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Hiking and camping in Nam Nao and Phukradung national parks (19 - 22 Dec 2004)

I was assigned to drive a van and serve as helper cum guide for a foreign family of four people, parents and their two daughters aged 7 and 8 years, in December last year. I had been driving for mostly Thai tourists sightseeing in the upper north-east of Thailand, usually to the temples, markets, border check points with Laos. It was my first time in almost 10 years to send foreign tourists to national parks in my home country of north-eastern Thailand.

Large tents available in Nam Nao national park On 18 December evening I drove the van to Udon Thani to meet with my tourists at Charoensri Grand hotel, one of the largest accommodations in town. We had a friendly introduction in the hotel lobby, reviewed the trip plan and made appointment to meet in the morning for the travel. I had to look around several places before I got a room in a small hotel for the night. It was rather crowded Saturday with almost all hotel rooms in town booked up.

19 Dec 2004, Sunday
We left Udon Thani at eight in the morning for Nam Nao national park, taking at first the highway 210 south-westward to Nong Bua Lamphu. See the map below. Half an hour later we took a right turn onto a dirt road to a Dinosaur fossil museum. It was a small find of ancient prehistoric animals. We did not walk to the excavation site which was a few kilometers down the hills from the museum. In the museum there were some Dinosaur bones, drawings, information and charts. We did not see any other visitors there.

We continued driving on highway 228 south to Chum Phae where we took the road number 12 westward. When we pulled into the headquarters area of Nam Nao national park it was 1100hrs already. The park was different from 10 years ago. Mobile phones were ringing here and there. Facilities were much better now. Neat bungalows, tents of different sizes, ground sheets, mattresses, sleeping bags, blankets, stoves and so on were available for rent. Clean public toilets and shower rooms were available. A lone bird in Nam Nao national park We rented tents and gear for overnight staying. I had two rubber ground sheets, a sleeping bag, one thick blanket and a two-men tent for myself. The night was going to be very cold, a staff of the park said.

After a delicious lunch at an restaurant close to the park office we headed for a nature walk together with two guides from the park. We had maps and brochures. The guides explained us about the trees and plants we saw. Nam Nao is predominantly pine forest due to its relatively high elevation and cool weather. There were many other plant species too. We saw elephant droppings, bamboo, flowers. Two little children were happy walking in the forest. The trail was not difficult to find and follow. It was well walked by many visitors. The marked trails network were around the headquarters area and people could walk one kilometer short circuit to 8.5 or so kilometers long trail starting and ending at the visitor center. We hiked to a highland view point from where we could see as far as Phukradung, and walked roughly 7 km in 2 hours until we got back to the center.

The visitor center had a small museum displaying a 3-dimension model of the park landscape, samples of plants and trees, stuffed skins of various wildlife killed by people, drawings and charts, information of the animals and trees. It also had an Internet cafe. But on that day it was not working. Calling to the server failed.

Sunset view - Nam Nao national park At about 1600hrs we went driving to the sunset view point at km marker 39 on highway 12. The trail up to the hill-top was a steep stone ladder. There we took some photos and waited for the sun to fall behind the mountains far away in the west of Phetchabun province.

The restaurants at the center were good. I liked the meals there. Just the same or similar thing I had daily elsewhere; rice, fried chicken, soup, vegetable. But the food here were simply more enjoyable. A couple of Hornbills came to the trees nearby. More than a hundred visitors would sleep in the camp ground that night. Most of them came in their cars, a few were driving motor cycles. After the quick shower I went inside my tent and wrapped myself in the sleeping bags and the blanket. People went to sleep rather "early" because of the cold weather. Well before mid-night there was just sounds of the forest. It was a good sleep better than last night in the hotel in Udon. The temperature was falling to 7º C.

Hornbill - Nam Nao national park  74 years old porter - Phukradung

20 Dec 2004, Monday
After the hot breakfast of steaming vegetable soup, rice and a cup of boiled water I was again in the driver's seat. We were on the way to Phukradung bell mountain national park situated to the north of Nam Nao national park. It was one and a half hour drive to the base camp with various offices, visitor center, car parking, rest rooms, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Phukradung climb was a moderately difficult trek of altogether 8900 meters from the base to the headquarters on the 1360 meters high plateau. The trek consisted of 5400 meters of climb and 3500 meters walk on the dirt track on the plateau. The begining of the climb was a steep 800 meters hike, then it was easier and then demanding again at the last 1020 meters ascent before reaching the top for the final 3500 meters horizontal walk to the headquarters and the camp yard. There were several rest places with restaurants along the wide trail. At very steep sections ladders were set up. It was not the type of "going into the forest". It was just not very easy. Mobile phones were heard. You could hire porters to carry your stuff up and down. I was surprised to meet a 74 years old porter shouldering 50 kg of loads to the top using a bamboo yoke. Our two little girls of 7 and 8 years old hiked to the top without a complaint. People including the men and women porters cheered them with smiles. From the bottom to the top edge we finished the 5400 meters walk in 3.5 hours.

Upon getting the headquarters we discovered that many people including student groups were camping. My tourists had a bungalow house; I collected a tent, ground sheet and sleeping bag from different boots. It was a bit confusing if you did not speak Thai. You had to pay and pick the ticket at a place and then grab the gear in another places. The restaurants surrounding the camp ground also kept gear, but they were allowed to rent theirs out only when there were no more equipment in the headquarters.

That evening we did not do any walk on the mountain. We just enjoyed the cold weather, the food and hot drink and the sight of so many people. Some visitors did cooking near their tents, others brought along guitors and sang songs. Two samber deers were wandering among the tents looking for free food. When the electric power supply cut in at 1800hrs people rushed to the restaurants to charge their cell phones' batteries. The power would be available for three hours each evening. I washed some of my clothes in the back of a restaurant and hanged near my tent. The lowest temperatures that night was 6º C.

Sun rise view from Nok An cliff - Phukradung  Sun rise view from Nok An cliff - Phukradung

21 Dec 2004, Tuesday
I was able to wake up early to walk 1100 meters to the Nok An cliff to join a hundred other people to see the sun rise. At 0830hrs we sat around a table in a restaurant for our breakfast of rice, soup, some meat and hot water. My tourists especially the parents were quite tired. Only in the late morning we set out to walk the trails with the map. Marked trails on the plateau leading to waterfalls, cliffs and view points were very easy to follow. It was a flat plain with pines and grassland. Ponds were found to be nearly dry. A waterfall we walked to see did not hold any water. To the northern part there were deep forest and valleys, but we would not walk there ourselves. We did not find any guide to walk there either.

We saw tractors and a couple of construction equipment on the mountain. These were said to be carried up by helicopters to use in the construction of facilities.

Sun set view from Mak Dook cliff - Phukradung Lunch was had at a small food stall at a cliff. There was no toilet there; you had to go into the grassland to release. In the evening we had sun set views from the Mak Dook cliff. When I reached to my tent the hanged clothes were all wet again with dew in the air. I brought them into the restaurant and hanged inside. I took a quick shower and had my dinner there. Many people were gone and I hoped for earlier sleep without noice.

22 Dec 2004, Wednesday
After the breakfast we packed all our stuff and set out for the descend. Going down at the steep sections needed careful and slow work. We walked down slow and steady, taking rest for fruits and drinks at a couple of installations on the way. Some holiday people were climbing up, the number being fewer than on the day we climbed. We finally reached the base around noon. We had our shower and lunch with fish.

We were now on the road again for Nong Khai - the gateway to Laos across the Mekong river. We took the highway 201 passing Loei to Chiang Khan. Chiang Khan was a small town with narrow streets lined with dark colored wooden houses. It was not like any other Thai towns. Located close to Mekong river in the north there was a local border crossing boat pier with immigration and custom stations. Only Thai and Lao people could cross the river.

After Chiang Khan the road was not very smooth, but it was one of my favorite roads in e-sarn (north-eastern Thailand). The highway 211 connecting Chiang Khan and Nong Khai lay between the Mekong river and the mountains. It was a very nice piece of road to drive. You would never get bored since you could almost always have the varying close-up views of both the river and the hills. Early morning and late afternoon before sunset were the most scenic times. There was no traffic jams.

We pulled into Nong Khai town late in the evening. After dropping my tourists at Royal Mekong Nong Khai hotel near Thai-Lao friendship bridge I headed to the town for my accommodation. In the town I had a small room with air-con and private bath for 350 Baht without breakfast; not bad. Two beautiful waitresses greeted me with unique e-sarn smiles when I entered an outdoor restaurant filled with north-eastern country music being pumped out of two large speakers.

Tomorrow I would take my guests to the market on the river bank for some shopping, and then - - . I was thinking about the next day plan over the dinner.

Driving map of the trip A = Nong Khai
B = Udon Thani
C = Nong Bua Lam Phu
D = Khon Kaen
E = Chum Phae
F = Loei
G = Chiang Khan
H = Vientiane (Laos)

N1 = Fossil museum
N2 = Phu Kao Phu Phan Kham national park

N3 = Nam Nao national park
N4 = Phu Pha Man national park

N5 = Phukradung national park
N6 = Phu Luang wildlife reserve
N7 = Phu Rua national park

W1 = Mekong river
W2 = Ubolratana dam lake

T1 = To Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom
T2 = To Kalasin
T3 = To Nakhon Ratchasima
T4 = To Chaiyaphum
T5 = To Phetchabun, Phitsanulok

Tor (23 Feb 2005)

Salawin river, Mae Hong Son province, northern Thailand
Hike & Hilltribe village homestay to Salawin river, Mae Hong Son

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