CHIANG RAI – The peak of Phu Chi Dao Mountain in Chiang Rai’s Wiang Kaen district was shrouded in mist. A cool breeze was blowing in from the mountain range in front of me. I zipped up my jacket to the neck and put on the hood while I patiently waited for the sunrise.
My friends and I started our journey before dawn broke. We took a 20-minute ride from Ban Rom Pho Ngoen and walked to the mountaintop for another 10 minutes. Since the walking route was steep, we periodically stopped to catch our breath. But our resting time was cut short when someone shouted “leeches”. We immediately jumped on our feet and sped up as fast as we could to reach the crest.
The name of Phu Chi Dao may sound familiar because it resembles the more famous Phu Chi Fa mountain, which is located about 8km away from Phu Chi Dao.
“We named our mountain to be like the well-known ones so that it will catch the attention of visitors. We believe that the name is easy for tourists to remember,” said Saengkom Kamalatmorakot, assistant village headman of Ban Rom Pho Ngoen Village, the gateway to Phu Chi Dao.
Phu Chi Dao was formerly called Pha Hua Loan by villagers because the top of the mountain does not have tall trees, but only tall grass. The new name means “mountain pointing to the stars”. Phu Chi Dao, which forms a natural border between Thailand and Laos, stands 1,800m above sea level and is taller than Phu Chi Fa which is 1,442m tall. Phu Chi Dao is a perfect viewpoint to see a sea of fog in both Thailand and Laos.
“We have seen the stunning view on top of Phu Chi Dao for generations, but there was no road access. In the past, we walked up the mountain for finding food,” he said.
Sotu Mopoku, wife of Sajae, dons Akha costume. She always performs a welcoming ceremony called riak kwan for visitors. She ties white threads on our wrists and gave us khai daeng, or a red hard-boiled egg, as a gesture for good health.
Ban Rom Pho Ngoen, which is set at the foothill of Phu Chi Dao, is home to the Hmong ethnic group. Since they wanted to promote their village for tourists many years ago, they decided to build their own road in 2014. The unpaved 3km-long road was finished within two years. The road is wide enough only for one vehicle at a time. The road is also steep and winding. As a result, villagers do not allow access to private cars. They offer off-road services to bring visitors to a spot where they then need to trek about 500m to the top.
“We used to offer camping services on the mountaintop, but we had to stop after local authorities warned us about tourist safety because the campsite is too close to the border. It was such a pity because Phu Chi Dao is a place where you feel you can touch the stars at night,” he said.
Although my group was on Phu Chi Dao in the morning, I liked what I saw below. When wind blew off all the mist, it revealed a sea of fog. It was floating above the green mountain ranges in Laos. The thick clouds seemed to stretch out as far as the eyes could see. The natural beauty and the cool breeze easily swept out all the sweat we had from trekking.
Ban Rom Pho Ngoen village also has another attraction called Phu Chi Duean. “If you have more time, you can climb the mountain and you will have another view of Laos,” said Saengkom.
Like Phu Chi Dao, Phu Chi Duean can be reached by taking a 4×4 for 20 minutes and walk up to the top. The mountain is 1,720m tall. “For me Phu Chi Dao has a better viewpoint because you can have a 360-degree view of both Laos and Thailand,” he said.
About 15km away from Ban Rom Pho Ngoen stands Doi Pha Tang, another well-known attraction in Chiang Rai. It is another popular place to see the sea of fog over the Mekong River.
At the foothill of Doi Pha Tang we met Xiangpao Saeyang, who initiated a horse-riding service to the top of Doi Pha Tang more than a decade ago. Xiangpao is a Chinese veteran of China’s Lost Army, a unit of the Kuomintang’s Nationalist Army.
He was a soldier of the Kuomintang’s 93rd Division. The troops fled west from Yunnan to Myanmar and Thailand after they lost to the Red Army of Mao Zedong in 1949. Xiangpao resided in Chiang Rai with other soldiers and they became farmers.
Akha food is not oily as cooking oil was hard to find in the past. They had to kill a pig to have the oil so it must be an important occasion like a wedding ceremony. Most of their food are prepared without using oil and seasoned with salt and chilli.
During our visit, they served us nam phrik tua lisong (peanut chilli paste) with home-grown fresh vegetables, steamed fish, aek moo (charcoal grilled pork with herbs), yam phak kwangtung sai khing (spicy salad dish made of par-boiled false pak choi and thin sliced fresh ginger) and potato soup. The food is served on banana leaves while rice was wrapped in a banana leaf also.
In the past they used horses for transporting their farm produce. After a road was built there was no need for the horses, said Kwang Saedee, nephew of Xiangpao.
“My uncle thought that perhaps we can have extra income by offering a horse-riding service to visitors. The idea works well. Today it is a popular service, especially among young and old visitors,” he said.
From Doi Pha Tang, we took a long road trip to Doi Pha Mee in Mae Sai district. The place became widely known during the rescue mission of the members of the Wild Boars football team that were trapped in the Tham Luang cave in August.
“Because of the Wild Boars team, our village became famous,” said Sajae Mopoku, 74, village headman of Ban Pha Mee.
If you have more time in Mae Sai district, you can cross the border to Myanmar’s Tachileik town. You can hire a small-size songtaew service to tour the city. The popular route includes a temple visit. The songtaew driver also works as a local guide. Stops include Tachileik Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located on a hill where you can have a panoramic view of the temple.
Another stop is Dhammayon Temple, which houses a revered Buddha image in its prayer hall and Wat Tai Yai to see a temple of the Tai Yai ethnic group. The service ends at Mae Sai Market where you can find snacks, processed or dried food from China, fashion products and much more.
Located north of Tham Luang, Ban Pha Mee is home to the Akha hilltribe. They migrated from Xishuangbanna in China’s southwestern Yunnan province in 1922. In the past, they grew opium for a living.
In 1970, King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited the village. Sajae said he was 28 years old at the time and was assigned to greet the king because he was fluent in the Thai language. He was also the head of the Akha Association and a leader of nine hilltribe groups in Chiang Rai.
“The king asked if we could stop growing opium. I immediately replied yes with a condition that if we could do other things otherwise we could not do that. The king told us to grow other plants instead of opium. After his visit, a 10-wheel truck carried hundreds of kinds of seeds to our village.
“The king told us to try to grow everything to know which plants can grow well in the high and cool climate. The one that has the most impressive yield so far is coffee. The first coffee tree that the king gave to us is still growing. The height is taller than an electric pole and still bears fruit,” he said.
From the first coffee tree in the village, today Arabica coffee trees have been widely grown in the mountain of Doi Pha Mee and also by villagers in other communities in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Lampang.
“The king also asked if we had any problem to let him know. I told him that none of us had Thai nationality. We all wished to be Thai citizens. The king said yes and told us that he had a solution,” he said.
Within a month after the first royal visit, they received a coin engraved with a picture of the king on one side. The reverse side had a set of running numbers with a message stating it was a memorial coin for hill-tribes. The coins were given to everyone who was 15 years old and above in the village. They wore it on their necks to show identification. Within six months, they received citizenship and ID cards. Sajae still wears the coin today.
The king also told them to move their village from the Thai-Myanmar border to its present location, which is about 2km away. The move was for their own safety so that they would be away from any impact of rebel fights in Shan State. Within a week after the king’s first visit, the road was constructed.
“We did not have to ask anything much from the king. He knew how to help improve our living conditions during his first visit,” he said.
When the king later made a second visit to the village, he told Sajae to bring him to his newly relocated house. Sajae made a cup of hot tea for the king. “He liked our tea which was made of leaves of wild plants and other herbs. I also packed the tea, which was called cha pa (wild tea), for him to bring back to his palace,” he said.
The king visited the village three times from 1970-1974. Sometimes he visited with HM Queen Sirikit and then HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, when they were young. The Queen spent time teaching students in a classroom too, said Sajae.
The family of Xiangpao has eight horses to service visitors who do not want to walk to the top of Doi Pha Tang. The service is available from October to January.
“Our lives changed for the better since the day we followed the advice of the king and stopped growing opium. People thought we earned a lot from selling opium, but it was not true. We sold opium one time a year. But when we grow cold climate vegetables and fruit trees, we have regular earnings all year round,” he said.
Beside coffee trees, the villagers also grow other fruit trees including macadamia, lychee and longkong trees. Ban Pha Mee opened its door to visitors only two years ago. They offer homestay services for those who want to learn about the Akha culture.
One of the activities visitors can do is to learn how to make a cup of coffee, starting from grinding coffee by hand and letting the black liquid drip into a coffee cup. Sajae and his family can prepare Akha food and also hot or cold tea of cha pa for visitors. The activities are arranged in his restaurant, called Phu Fa Sajae.
The restaurant is in a good location where we slowly sip our pleasant fragrant tea while looking at the view of Ban Pha Mee and the lush green forest area. The cool breeze, the beauty of nature and the simple lives of the hilltribes made us want to come back to Chiang Rai once more.
Next time we know we will spend at least a night in Ban Pha Mee and enjoy more of their Akha food.
The most convenient way to travel to Chiang Rai is to fly. For more information about flights, visit Chiang Rai International Airport website at http://chiangraiairport.com.
In Ban Rom Pho Ngoen in Wiang Kaen district you can hire a 4×4 to visit Phu Chi Dao. The service fee for a round trip is 100 baht per person. The fee is for a group of up to 10 passengers. If there are one or two visitors and want to have their own trip, the service fee is 500 baht. Contact Saengkom Kamalatmorakot at 093-253-2649.
Doi Pha Mee offers tour programs ranging from half-day to overnight stays. They can arrange a trekking trip to the top of Khun Nam Nang Non mountain, which houses Tham Luang cave. For more information, contact 085-678-8508, 095-686-1745 or 089-854-7423.
For visitors who want to cross the border to Myanmar’s Tachileik town, Chiang Rai Immigration service at Mae Sai checkpoint is open from 6.30am to 9.00pm. Contact 053-731-0089 or visit http://chiangrai.immigration.go.th.
For more information about tourism in Chiang Rai, visit Chiang Rai Province Website at www.chiangraiprovince.org or call Chiang Rai’s Tourism office at 053-717-433 and TAT contact center at 1672.