Caitlin Roman, 128 TCCS
Thong Pha Phum National Park is located in the northwestern reaches of Kanchanaburi Province on the Thai-Myanmar border. As many Thais pointed out to us during our stay there, the park is part of “Unseen Thailand”, meaning that many Thais, and more accurately most foreigners, do not even know it’s there. While the park is rather difficult to get to, it is well worth the effort; spectacular mountain views, exotic wildlife, and cascading waterfalls await you. While admittedly, I have a tendency to exaggerate, I promise I’m not exaggerating when I say this is towards the top of my list of travel highlights in Thailand.
At a Glance
Travel Time from Bangkok: 6-8 hours
Cost: The park entrance fee is 200 baht for foreigners but we were able to talk them down to half price by speaking Thai and showing our VICA IDs. The most expensive factor was accommodations—aside from tent camping, the other housing was more than we expected. We saved ourselves a lot of money by bringing in most of our meals. Other than that we just had to pay for transportation.
Weather: Beautiful! Would recommend going in the rainy season or the cool season.
Would you go back? In a heartbeat!
We live in Kanchanaburi so we left from our site with our host dad who owns a farm up there and offered to give us a ride, but the 8203 bus—it’s big and red—leaves the bus station in Kanchanaburi at least once an hour, if not every 30 minutes. The bus takes about 2 hours to get to Amphur Thong Pha Phum. The bus will drop you off in a little market area where you can stock up on food. From this market area, you can catch a song-taew (about 60 baht) however they only run in the morning (I read there’s one that leaves at 10:30AM). From what our Paw said it sounds like most people spend the night in Amphur Thong Pha Phum (here are some suggested accommodations) and then take off for the park early the next morning. That’s not to say you couldn’t hire a private song-taew to take you up there (you’ll wanna double check if that’s possible, but it seems like it would be). The song-taew will take you the 60km climb up the mountain and drop you off at the park entrance before continuing to E-tong (more on that below). From the Amphur to the entrance it will take a little more than 1.5 hours. The road is extremely windy and not very well maintained, so if you’re susceptible to car sickness I’d recommend packing some Dramamine.
If you’re traveling from Bangkok, there are vans that go directly to and from Amphur Thong Pha Phum, but I wasn’t able to find definitive information about where and when you can catch them. I did read that there’s a bus that leaves from Mo Chit 2 at 5am, but I can’t verify this.
What to Pack
There is a little restaurant in the park but it closes at 6 PM, so if you miss dinner you’ll want to make sure you have a backup plan. When the bus drops you off in Amphur Thong Pha Phum it will leave you at a little tha lat where you can stock up on fruits and veggies, and even some prepared foods. There’s also a 711 there where you can buy things like bread and nuts and cans of tuna. There’s a bakery stand that makes some pretty yummy baked goods. When we went we packed bread, apples, cashew butter (courtesy of Max’s recent trip to America), mixed berry jam, sunflower, almond, and cashew seeds, some Thai trail mix type thing that we picked up in the tha lat, honey, baked goods from the bakery stand for breakfast, coffee and filters, and some cucumbers that the universe fortuitously dropped in the middle of the road for us because she felt we were lacking fiber. Oh, and some Hong Thong, of course!
It rained a lot when we went, so if you’re planning to do this trip during the rainy season, be sure to pack a poncho or rainjacket as well as a few changes of clothes, preferably clothes that are quick drying. I’d also recommend bringing a sweater or sweatshirt and some long pants because it gets pretty cool at night. If you plan to do the Chang Puuak hike you’ll definitely want to bring closed toes shoes with some traction on them and even if you don’t plan to do the hike, you’ll want to bring some shoes you feel comfortable walking in. Also, bring a bathing suit or some clothes you can swim in for visiting the waterfall.
I’d recommend bringing a flashlight because even if you rent one of the cabins, they shut the electricity off at 9PM. A knife and reusable utensils will come in handy for snacking. Insect repellent is a MUST. This region of Kanchanaburi has reported cases of malaria in recent years and the cabins/treehouse do not come with mosquito nets, so be sure to bring plenty of insect repellent. It also wouldn’t hurt to bring some mosquito coils for if you plan to hang on the balcony of your cabin. If you’re sensitive to noise you may want to bring earplugs because the cicadas here are unrivaled—I’ve never heard cicadas so loud and they have a really mechanical quality to them (see/listen to video below). They make for a great alarm clock if you want to be up in time for sunrise, but if you’d prefer your beauty rest you may want to plan ahead.
Other miscellaneous items that aren’t necessary but that we were glad we brought or wish we had brought: portable coffee filters and ground coffee, playing cards, small portable speaker. And obviously, you’ll want to bring a camera because the views are spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Inside the park, there are three choices for accommodations; tent camping, cabin rentals, and tree houses (!!!).
Like most, if not all, other national parks in Thailand, you can rent everything you need to camp right within the park. This includes a 2-3 person tent, rainfly, ground tarp, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags. The tent camping area is situated right at the edge of the mountain overlooking the mountains and the Vajiralongkorn Dam. Again, the sunrise and sunset views are unreal, and if you camp in a tent you can watch from bed! Make sure to rent your tent from an official park ranger at the front—we rented one from someone who looked like a park ranger down at the campgrounds but it turned out it was more of a mom and pop operation. We ended up paying a little less, but the equipment wasn’t as good.
We paid ฿350 per night for a 2-3 person tent.
The park offers a variety of different cabin types in various sizes to accommodate both large and small groups. The majority of the cabins are located towards the front entrance and don’t offer any mountain views, so if you’re booking ahead of time you’ll want to make sure to specify that you want a cabin with a good view. If you’re going on a weekend you’ll also want to book ahead—we just showed up so we took what we could get staying in a cabin the first night and tent camping the next.
The cabin we stayed in was made from bamboo and situated at the side of the mountain so you felt like you were sleeping in the trees. It was 2 floors with 1 double bed, 3 single beds, and a balcony. My one complaint about these cabins is that they don’t offer much protection from mosquitos and insects—when we arrived both the doors and windows were wide open and there are no screens and no mosquito nets for the beds. While I loved being able to lay out on the balcony and drink coffee in the morning or listen to the cicadas at night, I slept much more comfortably in the tent the next night without bugs crawling on me.
฿1500 per night to rent 5 person bamboo cabin.
These are what originally attracted us to visit the park, but unfortunately, they can only accommodate 1-2 people at a time and only one was available when we arrived. Darn, guess we’ll have to go back! The tree houses are almost exactly what you would picture when you think of a tree house. Check out this guy’s blog for some photos and a video tour of the tree houses.
฿1000 per night to rent 1-2 person tree house.
Things to Do
Chang Phuek Mountain
Named one of “Thailand’s 15 Most Stunning Mountains You Need to Climb Before You Die” by BK Magazine, Chang Puek is a must if you enjoy hiking and the outdoors. This two-day hike allows visitors a chance to sleep and stargaze on the mountain and culminates with a morning hike to the peak to watch the sunrise. The final part of the hike requires you to walk/climb along a ridge with steep drop-offs on either side to reach the mountain’s peak. Some people opt to skip this part as it can be dangerous and people have fallen in the past. The park rangers do provide a rope for you to hold onto.
In order to do this hike, you need to be accompanied by a park ranger. It’s also very popular among Thais and they only permit 60 people per day, so you’ll need to book in advance.
Etong is most often described as a “quaint” old mining town on the Thai-Myanmar border. Lonely Planet says it “once thrived as a multicultural outpost for tin and tungsten mining” but that is currently undergoing a transformation of sorts with the introduction of cafe culture and a few homestays that have opened. Due to it’s proximity to Myanmar’s coast, it’s also said to be a great place to eat seafood for cheap. We didn’t make it to Etong when we went, but it’s a short car or song-taew ride from the National Park.
While you’re there you should check out Cozy Homestay (aka Somsak Homestay, aka Baan Pa Glen). Pa Glen, or Auntie Glen, is an Australian woman who settled here with her Thai husband who worked in the mines before his death. She is known throughout the area for her baking skills and the eclectic nature of her accommodations. This is a popular stop for both Thais and foreigners.
I think the picture says it all, but this is by far one of the most beautiful and majestic waterfalls I’ve been to in Thailand. It’s about a 6km walk from the campgrounds. Unfortunately, you have to walk on a road as there is no hiking trail, but just about every single person that passes you will probably offer a ride. My advice is to take it because the road can be dangerous for pedestrians at certain points—it’s super curvy and it can be hard for cars to see you.