Come for the ghosts, stay for the guesthouses
Situated on the upper and outer Western edges of Isaan, flush up against the Laos border, Loei is one of the kingdom’s undiscovered gems. It’s one of the least populated provinces in the country, but that relative obscurity works in its favour for travelers seeking wide open spaces, mountain greenery, and an overall laid-back pace. It also is home to two of Thailand’s most bizarre and colourful annual ghost festivals.
If you fly to Loei province from Bangkok you’ll land in Loei City which, to be honest, is not the main draw of this province. However, if you do have some time to kill, there are some local attractions worth seeking out.
What to Do: The Phapu Caves are mildly interesting, and inside there are several Buddha statues, two of which are in completely un-illuminated, pitch black alcoves (you won’t know they’re there until you shine a light on them). Outside, in the trees that surround the cave, you’ll see plenty of monkeys, most of whom are pretty used to visitors so it’s easy to get up close to take photos. If you’re feeling fit, you can also try hiking up the well-marked trail at Phu Ba Bid, a smallish mountain on the outskirts of Loei City. Make it to the top and you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular views.
Where to Eat: For a pleasant sampling of delicious Thai dishes, plus an elaborate Phi Ta Kon themed décor, visit the spacious Lanchang Garden Bar & Restaurant (777 Moo 9, Maliwan Rd), which offers indoor and outdoor seating and lots of photo ops. For tasty Vietnamese visit the Loei Danang Vietnam Food & Homestay, which has a lovely outdoor garden, a relaxing lounge and, as the name suggests, accommodations.
Where to Stay: Don’t get your hopes up too far if you’re checking into the Loei Palace Hotel (167/4 Charoenrat Rd), which is a 3 star property, verging on 2.5 star status. But when you’re in rural Thailand there’s only so much you’re gonna get, so enjoy the comfortable beds, air-conditioning, proximity to the airport, swimming pool, and mountain views, and look past the rest (including the un-ironically kitschy 1970s architecture). The hotel is also home to the Wine de Bay Café, a pretty decent bistro that serves wine from Chateau de Loei—a local winery that is not worth visiting but definitely worth sampling. www.mosaic-collection.com/loeipalace
The main tourist draw for the city of Dan Sai is the annual Phi Ta Kon festival—an absolute must-see if you get the chance. But even if you can’t coincide your visit with the festival itself—which takes place in the 4th lunar month, usually June—you won’t escape the year-round ‘Phi Ta Kon’ branding during your stay. The elaborately crafted monster masks and costumes are everywhere and, at times, it verges on overkill. However, it’s an important part of the tourism industry here and a visit to the Phi Ta Kon Museum (open 9am till 5pm, Tel: 04 289 1094) is worth the effort. It doesn’t offer much back story on the festival itself, but it does do a half decent job of showing how to make the masks—which basically entails attaching a rice basket to a large piece of coconut bark, and then painting the whole thing to resemble a sardonically grinning monster.
Bike Tour: Dan Sai is a pretty laid back town and biking around is a nice way to experience it. One local attraction to seek out is the Phra That Sri Song Rak Pagoda, which was built in the Ayutthaya period, in 1560 AD. Just watch out for the “No Lady” signs (apparently some sites are too sacred for female visitors), and don’t wear red when you visit (it’s bad luck). Another temple worth checking out is Wat Neramitt Vipatsana, which sits majestically on a forested hillside, just a short distance away from Sri Song Rak. The beautiful hall and pagoda here were both constructed of laterite (reddish clay), but the European-style lampposts, fountains, artfully pruned trees, and intricate carved detail are what really sets it apart visually.
Where to Stay: For the eco-minded, a stay at the Phunacome Resort is highly recommended (it’s part of the Green Leaf Hotel program, among others). The Deluxe Rooms here are tastefully decorated and supremely comfortable, although you can also opt to stay in one of the more lavish stand-alone Isaan Houses on the hillside. The view from the outdoor swimming pool is lovely—overlooking a lush green mountain valley—and meals in the on-site Nacome Restaurant are quite delicious (although the breakfast and morning coffee left a bit to be desired). The owner is also helpful in organizing bike tours. www.phunacomeresort.com
The town of Chiang Khan—right on the border with Laos—is a big hit with Thai tourists but is making a name for itself with Westerners too. It’s the kind of quaint riverside town that you can still find in Thailand, and (thankfully) many of the original wooden homes and shophouses of yesteryear have been left intact, which is the whole charm of this place. There are other highlights as well, the foremost being the fact that the town is built along the Mekong River, with numerous cafes and guesthouses overlooking its banks and a bike/footpath running parallel to the undulating waterway. The main drag of the town is a hodgepodge of t-shirt stalls, souvenir shops, coffee shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and anything else that feeds the tourism machine.
What to Do: Making your way up Phu Tok—470 meters above sea-level—to watch the sunrise is one of the big tourist highlights here. You have to get up pretty early (obviously) and once there you pay a B25 entry fee and ride in an open-back truck the rest of the way. Luckily, there’s virtually no further climbing once the truck lets you off. Expect crowds of diehard photographers when you arrive, all anxious to capture the sun coming up over the mountain ridge as the morning mist slowly dissipates to reveal the valley below. Phu Tok is located about 3 km SE of Chiang Khan (follow Route 211 in direction of Nong Khai).
Festivals: Loei’s second most popular ghost festival is Phi Kon Nam—roughly meaning “spirit who carries water”—and it’s meant to bring good rains for the growing season. Believing that the souls of departed cows and buffaloes wander the area, villagers wear elaborately painted horned masks and vibrant patchwork costumes to commune with the animal spirits. In true Thai fashion it’s loud, noisy, and colourful, and everyone gets involved (young, old, male, female, or other). The festival takes place in Ban Na Sao, 7 km south of Chiang Khan, and everyone gathers in a main outdoor area in the searing heat of May (the festival coincides with Visakha Bucha). Here, different “teams”—representing different villages—get their turn to dance before the mayor, governor, some elder monks, and other assorted local VIPs.
Culture Tour: Visiting the Tai Dam Cultural Village & Museum is a must-see while in this region. The village is home to an ethnic minority—Tai Dam—who came to Thailand from Laos in the early years of the 20th century. Their traditional lifestyle has been maintained through their arts and crafts and the village centre offers a range of items for sale produced by the villagers. Visitors can also see demonstrations of their centuries old weaving process. The museum is a dusty 2nd floor area in the main house, and nothing much is explained in English, but it’s easy to get the gist of it all. In the other main house you can try on traditional outfits, although they are made of heavy thick material, and extensively layered, so be prepared to overheat. For more info call 081 048 2000.
Sightseeing: Located at a particular bend in the Mekong River, Kaeng Khut Khu is one of those strange Thai tourist spots that gets more crowds than it seems to deserve. It’s not far from Chiang Khan, so it makes an OK day trip—but only when you’ve run out of other things to do. It’s interesting at certain times of the year, mainly around February to April when the water recedes and it looks like you can almost walk across the riverbed to Laos. After a walkabout to inspect the souvenir stalls, take in a meal in one of the outdoor Thai restaurants overhanging the river.
Where to Stay: The Baan Supichaya (183/1, Moo 2, Chaikhong Rd, Soi 14) is a great little guesthouse, with beautiful polished wooden floors and a pleasant, overall vibe. Try to secure one of the riverview rooms with the oversized balconies that extend far enough to accommodate a daybed (although the smaller riverside rooms are pleasant enough as well). The hotel’s restaurant is adjacent to a small coffee shop which is where guests have their breakfast. www.baansupichaya.com
Phu Ruea is a 1,365 meter-high mountain—part of the Phetchabun mountain range—and is the focal point of the Phu Ruea National Park. It’s also the highest peak in the province (Phu Kradueng at 1,316 meters is a close second, and both are popular with hikers). This part of the province is particularly scenic, and if you’re passing through you can check in overnight at the lovely Casa De Pandao Resort (located along the main road of route 21), which is built in faux Italian renaissance style. Tel: 081 260 1826
ABOUT PHI TA KON: With the help of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), we managed to make a visit to the studio of Mr. Apichart Kamkasem, who is regarded as the city’s pre-eminent Phi Ta Kon mask maker. He explained how the fearsome masks and costumes used to be much more basic. The elaborate modern masks only date back to the late 1930s, when horror movies first arrived in Thailand. Thais have a particular fascination with ghosts—and horror movies—which explains the evolution and enduring popularity of this particular festival. Meanwhile, the masks themselves are mini works of art and Apichart’s collection was eye-popping to say the least.The festival’s name roughly translates to “ghost with human eyes”, and the celebration is linked to the harvest season. The origins are traditionally ascribed to a story of the Vessantara Jataka in which the Buddha, in one of his past lives as a prince, embarked on a long journey but was presumed dead after so much time had passed. Upon his return, the celebrations were so raucous they could “wake the dead”.The dates for the 3-day event are selected annually by the local mediums—in 2017 it will be June 24th to 26th—and on the first day the town residents invite protection from Phra U-pakut (the spirit of the Mun river). The opening day celebrations also include a series of games and races, followed by a long and lavish parade. Many in the procession are wearing the infamous monster masks, patchwork clothing, and bells (some also wave bizarrely fashioned wooden phalluses—of all shapes and sizes), but the parade also includes dancers in traditional costume, musicians, and the “mudmen” who walk the parade route covered head to toe in dried mud. The second day incorporates a ‘Rocket Festival’—homemade rockets fired into the clouds to bring rains—plus costume and dance contests and more parades. On the third and final day, the villagers listen to sermons from monks.