A shoe in for a Lord of the Rings film set, the spectacular karst scenery of Tham Pha Tup Forest Park lies just off Route 101 a mere 10 kilometres north of downtown Nan and makes for some excellent hiking. Here a small range of limestone hills rise abruptly from paddy and farmland. The hills feature classic karst scenery of jagged cliffs and caves while lush jungle coats the slopes and shady valley floor. With landscapes like this you could easily think yourself in, for instance, southern Thailand’s Krabi or Trang provinces.
The hills are low but rugged, with some vertiginous cliff faces, while the main geological layout consists of a flat, round valley surrounded on all sides by limestone cliffs. The sandy valley bottom is covered by tall evergreen forest and, as something of a forest oasis amid the encompassing farmland, is a haven to bountiful birdlife, butterflies and small mammals.
The cliffs are dotted with caves — we counted at least 20 named caves on their site map. The park entrance, with a small cafe and plenty of friendly park rangers, is set in a forest grove between the main highway and first row of hills. There are good maps with some English names on show and trails are relatively well marked. From here you’ll set out up a steep set of concrete steps leading you up to the first saddle. Side tracks to caves are indicated but the main one of Tham Phra is just off to the right as you reach the first crest.
Rangers said this is the largest, or at least largest so far explored, cave here and at time of writing was the only one with electric lighting. Tham Phra houses the usual stalactites and stalagmites plus a natural open chimney in the roof letting in sunlight onto a gilded Buddha image. It’s a bit of a slog up the hill — and the dense foliage creates sticky conditions — but in all it’s only around 300 metres from the park office. Here steps climb down to the valley floor from where various paths lead off to further caves. If you’re feeling energetic, paths then lead up the opposite hills to even more caves on the far side. The farthest one is some 2.5 kilometres off, so with side trips to minor caves you could end up walking a fair distance. This could be a half-day or full-day excursion.
The going can be tough, up and down steep hills and over jagged rocks. Park rangers suggest a speed of no more than a kilometre per hour, so don’t bite of more than you can chew because you wouldn’t want to be trying to find your way back in the dark. The park rangers are more than happy to guide you around for a small fee. Frankly many of the caves can be skipped even if you have brought a flashlight along — it is a bit of a case of once you’ve seen one… and they’re really best used as a framework for a hiking route through the wonderful scenery.
Worth including in your route is the great viewpoint on the way to Bo Namthip Cave, which affords stunning views over the area and even back across the paddy as far as Nan town. When we visited printed maps were not available, so if you don’t want to take a ranger with you we suggest taking a photo of the excellent maps at the park office and referring to that on your phone as you go around. Larger caves are indicated with English-language signs but with the dense forest and limestone cliffs on all sides it is very easy to lose your sense of direction.
Take a flashlight if you want a peek inside the caves, though again be careful as some have deep holes and drop-offs. Binoculars would be handy plus of course take plenty of water and snacks if you’re attempting one of the longer routes. Being a forest and not a national park, entrance is free.This is a brilliant spot for an adventurous hike and you’ll have earned your curry at Poom 3 when you get back to town.
Leave town on Route 101 past the airport following signs north towards Pua. The entrance, at the 10 kilometre point, is not brilliantly indicated but you'll see the cliffs from some way off, so when you get level with them look for an entrance on the left (west) side of the highway.
The forest park is easily reached by public transport since any of the frequent buses or songthaews heading up Route 101 from Nan towards Pua, Chiang Klang, Thung Chang or any point north will drop you off right outside the entrance for a few baht.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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