There is a quaint, quiet corner of northeast Thailand where the mountains rejoice at the awakening of the sun. They stretch with glistening green peaks past a creamy sea of clouds in sleepy greeting each and every morning.
My boyfriend, Joram, and I decided to rent motorbikes and head to Phu Chi Fa mountain and forest park located at the east edge of the Thoeng District, Chiang Rai Province, just bordering Laos. We embarked on the trip for one sole purpose: to witness Phu Chi Fa’s famed sunrise.
My phone blinks 5am and the clammy cold stings my skin, goosebumps prickling along the nape of my neck. It is still dark as we shiver together under a thick blanket and wait. When you are on top of the world, plans no longer matter, time stands still and you are simply humble. Engulfed in the freshest air of the land, where the poisonous creeping fingers of pollution fail to reach, and where giant black masses rise silently on all sides and the city lights of Laos are faint specks of stardust sucked into the loins of the earth below, you realize something. You realize just how small we as humans are on this fantastic planet, and that to think we have control of everything is pointless and unnecessary.
Despite the early morning chill, I suck in as much of the pure oxygen as I can muster. Up here, my allergies from the burning haze of Thailand have vanished. I feel cleansed as the sun begins its ascent, cutting gold and pink straits across the eastern heavens. I let the breath out steadily, and I am a child dancing in a candyland of strawberry milk streams, golden caramel coins and overflowing puffs and curls of lavender cotton candy.
Witnessing the Phu Chi Fa sunrise is a travel delight that is out of the way for most backpackers, and it is a treat that is earned. She makes you work for it, but it is well worth the effort. By motorbike, the roads are for the most part smooth and free of potholes, until you start the final steep ascent to the actual park. If you are a lover of curves and flying down hillsides, then this ride is a dream come true. Let go of your inhibitions and soar as the crisp mountain air awakens and exhilarates your senses. Extraordinary views await you at every beck and bend.
It is all coffee plantations and rice terraces, green corn and cabbage fields and small mountain villages that will take you away from crowded, dirty cities. The people here live the simple life of a Thailand stuck in a past time. Naked children splash in giant buckets of cool water. Lazy mountain dogs with gleaming coats wallow in the road, lying just out of reach of dangerous wheels. The stares are shy and curious. The toothless smiles are friendly and genuine. For me, this is what Thailand is all about.
The best time to visit is during the high season starting around November. One-way, the trip takes about 3-4 hours depending on speed and rest stops. Joram and I rented manual bikes in Chiang Rai. Prices range from 100- 200 baht per day, and I wouldn’t pay anymore than that. Once you start on the highway from Chiang Rai, the route is easy and enjoyable, taking you out of the congestion and into the pristine countryside. From the highway, you begin to climb into the mountains, steadily pushing up and then rolling down the never ending hills. What I liked most about the drive was the lack of traffic. There are no tourist buses careening around curves like madmen. It allows you to soak up everything the drive has to offer without being on edge or getting punched in the face by nasty plumes of exhaust smoke.
Fill up before you go, of course. Once in the mountains, there are no gas stations, but you can find old fashioned petrol pumps at random general stores in the villages. If you run into bike trouble, there are a couple of shops to be found. Joram experienced a flat tire at one point, but luckily the misfortune struck just a few meters from a lonely shack laden with rusted half-built motorbikes, old tires and mysterious scrap parts. The old Thai farmer fixed up the flat in a jiffy while we played with the the farm puppies and waited.
What to bring
It gets chilly in Phu Chi Fa. Bring a jacket, socks, pants and sturdy shoes for climbing.
Take it easy
If you are expecting reggae bars and late night backpacker parties, then you will be disappointed. It’s peaceful up here, in fact, we only saw one other small group of foreigners. The majority of visitors are Thai. The small stretch of shops next to the park consist of a handful of guesthouses, camping spots, a couple of restaurants, general stores and souvenir shops.
Joram and I arrived in the evening time and secured a camping spot nestled amongst coffee bushes brimming with pale red berries on a hillside terrace overlooking the mountains and valleys. It is easy to find camping spots since the village is so small. All equipment, bedding and individual fire pits are offered for 500 baht a night. There are showers and toilets available to campers as well. Eat cheap Thai food in town and warm up with some hot Jasmine tea, then sit by the fire and become hypnotized by millions of shimmering stars. It’s so dark and clear on top of Phu Chi Fa, that you can glimpse the wondrous Milky Way spilling over the edges of an indigo sky. To not speak, to not think and to instead just watch; you become part of the mountain and helpless to her wild whims. All of a sudden, a white fire comet streaks across a soundless horizon, illuminating the sky for a brief second, then leaving you to stare in awe while massive rust brown Hercules moths flit on paper wings, playing in their star-dappled darkness.
Set your alarm for 5:00 am the next morning for sunrise. When the time comes, hop on your bike and head up the park entrance road. It is steep and dark, so use every precaution. Don’t fret about navigation, you will see the signs and parking lot to leave your bike. Then, it’s another steep trek by foot up to the tippy top of Phu Chi Fa mountain. Grab a spot and wait for the sunrise to transform the land and your life.
The best way to begin your day….
3 thoughts on “Chasing the Sun in Phu Chi Fa”
If I take the very steep shortcut over Phaya Phi Phak it is only forty kilometers to Phu Chi Fa from my house, so that caught my attention. Also I moved to Thailand when I was twenty three after discovering Thailand as a twenty year old university student. Of course that was all a very long time ago and I spent my first thirty years in Bangkok but your musings did get me thinking back on my move with its similarities and differences.
It is approaching forty years for me in Thailand and I have been very happy with my life here. It is nice to see other young people giving it a try, even in this very different time, and I hope everything works out in your expat life.
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Thank you for sharing your experience, and I’m glad that you enjoyed my post! North Thailand is such a magical place 🙂
Hi Courtney. I am planning to pitch a tent at Phu Chi Fa as well. Can you share more about the camping ground? What is the name and how do we get there? I guess it is a walk in booking?