Tucked away in a remote corner of northwestern Thailand, in Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary – a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls – Thi Lo Su Waterfall. It flows in multiple streams down the side of a forested mountain in a Tolkienesque landscape.
Beyond its beauty, Thi Lo So Waterfall is the largest and highest waterfall in Thailand. Formed by the Mae Klong River, it stands 300 meters and 500 meters wide, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. In reality, the waterfall hasn’t been surveyed, so these numbers are guestimates.
And what makes Thi Lo Su Waterfall even more enchanting is its remote location. There is no simple way to get to Thi Lo Su. If you want to see it you have to go on an adventure from the nearby town of Umphang, 28 kilometers away.
Umphang itself is the least accessible of Thailand’s districts. Lying on the Thai/Burmese border, it is essentially cut off from the rest of Thailand by the Thanon Thongchai mountain range. The only way to get to Umphang is via a road known as “Umphang Death Highway” built in the 1990s and famous for having over 1200 turns.
Needless to say, the drive along this remote road over a mountain range is incredibly beautiful, taking you past several tribal villages and endless pristine jungle.
And getting to Umphang is just the beginning. The journey from Umphang to Thi Lo Su waterfall involves river rafting, jungle hiking, sleeping under the stars and then more hiking, followed by an overnight stay in a remote Karen village. This is practically as remote as you can get as a tourist in Thailand.
There are several tour operators in Umphang who offer organized overnight tours to Thi Lo Su waterfall. But for a real adventure, you can join a 6-day tour either from Bangkok or Chiangmai Mai. The trekking part starts in Umphang, but the tour offers the advantage of getting you there.
There are several options for this 6-day adventure. You can start and end your adventure in Bangkok, start in Chiang Mai and end in Bangkok, or start in Bangkok and end in Chiang Mai. The Bangkok to Chiang Mai route is the best option if you plan to keep exploring after the tour.
The experience I describe below is the 3 Day/2 Night adventure of visiting Thi Lo Su Waterfall from Umphang. Whichever way you choose to get to and from Umphang doesn’t impact the schedule of the tour.
Thi Lo Su Waterfall Adventure Day 1
Rafting on Mae Klong River
The adventure of getting to Thi Lo Su waterfall starts in Umphang. From your accommodation in town, you travel to the Tha Sai landing on the bank of Mae Klong River and jump into an inflatable boat for a 3-hour rafting journey.
This stretch of the river is absolutely serene. The current is gentle and the river is bookended by towering limestone cliffs covered in lush tropical jungle. It reminded me of rafting down the Khao Sok River in Khao Sok National Park.
There are spectacular twists and turns in the river and in parts the cliffs hang over the river and your boat cruises underneath them. You really feel like you are travelling into undiscovered lands.
There are even a couple of small waterfalls flowing from the cliffs directly into the river. Depending on the time you pass the Rainbow waterfall (Thi Lo Cho), you might see the rainbow in the spray where the falling water hits the surface of the river.
Depending on the season, there may also be several ephemeral waterfalls that flow over the cliff but dissipate before they reach the river. They look almost like translucent puffs of smoke lit up by the rays of the sun filtering through between the cliffs.
Keep an eye out for the birds as you cruise along – bee-eaters and kingfishers like to perch on tree branches that overhang the river. Early morning is the best time to see the birds and we saw quite a few gorgeous Green bee-eaters, as well as drongoes, bulbuls and plenty of swallows.
Jungle Hike in Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary
After the tranquillity of the river, the 9-km jungle hike to the campsite is hard work. The jungle of Unphang Wildlife Sanctuary is very scenic but you’ll need to keep your eyes on the trail for most of the hike.
There are several steep sections and the entire trail is quite rough, so the walk takes anywhere between 3 and 4 hours depending on your pace.
On the plus side, since you’ll work up a bit of sweat on the hike, you’ll be ready to jump into the bitingly cold swimming hole on the creek at the campsite, while your guide pitches the tents and gets the dinner going.
I personally wasn’t game enough to swim in the subzero water, so while my friend braved the cold, I checked out the birds around the campsite. There were several drongos hanging out by the picnic tables and an absolutely gorgeous Hoopoe just beyond the campsite.
About Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary
Wild and remote, Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary is part of the expansive Western Forest Complex (WFC) – one of the largest protected areas in Southeast Asia. The complex protects 18,730 square kilometres of continuous wildlife habitats, straddles two countries, Thailand and Burma, and contains 19 National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, including the stunning Erawan National Park.
Because it is such a large continuous tract of protected habitat, WFC is home to the world’s largest single population of Indochinese tigers and the world’s second-largest population of any tiger species (the largest tiger population is in Siberia). According to the 2008 census, the tiger population in WFC numbered over 200 individuals.
You don’t have to worry about coming across a tiger on your hike in Umphang, but it’s good to know that you are walking through the tiger’s world. And Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary is not all about the tigers, of course. The complex is also home to the Indochinese leopard, Clouded leopard, Sun bear, Asiatic black bear, Malayan tapir, Indian elephant, Gaur and White-handed gibbon. You might hear the gibbons singing in the park.
The facilities at the ranger station are quite basic. There is a toilet and shower block, some picnic tables and a small shop that sells snacks and drinks.
There are usually several different groups camping at this campsite so the atmosphere is quite lively and the birds are not as abundant as I hoped. But on a clear night, the stars were absolutely incredible, away from the light pollution of the cities.
After such an eventful day, you’ll be asleep before you hit the pillow. And if you wake up early in the morning, you’ll be waking up to a fabulous dawn chorus.
Thi Lo Su Waterfall Adventure Day 2
Thi Lo Su Waterfall
The second day of the adventure is all about the stunning Thi Lo Su Waterfall. This is why you’ve come all this way, after all.
The walk from the campsite to the waterfall is an easy and very picturesque 1.5km trail. You’ll hear Thi Lo Su long before you see it. During the rainy season, the waterfall can be heard from 1 kilometre away. The sound of thundering water in the quiet forest is quite incredible. And when you finally emerge at the waterfall… you’ll be swept off your feet. Thi Lo Su is spectacular.
It flows from towering limestone cliffs in three separate sections which gives it an unusually wide appearance. Like a mini version of Iguazu Falls with its dozens of separate waterfalls, but much more serene.
To me, it looks like the Tolkienesque setting of Rivendell with multiple waterfalls streaming down the forest-covered side of the mountain.
As the water flows down the side of the mountain, it creates crystal-clear plunge pools that are perfect for swimming. The water is quite chilly, but the setting is downright spectacular.
You will spend quite a bit of time at the waterfall, so you can have a refreshing dip, explore the forest trails around the falls, or just relax in the sun and soak in the view – you deserved it for all the effort it took to get here.
Don’t miss the trail to the top of the falls. It’s an adventure in itself. You’ll cross the river scramble up little waterfalls and get thoroughly sprayed by the refreshingly cool water.
Overnight in Kho Tha Karen Village
Once you are done splashing around in the waterfall, you’ll hike for another 3-4 hours to the very rustic Karen village of Kho Tha. If you ever wondered what it is like to live deep in the forest, you’ll find out in Kho Tha. The village is just a stone’s throw away from the Thai/Burmese border.
As part of your tour, you’ll visit the village primary school and meet the gorgeous kids, walk around the village, meet some locals and learn about their lifestyle. A few households in Kho Ta keep working elephants. The rest of the domestic animals are kept in the communal corral in the middle of the village.
We had the village Mayor show us around and talk about the challenges of living in such a remote location with very slim employment opportunities. The main occupations in the village seem to be tourism services, rice and vegetable growing and hand weaving. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the villages occasionally hunt in the protected area. It’s hard to imagine how they make a living here.
You could spend the afternoon in the village or take a short trek to another waterfall – Kho Tha Waterfall. It’s obviously not as spectacular as Thi Lo Su, but it is very secluded and mostly just visited by the local villages. You are already in the remote corner of the least accessible district in Thailand. May as well go all the way off the beaten path.
In the evening you’ll have dinner with a local family and spend the night in one of the houses. We stayed overnight at the school, but the majority of tours offer a homestay option, which is a lot more atmospheric.
Thi Lo Su Waterfall Adventure Day 3
Hike to Palatha & Drive to Umphang
On your last day in Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary, you hike through the jungle for 3-4 hours to the village of Palatha where the pick-up truck will be waiting for you for the drive back to Umphang and then on to Mae Sot.
Different Ways of Visiting Thi Lo Su Waterfall
Dry Season – November to May
While the hiking/rafting option is the most scenic and adventurous way of getting to Thi Lo Su Waterfall if you are visiting during the dry season (November to May), you can also drive to Thi Lo Su campsite and walk the 1.5-km trail to the waterfall.
The road however is a dirt track, that is partly paved but the paved section is heavily eroded. A high-clearance vehicle is a must. Some of the eroded sections are also quite steep, so it is a challenging drive.
Another option is to join a day tour from Umphang that offers a river rafting/driving option. Essentially, you’ll avoid virtually all of the jungle trekking and be driven by a local driver so you won’t have to worry about the road conditions. This option is only available during the dry season.
Rainy Season – June to October
During the rainy season (June 1 to October 31), the road to the park becomes impassible and the only way to visit Thi Lo Su Waterfall is with an organized tour on a rafting/hiking adventure. Needless to say, the waterfall is immense during the rainy season.
How to Get to Umphang
If you don’t want to take the tour either from Bangkok or Chiang Mai, you can travel to Umphang independently. Although Umphang is not particularly easy to get to. The town is located at the top of a 150-kilometre-long road, known as “Umphang Death Highway”. More formally called Route 1090, it is famous for having over 1200 turns.
The closest major city is Mae Sot, Tak Province, which is connected to Bangkok by air and road. The easiest way to get to Umphang is to fly to Mae Sot (1hr) and then take the local pick-up to Umphang (5hrs).
Alternatively, you can catch a bus from Bangkok’s Mochit terminal to Mae Sot (8.5hrs) and then the pick-up truck to Umphang (5hrs). This is going to be a very long trip so you may like to spend a night in Mae Sot.
More on Exploring Thailand
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- 12 National Parks in Thailand to Fall in Love With
- Easy Guide to Khao Sok National Park: How to Visit & What to See
- Guide to visiting Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
- Thi Lo Su Waterfall Jungle Adventure – Thailand off the Beaten Path
- Why You Must Visit Erawan National Park on your Trip to Thailand
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