We drove from Chiang Saen following Google maps which, in all its digital knowledge, took us the other direction at forks marked ‘Phu Chi Fa’, assuring us that it knew a ‘six-minute shortcut’ or something similar. The road led along the sides of high hills, giving us views of corn and mist, and the final ascent took us up through the clouds and into the sunny, cool village of Ban Rom Fa Thai. If you were to remove all the accommodation at Ban Rom Fa Thai, you would be left with a small concrete area the locals use to play football, and a bus stop. Going to Phu Chi Fa is a very popular excursion for Thai tourists, and the entire village seems to exist to cater to them.
We arrived late and splurged (probably not a ‘splurge’ according to most, but more than what we usually pay) on a nice, new room perched on the edge of the hill. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place, but it was worth it for the view from our balcony:
“Come, photo!” asked a group of men in military-looking uniforms. We’d been exploring round the side of a limestone hill which happened to back onto a random guesthouse, and the men were standing near our scooter when we returned. We followed them up to the guesthouse, where they snapped photos and tried to sell us a room.
“The view is very beautiful. You can stay here for 600 baht.” one said. This cost more than our ‘splurge’, so we declined. I pointed to the badge on their uniforms, which was a set of wings with a parachute in the middle.
“Air force?” I asked.
“No, we are border patrol. If you have any problems, you come here.”
There is a clear camping area marked quite close to the summit, and so we set up for our second night. After that we took a climb up Phu Chi Fa to see what it looked like during the day. In the car park were multiple identical stalls selling tribal handicrafts, instant noodles, tea, and coffee. The short, steep trek to the lookout point was 750 metres up. The peak, while not the highest in Thailand, rightfully attracts thousands of Thai tourists (and hundreds of foreigners) every year due to it being the highest point for miles and having an incredible view of Laos. In fact, the lookout point is actually slightly over the border of Laos, and so now we can say we’ve been there.
On our return we met the man who controlled the campsite. Apparently we’d set up in the car parking area, hadn’t registered, and hadn’t given a ‘donation’. We fixed our errors, and put 100 baht into the donation box under his watchful eye.
We were the first campers, but eventually more people arrived. There were about seven tents in all, two of which contained a group of Thais who’d driven up from Chiang Rai and invited us to share their company. Their grasp of English was about as good as Caroline’s grasp of Thai (which is to say much better than mine, but still limited to basic functions), and so it was a rather awkward event with not much being said. There were five of them, and about as many bottles of powerful, probably cheap, Thai booze, which they poured into clear plastic cups and stuck down in front of us. Knowing I’d be waking up early I refused any more after drinking my first, but Caroline, being polite, had at least four. “Aroi,” she said – ‘delicious’. I think she may have been exaggerating.
The Thais were adept at handling their little rectangular barbecue, transferring red-hot fist-sized bits of wood from a campfire and grilling over those. They weren’t going to run out of food anytime soon either, with a seemingly endless supply of skewered chicken, pork, fish, prawns and sausage.
“How do you call in English?”
“Ha ha ha! Sausage!”
I awoke in the tent before Caroline, and listened to motorcycles chugging up the road mixed with other campers’ phone alarms. It was about 4 a.m., the tent was damp with condensation, and the stars were brilliant above us. When Caroline woke she looked too, and we realised that we hadn’t seen a full sky of stars since leaving Wellington over a year ago.
We hopped on our bike and drove up through the morning darkness to the lookout car park. Caroline and I weren’t the first to start walking, but after passing a couple of puffing groups we arrived at the summit before anybody else and stood alone in the cool breeze. Our loneliness was temporary, and by the time we decided to come down there were crowds of people snapping selfies. As we neared the bottom, we saw our friends from the night before climbing up. They looked haggard and hungover, and had completely missed the sunrise.
After our morning climb and a quick breakfast in the village, we set off down the mountain and into the mist. Destination: Phayao.