Six-days in Thailand's Most Natural Region: Loei

A leisurely road trip around the mountainous national parks of Thailand’s most pristine forest reserves.

Loei is one of Thailand’s least populated regions­—and it shows. In between national parks, you’ll mostly see fields, dotted with the occasional empty hut. Even the city of Loei feels more like a town than a district capital. Dansai, Chiang Khan and Pak Chom are even smaller, of course. All this peace and quiet is incredibly relaxing. Boring, you say? Loei’s natural wonders are just impossible to not get excited about. From mountains covered in evergreens to rolling hills planted with fields of rice, the province is simply breathtaking. This winter, we drove through valleys of rubber trees shedding deep, red leaves, past blond rice fields that looked like wheat and along the green, marsh-like Mekong. Throw in some pine trees and the result is a vivid feast for the eyes. Once the rain starts to fall, from May-October, everything turns a vibrant green, the Mekong surges and it’s a completely different atmosphere all over again. We took six days to do this road trip and while the TAT has a fast-paced “wake up at 5am every day” option that takes three days, we don’t recommend rushing.

Day 1. Getting There

Leaving Bangkok at a civilized 10am, and breaking for lunch on your way to Loei, you can drive the 500km to the small town of Dansai in roughly six hours. We recommend booking into Phunacome (461 Moo 3, Ban Doen, Dansai. 042-892-005. www.phunacomeresort.com) for a little comfort (the trip gets rougher later on). Have a beer on the deck, watch the sun set over the valley, the real fun starts tomorrow. In town, you’ll find some decent food across from the small fresh market, but Phunacome also has a delicious restaurant. In general, the produce (chicken, vegetables) in Loei is really amazing—a simple slice of cucumber takes on whole new dimension. Want to bring back a souvenir? There’s a small shop on the main road where a bunch of guys are hand painting the famous phi tak kon masks year-round and selling them for B850. Of course, if you want the full-fledged ghost festival, you’ll have to come late June-early July (dates vary, so check with the local TAT office, 042-812-812).
Phunacome Resort’s rates start from B4,200 per night for a deluxe room. If that’s too expensive, you can either check into the two resorts that have popped up just after Phunacome on the same road or try the resorts on the way to Na Haeo National Park.

Day 2. Na Haeo

You should get a decent road map and a copy of the TAT’s free map of Loei (available at Phunacome). There’s a lot of driving on this trip but the landscape is surprisingly diverse, compared with other parts of Isaan. Your first national park is Phu Na Haeo, and the road to it takes you through gently rolling hills, many of which are covered by rice fields. On the way, stop at Wat Pho Chai, a centuries-old temple with intriguing murals. Despite its age, quaint old trains and soldiers in early 20th-century uniforms betray the succession of additions and renovations. It takes about an hour from Dansai to Na Haeo National Park. You can have lunch there, with views of the valley beneath the park, and then go explore the waterfalls. Brace yourself, the water can be extremely cold. When you’re done, head back to Dansai for your second night.

Day 3. Phu Ruea, Phu Luang

It’s now time to leave Dansai. First stop: Phu Ruea. The mountain offers 360-degree views of the entire valley. You can drive within 1km of the peak, then walk the remaining distance. Please don’t hop onto the B10 songtaew for that last bit: there’s a little path that takes you through the evergreens all the way to the scenic views.
Next, head to the Phu Luang wildlife reserve. It’s a beautiful drive to the park once you get off the main road, mostly through empty fields. We were a bit disappointed about the lack of wildlife (most animals come out at night), but Phu Luang is a very dense, very wild jungle with hardly any visitors. A road takes you to the top where, again, there are some trails through the forest that take you to the most scenic view points. Get all meditative and enjoy the peace and quiet.
At this point (late afternoon), we zipped up to the quaint little town of Chiang Khan, by the Mekong. Try to get there before 7-8pm as people go to bed pretty early. We’re not mad about Chiang Khan. It’s like Hua Hin’s faux-vintage mini-mall Plern Wan meets Chiang Mai’s Saturday market: lots of shops overplaying their retro appeal, selling cutesy curios, and not much authenticity. It’s not so much that the place is overrun by Bangkokians (it’s actually not that crowded), it’s that it’s been designed for Bangkokians. Still, do book your guesthouse in advance. Our pick is definitely the grand old house of Loog Mai Guesthouse (112 Moo 1 Soi 5 Chaikhong Rd., 04-282-2334, 08-6234-0011), where we stayed for the night. The decor is humble but genuinely tasteful. The bathroom is shared, there’s no air-con but, hey, its only B450 with breakfast. (Ask for a room on the Mekong side.)

Day 4. Chiang Khan, Pak Chom

For breakfast, Loog Mai serves a bowl of toothsome pork noodles, but if you’d like to grab something sweet in town, try Sankaya Khun Mae, where pandanus-flavored coconut cream is served with buns, Thai-style coffee or hot cocoa. After breakfast, you can ride around on bicycles (again Loog Mai provides them), or hit the road leading to Pak Chom, which offers some great views of the Mekong. In fact, this road is so highly recommended that many people follow it into Nong Khai and down to Udon Thani­­­­­—another way to head out of Loei. But we’re not done yet, and chose instead to zip down to Phu Kradueng (see Phu Kradueng 101) and sleep there.

Day 6. Phu Kradueng

Today, you’re climbing to the top of Phu Kradueng, a 9km hike to the top of this 1,316-meter-high table mountain. Once you get to the top, the vegetation is just amazing: super-bright evergreens pop out against a clear blue sky, clearings and forests alternate along sandy paths, little gulleys run through the delicate underbrush of ferns, mosses and shrubs.

You can either spend two nights here and take it easy, or wrap things up in 24 hours (and feel the pain in your legs for a week). Here’s how. Start off at 7am to finish climbing around noon, break for lunch, nap for a bit, and get ready to set off again around 3-4pm. It’s 10km to the sunset view point. You can rent a bicycle to get there, and if you use the inland path, it’s not too sandy. There’s a pond and waterfall on the way, and the sunset view is sublime. Tired yet? Well, it’s time to head back to camp. The way back along the edge of the mesa is really tricky, with your bike sinking into fine sand half the time—you’re also in the dark at this point. The only alternative is to do the whole thing on foot, but then it’s probably better to do it by day light, and you won’t see the sunset. It will also take longer, meaning you’ll probably have to stay that extra night. Your call. Bike rentals are B310, plus B50 for a light if you’re going to be riding by night.

The good thing with being super tired is that you’ll manage to sleep on the thin foam mattress offering little protection from the lumpy earth beneath your tent. Pray that your neighbors aren’t the snoring-super-loudly types and that they forget to bring a guitar. Or just bring earplugs. Tomorrow, you need to wake up at 4am.

Day 7. Phu Kradueng

The hike to see the sunrise sets off at 4:30am. It is currently led by park rangers because of recent attacks from wild elephants. Nights are really beautiful up here, with no light pollution to mask the stars, so the night hike is an experience in itself. The sunrise isn’t necessarily the highlight, though. When the sun is up and begins to heat up the jungle, a thick blanket of mist rises, so that the valley turns into a sea of clouds.

Head back to camp for breakfast, pack up and head down. A word of warning: the climb down is not that much faster or easier than the climb up. Especially when it’s your fourth big hike in 24 hours. We made it down around noon and then headed for the long drive back to Bangkok. Phu Kradueng is far from the main roads, so it could take you 7-8 hours to get home.

Phu Kradueng 101

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