Huai Nam Dang National Park—hill tribes amidst dense forests

Huai Nam Dang National ParkWith a total area of 1247 square kilometres, Huai Nam Dang National Park is one of the larger national parks in Northern Thailand. It is less well-known than the smaller Doi Inthanon National Park or Doi Ang Khang Nature Resort and many areas attract few visitors. The main area is situated north of Highway 1095 (Mae Malai – Mae Hong Son) and stretches to the Burmese border. The river Pai flows through the northern half of the park, descending from the Burmese border to Pai, with approximately two thirds of the park’s area lying in the watershed of the river Pai and the remaining third draining into the Mae Taeng.

The park certainly has a lot to offer — beautiful mountain scenery, picturesque hill tribe villages, roaring waterfalls and steaming hot springs, but is not easy to explore. In contrast to Doi Inthanon, where a dozen attractions conveniently straddle the excellent road to the summit, the interesting spots in Huai Nam Dang are widely separated. The two dirt roads that cross the park are in a poor condition, making it virtually impossible to visit the hot springs and enjoy misty mountain views in the morning, and reach one of Wiang Haeng’s waterfalls in time to cool off in the afternoon.

This rather ‘poor infrastructure’ for recreational activities should not come as a surprise. As a matter of fact, the park’s creation in 1995 was primarily aimed at curbing deforestation and promoting reforestation, as much of its forest cover had already been cleared or degraded by loggers and Lisu, Lahu and Karen hill tribe farmers.

Now, let us explore the interesting spots step by step. Nearest to Chiang Mai, only one-and-a-half hours by car, is Pong Duat hot spring. The turn off lies between Pa Pae and Mae Sae on Highway 1095 — a six kilometres long asphalt road that meanders through lush, evergreen forest to the park entrance. From there, it is about a twenty minutes walk to the geysers over an elevated trail constructed from old railway sleepers. The boiling water-spouts may not be quite as spectacular as the geysers in San Kamphaeng, but with a backdrop of forest with many trees covered in orchids, the setting is quite beautiful.

Huai Nam Dang National Park Map

Map of the Huai Nam Dang National Park (yellow) and surrounding areas.

Nearby are elegant bungalows for rent and the surrounding forest positively invites you to explore its interior. A well-marked jungle trail leads from the geysers to the Mae Taeng River. It is very remote, so be prepared not to come across a 7 Eleven for some while. After a few kilometres, the trail splits at the jungle village Ban Pong Nai. The left fork will eventually bring you to Ban Pa Khao Lan, with the shorter right fork taking you to Pong Pa Kha, both Lahu settlements on the right bank of the Mae Taeng, the former a little upstream from the latter. The total distance from the geysers  to Pong Pa Kha is about seven kilometres; and to Ban Pa Khao Lan about nine kilometres.

In Pong Pa Kha you can take a  jungle trip on the back of an elephant (for this subject see article Asian Elephants), or ride down the Mae Taeng on a bamboo raft. The Upper Mae Taeng forms more or less the eastern border of the park for part of its length; and while descending the river through dense forest you will soon be outside the park boundary. During the rainy season the trip can be pretty wild and dangerous. By raft, it takes less than three hours to cover the seventeen kilometres trip to the Akha village Sop Kai, where you can choose to disembark or continue to Mae Taman, some ten kilometres further downstream. From Sop Khai or Mae Taman you can get a pick-up back to Chiang Mai, but a better alternative is to spend a night in the peaceful jungle village of Sop Kai. Even if you start your trip from the geysers as early as 8 a.m. and skip the elephant riding, it will be late afternoon before you arrive at Sop Kai.

Huai Nam Dang National Park

Left: Pong Duet Hot Springs. Centre: One of the many orchids teeming in the national park. Right: Rustic accommodation near Pong Duet Hot Springs.

Alternatively, start again from Chiang Mai and head for the centre of the park. Ignore the turn off to the hot springs and continue to Mae Sae, an attractive village with a guesthouse and numerous restaurants.

From Mae Sae the road climbs higher and higher, with open pine woodland here and there replacing the evergreen tropical forest. Continue on this road for eleven kilometres and you will come to the main entrance to the park on your right hand side. A narrow asphalt road leads further up the mountain to the headquarters and visitor centre, which commands superb panoramic views of the surrounding area from the top of Doi Kiu Lom (1615 m), including a view of Doi Chang (1962 m), the highest peak in the park. On a clear day, if not completely shrouded in clouds, Doi Chiang Dao (2175 m), one of Thailand’s highest mountains, is also visible to the northeast. The mountains here are reputed to include one of the most beautiful misty mountain views in Thailand. Also visible from the viewpoint is the village of Muang Khong, which lies in a valley between the visitor centre and Doi Chiang Dao. This village once was a centre of teak logging, the teak mainly growing on the lower mountain slopes.

The area around the visitor centre and a nearby royal villa has been beautifully landscaped with terraces and lawns are fringed by flower-beds full of petunias and asters. Unfortunately, the centre has little practical information to offer. Nearby is the head of the 1500 m long Uang Ngoen Trail, an ‘educational trail’ named after a white orchid common in the park. The trail descends through mixed forest for about half its length and then loops back and ascends through bamboo thickets to a spot near the trail head. You will see plenty of wild gingers and may at anytime hear the monotonous, melancholy call of the secretive barbet, a green bird with a moustache that usually remains hidden in the tree tops. There are numbered signs along the trail, but unfortunately, the educational information to which the numbers apparently refer was sadly lacking.

Huai Nam Dang National Park

Left: Flowering wild gingers along the educational trail near the headquarters. Centre: A vista of Doi Chiang Dao, shredded in clouds, from a viewpoint near the headquarters. Right: The three-needled pine Pinus kesiya is one of the dominant tree species in the national park.

Another ‘educational trail’ near Huai Nam Dang waterfall has become overgrown and has now been reclaimed by the jungle. However, it is worthwhile to descend to the rather large Lisu village of Huai Nam Dang, along the ‘noisy water’ stream which gave the park its name. The turn-off to this village is near the visitor centre. The road swiftly deteriorates, soon becoming a dirt track, rather steep in places, so quite hazardous to travel in the rainy season. Fortunately, it is only four kilometres to the village, making it the most accessible Lisu settlement in the park. Most of the houses are constructed in concrete or brick. Electricity is generated by solar cells and there are many other signs of development, yet plenty of traditional Lisu life can still be seen. Many women wear their colourful traditional dresses and some of them may be observed engaged in needlework on such dresses in front of their homes. Interestingly, the numerous satellite discs are multifunctional, being used anong other things, for drying herbs (more about Thailand’s Lisu in article Lisu New Year). Huai Nam Dang is connected by jungle trails to the Mae Taeng river, but you will need a guide to negotiate these; and to stay overnight in a (Karen) village en route.

Huai Nam Dang National Park

Left: Lisu women relaxing at a sala in the centre of the village of Huai Nam Dang. Right: Two women engaged with needlework in front of a little shop in the village of Huai Nam Dang.

After the visitor centre, a 500 metre-long track brings you to the camping site and another viewpoint with excellent vistas of the mountains to the south and west. Continuing, towards Doi Chang, at an altitude of 1300-1600 metres, the road deteriorates further, becoming a dirt track, many stretches of which are pitted by mud puddles after heavy rain. Much of this area has been deforested, and recently replanted with pine; consequently wildlife is virtually non-existent. This situation is a far cry from in the 1950s, when Gordon Young, the son of an American missionary and an ardent hunter, roamed the forests of the north. He considered the area (in particular Mae Salak, east of Doi Chang) to be one of the best hunting grounds in Thailand, with plenty of large game. For years, it was notably the home of a giant gaur (the largest wild bovine in the world, now extinct in this area) that was responsible for the deaths of a number of Lahu and Lisu men. Young believed that a tribe of primitive forest nomads, known locally as the ‘Spirits of the Yellow Leaves’, also lived their secretive lives in these forests. (A larger group of these people until recently roamed the forests of Nan and Phrae, but now live in a settlement.)

Though the forests are severely degraded, the mountain views are excellent. Past Doi Chang is a turn-off to the Lisu village Hua Mae Yen, much smaller and less developed than Huai Nam Dang. The main road continues north and after a few kolometres, a turn-off leads to the top of Doi Sam Mun (1725 m). The road then gradually descends to a rather large settlement of the Forestry Department, and to Sam Mun, a Lisu village of over 120 langkha (‘roofs’, houses). The inhabitants of this village are predominantly Christians and the community enjoys many development projects.

From Sam Mun, a fifteen kilometres poorly maintained dirt road  leads to the district town Wiang Haeng (at least 15 kms). Approximately halfway along this route you may visit the Huai La waterfall. From Wiang Haeng, situated just outside the park boundary in the picturesque valley of the Upper Mae Taeng, it is easy to get to the 40 m high Mae Hat waterfall, probably the most attractive waterfall in the park. Ten kilometres west of Wiang Haeng a narrow concrete road leads to a parking place, from where a 800 metres walk through lush evergreen forest with many bamboo thickets along the rocky bed of a brook, will bring you to the waterfall. A hundred metres past the waterfall the trail ends at a small canyon. From here the park is un-inhabitated, with lush virgin forest stretching to the Birmese border; reputedly, still containing a number of wild elephants roaming freely throughout this area.

Huai Nam Dang National Park

Bamboo thickets (left) and pine trees (centre) abound in the surroundings of Mae Hat Falls (right).

To enjoy the Mae Hat waterfall it is not necessary to cross the national park from its headquarters to Wiang Haeng. Instead you can take Highway 107 to Chiang Dao, turning off just north of the town and driving along 65 kilometres of good asphalt road, through attractive mountain scenery to Wiang Haeng, where you will find two guesthouses.

Some of the park’s other attractions are at its southeast border, near the district town of Pai, a destination very popular with backpackers, boasting dozens of guesthouses, lodges and resorts. Ban Tha Pai hot spring is located about ten kilometres east of the town, but the 200 baht entrance fee for foreigners is quite steep, as there is little else nearby that you can see on that ticket. A few kilometres north of Pai you will find a sign indicating Mae Yen waterfall seven kilometres. The narrow lane follows a irrigation ditch and soon becomes a track barely wide enough for a motorbike. After two kilometres, the track crosses a brook, forcing riders to leave their bikes there and proceed on foot for the remaining five kilometres. However, the forested hill slopes form beautiful scenery in which to enjoy the hike.

Huai Nam Dang National Park

Left: An aggregation of immature hemipteran insects clustered on a branch of a shrub, their thin mouthparts embedded in the stem to feed on its sap. These insects are densely covered with wax filaments preventing parasitic wasps and predators from easily reaching them. Near Mae Hat Waterfall. Right: A chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) resting on a branch of a pine tree. This bird species is a common resident in the national park.

A second road spanning the park starts at Tan Chet Ton, some five kilometres north of Pai.

This fifty kilometres long route is quite steep in places and frequently deteriorates to a dirt track, which eventually terminates in Wiang Haeng.

It passes through a few villages, the first of which is the small and little developed Lisu community of Huai Chang Tao.

Do not attempt this road in the rainy season, unless you wish to experience the dubious thrill of getting stuck in the mud some ten kilometres from any habitation.

Fifteen kilometres northwest of Pai, at the extreme western edge of the park, where the Nam Khong forms the border with the Lum Nam Pai Wildlife Sanctuary, there is the start of a dirt track that heads through dense forest to Sai Ngam, a Lisu village named after a large fig tree along the brook.


map The Loop

The best map of this part of Northern Thailand.

With most of the home compounds fenced off with poles and boards, this village looks quite different from most Lisu villages. Further dirt tracks lead to a few other hill tribe villages, but to the north of these, the area is virtually inaccessible and mainly consists of un-inhabited  mountain forest.

©Sjon Hauser: text, pictures and map