I feel like I’ve been writing this post for ages … but a broken laptop and sketchy internet have been holding me up. But hey – that’s life on the road and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
I’m currently in Spain but let’s flash back a week to Chiang Rai, a small city in the north of Thailand. It’s famous for the White Temple, it’s proximity to the Golden Triangle, and as a starting point for hill tribe trekking.
But we didn’t come to do any of those things. We came for Phu Chi Fa – the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of.
Despite being hugely popular with local Thai tourists (and being listed on TripAdvisor as one of the top things to do in Chiang Rai), we were told time and time again – by our guest house, by the travel agent, and by our tour guide – that foreigners rarely come to visit.
Which, once you’ve seen photos, is very difficult to understand.
Phu Chi Fa is a mountain two hours from Chiang Rai, over looking the Laos border. Although there are guesthouses near the mountain, which you could reach by motorbike or local bus (so I’ve been told), we opted to hire a car and driver from Chiang Rai. The private trip cost 3,000 baht (about $100 USD) and we visited some temples on the return trip.
We left Chiang Rai around 3:30am. For the first hour or so the trip was smooth, along well paved highway. But as we approached the mountain the road narrowed. In the pitch black we flew around tight corners and swerved to miss large potholes as the conditions deteriorated.
I looked out the window and saw the horizon was slowly fading from pitch black to a deep blue. I looked nervously at the time and I started to worry we might miss sunrise; we were chasing the sun now.
We rounded a final turn and our driver let out a small sigh of relief.
“The road is open,” he announced as we passed a small gate house. He explained that sometimes the gate was closed and visitors had to trek an additional half hour up the mountain to reach the trail.
But luck was on our side. We continued up the mountain, dodging bigger potholes and now a handful of speeding minivans filled with Thai tourists.
I checked the time. I looked at the horizon.
Finally, we pulled up to a crowded parking lot. I looked around confused; where had all these people come from? We had only seen a few other cars but there were easily hundreds of Thai tourists roaming the carpark, gathering their camera equipment and putting on warm layers. There was a chill in the early morning air.
We parked and our driver led us through the crowds and we started climbing. Every few hundred meters we would pass small local children, dressed in traditional costumes. The youngest were easily three or four and they stood along the trail, singing in tiny voices hoping for a few baht from tourists. It wasn’t comfortable to watch so we hurried pass1.
I looked back at our guide. He was struggling to keep up with our pace as Mike and I rushed up the mountain. He gave us a little wave, so we left him behind, almost running.
It wasn’t a long hike but it was steep and we were moving quick. I was struggling to catch my breath but I was starting to get glimpses of the view and it kept me going. After about twenty minutes we reached the top.
There were huge crowds (there were at least a thousand people there, with tripods and selfie sticks) but I only saw a handful of Western tourists.
We found a free spot and I sat on Mike’s feet, leaning against his chest and resting in his arms. I looked east, towards the Laos border. A sea of clouds stretched out below us, dotted with mountain peaks, like little ships on the horizon. Slowly, the sun rose casting a golden glow over everything. It was magical.
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If you’d like to visit Phu Chi Fa the best base is Chiang Rai . Once in Chiang Rai you can hire a driver from one of the many tour agencies or hire a motorbike if your feeling adventurous!
GET TO CHIANG RAI
Chiang Rai is an easy 3 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai (about 130 baht) or there are direct flights from Bangkok (super cheap with AirAsia.) Alternatively, it is only a few hours from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. (Chiang Khong is on the Thai/Laos border. Huay Xai is the corresponding border town in Laos and your starting point if you’re taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang.)
Friends House Chook Dee is a great budget option. Very basic with shared bathrooms, but clean rooms and good vibes in the centre of town for 200 baht/nt. Be warned the music is loud and the bedroom doors are flimsy, but it’s a great option for the price. We stayed here for our first few nights in Chiang Rai. (It’s just a few minutes walk from the clocktower in the centre of town.)
However, if you’re looking for a bit more privacy and comfort, I highly recommend Huen Chan Thip. I booked on Agoda and got a rate under 800 baht/nt including buffet breakfast, which is a bargain for what you get. The rooms were clean and modern (hello rain showers!), the pool was large and clean, and the breakfast was delicious and filling.
In Chiang Rai, we highly recommend Chiang Rai Bicycle Tours. We did a full day cycle tour that took us down backroads, through small villages and rice paddies, to the White Temple. There our guide gave us a detailed tour of the temple and a behind the scenes look at the workshop. After lunch, we cycled to Khun Korn waterfall.
It’s not cheap (we paid 1600 baht per person) but it was worth every penny. The bikes were high quality, there was a support vehicle that showed up throughout the day with cold drinks and snacks, and our guide was amazing. This is not a sponsored or affiliate link, we just had such a good time that I can’t help sharing!
The food in Chaing Rai is distinct with influences from Myanmar and China. We recommend Barrab restaurant (near the clock tower.) Our favourite dish was Hung Lay Curry, a rich ginger curry that was unlike anything we’ve had in Thailand.
Have you added Phu Chi Fa to your bucket list? What are some of your favourite ‘unknown’ destinations? I’d love to hear your suggestions! Let me know in the comments! x
photo credit: all photos by me // please do not resume without permission
1 While in Cambodia years ago, I visited ChildSafe – an organisation working to protect children in Southeast Asia. They recommend never giving to children on the streets (although it’s not always easy.) Visit their site to learn more.