Isolated Umphang district stretches south from the rest of Tak province like a giant thumb resting on the border with Burma. Adventurers who are brave enough to take on the “Death Highway” will discover breathtaking mountain scenery, sedate villages and some of Thailand’s most impressive waterfalls, all in an area that foreign travellers tend to overlook.
Covering 4,325 square kilometres of mountainous terrain, Umphang is the largest and least accessible of Thailand’s 885 districts -- it’s even larger than two-dozen of the 77 Thai provinces. As the crow flies, it lies due west of the Central Thai plains but can only be accessed from the north via a single road: Highway 1090. A dense wall of mountains cuts Umphang off from the rest of Thailand.
Piercing deep into Thailand’s “wild west,” 1090 was nicknamed the Death Highway even before it opened in the 1980s. Drug smugglers, Thai Communist insurgents and Hmong rebels all vied for influence as Thai government forces and the Lisu mercenaries who they employed tried to tame the region. Armed soldiers weren’t enough to keep many construction workers from being attacked and killed. A slew of fatal car accidents ensured that the road’s nickname stuck long after the area was pacified.
Today Umphang is a less-touristy alternative to Chiang Mai and Pai when it comes to trekking and whitewater rafting. The top attraction is Thi Lor Su, often cited as the “largest” waterfall in Thailand, which roars amid old-growth jungle at the end of a 26-kilometre dirt road accessible only by four-wheel-drive or seriously sturdy legs. The falls are nearly always included on tours that might include rafting and trekking to other waterfalls along with camping, elephant rides and homestays in Karen villages.
The languid district centre, Umphang town, is home to perhaps a few thousand residents dwelling in modest wooden houses that lean over lanes lined with flowers and fruit trees. It’s a charming and comfortable base, with several small resorts and guesthouses offering good value. Artistic, environmentally minded Thais who sought an alternative to mainstream society have joined the laid-back natives over the years, making for an intriguing community.
Karen people first settled the area long before colonial-era negotiating divvied it up between Burma and Thailand. Nearly all of the place names come from a Karen dialect and most of the towns and villages are still predominantly Karen rather than Thai. The name Umphang derives from the Karen word, um-pha, a bamboo container used to protect the ID papers needed to pass through checkpoints.
The district hosts two large camps serving as temporary -- and sometimes permanent -- homes to more than 20,000 mostly Karen refugees who fled from a complex, decades-long armed conflict between Burmese government forces and the militant wing of the Karen National Union (KNU). The Umpiam Mai camp’s countless rudimentary huts can be seen from Highway 1090, while the Nupo camp is located closer to the border off Highway 1288.
Umphang’s remoteness is a big part of what makes it special, even if it means suffering motion sickness on the twisting five-hour ride down from Mae Sot. We’ve been told that it’s possible to undertake a multi-day trek along the planned route of a mountain road from Kamphaeng Phet province that was scrapped after environmentalists resisted in the 1990s; contact the rangers at Mae Wong National Park for more info. Sangkhlaburi is less than 100 kilometres to the south but the geography makes it a 12-hour journey by road, or a seven-day trek that passes illegally through Burma’s Karen State. If you're a little crazy, you could attempt it by dirt bike.
While foreign travellers are rare, Umphang is a fairly popular destination for Thais keen on seeing Thi Lor Su Waterfall once in their lives. You’ll find just enough English-speaking tour outfits and resorts to ensure that a trip here won’t be too difficult, but keep in mind that trekking and rafting is more expensive in Umphang than at the more popular centres found further north.
Umphang is still a fairly wild region, with illegal logging and wildlife poaching being persistent problems. Expect several police checkpoints and don’t be surprised to see rangers carrying machine guns in the wildlife sanctuaries. Only take your own vehicle if you’re very comfortable on steep mountain roads. Four-wheel-drive and a powerful engine are recommended, and be sure to fill up on gas before heading into the hinterland.
The area gets busiest during the months just after the rainy season, when the air is dry and cool and the waterfalls thunder down. Thai holidays and weekends in December, in particular, attract crowds of domestic travellers. The waterfalls can be visited year round, but facilities close at Thi Lor Su from May 1 to November 1. Travel can be tough during the rainy season, although August to October is the best time for whitewater rafting. Expect hazy skies, parched landscapes and less-dramatic waterfalls towards the end of the dry season from March to May.
Most visitors stay in Umphang town, located 164 kilometres south of Mae Sot around the centre of the district. Two parallel roads, Prawatpriwan and Sukhumwattana, run from north to south through town and are connected by numerous side lanes. The town centre located around Prawatpriwan Soi 7 hosts a few banks and ATMs, a temple and a handful of eateries, guesthouses and convenience stores. The slightly larger resorts are mostly located on the hills that rise to the west and east of town, within walking distance of the centre.
The police station is centrally located off Sukhumwattana Road, around the corner from Umphang House. A tiny hospital is situated on Ratpattana Road, which shoots east off Prawatpriwan near the town centre. There’s a small airstrip just north of town and emergency medical patients can be flown up to Mae Sot.
WiFi is available at most of the resorts. Cell service tends to work fine in Umphang town but is patchy, at best, elsewhere in the district. The town runs on generators so expect a few power outages.
After briefly cutting west in Umphang town, Highway 1090 continues south, passing the Doi Hua Mod viewpoints on the way to Ban Pa La Tha, which is 25 kilometres from Umphang town and hosts a large Karen community. Highway 1090 ends at the gate to Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary.
Heading west out of Umphang town, Highway 1167 takes you to Highway 1288, which runs south to the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary gate and turnoff for Thi Lor Su Waterfall. It continues south and then west for another 70 kilometres before ending at Poeng Kloeng, an outpost along the Thai/Burma border. From here a dirt road runs south for 12 more kilometres to the Karen village of Le Tong Khu, one of the more remote places in Thailand.
Apart from these few roads and villages, virtually all of Umphang district is blanketed in rugged mountains, insurmountable cliffs and pristine jungle that teem with wildlife. The Mae Khlong is the most notable of a series of narrow rivers that pierce into the wilderness.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Umphang or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Umphang. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Umphang. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Umphang, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 28th June, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.