Rachel: This past weekend we went on a four-day trip to see the Thi Lo Su waterfall with Zar Zar, Zin Zin, May, Naw Lay Dee and Naw Lay Dee’s thirteen-year-old son. A week prior, when the four of us were discussing options for the weekend of June 15-16, Noe Noe asked us if we would be interested in going to see the Thi Lo Su waterfall. She said it is one of the largest in the world but it would take a few days to get there and back since it is located in a very remote region. We would have to drive for a few hours, raft down a river and walk for a bit before reaching the waterfall. If they had told us we would be driving for 10 hours on the DEATH Highway, rafting for 6 hours on the Mae Klong River, which is filled with jumping spiders, and hike 9 km (3-4 hours) up a steep mountain before reaching the waterfalls, I would have decided to just spend the weekend in Mae Sot.
The morning of Friday, June 14, was just like every other morning of our internship. We visited the Adolescent Reproductive Health Network (ARHN) from 9:30 – 11:00 am before heading to Noe Noe’s house for lunch. We had a delicious traditional Burmese meal before scurrying back to BWU to pack our things. At 1 pm, Kyaw Soe, our driver, arrived to begin the journey. There was a slight panic because we were not able to locate the key to lock the front gates for about 10 minutes. It still has not turned up but luckily there was another lock so we were still able to leave on time. Promptly at 1 pm (Can you believe it, we left right on time!? How many of you have ever gone on a camping trip where you left right when you had wanted to leave?!), we sped out of BWU’s driveway and headed towards the highway. So far, so good.
The next segment of our trip, though, not so good. The next 4.5 hours we spent sitting on benches in the back of a pickup truck being thrown every which way as we traversed the Death Highway. Here’s a description of this highway that we found the night before the trip:
“Given its annual death toll of fifty plus — a bus crash in 1995 killing 25 teachers from Bangkok setting a grim record — it is recognized as one of the country’s most accident prone roads. Its countless sharp curves and steep slopes can be treacherous, as the mist and clouds at the higher elevations are often thick, so consequently many of the bends become wet and slippery.” (http://www.sjonhauser.nl/death-highway-to-umphang-fifty-miles-through-the-clouds.html)
For some reason, I thought this author was exaggerating and no highway could be that terrible or dangerous. A few years ago, I had driven on the Hana Highway in Maui and was sure nothing could be that bad. I was wrong. Nearly dead, wrong. I spent the 4+ hours on the highway clutching my stomach and trying not to hurl my Burmese lunch out of the back of the truck. It didn’t help that 30 minutes in, it started pouring rain so we had to pull the rain shields down from the roof to keep our luggage from getting drenched. This drastically limited the fresh air we were breathing when the sides were open and now we were breathing a mix of air and exhaust. In addition, Rachael and I were sitting on the outer edges of the pick-up and had to put on our rain ponchos to protect us from the muddy rainwater that was splattering everywhere. No pictures or videos can do this road justice, but we’ll try. The curves were so sharp that most of the trip I spent clutching an overhead rail to steady myself from sliding into Dandi.
We weren’t the only ones on the Death Highway but we were the only tourists we saw ascending the mountain. The other vehicles were descending the mountain carrying mounds upon mounds of cauliflower to be sold in the Mae Sot market. These trucks were so weighed down in the back, I am shocked their drivers could control the vehicles enough to keep the truck bed from swinging out over the edge. Somehow they make it work since we always see cauliflower at the market.
The one positive memory I have of the four hours on the Death Highway was driving through a herd of cows. At one point, perhaps an hour in, we had slowed down and I was curious about what was happening. After a minute or two we started to pick up speed and turning around, I saw a herd of cows standing in the middle of the road. Not the safest place for them (or for us) but it was quite enjoyable seeing their confused faces as we had interrupted their evening stroll.
We arrived at our guesthouse around 5 pm, grabbed dinner at a local Thai restaurant before going to bed. This guest house was not anything special, but they had beds, a flushing toilet, sink with running water and a shower with warm water. To us, it was heaven! We haven’t seen any of those appliances that we take for granted in the US since we left our Bangkok hotel over three weeks ago!
Dandi: The next morning, we woke up around 6:15 AM and left at 7AM for probably one of the most adventure filled days of our lives (at least it was for me!). We first rafted for 3-4 hours on the Mae Klong River and the water was opaque brown but the scenery was beautiful and we couldn’t have asked for better weather! It felt like we were exploring a jungle on a safari J We took two rafts, one for us plus Kyaw Soe, who is a friend of the BWU staff and our driver, and another raft for everyone else. Each raft had two local men who helped paddle and acted as guides. We didn’t see very many large animals but there were all kinds of birds, spiders and other bugs that we were not too thrilled to find in our raft 😛 Our rafts went over some rapids and got splashed but for the most part, the current was really calm. At one point, the raft we were on did start to deflate and fill up with water (4-5 inches), which caused some panic but we were able to stop on the side of the river and our tour guides used a jumping manual pump to add more air! On the way, we also stopped at a hidden hot spring and a “beach” for lunch. Normally, we could have taken a truck from where we had lunch to our campsite but because it is monsoon season right now, we had to raft farther and hike up to our campsite.
Rachael: After stopping at a piece of riverbank that looked just like every other piece of riverbank (minus the tiny sign hidden up in a tree that said something in Thai,) we began hiking through the jungle, apparently toward the campsite where we would stay the night. We happened across a road after 10 or 15 minutes. This road led to the park site and was the road closed off to all motorized vehicles from June to November. So, we began the long trek shortly after 12 PM.
At first, Zar Zar said we would be hiking for 22 miles. 22 MILES. We were not at all pleased and figured there must be some kind of translation miscommunication. After a few minutes of heated debate about how it would be impossible for us to hike 22 miles in three hours, Kyaw Soe came by and said it was actually only 6 km. Turns out it was 9 km but he was closer. The 90 degree weather, humidity, and altitude did NOT help that gruesome journey. Even though the road established a trail for us, the incline was very steep and I found it very difficult to climb for more than 50 feet before needing to stop for a rest. I looked back after a few minutes and saw my Burmese friends gasping for air on the ground (no joke, they were literally sitting on the ground) and I knew that this “hike” was not going to be enjoyable.
I was correct in that sentiment. After 3 hours of walking up hills of ungodly incline and down knee-jarring slopes, we arrived at the park/camping area. Unsurprisingly, we were the only ones in the park. In fact, no park rangers could be found for a few hours. No matter! As soon as we arrived at the covered area containing picnic tables, I mustered up the last of my strength and collapsed on a table top. Ants (some red) crawling on and around me? Don’t care. Blisters on my feet? Doesn’t matter. The imminent need to go pee? It can wait. I was tired and hot and no longer cranky because that took up valuable energy. Existing was enough work.
Since Naw Lay Dee, her son, Morgan, a raft guide and myself were the first ones to the site, we snoozed and played cards until the last of the group rolled in about an hour later. Rachel and Dandi brought up the rear, and I could tell by their expressions that they had an equally as difficult excursion as I did. After a few minutes of group-togetherness and awkward laughs/sobs and “never agains,” I offered that we go actually see the waterfall. “We cannot go see the waterfall today because it closed at 3 PM,” Zar Zar piped up. What. Are you kidding me? I pouted a little bit but cheered up upon hearing that there was a nearby creek, and made a beeline straight for it.
I felt much better after going for a quick swim (a.k.a. splashing around and doing bobs) for an hour or so. We ate our top-ramen dinners (which we had purchased from 7/11. That’s where BWU took us shopping for 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 1 dinner), and everyone had retreated to their respective tents by 7:30 pm. Even though the tents were situated on the cement, I fell asleep almost instantly and could have cared less. My body is kind of adjusted to sleeping on hard surfaces anyway.
The next morning we finally got to visit the waterfalls. I wouldn’t say that they were worth all of the perils of the trip, but they were certainly magnificent. I went swimming in nearly all of the tiers of the waterfall.
We headed out of the camp Sunday at noon and bribed locals to drive us back on their motorbikes to our rafts. Most. Terrifying. Motorbike. Ride. Of. My. Life. I knew as soon as my butt touched the seat of the bike that I was in for an adrenaline rush of a lifetime. I quickly wracked my brain from my Catholic school girl days for a prayer about safety but could come up with nothing but “God, Buddha, Zeus, Athena, and whoever else is listening please keep me safe from har—-aaaah I’m going to die—— sweet mother of——-slow down!!!!” I’m pretty sure we made up Sunday’s cardio with clenched butt cheeks and clenched fists. So, with no real prayer, the little driver man and I flew up and down the mountain road for 25 minutes.
We arrived back at the rafts and floated down the Mae Klong again for 2 more hours. We saw a dead baby elephant on the side of the river, which was terribly sad. 😦 Right before we had seen it, Kwoy Soe was telling us there were crocodile-like creatures in the river that sometimes bite. Right before we saw the dead baby elephant, she had thought of hippopotamus as the mysterious water animal, and the sideways elephant did give her quite a scare. While it was sad seeing the elephant, I for one, am at least glad it wasn’t a sleeping hippo. There is a popular Karen village here that offers elephant rides, but that would have taken us another day to visit them. So, no elephants this weekend. Maybe when we visit Chiang Mai.
Back at the guesthouse, we marveled at the warm shower and flush toilet again. Zar Zar was craving kuay tiew (a Thai noodle dish that is very popular in Mae Sot)… so much that we drove to the next town and back looking for it. No such luck. Morgan and I have been craving Pad Thai insane since we came here and Kwoy Soe finally gave into our chants and pulled into a shop that served Pad Thai. OM NOM NOM.
Anyway, we made it back to Mae Sot safe and sound (miraculously). Rachel and I celebrated our alive-ness at the air conditioned tea shop next door, where she bought a delicious chocolate cake that I sampled.
Group Note to Future Travelers: If there are any other Thailand travelers out there reading this, DO NOT and we repeat DO NOT go to the Thi Lo Su waterfalls unless you find someone to helicopter you there. Rachel and Dandi may be opening a tourist outfit for this one day, so be on the lookout 😉
SO HAPPY TO BE ALIVE!