“Phu Chi Fa?” I ask, pointing at the blue bus.
“Phu Chi Fa!” the Thai ticket man nods enthusiastically.
We get on, and about an hour later were told to get off at an empty bus station that looked nothing like the dramatic nature landscape photos I saw on google. When travelling in a place where you don’t speak the language, expect to end up on the ‘scenic route’ to your destination! We did eventually make it to the top of Phu Chi Fa, and if you happen to find yourself in Chiang Rai wondering what to do – it is worth an overnight or day trip visit.
When I told a friend I was thinking of heading up to Chiang Rai to explore a little for a few days, she said I had to visit Phu Chi Fa and that it was the most amazing experience she had in Thailand watching the sun rise above the sea of clouds below. After her pitch I was sold, anything that involves hiking up to viewpoints to soak in scenery!
At the Chiang Rai bus terminal 1 (which as of Jan 2016 is currently under construction so things were chaotic and cramped) I asked about the bus to Phu Chi Fa until I reached a small desk with a cardboard sign dangling above. They told me it would be ฿300 ($12 CAD) return from Chiang Rai to Phu Chi Fa and that the bus departs at 1pm from the parking lane in front of the desk. Sounded easy peasy to me, so we returned the next day and boarded the blue bus that had no signage on it but the ticket man nodded. I paid ฿48 ($2 CAD) and thought, wow what a deal! Way cheaper than what that guy quoted me yesterday – and while my travelling companion was doubtful, I was scoring high on the naive scale and confidently assured her that all will be well.
I knew it was about a two hour drive from Chiang Rai to Phu Chi Fa, and that Phu Chi Fa was located in the district of Thoeng. So when the bus driver asked us to get off after only being on the bus for an hour, I realized this was no bus to Phu Chi Fa. We had ended up at the bus station in Thoeng, and we asked where the bus to Phu Chi Fa was only to be told that there is no bus going there. A songtheaw driver offered to take us for ฿800 ($31 CAD) which I thought was pricey but after some research it seems to be the average price to pay and we were travelling in high season (January). I didn’t know this at the time though, so we said we’d take a look around the town to see what other options we had. Sensing our hesitancy, he offered to take us for ฿600 ($23 CAD) if we waited until 5pm and he would pick up children from school and drop them home along the way to Phu Chi Fa.
We did manage to walk around a little, and the town did not have much options for renting transportation – unless we wanted to buy a brand new scooter. So we stopped for some very cheap lunch of Thai papaya salad and rice before making our way back to the bus station.
And this was how I found myself in a songtheaw with 15 other Thai school children trying their best to not sit next to the weird foreigners at the front. The songtheaw made several stops along the road where groups of them got off to go home until it was just us left to watch the rolling hills and valleys in the distance glowing in late afternoon light.
The ride up was not as bad as I expected, there were some potholes in the road but most of it was smooth. Having experienced driving a little Toyota Yaris up horrible logging roads outside of Vancouver, I think the road leading up is relatively well maintained. It took less than an hour to get to the base of Phu Chi Fa and we walked around looking for a place to stay for the night.
We visited in January which is considered high season but the place didn’t feel very busy and we only saw two other couples around for that evening. It’s difficult to book accommodation in advance – I couldn’t find any options online, and most people if you tried to call don’t speak English. Once you get there in person, there are plenty of accommodation options available in the style of small bungalows that can fit anywhere between 2 – 4 people (or up to 6 if you don’t mind being the meat or bread in a toasty human sandwich). We paid ฿500 ($20 CAD) for the night which seemed to be the average price after stopping by several choices, and we settled on one that had a nicer view with two double beds inside. There was even wifi available, but it was spotty. The wifi worked better in the dining area just across us.
We ate at a restaurant close by but sadly the food was awful – especially after being so spoiled in Chiang Mai. I doubt the quality would be better elsewhere, so don’t come for the food! But worry not, the beer is still cheap if you opt for the liquid diet. It was also impossible to find snacks that was not junk food. We did find a really nice pancake vendor that agreed to let us buy four bananas. Score.
We woke up bright and early at 4am and set out at 4.30am. There is a road that leads to a parking lot and if you want to skip the walk up then you can choose to wake up later and hop on one of the taxi trucks which can drive you up to the lot for ฿30 ($1 CAD). From the parking lot there is a short 15 minute hike up to the top. Walking leisurely, it took us about an hour from where we were staying to the top, and the hike was a gradual incline with some steep sections. From the entrance to the top it’s less than 2km. We realized we had started quite early, but I enjoyed seeing the stars begin to fade as the horizon brightened.
It was windy and chilly at the top, it felt like maybe 10 degrees celsius which if you’re not used to can feel very cold. As time passed more people started showing up and it started to get crowded, there were groups of Thai tourists fully decked out in ski clothes even – they looked very warm! I was surprised there were so many people, they must have stayed in another area as where we stayed for the night felt empty.
The horizon slowly began to glow orange and we watched the sun rise. Phu Chi Fa in Thai means “hill that points towards the sky” and I now understand how this title was earned. Look below and you see a sea of clouds, above the sky is limitless. From the top you can see Myanmar and Laos, there is a stone marker that indicates which country is where (helpful for the geographically challenged like me).
By 7.30am we decided to walk down so that we could pack up our stuff and catch a mini bus that was supposed to come at 9am which was what the songtheaw driver told us yesterday. On the way down we saw children, usually in pairs, dressed in traditional clothing singing with a small collection box for money. It was a Tuesday when we visited, and it was still early in the morning so I hope they to go school after? When we were heading down by 8am, I did see most of the children with their parents zipping past on their scooters.
We made it back to our bungalow, packed up our stuff and waited outside by the small police station for the mini bus. 9am came and then it was 9.15am and there was still no sign of this mystical bus. I was beginning to hatch a plan to offer one of the taxi cab drivers money, or hitch a ride with someone on their scooter (I saw a few tourists pass us by on rented scooters) when one lone songtheaw pulled up the road and a couple we saw last night climbed in. We were able to join them and the driver asked for ฿200 ($12 CAD) from each of us to take us back to the Thoeng bus station. The couple had used the same songtheaw driver to take them to Phu Chi Fa and back to the station the next day, and since I never saw a mini bus pass us we were lucky to have caught a ride with them!
Back at the Thoeng bus station, we bought Greenbus tickets to go directly back to Chiang Mai for ฿207 ($8 CAD). To prepare for the 5 hour bus ride, we ate some lunch at one of the food stalls in the station and our chef once again being so entertained with our bad attempts at speaking Thai, decided to reward us with a plastic bag full of bananas and a local type of fruit that was like eating sweet raw turnip. We tried to offer to pay her, but with a big laugh and smile she refused and waved us off as we headed towards our bus.
- Best time to go is winter when it’s dry – November to February.
- Arrange your own transportation to Phu Chi Fa if you don’t want to stress. I have tried researching if there actually is a bus that goes directly to Phu Chi Fa from Chiang Rai – I did find some stories written by people that did take such bus, but this was from 2014 and I read elsewhere that the bus has been discontinued. If you find otherwise, let me know!
- If you go during winter which is the dry season, the cheapest and easiest option would be to rent a scooter from Chiang Rai and take it up to Phu Chi Fa. Make sure you rent at least 125cc, 200cc is better. If you know how to ride a motorcycle that would be good too since you can use engine braking as well. Make sure you check that your brakes are good on your rental bike, and riding weather is good. Scooter rentals are on average ฿250 ($10 CAD) per day.
- You can also negotiate with a songtheaw driver at the Thoeng bus station to take you to Phu Chi Fa and pick you up the next day to take you back to town. Or you can arrange a day trip instead.
- Or if you really want to live it up, and have the budget, you can rent a car with a driver in Chiang Rai. A packaged tour for one car costs about ฿2,800 ($108 CAD) which can be split if you’re travelling with friends. You can also just rent a car for about ฿1,300 ($50 CAD) per day.
- It can be cold up there, bring warm clothing. Especially during winter.
It was quite the adventure getting to Phu Chi Fa and back. I’m glad I went and got to see it, but it’s one of those one time is enough experiences. If you don’t have time for an overnight stay, a day trip would still be worth a look.