By the spring of 2011, my family and I had been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, for about six months. I was there to set up field research for my dissertation. My husband worked remotely, attending meetings in the middle of the night to match schedules with his U.S. colleagues. Our kids, then 9 and 4, were going to international schools during the day and their evenings were filled with homework, extracurriculars, and play.
Since we knew we were only staying in Thailand for a year, our initial plan was to take advantage of our time there to explore at least one new place every weekend. This was a good idea in theory, but it was a little trickier to put into practice when every weekend followed an exhausting week of balancing family and work.
So it took a little convincing for us to take up an invitation to go with friends to Bua Tong (Golden Lotus) Waterfall. We had already been to several waterfalls in the hill country around Chiang Mai and, while they were beautiful, we expected that this would be more of the same.
Boy, were we wrong.
Bua Tong Waterfall is located in Sri Lanna National Park, 58 kilometers north of Chiang Mai (about a 90-min drive). When we arrived we stepped out of the parking lot into a field of neatly trimmed grass surrounded by tropical forest. At one end of the field was Chet Si (Seven Colors) Spring, a mineral spring of turquoise water, partially encircled by a wooden boardwalk. Several spirit houses stood nearby to honor the spirits of the spring with offerings of incense, food, and drink.
The spring fed a burbling stream that wound through the field and disappeared into the trees. Following the sound of laughing children, we came to a ridge over which the stream disappeared. As we approached the ridge, we could hear water splashing over rocks and saw a huddle of excited children looking over the other side. One by one, they disappeared over the edge – but the sounds of their happy shouts and chatter continued.
When we reached the spot, we looked down and gasped. The water cascaded over pillows of ivory-colored stone, as though a giant had shaped the waterfall from melted marshmallows. Rather than giant, however, it was actually the mineral water itself that had created the structures by depositing layer upon layer of limestone precipitate over every surface it touched. A lush jungle of trees framed the falls on both sides, shading the falls with leafy branches and vines.
From where we were standing, the waterfall was dizzyingly steep and looked ridiculously slippery. Yet, people of all ages clambered like geckos up and down the stones, water splashing over and around them.
I paused. Wasn’t there a safer way to reach the pools of blue water at the bottom? While I considered this, my 9-year-old spotted some friends from school among the kids below. She immediately started to climb down.
Not to be shown up, the rest of us carefully began the descent. To our surprise the minerals coating the bed of the waterfall were gritty and remarkably easy to grip. Even our 4-year-old managed it with no problems.
The only truly slippery areas were at the edges of the flowing water where slimy algae was able to grow. This meant that the safest place to climb was, counterintuitively, in the center of the streams. Once we figured this out, our fears (mostly) melted away and we spent the rest of the afternoon playing and marveling at the waterfall’s unique beauty.
That evening we went home refreshed and re-committed to making the most of our remaining time in Thailand. But, even after a year full of unforgettable places, Bua Tong Waterfall stands out as one of my family’s all-time favorite trips.
If you ever find yourself in northern Thailand, I highly recommend you make a side trip to the waterfall. The best time to visit is during the dry season between October and early February. The dry season actually extends to the end of April, but between February and April smoke from the burning of agricultural fields often makes the air quality unhealthy. During the rainy season frequent heavy monsoon storms may make travel difficult and the waterfall more dangerous.
Although there is no public transportation from Chiang Mai to the waterfall, you can rent a song taew and driver to take you for between 500 and 2,000 Baht per day ($15-$60). Song taews are those ubiquitous pick-up trucks (usually red) that have been modified to carry passengers. The easiest way to arrange a rental is through your hotel or guest house.
You can also book a tour to the waterfall starting at about $50 per person per day. Tours usually include transportation, a guide, and lunch.
If you’re particularly brave, you can rent a car or motorbike and drive yourself. Before you do, however, make sure you familiarize yourself with the rules (or lack of rules) for driving in Thailand. Most importantly, don’t forget that in Thailand drivers drive on the left side of the road rather than the right. And, if you’re planning to travel to the waterfall on a Thai motorbike, expect a two-hour drive.
Admission is free but there are no food vendors allowed in the park. If you’re not coming as part of a tour that includes lunch, bring your own for a picnic. Also, wear bathing suits and bring towels, sunscreen, bug spray, and a change of clothes. You might also want a small first-aid kit and some antibiotic ointment in case you get a few cuts or scrapes.
Most importantly: Have fun and take lots of pictures!
AT A GLANCE:
Where: Sri Lanna National Park, 58 kilometers north of Chiang Mai
What: Have fun climbing the limestone waterfalls
Best way to get there: Fly into Chiang Mai International Airport. From Chiang Mai, rent a song taew and driver to take you or book a tour that includes transportation, a guide, and lunch.
Where to stay: A hotel or guest house in Chiang MaiWhere to eat: Bring a picnic lunch unless your tour includes a meal