Erawan waterfalls in Kanchanaburi province is one of the most popular national parks in Thailand, a favourite with local people as well as visitors on their Death Railway tour. It was certainly the top destination on my itinerary, as I am an avid waterfall fan (coming from a country without real mountains or waterfalls). At the end of the day, Erawan was firmly number one on my “favourite waterfalls” list.
Erawan is a mythical elephant with three heads, a frequently seen figure in shrines all around Thailand. Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan is probably the largest of the species. The top level of the falls is said to resemble this amazing creature.
I had been a little worried about visiting in the middle of March. The waterfalls were definitely not as impressive as in photos taken in the rainy season, but there was still plenty of water to fill up the pools and make the waterfalls definitely look like waterfalls. It also turned out to be the perfect place on a hot day, as all the pools and paths are mostly shaded.
What makes Erawan so popular and pleasant is its versatility. Whatever a great day out at the waterfalls means to you, you get it.
Having a nice family picnic, with the kids splashing and screaming in the shaded pool? Head for levels 1 and 2. They are accessible using golf carts, so family members with limited mobility can also come along. Most Thai families seem to be hanging around here, about ten minutes walk from the entrance. You can swim right up to the waterfalls and take a shower, the pool is deep enough for swimming, with secluded shallow sections for smaller kids.
(The photo at the very beginning of this article was also taken at level 2.)
A nice little jungle trek, not too strenuous, just taking in the scenery? There are 3 well-marked trails wandering away from the shaded cool stream along the mountain slopes.
Looking for a deep pool for swimming and a real postcard waterfall? Level 3 is a shaded, secluded spot a few hundred metres above the picnic area. A large rock face makes it damp and especially cool. There are masses of large fish that come up to people hoping for food scraps. This was my favourite spot.
Looking for an adrenaline rush? The amazing natural water slides at level 4 may be just what you need. The pool here is also large enough for swimming. There is a national park guard on duty here, working hard in his hammock.
Taking pictures? Don’t miss level 5 with its little pools and picturesque falls among the trees. The rocks are very slippery, as one would expect, but once in there, the pools are nice for the smallest kids.
Up to here, it is an easy path, with ragged roots and rocks here and there. Most Thais have no shoes on, or only flipflops. However, to go up to levels 6 and 7, you need to climb a few wooden ladders, balance on rocks, crawl under fallen trees. Then the path is actually in the stream – looks like you will get wet if you want to climb all the way to the top in the rainy season.
There are hardly any people up here, it is easy to find very quiet secluded little spots along the stream with little waterfalls and pools for some private splashing.
I was only some 100 metres away from the top when I realised I had to turn back if I was to catch the bus. I never got a glance of the three-headed elephant waterfall – next time I will get up earlier.
It was still a perfect day. Travelling across rural Thailand in a rickety bus, watching people, doing a little bit of walking, but not too much, listening to the stream jingling, singing, roaring. Slowing down, switching off. Swimming, dangling my feet in the stream, letting the fish eat off dead flakes of skin, taking pictures, watching more people, breathing fresh air, standing still and watching geckos, standing under a waterfall and let it wash everything insignificant away. Nothing really special, if I think of it, but the sheer joy of travelling just flooded me unexpectedly. This is something I cannot plan or foresee, just be happy and smile and go with it when it happens.
A few practicalities:
Erawan waterfall is some 50 km from Kanchanaburi town, it is easily accessible by public bus from the bus station, which drops passengers off right outside the entrance. The last bus back to town leaves at 4 p.m. The fare is 50 baht, it is an ancient non-aircon bus, the kind that is only kept together by prayers.
If you come here as part of an organised daytrip taking in other sights in the area as well, ask carefully – if you don’t get at least 3 or rather 4 hours to enjoy the waterfalls, you won’t make it up to the top, or you will but in a rush. You need at least 50 minutes to walk comfortably all the way back from the top.
(This information board is actually already 10 mins walk from the entrance.)
Regular national park fees apply: 200/50 for foreigners. However, until the middle of May, all national parks offer tickets with 50% discount. The officials did let me pay the Thai price seeing a photocopy of my work permit. I would say it is worth even 200 baht, but this is a personal choice.
Restaurants are outside the entrance, this is also the last spot to buy drinking water, swimwear, floats, or rent a camping mat. The last toilets and showers are at the top of Level 2, after that, it is just you and the stream and the jungle. There are also facilities outside the entrance. I saw signs for a camping area and bungalows as well, these need to be booked through the national park.
You can have a picnic at level 2. In order to cut down on rubbish, bags are searched after level 2, and all food must be left at the checkpoint. A deposit has to be paid on water bottles, to make sure you bring them back. I had never seen this system before, and it is pathetic that they have to be so strict. But it works, there is no rubbish lying around anywhere.
By all means, avoid weekends. Thais love their waterfalls and it will be very crowded.