This post first appeared on my travel column Down South on interaksyon.com on June 12, 2016. Included more photos here. 😉
I grew up climbing trees, hunting wild guavas, assigning names to animals to pass them off as friends, and wishing there was a living river nearby. Life would have been a lot easier for me and my siblings. Life would have been graced with laughter—the kind unique to constant frolicking in the water.
T grew up biking the hills and climbing snow-capped mountains and swimming in a massive lake—so massive they called it “der see,” which literally means “sea.”
Growing up and living in an archipelago, I found it ridiculous to call a lake sea. But language sometimes takes inspiration from its geography. Austria, he recently reminded me, is a landlocked country. The Philippines is too open, too many seas—a lot of seas, lakes, and islands that I cannot really claim I have been to the whole country.
Nature binds us. When we are traveling together, we find ourselves drawing inspiration from nature, we find ourselves traversing a terrain dense with leaves in varied sizes, we find our steps more confident than the earlier ones.
It was all natural for us to know Chiang Mai beyond its storied temples. So we rented a bike and looked for a place to define our hours by the amount of steps we took and by the number of shrubs, birds, and trees we could not name.
The moment we arrived at the start of the trail—a view of Huay Kaew waterfalls before us—without any hesitation, we followed the route on the left. This time around, we did not have a map, virtual or otherwise, to consult, to rely on in times of crisis and confusion called getting lost. We followed the human path before us: step by step, breath by breath. The trail of loose rock and rocky path was wide and established. It was supposed to be an easy trail, but it still managed to make me sweat.
“You’re in a bad shape,” T teased me.
After an hour of uptrekking, we removed our shoes and socks and crossed a little river and rested for a bit. We talked about apertures, shutter speeds, and the trees around us that we could not name.
Calmly, two samanens tailed us. They faced the glimmer of the new city that showed up behind the treetops. While they pointed the places that they must have been to or perhaps the places where they came from, there we were, utterly clueless of the city seen from the top.
Is that Chiang Mai? Why does it look like a city? Buildings right after buildings. Whereas the Chiang Mai we left that morning was that of temples after temples. Perhaps my eyes were biased, selective on the things they chose to see and process.
We left the novices behind and continued our walk to somewhere we did not know. A swarm of orange butterflies, as orange as the novice’s kasaya, huddled in a little puddle. Below a resting shed was a trickle of a river that fed Huay Kaew below.
After some minutes, we exited on the right of the waterfall. We spotted a couple taking a dip in the river. Some idled by the waterfall. I smiled. This time around, we found ourselves not getting lost in the wilderness.
“Do you know those big-leafed shrubs?” I asked.
“That’s a banana,” I informed, feeling smart out of a sudden. T got thrilled about it, took some photos, and sent a photo to their family chat later on and asked everyone what it was. His mom got the answer right away.
Our treks around Southeast Asia was like that: me pointing the familiar plants and trees with the excitement of a farmer’s daughter—me sharing childhood stories I could recall: me climbing up mango and tamarind trees, or me and my siblings hunting wild guavas.
The two hour-trek in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, despite my sweat, was barely enough. We got on our motorbike and drove farther up north. The road was smooth, wide, and curvy. The sky turned gloomy, but we pushed through. We saw a sign to another nature park. There was a guard and a clerk in a small entrance post.
Teasing, T joked about raving the motorbike and passing through without paying. But we stopped and showed our best smiles and paid the somewhat expensive entrance fee while a western couple backtracked and complained about it.
Mon Ta Than Waterfall Nature Trail looked established despite not having a single trekker in sight. T and I followed a wooden path that led to a thick rainforest. All endemic plants were marked, ready to inform a trekker on the local floras around. The cicadas chattered their calls for mating. The floras, including the bananas by the road, now looked familiar.
It felt like the forest was ready for our arrival, like we were Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
The trek was a lot shorter but more challenging, and in return, more rewarding. Some parts were mossy and slippery. There was a part we had to crawl under a tunnel made of yielding dwarf bamboo branches. We got suddenly thrilled when we heard the rushing of a river. There must be a waterfall nearby, and indeed at the end of the trail, we saw one. We stripped off our clothes, and with our undies on left, we dipped in the little pool and let the falling water massaged our back.
No, we were not Chihiro. No one got under some illusions; we were aware of what we were doing; and the path was more than willing us to lead us through the right way.
Quick Travel Guide
We paid 110Baht each in Mon Ta Than Waterfall Nature Trail.
Online guides say there is an entrance fee to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. But we entered via Huay Kaew Waterfall, and I did not remember us paying.
By the entrance of Huay Kaew Waterfall, there are restaurants and stores where you could buy the things you want and need before trekking up. But I highly recommend you buying from the city center, where everything is a bit cheaper.
Bring some snacks and enough water.