Into The Mist, Phetchabun North Thailand
October is our month for road trips and it was time to find somewhere in Thailand we had yet to visit. Usually we head south due to our proximity to it but this time it would be a journey north into two provinces I had yet to visit; Phetchabun and Loei.
Known for their mountainous terrain and numerous national parks, these two provinces lie in the central northern part of the kingdom, bordering Issan. It was too much to drive in one go so we’d be stopping half way which worked out at Suphanburi.
Suphan is a large sprawling place which is very clean by Thai standards (largely thanks to Banharn). After the long drive it was time to find a motel and some food, we were too tired to do much else. That evening was quite memorable for us as our football team, Prachuap FC, beat champions Buriram in the league cup final which we watched on the laptop and celebrated accordingly.
Feeling refreshed the following morning it was time to hit the road with a few stops at some unknown spots on the way north. The first little pit stop was a hundred year old heritage market called Sam Chuk which appeared to be famous for its old wooden houses and monster sized pork balls.
The afternoon was spent at an aquarium called Beung Chawak about an hour south of Chai Nat. It boasted Asia’s only escalator tunnel and the largest shark tunnel in Thailand. The farang price was 200 baht, only 50 more than the local price, and I was the only one there. Being a weekend it was naturally busy.
Phetchabun, Khao Kho
We had a few more hours to drive so it was back on the road and north to Phetchabun where we stayed at the Kosit Hill Resort as recommended. The roads were a mix of pristine blacktop and moon surface, Google Maps strives to find the fastest route but it doesn’t take into consideration road surface or the fact that you may spend kilometers stuck behind a siplor doing 38kph so sometimes it is best to ignore it!
The hotel was quaint and I got a good deal on Agoda but a new thing with Thai hotels seems to be allowing the public to use their swimming pools. A pool full of kids having swimming lessons is not the best move for hotels wanting more bookings.
The next day it was time to get into the hills which is what we came up here for. Khao Kho is the main attraction for the province and the valley is packed with hotels, resorts, coffee shops and restaurants. The scenery is pretty impressive with rolling hills and switchback roads, great for being on a bike – not so much in a Toyota pickup!
An army camp and ‘weapons museum’ displayed some old military hardware and explained the history of Thailand’s fight against communism in the 1970s. The irony of the today’s political situation in Thailand and the current regime’s reverence of a big red communist nation to the north was not lost.
We stayed at the Krin Resort as it had a huge family room with good views over the valley. A few kilos north of us was one of the main attractions in the area, Wat Pra Thart Pha Kaew. I’m not big on temples but this place was impressive. The intricacy of the hand crafted design and detail that has gone into the reliefs on the walls and structures was remarkable. Sunset was also a good time to go to get some good light for the photos.
The following day we were on the move again and up into the higher elevations of Phu Tubberk for some cooler climes and the ‘sea fog’ that is such a huge attraction here. But before we took the hairy road into the mist there was some business to be done in order to secure our next accommodation.
We wanted to go to Phu Kradueng and stay in a room at the government camp site on the summit, however, after calling them several times and finally speaking to someone in Bangkok we were told the only way to book this was through the state website. If anyone has used a Thai government website before they’ll know too well that they simply do not function.
First you have to create an account, inputting all of your personal details, and submit your request for booking. If the website wants to behave you are issued reference code and payment instructions which expire in 24 hours like something out of ‘mission impossible’ … which this was turning into. After several attempts the website finally did its job.
We tried to pay via ATM but it would only accept payment via the state owned Krung Thai Bank (light blue) machines and neither of us had an account there so could not enter the reference code into the machine since other bank cards or ATMs would not work. We were also a long way away from a physical bank and still on the road in the mountains.
So, the next day we had to find a branch of KTB and pay it in cash (lucky it was a week day). This was attempted in Lomsak but we did not get far as, after at least an hour of waiting (govt bank is the busiest in Thailand), the teller demanded a printed hard copy of the booking form from the government website and would not accept the mobile version.
It was then a mission to find an internet café where we could print this form, but since the advent of smart phones they tended not to exist any longer … printers are a rare commodity in northern Phetchabun.
The bottom line is that we missed the payment deadline and had to start the entire mind numbingly over-complicated process again from scratch, wasting almost two days of our trip.
We then had to find a town big enough with an amphur office that would have copy/printing shops nearby then go back to wait in a KTB branch with the fabled document so they would accept our cash payment and issue another document that we needed to present to national park staff.
So back to Tubberk, the road heading up the mountain is one of the hairiest I have driven. Gravity defying switchbacks and sheer drops with barriers that wouldn’t stop a bicycle combined with knuckleheads in pickups trying to overtake on these roads endangered everyone else using them.
The scenery was fantastic with rolling mist and green carpeted hills all the way up to 1,750 meters elevation. The temperature drop was noticeable and this was the big attraction for Thais who snaked their way up this mountain in their masses to sample weather than most westerners spend all year working to escape from.
Perched on the top of Tubberk were hundreds of ramshackle bungalows and tents in what appeared to be a huge refugee camp in the sky. This place was so popular that the accommodation mafia could charge what they wanted which was literally thousands. We ended up paying 2,800 THB (almost $US100) for a box with four mattresses and a basic bathroom that elsewhere would have cost 400 baht.
The views were outstanding though and the whole place had the atmosphere of some mountain camp site in a far flung place with the weather changing every ten minutes and the evening temperature dropping to 15 degrees. There were no other farangs here aside from myself as the place slowly filled with SUVs and Thai youths on high powered motorcycles. Apparently it gets really busy at the weekends!
It certainly was an interesting spot but only worth an overnighter unless you were a millionaire content to live in a shed on a hillside with no amenities. The next day the truck wouldn’t start as it was the first time it had ever been cold. We got on the road eventually and had to do a little more paperwork to secure the next booking before driving through Nam Nao national park to Phu Kradueng where we spent the night before the big ascent the following morning.