Had we done it right, we’d have gotten to P̣hū chī̂f̂ā (Phu Chi Fa) in time to see the sunrise. From what I’ve read, we’d have been in the company of hundreds of Thais and a handful of Western tourists who’d made the journey north of Chiang Rai to this rather special, spectacular place. [A little like the hordes that descend on La Boca, Cuba, to see the sunset.] Phu Chi Fa, which translates as pointing to the sky, is a mountain area and national forest park in Thailand in the northeastern end of the Phi Pan Nam Range, 12 km to the southwest of Doi Pha Tang at the eastern edge of Thoeng District in Chiang Rai Province. The drive from Chiang Rai through the farmland and the rice fields and the villages is the stuff that novels are made of.
The road up to the base of Phu Chi Fa is not for the faint-hearted. Our car struggled at times, particularly on the last leg. When we came to the main T-junction, signposts gave us a choice of going left or right – both said 4km. As fans of Jack Reacher, and clued into his rules for living, we went left and then took a slip road up into the park. At times it felt as if we were climbing vertically. The valleys fell away below us as the mountains rose in the distance. The higher we went, the more jungle we saw. After our trip through the Hall of Opium, I’d little trouble conjuring up images of columns of young men ferrying packs of heroin through the narrow paths. It wouldn’t take much to get lost in those mountains and local knowledge would keep you lost for as long as you wanted. Fifty years ago, the only way up would have been by elephant or on foot. Twenty years ago, there were no trees. Today everything we saw was new growth. It was overcast and muggy, early afternoon. The shadows played with my imagination. Driving through the hill tribe villages and seeing them about their work was a little surreal. We’d visited the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai earlier in the week and what we’d seen there had all come to life. Cages of roosters lined the road. Blankets covered with corncobs provided colour. Cabbage fields and bean patches marked the origins of the vegetables we’d seen in the city’s markets.
When we finally got up to the parking area, there was just one other car there. The sign said we had a 400-metre hike to get to the top. I debated. It looked steep. I didn’t want to put my back out with two more weeks left in country. But I didn’t want to regret not going either. The view from where we were was quite spectacular and I wondered if it could be improved upon. In the end, I went.
It was tough. It was steep. The steps were slippy. The place would be impassable after even a little rain. We heard voices and laughter in the distance but didn’t see anyone. I was back on the Opium Trail again, turning each corner with anticipation. When we got to the top, we saw the markers. Unknownst to ourselves, we’d been walking along the Thailand/Laos border. Stepping from one country into another and back again brought out the kid in me. Looking out over Laos, on the village below, felt a little like being on top of the world. Sunrise would indeed be quite spectacular but the vista laid out in front of us wasn’t half bad.
A couple of local kids were dressed up in their traditional costume, accessorised with sunglasses. They had a sound system on the go and were belting out a song. Another local was selling lottery tickets. There’s much debate about whether or not to give kids like these money. Some say that doing so ties them into a life of begging. Others say hey – they’re busking. They’re not just sitting there with their hands out asking for dough; they’re doing something to earn it. I’m in this camp but we’d left our wallets in the car and could only rummage up 10 baht between us. It felt like a compromise of sorts.
We walked down the way we came and wound our way back to the big T-junction. We had time, so we decided to take the right turn we’d ignored earlier. The road is far better, less of a climb. There’s more evidence of homestays and tourist prep. There’s a visitors centre and at the base, and lots of stalls (wo)manned by locals selling clothes and hats and scarves. Sewing machines were visible. This was their work. Yes, some of the stuff was brought in wholesale, but some of it was crafted from factory-produced materials – another compromise.
The sign here said Phu Chi Fa was some 800 or more metres up a gradual incline. One girl came down it in heels so it’s obviously very doable, nothing like the almost vertical climb we’d endured. This was where it was happening.
I was glad, though, that we’d taken the path less travelled up to Phu Chi Fa, that we’d prevailed, that we’d sweated it out. It was as if we’d earned the view. Next time, I’ll come the night before and be there to see the sunrise. Along with all the other tourists.