Nam Tok Chat Trakan, which lends its name to the national park, is a highlight. It is made up of a series of falls formed by the same stream at different elevations. Shown here are three of its seven levels — the first, second and fourth. Apart from the waterfalls, the park also boasts a rich forest, cliffs with a breathtaking vista and several other attractions. Photos: Kajondej Thongmee
The other day while waiting out a heavy rain, my thought somehow drifted to Namtok Chat Trakan National Park of Phitsanulok province. Its namesake waterfalls are among those that often become lifeless in the dry season. I still remember that in 2016, the falls had to be closed to visitors from late March to the end of April simply because there was so little water. With plenty of rainfall this year, I expected that Chat Trakan waterfalls were likely to be at their best. So last weekend my friends and I made a trip to the park. Not only were we not disappointed, but the park amazed us with some pleasant surprises.
We arrived at the park in the evening just before the checkpoint was closed. We quickly pitched our tents at the camping ground and went to sleep early, partly because we were tired from spending the entire day on the road and partly because we wanted to wake up fresh the next day ready for the hike to all seven levels of the falls.
From this west-facing lookout point, you can see the valley of Nakhon Chum, which is surrounded on all sides by mountains. In the narrow plain below, there are a number of farmland and villages, some of which offer homestays. This viewpoint can be easily reached as it is located on the side of the valley’s only paved access road. On the mountains on the other side of the valley, there is another vantage point called Khao Pok Lon, which requires some trekking to reach. From both sites, if the weather permits, you can enjoy the sight of the sea of fog that forms over the valley early in the morning. We got there in the afternoon, way too late for the fog. Still, we were satisfied to see what the closed valley — that we previously saw only in the satellite images of Google Maps — actually looks like.
In the morning we were greeted by the songs of numerous birds, which livened the atmosphere previously dominated by the hum of the falls a hundred metres or so away. After a simple breakfast at one of the stalls near the park’s visitors’ centre, I walked to the centre to inform the staff of our group’s intention. We were told we could explore the first four levels of the falls on our own, but if we wish to venture to the three higher levels we needed to be accompanied by a guide assigned by the park for safety reasons. “But why just focus on the falls?” the lady at the centre asked me. “Our park also has Tham Pha Kradan Lek, a cave with an ancient rock inscription, and a fossil site if you are interested.”
This natural spring is just steps from the base of the first level of Chat Trakan waterfalls. Compare its clear water with that of the murky stream nearby that runs straight from the falls. Our guides filled their bottles with the spring water.
“Yes, we are!” I replied with excitement on behalf of the group and confessed to her that this wasn’t my first time at the park. I came here a decade ago but did not go further than the first level of the falls because there was so little water and I left without knowing that the park also has to offer such hidden gems.
Considering that we had only one day to spend she suggested that we skip levels five to seven of the falls and instead trek to Tham Pha Keadan Lek. The fossil site is in another direction. We could go see it if we still have time after coming back from the rock inscription cave.
While waiting for the guide to be summoned, I walked back to the food stall to have some grilled chicken and sticky rice packed for lunch. The vendor put everything in a set of pinto, traditional metal stack food containers. “Hope you can carry this,” he said. “We don’t use plastic bags in the park anymore.”
Back at the visitors’ centre, it turned out that the rangers who are familiar with the trail were on a mission elsewhere so Nhum, the park’s mechanic would accompany us. He admitted he had never been to Pha Kradan Lek before. But he was confident he could find the way. Luckily, two villagers who were temporary workers at the park volunteered to join us. The ladies, Phornchai and Kingkaew, know the forest well. They used to roam the wilderness regularly to collect mushrooms and edible plants. Looks like we were all set.
Located on a tall cliff, Tham Pha Kradan Lek is a small cave that houses a slap of sandstone with an old inscription that no one could decipher. Some say it could be a record of an event, others think it looks more like a map. Or maybe, it’s just a graffiti by a stone-age artist. Come and see it for yourself. Who knows, you might be the first person to solve the mystery.
We started our hike from the lowest waterfall, following the well-marked trail to levels two and four, skipping three because it involved climbing shaky ladders that were too risky.
From level four, we needed to cross a stream to the other side. The trail now became narrower since average park visitors do not wander to this area.
The 3km trek was fun and eye-opening. Our three guides told us about the medicinal properties of different trees and plants found along the way. We also dropped by Pha Daeng, a cliff of red rock, but did not stay there for long because Phornchai, the most experienced of us all, warned that the beehive hanging from the cliff was too close to the walking path and the bees might be agitated by our presence. “Once a bee attacks, thousands of others will quickly join in. It wouldn’t be pretty,” she said.
Tham Pha Kradan Lek, our destination, was a tiny cave located on another cliff. The mysterious inscription, which might remind some of aliens from outer space, was made on a rock with a flat surface. Phornchai told me she had no idea how old it is but for sure it was older than her grandfather. “He had seen it since he was young,” she said.
From the cave, we didn’t use the same trail back to the waterfalls. Phornchai led us further south and down the mountain to a temple. There we rewarded ourselves with the grilled chicken and sticky rice while waiting for another of my friend to come with the pickup and get us back to the visitors’ centre.
While my friends were packing up our camp, Nhum and I rushed to the site of the fossilised animal footprints. They were hidden between a huge slab of rock and a boulder. It was so deep inside such a dark and narrow space that seeing the shape of each footprint clearly was impossible, let alone taking decent photos of them. More bewildering to me than the fossils themselves was how on earth they were discovered.
Anyway, we left Chat Trakan National Park feeling very satisfied. Before heading back to Bangkok we also had enough time to check out some interesting sites outside the park.
Namtok Chat Trakan National Park is about 10km from its namesake town, 120km northeast the city of Phitsanulok. Private transportation is recommended because it not only helps you save hours of travel time but also allows you drop by any places you wish to check out along the way.
To trek to Pha Kradan Lek, which is 4km from the park’s visitors’ centre, you need to contact the centre to reserve a guide. Getting lost alone in the forest is no fun both for yourself and for the rescuers so don’t be stubborn.
As for accommodations, the park provides both camping areas (rental tents and sleeping bags available) and comfortable bungalows. For details or any inquiry, call 055-906-522 or visit the park’s Facebook page on bit.ly/2y4ktOr.
The valley of Nakhon Chum sits between the mountains on the eastern boundary of Chat Trakan National Park and those of Nakhon Thai district. It can be accessed via Road 1248 from Nakhon Thai, which is 35km southeast of Chat Trakan.
The 3km-long trail from the national park’s visitors’ centre to Tham Pha Kradan Lek involves some steep ascents, especially the section between the level four of Chat Trakan Waterfalls and the ridge of the mountain. Once you reach the ridge, it’s easy. Just before the said section, you need to cross the stream. Be very careful because the rocks underwater are slippery. Also, it’s wise to take off your shoes and socks and keep them dry, unless you enjoy trekking with soggy footwear.
Like any protected tropical forest, the wilderness of Chat Trakan National Park is blessed with a fascinating diversity of plants and other living things. On the forest floor alone, you can find a variety of wildflowers and fungi (some of the latter sport beautiful forms and colours). I was impressed by the heart-shaped leaves of a climbing plant called huachai tossakan (Hoya kerrii). But what amazed me most was the piles of the seeds of krabok trees (barking deer’s mango or Irvingia malayana). These seeds were put together by feral water buffaloes which fed on the krabok fruits that had fallen from the tall trees. The seeds survived the digestion and came out in droppings. Over time the softer mass of the dung decomposed or was washed away by rain, leaving behind the piles of kernels. I was told that in the dry season villagers would climb up the mountains to gather these seeds, roast them and sell them as a snack. I had seen these seeds in upcountry markets many times before but this was the first time I learned how some of them are collected.