the hillside trail.

Eventually, the less hardy tourists begin to turn back. They can skip the waterfall experience. “Seen one you have seen them all.”

Whatever, there must be magical qualities in the fresh mountain air near that Khun Kon waterfall as some of the female tourists threw off their clothes and walked back down the hill in just their bikinis. Perhaps it was a token protest. The stream is far too fast and furious for swimming today.
The beagle and I marched on, eyes right. It’s a long drop over the side, so no distractions or peeps in the direction of the swimwear.

The trail is quieter now except for the roar of the waterfall as we approach the viewing area. The problem is there is just too much water tippling over the rocky edge 70 metres up. The dark brown torrent is awesome and with it there is a permanent drizzle that gradually soaks everything that stays still for more than a few minutes.

Once the Israelis had taken their photographs, the tour guide orders a full retreat, leaving us with the waterfall to ourselves. There is just enough open space to roll out the mat and set up our picnic lunch.

This is experiential tourism at its best. A brisk hike followed by a glass of red wine at room temperature.
We snack on salads, cheese and fresh bread, sip red wine and enjoy a great family outing, the kind I can remember when I was a kid. The mist of water from the waterfall cools us, while far above through the forest canopy we can catch a glimpse of the sun.

With the waterfall as a backdrop, the wine bottle and food hamper empty, the votes were cast in favour of a hike over a sedate car tour.

“Sorry dad you lost. It was all too traditional, no challenges few surprises except for bad roads. Today is fun.”
I am soaked to the skin by now from waterfall spray, my shoes are covered in mud and we have the same arduous walk downhill to the car to complete the trip. This is fun.

I concede defeat. When did I last hike for a couple of hours through an amazing lush and beautiful forest and enjoy a picnic in great company?

The beagle agrees. Despite having the shortest legs, he outruns us down the trail dashing through the streams leading the way back to the car park without a single wrong turn.

It occurs to me that I walked up this trail and didn’t pay much attention to the twists and turns. The route is not well posted, although it is well trod. A few discreet signs or arrows, painted on rocks would help on the return hike as there are a few tiny trail junctions that could lead you astray.

But as the cool season approaches this forest park is one of the most popular excursions from Chiang Rai. The waterfall flows year-round, but by November the brown sediments will have gone replaced by a volume of clear water tumbling over the rocky sill; a massive column of white thundering to river bed far below.

As I drive back to Chiang Rai, I can see TripAvisor, tapping away on her Ipad. She won the bet and now she is blogging her comments on the website telling, whoever cares to read, the pros and cons of travel in Chiang Rai.
“Do they pay you for that,” I ask yet again. The beagle looks at me hopefully believing the drift in conversation might lead to yet another snack.

TripAdvsior has to be doing something right. There are over 1,000 hotels attempting to sue it for alleged malicious reviews, so they have our attention. But that does not apply here. Khun Kon Forest Park gets only accolades for a great carefree excursion. Best time to visit is from November through to February.

Walk to a waterfall
Namtok Khun Kon Forest Park is at the end of a 12 km valley road. Follow Highway 1211 for 18 km from Chiang Rai town and take a right turn on to the road that ends at the park gate.
The forest park is located in the area of Tambon Mae Kon and Tambon Huay Chompoo, Muang District, Chiang Rai Province between Pa Mae Lao and Pa Mae Kok national forest reserves. The total area is approximately 1,000 rai and was designated by the Royal Forest Department, as a forest park or botanical garden 21 January 1982.

The park is home to the most spectacular and scenic waterfall in Chiang Rai province. Khun Kon Waterfall is some 70 metres in height. Along the route to the falls the trail is shady and suitable for a relaxing nature walk, although quite hilly, so you need to be reasonably fit.

The forest park is in a valley skirted by steep mountains and is also the originating point for Mae Kon River, consisting of many creeks such as Mae Kon Creek, Mae Mon Creek, Yah Dee Creek and Lao Aye Creek, which merge with the Lao River.
Flora and Fauna

The park is mainly mixed forest, dry primary forest and Siamese sal and ingyin forest, which are still in good condition. Common vegetation found are ironwood, red cedar, chinkapin, champaka, gamari, Indian rose chestnut, jute and Siamese sal. Ground covering plants common in the area are bamboos, bananas, and ferns.

Wildlife includes deer, wild pig, red jungle fowl, and civet.

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