Loei: Camping on a mountain top

LOEI, Thailand, 3 September 2018: In the dawn sky layers of blue ridges are just visible as morning mist settles on the creeks and the slopes of forested hills.

Your campsite appears to be hemmed in on all sides by dramatic mountain landscapes in a land we usually associate with flat plains and emerald green paddy fields.

But you are enjoying the outdoor life in the highlands of Loei province, a good 547 km from the Thai capital, lying on the western fringe of Northeast Thailand.

Here, dramatic landscapes and mountains trump card the usual recipe of colourful golden temples, historical cities and mesmerising urban experiences.

It’s your first encounter with a Thai camping experience at more than 1,000 metres above sea level far from the well-trodden paths most tourists take.

Condensation settles on your tent canvas, dribbling down the flap in an erratic descent to your already damp trekking shoes, muddied from yesterday’s hike.  You are enjoying daybreak in Loei, the grass and wild flowers are covered in dew and a flight of birds glides over the tiny campsite valley seeking morning nibbles. You marvel at nature’s beauty and contemplate a hot breakfast before another day of discovery.

Good food is never far away even if you are camped on one of Loei’s highest ridges. The camp cook rustles up the province’s famous signature dish Kai Ka Ta, an adaption of a Vietnamese version of fried eggs, sausage and bread rolls.

The eggs are fried in a hot two-handled shallow pan that serves as your plate saving the washing up, always a major consideration when camping.

The camp cook turns up the heat on the mobile gas stove frying the eggs in butter and topping it with ample servings of minced pork and Chinees sausage with a smattering of onions and herbs.  Cooked minced pork is artfully squeezed into the bread roll, remarkably like the ones that French colonials bequeathed to the Vietnamese population.

It’s quite a dish to watch in the making. There are variations of the theme, of course, but the camp cook improvises complaining that some sauces were not at hand.  Cook and crew tuck into the piping hot pan breakfast relishing every bite, knowing it will buck up energy for a trek, or a wild mountain bike ride descent from the high plateau.  It all makes you wonder how on earth did you survive camping on canned and dried food.

Loei is a popular holiday destination for young Thai travellers keen to escape the stifling temperatures and stress of urban living. They take to camping in high-country national parks likes ducks to water.

Now mountain pursuits are a lifesaver for Loei’s small tourism industry. Yes, people still visit the flower gardens, tour a winery and visit museums celebrating the culture of ethnic minorities, but nothing comes close to participating in a mountain park trek, camping overnight or dusting off a bike for a tour of a province that offers dramatic landscapes almost on every bend in the road or trail.

Of all Loei’s attractions Phu Kradueng National Park a 75- km drive from the province’s airport, gains the most reviews on TripAdvisor by a serious margin. The last count was 145 compared with another mountain attraction, Phu Thog, that garnered 132 reviews.

Compare this with 85 reviews of Loei province’s Chiang Khan a photogenic village on the banks of the Mekong River famed for its walking streets, and you have to admit the mountain travel votes win the day.

Around 20,000 young Thai travellers will visit Phu Kradueng National Park during the cool season months November to February. The sea of mist covering peaks and ridges and the opportunity to don winter woollies are key incentives for Bangkok residents.

The climb to the plateau of Phu Kradueng, at 1,316 metres above sea level, is an all-day trek. It deserves to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace stopping at food and water stations at every 1 km marker and admiring panoramic views from the comfort of park benches.

The fast and fit can walk the 5.5 km trail (11 km roundtrip) between dawn and dusk with around three hours to spare. That is factoring in three and a half hours walking in each direction.  But despite the popularity of the trek with novice climbers and even families on their first trek, it still represents a 1.1 km elevation gain over the distance so there are some very steep sections to negotiate before you reach the ‘Khok Moei’ pinnacle.

Those who rush the experience regret it and often return for a second trip to enjoy an overnight or more at the campsite, a 3 km walk from the summit. Most travellers opt for tented accommodation rented at THB250 a night that can accommodate up to three campers. There are also bungalows for those who need a few home comforts such as bed and a private bathroom.

Mountain bikes can be rented to explore trails as some of the viewpoints are up to 18 km from the campsite.  The  campground has a shower block, store selling food items and drinks and there are small Thai food restaurants and stalls.

Even during the busy cool season months, November to February, the campsite remains a remarkably quiet retreat with campers fast asleep by 2200. A no alcohol-for-sale rule strictly applies and those who do bring their own booze respect the environment and show considerable discretion.

There is a national park entrance fee of THB400 for foreigners and THB200 for Thais.

Porters are also available for hire at the park entrance to carry backpacks, camping equipment to the summit’s campsite and back. They make light work of the climb even with heavy loads including the tuckerbag.

Down at base camp, the national park’s gate, a change of pace is planned; a 134 km drive on highway 201 to Loei’s famous heritage town Chiang Khan. It’s an essential stop when visiting Loei if only for the token selfie next to the 50-year old post box.

Discovered by young Thai travellers in the early days of mobile phone and photo technology, Chiang Khan shot to fame as one of those quirky villages that travellers perceived as retro.

Perched on a short stretch of the Mekong River bank, where highway 201 takes a sharp right, Chiang Khan’s half-timbered two storey shophouses found their destiny as premises for boutique guests houses, restaurants, coffee shops, knick-knacks stalls. Decaying timber beams and peeling plaster caught the attention of selfie photo fans.

Fortunately an ancient post box, telephone kiosk, decorative lamp posts and road signs all played a role in putting Chiang Khan on the Facebook map. It’s a social media miracle that over the year draws thousands of travellers for a stroll down its walking street, almost memory lane for grandparents, where people-watching and dining on Thai food and street snacks are the main pastimes.

At the end of the Buddhist Lent on the full-moon day of the 11th lunar month, (24 October this year) the small town hosts a festival held in the courtyard of the district office. Visitors pack the village to watch the Prasat Phueng procession, long-boat races, Ruea Kap races, an illuminated boat contest and Tak Bat Devo (food offering to monks, the day after the end of Buddhist Lent).