Even though backpackers have worn out Thailand’s tourist trail for years, there are still a few spots that foreigners have yet to discover. Phu Chi Fah, one of the highest peaks in Chiang Rai province, is one of them. Sitting at the top and watching the sunrise over a mountain valley blanketed in fog and clouds was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in Thailand.
Just a few hours west of Chiang Rai, Phu Chi Fah is part of a mountain range near the Laos border that is best known for its incredible sunrises. It’s a popular tourist destination among Thai people, who flock there during the winter months when prime visibility provides stunning views of neighboring mountains, Laos, and the Mekong River.
After coming across a photo of the staggering view from Phu Chi Fa, I knew I wanted to see it for myself. But a few (what I thought were) creative Google searches later, I was still pretty clueless about how to get there and where to stay. While pictures of Phu Chi Fah are plentiful, practical information is harder to come by. As we found out when we arrived, there are plenty of accommodations nearby, but they are incredibly hard to book beforehand if you don’t speak or read Thai. Despite that, Phu Chi Fah’s incredible beauty and preexisting tourist infrastructure make it a much-deserving stop on any Thailand tourist’s itinerary. Here’s how a friend and I saw it one January weekend:
We headed to the Chiang Rai bus station at around noon on Saturday to buy our tickets for the 1:15pm van to Phu Chi Fah. For those who want to get an early start, there’s also a bus that leaves at 7:15am. We saw a sign and picture for Phu Chi Fah by Platform #1 and bought our round-trip tickets from a man sitting at a table below the sign. The ticket-seller was incredibly helpful and even brought us to the station’s tourist information booth to make sure we understood everything.
We headed off in the van at 1:15pm and spent the next two and a half hours with our eyes glued to the rolling hills, rice fields, and small villages out the window. I became really grateful for my stash of Dramamine by the end of the ride, as we began winding up and up through gorgeous mountain scenery.
We started to get a little nervous when the van driver began dropping people off at guesthouses that could have very well been ours because the signs were all in Thai. The driver made his final stop in a tiny town with some guesthouses, restaurants, and souvenir stalls, but we still didn’t see our guesthouse. In retrospect, it would have been more cost-efficient to walk in and stay at one of these guesthouses, but we had already booked with a different resort. We waited while our van driver called the owner of our hotel, and after lots of confused gesturing and broken English and Thai, he drove us to our guesthouse for 100 extra baht. We thought we might be getting ripped off, but for 15 extra minutes of tough driving, it was worth it. Step one was complete!
As soon as we rounded a curve and saw Rairompathong Resort nestled on the side of a mountain, I knew we had picked the right place. (In all honesty, only one guesthouse picked up the phone when we tried calling, but we still gave ourselves a pat on the back.) The resort consists of about a dozen bungalows overlooking a valley of rolling hills and farmland. Unlike the area we’d just come from, the resort was pretty isolated. Aside from two other small hotels on the street, we were the only building in sight.
We checked into our cute bungalow, had a photo shoot on the beautiful terrace, and talked with the owner who spoke surprisingly good English. He arranged transportation for us to see the sunrise at Phu Chi Fah the next morning and told us we could walk to a nearby strawberry field before dark. We couldn’t quite figure out how to go about picking strawberries, but we followed a strawberry-picking Thai family and farmer who took pity on us and gave us a delicious strawberry to try.
We thought we were the only guests at the resort, but at about 4:30pm we watched as cars full of Thai families began to arrive, some in matching “Love My Family” t-shirts. Almost all the guests appeared to have driven their own cars.
We watched the sun set behind the mountains from the resort’s terrace and ate a delicious dinner of fish, rice, soup, and vegetables (included in the price of accommodation). After getting laughed at for asking if there was beer, hot chocolate, or dessert anywhere on the premises (silly Americans), we settled into our bungalow for the night. Even though the resort has a “restaurant,” don’t expect any snacks or drinks other than water.
The small but well-kept bungalow came with a nice double bed with two thick comforters, an attached bathroom with hot shower, and a TV, which came in handy when the resort’s wifi signal failed to reach the bungalow. Because of the resort’s relative isolation, there wasn’t too much to do after dinner. We spent the night flipping through the TV’s 20 or so channels, laughing at the ridiculous Thai game shows and marveling at how every news channel showed the exact same footage of a woman we think is the princess.
We woke up at 4:45 the next morning to squeeze into a songthaew to Phu Chi Fah with about 12 Thai tourists staying at our resort. The Chicagoan in me was very disappointed, but despite wearing all the warm clothes I brought to Thailand, I was freezing.
My spot in the songthaew gave me a front row seat to the terrifying yet exhilarating ride through the almost complete darkness. As we whipped around curves and weaved in and out of the mountain, the only things lighting the scenery were the amazingly bright stars in the sky, lights from houses in the distance, and the small patch of road lit by the songthaew’s headlights. About 20 minutes later, I was completely awake for the hike, and we headed up a steep tree-lined driveway until we parked in lot teeming with songthaews, motrobikes, and SUVs. With stalls selling souvenirs and snacks, the scene was a lot busier than I expected.
I clipped my reading light to my jacket in lieu of a flashlight, and we started the hike up to the top. I really can’t tell you how long it took us—hiking in the dark is a very bizarre, time-altering experience—but it was probably a 35-minute hike uphill. I saw everyone from 5 to 75-year-olds making the hike, so anyone can do it. A small crowd had already formed at the top, but we found a spot to sit on the edge of the lookout on the right side. I was a little disappointed by how crowded it was– but among the 40 or so people, 3 Germans and the two of us were the only foreigners (to my knowledge).
I had seen countless pictures of Phu Chi Fah throughout my failed internet research, so I was a little worried the real thing wouldn’t live up to it somehow. But even in the darkness, watching the impossibly bright stars and the vague outlines of mountains was incredible. And as each layer of pink and orange started to peak above the horizon line, we began to see the fog and clouds blanketing mountains. The sun finally came up and we saw the full extent of the scene. The tops of the mountains peeked up from the sea of clouds and fog like little floating islands and coves in a sea of mist. It’s one of the most incredible, beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
And because we were in Thailand surrounded by a sea of Thai tourists, once there was enough light in the sky, the massive photo shoot began. There were iPhone selfies, iPad videos, and fancy SLR photo shoots in various poses. We even (unknowingly) got in on the action when people busted out their cameras to take pictures of us. Although I tend to subscribe to the, see it with your own eyes, not through a camera philosophy, I couldn’t help but take a ton of pictures to try to capture how insane the scenery was. We climbed down the peak to another lookout point to see the promontory where we watched the sunrise.
At 7:15am, we tore ourselves away from the view and literally ran down the mountain in fear that our songthaew would leave without us at 7:30. We miraculously found it in a sea of songthaews and made the journey back to our guesthouse. After a quick breakfast (also included), we were driven back to the van pickup spot and made the journey back to Chiang Rai.
Even though Phu Chi Fah is relatively out of the way, which is probably why it has only remained popular with Thai tourists, it’s definitely worth the trip.
When to go: The best time to see Phu Chi Fah is during the winter months (November-February), when there is the most visibility.
How to get there: Take the bus or van from Platform #1 at the Chiang Rai bus station, leaving at 7:15am or 1:15pm. They make stops along the way, and the last stop should be at the Phu Chi Fah New Hotel. If your guesthouse is further away, you can pay the van driver to take you there, or arrange for a pickup with your hotel. Once you arrive at your guesthouse, they can arrange transportation to Phu Chi Fah in the morning. Our guesthouse also arranged transportation from the guesthouse to the van pickup location to go back to Chiang Rai.
Where to stay: I called a lot guesthouses I found online with little luck, so we stayed at the one place where someone picked up the phone– Rairompothong Resort. The owner speaks relatively good English. Call (087-1891099 ) or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation.
What to bring: Bring a flashlight and warm clothes for the hike.
Other tips: Stand on the right side of the promontory for the best views.