Discover hidden gems up in the mountainous North, find places to escape the crowds, take in some phenomenal natural beauty, and explore the real “Amazing Thailand”.
by Dave Stamboulis.
While Thailand is famed for its islands, beaches, and culinary wonders, it also has some real hidden gems up in the mountainous North: places to escape the crowds, to take in some phenomenal natural beauty, and to explore the real “Amazing Thailand” so touted by Thai tourism officials. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
Phu Chee Fah
Located at the tip of northern Thailand overlooking Laos, Phu Chee Fah is popular with Thai crowds but way under the radar of foreign tourists.
Meaning “mountain pointing to the sky,” an appropriate nickname given that the high point of the 1,628m-peak sticks out like a finger pointing upwards to the heavens, this magical spot overlooks the Mekong River valleys, with views of endless jungle clad peaks jutting up in the distance. The big attraction here is the sunrise, made all the more magnificent during cool season months when the entire valley below is filled with a dense sea of mist that is caused by cold air draining down the mountain slopes, which reduces the air temperature in the valley to condensation point. Travelers can stay in the small village of Rom Fah Thai about 15-minutes below, or else spend the night camping just below the peak. An added plus is the fact that Phu Chee Fah is a forest park and not a national park, so you don’t have to pay an entry fee! To get there head east from Chiang Rai on Highway 1020, turning off at the town of Thoeng, where there is also public transport up to Rom Fah Thai.
Doi Phu Kha
Along wild mountain roads far from any 7-11, Tesco, or other sign of modern Thailand, Doi Phu Kha National Park is the star of rugged Nan province, home to preserved forests and some of the least visited national parks in the country. This park contains peaks just shy of 2,000 meters, and is famous for its chompoo phu kha (Bretschneidera sinesis), an extremely rare and endangered 10m to 20m-tall tree that displays bunches of florescent pink flowers when it blossoms in February and March. Due to habitat loss, the trees are only found in Thailand in this spot, along with a handful of areas in Taiwan and Vietnam. The park also offers some hiking trails, a three-day ascent to one of the country’s more difficult-to-get-to peaks (Phu Wae), waterfalls, some great camping, and again, a splendid sea of mist, seen from the Doi Phu Kha viewpoint, just off the winding skyline ridge road that snakes through the park. For cabins and other park info, contact the park office (Tel: 054 731 623).
The locals call it the ‘Switzerland of Thailand,’ and they might not be far off as this high elevation lake surrounded by pine forests in the corner of Mae Hong Son province seems like a foreign country.
Pang Oung offers great camping, atmospheric lake rides on bamboo rafts in the morning mist, and a wealth of Karen ethnic culture in the adjoining village where one can sample local cuisine and find quaint homestays. The crazy steep road here is almost worth the trip alone. For info, call the Pang Tong Royal Development Project, which manages the area (Tel: 053 611 244). Advance permission is required to take a car in overnight at Pang Oung, as well as to book a camping spot.
Also in Mae Hong Son just outside of the village of Panmapha, Tham Lod is a massive cave system full of stalactites and stalagmites, one of the largest in Thailand, and is unique in that a river runs through it.
Bamboo rafts with pole men take visitors through the cave, but an even better way to experience the area is by kayak. Australian cave expert John Spies has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years, knows the area inside out, and his atmospheric Cave Lodge is the place to base yourself and book trips to see the million-strong bat colony, explore the various caves, do a trek to th hill tribe villages, and even take your kayak down a waterfall. It’s one of Thailand’s best bases for adventuresome travelers who want to escape the crowds.
Khun Chang Kian
Another spot that is quite popular with Thais but almost unknown among foreign visitors, Khun Chang Kian is a village that sits just above Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, in yet a narrow rutted road that makes it difficult to access. The ethnic Hmong hill tribe village is part of the Highland Agricultural Research Center (Tel: 053 944 053), run by the University of Chiang Mai, and the area is famed for its abundant wild Himalayan cherry blossom trees, which turn the hillsides into blazing pink during the January and February blooming season.
Because Khun Chang Kian sits on the other side of the mountain ridge above Chiang Mai, it is spared the city pollution and haze, and offers plenty of fresh air, great mountain views as well as large working coffee plantation; the slopes here are extremely fertile for growing Arabica beans. While it isn’t far from town, the one-vehicle wide track coming in really is a challenge, and it is recommended if coming by car during the cherry season, to take one of the shared pickup trucks, which can be found about a third of the way in on the road coming from Phuping Palace at the end of the Doi Suthep road.