In less than two hours' drive you can be whisked off to an amazing tract of greenery that you never thought existed close to Bangkok.
Chet Khot Nature Study Centre in Sara Buri Province is a forest strip that connects to the World Heritage site of Khao Yai National Park and boasts a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
Khao Yai is close to Bangkok, the preferred choice of nature-lovers, but Chet Khot is even closer. On weekends it is crowded with young people, students and bikers. On weekdays it is a genuine escape when you can feel it is really yours.
This nature study centre opened in 2000, thanks to Pongpol Adireksan, then the agriculture minister, as a diversion from Khao Yai.
Occupying an area of 13,750 rai, the forest boasts plants like "Takhian Thong", "Tabaek", "Yang Na" and shrubs from the Zingiberaceae and ginger families. Local people have long subsisted on collecting medicinal plants in the forest they call Sub Pa Wan. In addition, a variety of wild animals can be found here, including barking deer, boars, monkeys and bison.
Chet Khot is a haven of various bird species, among them pheasants, barbets, orioles and the flycatcher.
Bicyclists grin with glee when they arrive here as there are several biking trails.
In the Chet Khot brochure I spotted a waterfall called Krok E-Dok and my curiosity got the better of me. I arrived at the centre one afternoon. The centre is superbly landscaped. It was better than at other parks I have visited.
The visitor centre was architecturally modern with glass walls on all sides. The good news was that it served microwaved lunch in boxes; the bad news you had to put up with whatever was available. Everywhere you looked it was refreshingly green.
My shelter was a tent pitched on a rolling landscape next to a pond. That evening the house kitchen wasn't serving meals so for dinner I hit Mitraphap Highway.
"Thanks to Pongpol," noted Oot, as he led me on the trail to Krok E-Dok the following morning, "the forest was opened up to visitors." Oot was formerly a park ranger who quit to attend his own business, but he is often called back to serve as a tourist guide.
We had been dropped off at the entrance to the waterfall, the starting point of the trek, about eight to 10 kilometres from the centre. The trek began by crossing the shin-deep stream which we would be wading through several times during the day.
It was a rainforest: dense and refreshingly cool. We walked past dense groves of shrubs, wild banana and tall bamboo trees. The trail was littered with signs of young bamboo shoots chopped off by villagers. Bright, orange Champagne mushroom grew on the forest floor.
After half an hour we arrived at the first-tier of the fall where the water's flow was a trickle. We crossed the stream and walked up the slope. It was increasingly damp and cooler under the canopy of tall trees.
"Wow! it's so huge," I exclaimed walking past one that was so wide and tall that it would have needed at at least six to eight people to embrace its trunk.
"That's 'Phaya Sattaban' (Alstonia scholaris)," Oot pointed out. I have seen this species on streets in Bangkok, but the tallest I ever came across was the height of a flyover or a little taller. This one was something else, pushing well beyond the canopy of trees into the sky.
Another tall tree I mistook to be from the Dipterocarpacea family. Oot said the locals called it "Mee Sompoong" and it was not hard wood, but used to make match sticks.
After some 30 minutes we arrived at a terrain even more demanding. By now the stream had been crossed three or four times already, and I was beginning to tire. This was the fifth tier of the waterfall, called Slider, and from here on the ascent was 30-60 degrees.
The water's flow was more full and stronger here. Green-leafed begonia thrived on moist rocks tinted with green moss. Hoya plants crept up a huge trunk. Another species of the family Gesneriaceae with yellow bell-shaped flowers grew on the water's edge. These were the only plants I could identify, but Oot seemed to know them all and kept filling me in.
He pointed to me one that resembled palm tree. It was "Taao" (Arenga pinnata), then another whose bark seemed to be peeling off, which he said was of good cash value because it was a raw material for making paper used in banknotes.
We reached a point where the ascent became a steep 60 degrees. I was out of breath, sweat pouring out of every pore in my body and my legs almost gone rubber. But Oot didn't show any of those signs. I paused to catch some breath and then prodded on until we arrived at a spot where a canopy of trees opened up to the top of the waterfall that we could see from afar.
"That's fabulous," I thought, looking at the roaring white flow of water on the lush mountain side.
Over the next few minutes Oot delivered me to the seventh tier of the waterfall, which was end of the trek. It had taken us an hour and 40 minutes to get there. The sight was impressive, an enormous amount of water cascading down a rock face to which was secured a safety rope for balance. I got as close as 20 metres and gave up. Honestly, I didn't have the nerve. I saw others immersed in the fun but the some voice inside me said discretion is the better part of valour.
There were two more tiers to go but Oot, seeing my predicament, did not push as the angle of ascent was sharper and more dangerous too.
According to him, the waterfall today wasn't at its roaring best. We picnicked on a rock eating our lunches and tried to relax. He said as long as it was sunny we did not have to rush back. With rain the trail becomes slippery.
When I had regained sufficient strength we began the descent to the visitor centre at my leisurely pace, stopping occasionally to refresh by pools along the way.
Chet Khot-Pong Kon Sao Nature Study Centre (089-237-8659, 036-227-156) is 150 kilometres from Bangkok.
Take Phaholyothin Road (Highway 1) and get on Mitraphap Highway (Highway 2) via Kaeng Khoi on the way to Muak Lek. Drive to Thap Kwang municipality and make a u-turn. After a kilometre you will spot a left turn with a road sign pointing to the centre. Turn left and drive for 20 kilometres.
To get there by public transport, take the bus that plies Bangkok-Ratchasima (Por 2) route from Mor Chit Bus Terminal and get off at Wat Thap Kwang. Cross to the other side of the road via the pedestrain and take a motorcycle taxi. The visitor centre is 20 kilometres from there.
There are a variety of accommodations: air-conditioned villas with fan with prices starting from 600 baht. There is a camping area by the pond with toilets and kitchen facilities. Tents are also available for rent. Otherwise, there is a restaurant a few kilometres outside the centre which is open throughout the day but closed in the evening. The visitor centre serves microwaved food boxes. For groups of 20 people up cooking service is available.
Here are three trails we wish to recommend trekking enthusiasts
- From visitor centre-Chet Khot Nua Waterfall: 1.5 kilometres one way, hour-long and suitable for people of all ages.
- From visitor centre-Chet Khot Nua-Chet Khot Klang-Chet Khot Tai waterfalls: three kilometres one way. It takes 2:30 hours to cover the distance.
- From visitor centre-Chet Khot Nua-Chet Khot Klang-Chet Khot Tai-Chet Khot Yai waterfalls: Duration four hours.
Trekking to Krok E-Dok Waterfall, visitors require a guide. It takes two to three hours one way. The trek is worth the trouble but you need to be properly prepared. You need good trekking shoes, bottled water, lunch box, light clothes and of course a camera.
Early morning start is advisable to allow trekkers to return in the afternoon. Contact the visitor centre for an advanced trekking arrangement.
If you love bicycling, there are several mountain trails. Bikes are also available for rent. Ask the centre for more details.
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