It rains a lot in Thailand, which is why the jungle is so thick and lush, quickly occupying any surface where the plants can gain a foot hold. But there's a limit to how much the soil can hold and the plants can drink, so there's a lot of excess water. Factor in the hilly terrain, and you get some pretty amazing waterfalls.
I know I overuse the word lousy. But... dammit this place is lousy with waterfalls. I challenge you to drive 20 km on any road and not see one. Chances are, you'll pass by two. The biggest in this area is Ngao, visible from all over the area, including the island of Koh Phayam. But my favorite is Punyaban, just about 15 kilometers north of Ranong. Tucked neatly into a bend in the road, it's magnificence explodes out at you. It's also less than 100 meters from that road -- Highway 4 -- with a big parking lot to accommodate locals and tourists ready to cool off or just revel at the sight. And in the rainy season (which is now), it's truly an awesome sight.
If there happens to be someone manning the entry gate (because Thailand), it'll set you back 100 baht to get to the waterfall. That's only about $3, and completely worth it. (Locals pay significantly less, and I suspect nothing at all.) Our $6 total came with some broken English imploring us to go up some overgrown stone stairs cut into the side of the mountain on the left side of the waterfall. When we looked a little skeptical, the officer again pointed to the steps, indicating the number "three" with his fingers. We pointed to the obvious and wide path just a few meters to the base of the waterfall, but he was resolute. Do not go to the bottom. Take the stairs. Go to the top.
Hey, who are we to argue with a local guide, right? Especially when he's wearing a t-shirt that says "POLICE". Up the stairs we went.
I feel the need to clarify the point about these so called stairs. Forget everything you know about stairs. Like even spacing between treads or safety rails to assist you up. Instead, think of a mixture of masonry, conveniently placed naturally occurring stones, really thick tree roots, and sparse applications of concrete. And all of it covered in leaf littler and jungle detritus, making for precarious steps indeed. (Note to the vertically challenged: It's doable. Just take your time. And a helping hand when offered.)
The first 20 steps lead to a shelf with a covered viewing platform a few meters higher than the base of the waterfall. It's a lovely view, much like opera box seats. But it didn't get us all that close to the waterfall. And he did indicate "three", so this clearly was not the final destination. Just to the left of the covered viewing platform was another set of stairs, winding their way higher up the mountain. I'm pretty sure I saw Lembas bread crumbs filtering down, too. Upwards and onwards, as they say.
Getting up the next 60 steps is a bit of a challenge. For starters, that's three times more than the first 20. And they're steeper. A lot steeper. Don't bother looking around for a good view on this one. Just power through and keep your eyes on your feet. Because you really don't want to fall here.
When it flattens out, you'll be on a mixed dirt/concrete path on mostly level ground. There are a couple of lovely views of the waterfall through the foliage. Only don't look back the way you came, because that way lies madness. Just keep walking. You're only two in to the three indicated by the officer below.
Next up are 50 more steps just like the ones you came through. Every bit as steep. Every bit as randomly placed. You'll be less tempted to look around here because you're mostly in a thick bamboo jungle. It's OK to use the bamboo to pull yourself along. They don't look all that much like snakes. Really.
They flatten out to an easy dirt path that leads to... more steps! Ha! The joke's on you. The first 20 steps weren't worthy of their own designation. More like a prologue to a good novel. And I hate prologues.
Now you have to make a choice. In front of you lie 40 steps. You probably can't see them under the thick pile of decaying plant matter, but they are there. To your right, a path just a few meters long that leads to the river. If you're up for it, take the path and at least look out to the river. If you've got a buddy, you'll be tempted to make it down the rock-strewn embankment. It's a pretty decent view and a nice enough swim, so go for it if you can. But if not, the better view and fantastic awaits. Up those hidden stairs. Yeah. Those stairs.
Come on... it's just 40 more steps. Take it easy. Take it slow. And it's totally worth it. Because when you get to the top, a short path leads you to the top -- the very top -- of Punyaban waterfall. There's a great pool for swimming, and a slightly smaller waterfall with plenty of places to sit and let the water rain down upon you. It is an amazing experience. Up here, you can't see the highway or hear the noise of the trucks passing by. You're a hundred meters (or so) above where everyone else is hanging out, seeing things that none of them have bothered with. And all because you listened to the nice officer who told you to skip the boring bottom and get yourself to the top. It was worth it!
And after that, you have to go back down. You'll be tempted to take the waterfall down, and I suppose that would work, because gravity. But you'd likely not survive it. Take the stairs. Your chances of survival are significantly greater. We made it down in one piece. YMMV.