The Power of the Path – The Lanna Muay Thai Monthathan Waterfall Run
It seems a little silly to recommend a gym or a school or a living situation based on a run. To runners that wouldn’t seem so odd, but even for fighters if you’re training properly then running will be a significant part of your experience. It makes a big difference whether you’re plodding out your daily roadwork on a paved road choked with traffic (my current situation), or whether those miles are eaten up with greenery, scenery, and twists in the road. You may not actually like running in either scenario, but I guarantee you’ll note a difference. I only really started running in college and many of my memories of that 4 year experience are carved around the long runs I would take to be alone (having housemates was quite different from my family-of-introverts upbringing) and relieve stress.
above, my vlog from up at the top of the run with Jai Dee
One of my favorite runs in Thailand, and probably in the world, is the Monthathan Waterfall run in Chiang Mai. Starting from Lanna Muay Thai gym as the base, the run up the mountain to the turn-off from the main road is 5 km uphill, then 3 more kilometers at a steeper incline to get to the waterfall. So there are a few different options in how long and how difficult the run is, if you have a means to break it up by way of a ride up or down the mountain. For me, this morning with my faithful hound Jaidee, the run was from the base to the top and back down again: 16 km [edit: these were the distances told to me, and taken from the trail sign, but Google Maps shows a round trip of just under 12K, I’m not sure which is right, or if the Google Map marker is correct, either way it’s a good tough run].
The first stretch is flat. Heading out from the gym you can see the thick carpet of green that covers the mountains at a short distance. It’s early in the morning when you do this run, leaving at about 6 AM when it’s still dim (depending on time of year) and there are only a few vendors on the sides of the road grilling meat for early morning commuters. You slip through side streets and pass through the university campus, sometimes awakening a dog or two that were sleeping on the stairs or under benches near the fields. Your watched by birds and the sleepy eyes of security guards waiting to punch out of their night shifts.
Once you hit the main highway of Huay Kaew (4 lanes wide, quickly narrowing to 2) the path feels broad. There’s a park across the street and as you run toward the base of the mountain you see syncopated processions of young monks in their incredible orange robes. This morning was raining, misty and damp, which seems to mute the sky and saturate every other color. The monks walk in a single line, sometimes in order of height when they’re very young, with their bowls cradled in their hands to collect alms and deliver blessings to all those who come out to greet them along this path. The lay folk step out of their shoes and kneel down as the monks stop to chant, their bare feet coming in contact with every element of the morning elements: rain, heat, unswept leaves that have fallen overnight. I love seeing the monks in the mornings. In Pattaya where I live there aren’t lines of monks making their rounds. I’ll see one or two on the street where I live, usually dropped off by motorbike taxi to walk the long length of the road and then are taxied off to another lonely strip. It’s beautiful in it’s own way, but it’s not magical the way these processions of unreal orange robes are.
Along the same road with the marching monks are parked red trucks, engines idling or simply quiet. Their drivers stand right outside, smoking cigarettes or sometimes napping in the front seat. They’re waiting for customers who want to go up the mountain to the temple at the top. It’s the same road you’re running. They’ll pass you along the way, the open backs allowing the passengers along the two benches in the back to look at you as they pull ahead. Many will smile; some will cheer as your legs burn. About a quarter of the way up there are giant Naga (snakes) guarding the staircases of a temple at the first plateu, gold and green and multi-headed. On this morning the fog is thick and the cars drive slowly. There are fewer cyclists on the way up the mountain and you can keep pace with them when the grade is steep, everyone climbing together. Jaidee is being pulled by his leash, unable to keep my pace and his tongue is pink and slick as it flops around outside his mouth. The air is cool but the rain and the movement of my body through it makes it feel cold. Through the mist all around you see these black vines, thick as ropes and heavy with the weight of the night’s rain soaked through them. They sag around equally soaking leaves and jungle – collectively it’s just lush.
And the gray road steepens. Because it’s so rainy and damp the only dogs that are out and about are the adventurous ones. They’re less territorial, so they don’t bark as Jaidee and I pass, but they stand alert and some trot toward us. There are baby pigs – wild pigs – somewhere in the thick foliage. The birds are quiet. Once you hit the turn-off from the road up the mountain there’s a small toll-booth where, later in the day, you have to pay to enter the road to the waterfalls. It’s a national park. But this early the booth is unmanned and you pass through freely. Here’s where I let Jaidee off his leash and he can run. Even though he’s tired from the first 5k up the mountain, he can’t contain himself when he’s let loose. He darts back and forth across the paved road into the thick jungle on either side. He sniffs at everything, runs ahead and then sprints back toward me to “check in,” his mouth open and his tongue flying out the side like the streamer on the handlebars of a kid’s bike. He’s so happy like this. I keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t discover a scorpion or snake on the side of the road – he’s too dumb to be afraid of such things and would probably try to be friends with unfriendly creatures. But if he’s occupied with a patch of leaves I can run ahead and he’ll catch up with me, then continue his pattern of zip-zip to either side and out in front, then straight back to me and start again.
The mist is thicker, the grade is steeper, and I slow to a jog or even a power-walk at times when the incline is severe. At these moments I look around and see the tops of trees clawing into the blur of the fog. I hear the murmur of streams below the drop-off to the right, the trickle of water escaping down the man-made gully on the left. The air is kind of thick. In the hot season, before the rains, this early in the morning you’ll hear all the insects in the trees in unison – it sounds like a buzz-saw – but they’ve gone quiet from the rain. The road goes up and up, then down and a swoop to a more moderate incline. Here there are buildings to the left and right, some tents set up on the luminous green of the grass. You pass all that and get to the waterfalls. First the lower one, where you have to climb over some boulders to actually see it. But we don’t go to that one. We go immediately to the stairs that are made of flat wood but have warped and are of uneven depth and stride, so you have to leap up some and stumble up others. There’s a warped banister on the side to help you balance, but what’s the point? The staircase might as well be made out of the roots and vines which form a canopy on the way up. At the top is the waterfall. In the dry season it’s just a trickle, but in the rainy season it’s powerful enough that you can’t stand under it. The water in the pool below swirls with leaves and the fall itself sprays out so you can feel the droplets from a good 20 feet away. The water is cool, the formation of the land around is like a bowl – like you’re being cupped in the hand of the jungle itself. After running uphill for an hour straight, it’s a wonderful feeling to wade into the cool water and your legs will be a bit numb for the way back down. Jaidee bites at it as he runs, gulping and chomping at the same time. I know the feeling: wanting to tear into the textures and to consume them into yourself – to become it and have it become you. Long runs can make you feel a little trippy.
Google Map of the Lanna Waterfall Run