The very popular Erawan National Park sprawls over 550 square kilometres of the Salop mountains in rural Kanchanaburi province. While cave enthusiasts, bird watchers and orchid hunters could keep busy here for weeks, most come specifically for Erawan Waterfall, a wondrous multi-tiered set of falls named after a divine three-headed elephant.
Beginning behind the Visitor Centre, the wide concrete trail to Erawan runs past multiple restrooms, trashcans and a bottle deposit station before emerging at a clear mountain stream. At the first tier, Lai Khuen Rang, you’ll catch a first glimpse of the fish, ubiquitous in Erawan’s countless pools. Minnows like to hang around swimmers and pick at their dead skin; some might find them unnerving while others will enjoy the free fish spa.
Streaks of whitewater cascade over a rounded limestone cliff that almost looks like a cave formation at the second tier, Wang Matcha. The wide pool of bright emerald water is fabulous for swimming, at least when it’s not too crowded, with nooks where you can hang out behind the falls. This tier alone is more enthralling than most other waterfalls that we’ve visited in Thailand. And it was just the beginning.
A side trail cuts a few hundred metres to the third tier, Pha Namtok, home to another another phenomenal swimming hole graced by a roughly 20-metre-tall waterfall and surrounded by rocky cliffs with no shortage of foliage. Here we saw some tourists tossing cigarette butts on the ground, despite the no smoking signs. Not cool, guys.
The trail gets a lot tougher from the third tier up; bring decent footwear and plenty of drinking water if you plan to embark on it. A steep stairway is the first major endurance test, though it rewards you with a breezy viewpoint overlooking the Kwai Yai valley. Small children should be keenly supervised here and also at a neighbouring cliff that looks down over the third tier from above.
Narrowing and turning to dirt, the trail winds under towering trees adorned with bright ribbons, silk dresses and crowns — all offerings to the feminine terrestrial spirits believed to dwell here. It’s easy to see why the area has long been sacred to locals. With gorgeous falls, pools and streams draped in lush jungle where monkeys hang around with hornbills, heaven could look something like this.
Just over a kilometre from park headquarters, the fourth tier, Ok Nang Phisuea, features another splendid swimming hole surrounded by boulders suitable for lounging. The highlight here is a natural water slide that shoots you several metres down smooth stone into water that strikes a darker shade of emerald thanks to overhanging trees.
From here the trail gets rougher still, requiring you to climb over fairly steep rocks and cross small pools. Smoothed by the heavy foot traffic and water that reaches further in the rainy months, some of the rocks are slippery. Rickety wooden stairs traverse the steeper sections. Despite these obstacles, our 63-year-young Mum managed it with ease.
The fifth tier, Buea Mai Long, seems to blend into the sixth, Dong Phruek Sa. Together they encompass countless smaller waterfalls that have polished the rocks into rounded slopes that appear soft, like pillows on a sofa. Thought to carry therapeutic qualities, mineral-rich water drops gently into serene travertine pools stacked one atop the next, any of them worthy of a dip.
With water that strikes a milky shade of ice blue thanks to the minerals, some of the best swimming is found up near the sixth tier, where the air cools in the higher altitude. Though it’s a marvellous place to sit around and wade, we were compelled to climb a few more stairways and surmount another cluster of rocks, to reach the seventh and final tier.
Dubbed Phu Pha Erawan thanks to its apparent resemblance to the three-headed elephant that, in Hindu mythology, serves as vehicle for the god Indra (and is also the namesake of a famous shrine and museum in Bangkok), this is the tier that the entire set of falls were named after. Perhaps we lack imagination, but it looked more like a regular limestone cliff, albeit a formidable one.
While water flows over the lower tiers all year round, the seventh tier largely dries up for much of the year, including when we visited in February. Water thunders down late in the rainy season (August/September), causing the upper tiers to occasionally close as a safety measure. The lack of tumbling water didn’t stop a thick crowd — busloads of Russians, in particular — from making it up here during our visit.
The crowds can detract from the experience at Erawan, especially when throngs of locals join the ever-present foreign travellers on weekends. The park is open all year, but the best time to visit is probably November and into early December, just after the rains and before peak tourism season. The falls will be driest in the hot months of March and April. While some litter is inevitable, we found trails to be reasonably clean and well maintained.
If you feel like sticking around, fan-cooled cabins can be rented near the waterfall. Double rooms fetch 800 baht while larger cabins accommodating three to eight run 1,200 to 2,400 baht. There’s also a large youth hostel and rental tents, and you can set up your own tent for 30 baht. Accommodation can be arranged at the Visitor Centre, or you can book by bank transfer through the DNP website. You’ll also find a handful of small resorts strung along the scenic Kwai Yai River, which runs beside the main road to the park.
Vendors sell grilled chicken, som tam, coffee, smoothies and even burgers in the surrounds of the massive parking lot, probably representing the largest selection of food and drink at any Thai national park. In the Visitor Centre, you can browse maps as marginally helpful officials hand out brochures. A market, several small restaurants, police station and more private resorts — including backpacker hangout, Shanti Farm — are found around the nearby village of Si Sawat.
Also part of the national park, Tham Phra That is a large cave with glittering stalagmites and stalactites, located 12 kilometres further up the road from headquarters at the end of a dirt track. It can only be reached by private vehicle. You’ll also find the vast Sri Nakarin reservoir and dam in this vicinity. Closer to the waterfall, a couple of nature trails sidetrack through bamboo and mixed deciduous forest. Most visit the park as a day trip from Kanchanaburi town; plan on staying for at least a night if wanting to see all of the above.
How to get there
Erawan National Park is a straightforward 65 kilometre trip north up Route 3199 from Kanchanburi town. It’s a pleasant motorbike ride, but buses run from the main bus station every hour starting at 08:00 and the 90-minute journey costs 50 baht. The buses drop off right in front of the Visitor Centre; remember that the last bus back to town leaves at 16:00, when the gates to the waterfall close. Expect to spend a good three to five hours exploring the falls, especially if you plan to make it to the seventh tier, which is a challenging 1.5 kilometre hike from the Visitor Centre. Tour operators run trips to the park, which often include elephant treks, rafting and lunch. Foreign adults must pay a 300 baht fee to enter the park.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th November, 2016.