Mae Sot and Thee Lor Su – Frontier Regions including Thailand’s highest Waterfall
In December 2022 we travelled into the mountains of Tak Province and onto Thailand’s highest Waterfall, Thee Lor Su, within the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary. Due to distance from Chiang Mai and the mountainous terrain, particularly the road from Mae Sot to Umphang, we decided to stay in Mae Sot to break the journey. Sandwiched in between the 2 nights staying in Mae Sot we booked the Thee Lor Su Riverside Resort which included provision of our travel to and from the Waterfall. See my recommended Four Waterfalls to explore in Chiang Mai Province for further reading on the topography of Northern Thailand.
Mae Sot Arrival
Mae Sot is a City I had been highly anticipating visiting as the region is culturally significant. The journey from Chiang Mai took approximately 5 hours and our first stop was at the Moei River viewpoint, the westernmost point of Thailand and the border with Myanmar for hundreds of kilometres. At time of our visiting you could not cross into the town of Myawaddy because of the severe political situation in Myanmar. However, the 2nd Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge several kilometres north, one of the most important locations for trade between Myanmar and Thailand, is currently crossable. The Friendship Bridge is a convenient land crossing for foreign nationals needing to exit and re-enter Thailand, similar to the arrangement at Mae Sai-Tachileik. This would apply to those wanting to obtain a new entry stamp (on visa exemption) or activate a new entry on their multi-entry visa.
Markets and Temples
We then explored the Rim Moei Market, closeby the Moei River, which contained a variety of products from clothing and local handicrafts to extensive local snacks and beverages. I purchased a T-shirt bearing the words, Mae Sod-Tak – Rim Moei – westernmost point, and tasty snacks originating from Myanmar. However, the market wasn’t that busy, possibly a sign that tourism in the region is still on the way to recovery. After we checked into the Hop Inn Hotel we wandered the city glimpsing the Burmese style Wat Chumphon Khiri, the Chedi emulating the design of the distinguished Shwedagon Pagoda, and then into the flea market. The market was bustling, with an array of fruit, vegetables and other produce sold and purchased by people from visibly diverse ethnicities. Further hints to Burmese influence in Mae Sot were that we heard specific state and tribe languages spoken, and signs in Burmese. Although, perhaps the most striking indication was the many people had Thanaka applied, a trademark custom.
We discovered Borderline Cafe by chance when driving into the City and, after glancing the menu, decided to have dinner here. The menu was intriguing, favouring local produce, authentic taste and geographical influence, hence including Burmese dishes along with my favourite Thai classics. We sampled Shan Potato Salad, Burmese Samosas (less spicy than their Indian relative) and Egg Roti, yet there were many appetising options such as Tofu, Mandalay Noodle and Laphet (pickled tea leaf) Salad respectively. Additionally, there were popular delicacies like tea cakes, sesame-peanut honey bar, commonly found in Burmese tea shops, of which there were several in Mae Sot. Indeed, on the return trip via Mae Sai, we visited a restaurant-come-tea shop named Lucky Tea Shop. Here we observed Mae Sot life from one of the busier streets and tried the Thai Chicken Biryani with Mataba Roti Chicken, both familiar to us, yet still delicious.
Borderline Cafe Projects
Besides the Cafe, Borderline have a shop selling handicrafts like shawls, bags, pillow cases, art and other souvenirs produced by the Chin Women Group (CWG). Founded in 2007 by Nu Tae, the CWG are an invaluable enterprise teaching women from Chin State weaving and seamstressing skills. Because of poverty and conflict, numerous families in Chin, one of the poorest Burmese states, live a life of struggle and many abandon their home in pursuit of better opportunities. Nu Tae recognised that training young women creative skills provided them selling opportunities in pursuance of obtaining income, benefitting their whole family. Additionally, engaging in such endeavours helps to maintain aspects of Chin culture whilst preparing the women for future careers. Nu Tae has recently begun a special training program in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in addition the project in Mae Sot.
Arriving at Thee Lor Su Riverside Resort, Umphang
As mentioned above, the 150km route from Mae Sot to our resort in Umphang was twisty and sometimes tricky, yet entertaining to negotiate. Indeed, we encountered a landslide as we emerged from one of the 1208 bends on the route, just one of many parts with sheer mountain drops beside us. On stopping in a remote mountain village halfway, we noticed a distinct reduction in temperature, so opted for a hot coffee. Though colder weather is normal in December (the one month of the year I feel cooler) the level of decrease indicated how elevated we were. After 4 hours we reached the resort which on first sighting was beautifully lush, green surrounded by forest, amongst which was our charming cabin. We discovered a cafe closeby where we checked some of our online exploits and then enjoyed dinner at the resort before settling down for the night.
Journeying into the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary
The following morning we joined a pre-booked day tour with the majority of the other guests also staying two nights at the resort. The trip started by boarding Songthaews to the Mae Klong river where we rowed into the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary, a UNESCO site. Satisfyingly, our tour guides handled the rowing so we could really enjoy the spectacular bamboo forest which provided fascinating bird and plant life. Amidst outcrops of sheer limestone cliffs and rocks we witnessed a magnificent ‘rainbow’ waterfall, where smaller waterfalls cascaded and penetrated the sunlight. Besides a few rapids at the start, greeted with gasps from the groups, the river was remarkably tranquil. Indeed, the rafting spanned several hours including a stop at hot springs before we arrived on dry land and hopped onto another Songthaew. We were now in far-flung forest where roads weren’t fully paved, thus this part of the trip was excitingly steep and rocky.
The final destination: Thee Lor Su Waterfalls
Upon reaching the National Park we lunched in the campground, originally fields of Karen villagers, before a 2km walk to Thee Lor Su. The waterfalls hadn’t been exposed to the outside world until the 1980s when they were discovered by a Karen hunter. We were indebted to our guide Pii Dong, a humorous and knowledgeable character, who relished showing us little-known paths for superior views. As Thee Lor Su came into sight, cascading over four tiers, it would be an understatement to use the word impressive. An astonishing 900 metres above sea level and 300 metres high, they flow down a vast gorge originating from a small creek. From source the water flows into a large cave and falls from sheer cliffs to become Thee Lor Su. After capturing many photos we hiked down and jumped in the Songthaew taking us the full route back via a temple stop. The final act of the day was to consume a generously sized, delicious dinner in the idyllic surroundings of the resort.
Return to Mae Sot
We awoke early to witness sunrise at Doi Hua Mod, 15kms away, evoking memories of Phatang, if not quite as spectacular. Since there is one road from Umphang-Mae Sot, many guests were likely to be using this so we departed post sunrise to avoid traffic. We encountered many trucks and I curious, I learned of a preferable route for such vehicles, however, this briefly passes through Myanmar. Apparently traffic was previously allowed to enter but due to political tensions this currently isn’t possible and indeed the road skirts considerable border territory. We stopped at a market and then a Cafe with fantastic views for lunch before exploring the restaurant scene in Mae Sot later. After another night at the Hop Inn we returned to Chiang Mai via several beautifully scenic viewpoints on the Monday morning.
Cultural Aspects to the Trip
As an added note, I wanted to explain the impressions I experienced after visiting Mae Sot, given the observations and awareness I amassed. To illustrate the extent of cultural diversity, I was amazed by the statistic that there were 200,000 Burmese peoplepresumed living in Mae Sot. Of course, this includes Thai-born ethnically Burmese, abundant ethnic groups and hill tribes, yet I hadn’t realised the scale of emigration. Hence this knowledge profoundly affected me, particularly as many of these are stateless, whilst encouraging me to re-visit the region.
Certain hill tribes inhabit both countries including Laos and China, a combination of migration and historical settlement preceding modern borders. When you consider the regional geography coupled with dictatorial regimes, particularly Myanmar, perhaps it’s not surprising that cultures exist as they do. For instance, Thailand and Myanmar share over 1000 kilometres of border, so movement of people is hard to control. Indeed, the Mae Klong river flows a vast distance into the Srinarkarin Dam as far as the Kanchanaburi border with Myanmar. For further reading on hill tribes in Northern Thailand, see my article on Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son.