One Tough Climb, Phu Kradueng, Loei

I had read up on this place as it is one of the most popular national parks for Thais and somewhat of a pilgrimage to make the climb. Relatively unknown to foreigners, Phu Kradeung is a 1,300 meter high mount with a mesa spanning 60 square kilometers. There are no roads to the top and the plateau is a protected wildlife sanctuary and national park.

After a little wrangling and charm, the park officials accepted my Thai ID card and the ‘farang barriers’ came down, I was an honorary Thai then and got in for 40 instead of 400 baht. More paperwork and officialdom needed to be done before we could start the ascent – national parks are now a very military affair. We also need to pay for insurance in case we needed rescuing, though I’m not sure what the ten baht policy (40 for farangs) actually covered.

The climb had only been opened for a couple of days since it cannot be done during the wet season. It was 5.5km to the summit followed by a 3.5km trek across the flat top to the camp site – you cannot start after 2pm as most mortals won’t make it by nightfall.

I was mentally prepared for it but not physically, it was the most grueling hike I have ever done in Thailand. Every kilometer or so up the trail were rest stations which had snacks and soft drinks. Alcohol is banned in national parks and you wouldn’t want to be drinking on this trek.

Not wanting to eat too much we used grilled eggs (kai bing) and fruit as sustenance. The going was tough but there was a good sense of camaraderie among fellow climbers and everyone was very friendly. There were no farangs at all doing this and many of the Thais we met had travelled from all corners of the kingdom to make the ascent.

Because there are no roads to the summit, everything had to be physically carried to the top and the squadrons of porters (including women) humping water, gas cylinders, luggage and food up and down all day made us feel even more unfit.

The going got tough for the last 500 meters or so which was almost a sheer climb and the cramps had started to set in, but after 4.5 hours we finally reached the top following a 07.30 start. It was not over yet as the campsite was a further 3.5km into the heart of the plateau but fortunately this part was flat. Five and a half hours and 9km later we had arrived and proceeded to collapse onto the freshly mown grass.

Our accommodation was basic to say the least and in no way reflective of the monumental effort it took to book it and get to it. A wooden bungalow that slept 8 people on the floor with a primitive bathroom and no electricity until 6pm cost 1,680 baht per night, but it was better than the alternative – a tent.

We grabbed a bite to eat and crashed out for a couple of hours to recover and allow the pain to recede. It was a little later that we had realized our mistake in only booking one night up here, the place is huge and we had to climb back down tomorrow.

We wanted to check out a waterfall just a kilometer or so down the trail but were told by park officials that it was closed at 4pm as that is when the wild animals come out. Rented some bicycles and gingerly pedaled to a sunset lookout about 2km away. All the ‘roads’ atop this mesa are either sand or mud making the going tough. It was a very strange landscape that reminded me more of Australia than Thailand. With no traffic or dwellings the place was extremely peaceful and serene, devoid of soi dogs, teens on screaming bikes, pumping bass speakers, or screeching locals – unlike Thailand at all really!

That evening we dined at a small restaurant back at camp among the other hikers as exhaustion from the day’s physical exertions became overwhelming and sleep beckoned. Everything up here is priced at a premium, it is effectively an island in the sky and everything has to be physically carried up here hence a bottle of water was 50 baht. Considering the monumental efforts involved we didn’t begrudge it.

The next morning it was time to grab the bicycles again – which were also a premium at 300 baht each – and go to the waterfall. This was a little underwhelming as there hadn’t been much rain hence not much coming over the falls. The cycling was tough over sand and through mud, even with the ‘fat bikes’ and we had originally planned to head to the lookout at Lomsak Cliff around 9km from the camp.

We soon gave up on this plan as we had to return the bikes to the mountain top where the climb ended to begin the descent before midday. At least two nights are required to fully appreciate this place. After around 8km cycling and a few viewpoint stops we’d arrived back at the start of the descent as the heavens opened.

Going down was a very wet and muddy experience and although it was quicker than the ascent my knees started to feel the pain of all of the recent pressure on them. Around 3.5 hours later we arrived back at the bottom battered, bloodied, bruised, wet and dirty but glad we had done it, what an experience!

Phu Kradueng is a very professionally managed national park and famous among Thais for having the hardest trek in the Kingdom. It is a unique experience and I wish we had longer up there; strangely nobody was up for climbing it again the following day so we drove north to Loei for some rest and relaxation.