Camping in Thailand: Umphang
Umphang in the far west of Thailand, is undoubtedly the least known, most underrated and most pristine part of Thailand. That is probably because the powers that be have been too busy elsewhere to get their snouts in this particular trough, but that might change, when other troughs run dry.
Camping in Umphang is unfortunately becoming more popular, so I expect the character of the place might change before our next trip. Fortunately, it is quite difficult to get to, at the end of a winding 165 km cul-de sac through mountains south of Mae Sot. At the end of this winding road, you will discover one of Thailand’s greatest treasures, certainly one that has given me one of the greatest camping experiences anywhere in the world. Unseco agree, and Umphang wildlife sanctuary is a World Heritage Site (but then so is Khao Yai). And remember this was christmas 2008, so much water has passed under the bridge.
You may feel like a night at Taksin Maharat national park on the way there, since you need to break the journey if you are coming from Bangkok. Tak to Mae Sot must be one of the most dangerous roads in Thailand, as it seems to be an optional dual carriageway system: optional because there are no formal rules. It is a uniquely Thai arrangement which westerners cannot hope to understand. In brief, might is right, so if you are a ten wheel truck you have precedence over a coach or pickup. etc etc etc as Yul Brinner once said! Only you don’t know whether you have precedence or not, as you race around a blind corner. The fact that there are thick yellow and white lines to mark the lanes is completely irrelevant.
The road from Mae Sot to Umphang is also not for tired drivers, largely because some vans do the 850 km from Bangkok to Umphang in a day, and secondly because it is up and down with lots of curves and blind corners. It is a very pleasant drive, with little traffic: the problem is you never know when Somchai and his 21 friends are coming round the mountain in a pick up with fried brakes after a night on the sauce, intent on making it to Malaysia before nightfall. If you are not in a hurry, there is a very nice spot for lunch at Pha Charoen Waterfall about 50-60 kms south of Mae sot. It is very photogenic and there is a walk up the multiple steps of the falls. It takes 3-4 hours for the 165 kms between Mae sot and Umphang.
Umphang itself is a quiet little town, at the end of a 165 km cul-de-sac, but it is not short of attractions. To name a few: the Thi Lor Su waterfall, which is reached by a steep and very difficult dirt road, suitable for 2 wheel drive pickups, but not for your Honda Jazz unless its a company car. It is closed in the wet season, when even a good 4 wheel drive with a diff-lock would struggle. It is apparently the highest waterfall in SEA and you can have a very refreshing swim in the pool below the fall. The drive takes about 2 hours from Umphang town: you get to a car park and decent campsite, and from there it is a 30 minute walk in the forest to the falls.
On the way to Thi Lor Su, you may want to stop at Thakobi caves, which have some nice stalagmites and stalactites. Guides (schoolkids) are available and recommended. A look around the caves takes about 1 hour, so it can be fitted into a day trip from Umphang to Thi lor su.
What I would highly recommend, actually my number one recommendation on this entire website, is a rafting trip along the Maekhlong River. This is a 1 or 2 day trip to Thi Lor Le waterfalls, which requires two guides, and elephants to carry the raft out of the Mae Khlong valley. This is a quiet river that flows through pristine nature, and has a number of quite exciting rapids, level 4 whatever that means.
The whole thing is not cheap, but quite memorable. You will camp in really secluded forest, fish, raft, ride an elephant, and really experience something quite exceptional. The raft takes about 5 hours: the walk behind the elephants is uphill and quite tiring, also about 5 hours. You will be astounded at how these elephants can climb, and how often they break wind as you walk directly behind them. Choose a time such as christmas, (not new year, when the masses are on the move).
they were top class. However, things change in 5 years, so probably best to do your own thing. We stayed at Umphang Garden resort, and organised the trip through them. You must allow a couple of days for them to organise elephants and guides. Since it is such a hike from Bangkok to Umphang, I strongly recommend that you leave time for a leisurely trip: there is lots to see in this area.
The following website has as always, great information. Respect!