Isaan, the North-East region of Thailand, is worlds apart from the lush green rice paddies of the North, or the dense jungle and limestone karsts of the South. Most travellers skip Isaan altogether because it lacks the Instagram likes of the islands, but Isaan is beautiful and well worth a visit. Even better, it’s well off the beaten track, so you can be sure to experience the real Thailand here.
Phu Kradueng National Park
Phu Kradueng National park is a table-top mountain in Isaan. It’s worth taking at least three days here – one day to get to the top, one day to explore the top, and one day to head back down. It is possible to do it in two days, though, if you’re pushed for time.
If you’re coming from Bangkok, get a sleeper train to Khon Kaen. Thai sleeper trains are a lot of fun, and, by taking a track less travelled, you might make a few local friends on the way. Read more about train travel in Thailand here.
Another option is to start from Loei, on the Laos border, depending on your itinerary.
From either Loei or Khon Kaen, get a bus to Phu Kradueng from the main bus station. Assuming you’re loaded with hiking stuff (don’t forget warm clothes and a torch/flashlight!) and appropriately dressed for the trip, the bus drivers should know where you’re going, even if they laugh at your pronunciation.
The bus will drop you off at a songthaew stop with a small restaurant, where you can share a songthaew with some other hikers, and split the cost. The restaurants at the campsite are much better than here, so hold on a while longer for breakfast.
At the park pay for your entrance ticket (400 baht for foreigners) and book a tent (150 baht for the tent, with sleeping bags and pillows ranging from 20-50baht each) at the park headquarters and information centre.
There is also an option to have a porter carry your bags to the top. This gives locals some income and takes some weight off your back. Be considerate, though! Remember that everything that goes to the top of the mountain takes the same route that you’re taking, including drinking water, food, and gas to cook it with. I saw men being paid to carry multiple suitcases up the mountain, and on the return trip – which was on a busy Sunday at the end of a national holiday – local children were carrying bags down. It’s also worth considering the time difference between you and your bag, which might reach the top hours after you – or the bottom, on the way back, which might mess up your travel plans. I opted to have some of my stuff taken up, but took it all back down myself.
Once you’ve sorted that out and fueled up with some breakfast (there are some restaurants beyond the park headquarters) you need to sign in to the park at the foot of the mountain, and you’re off!
The Hike Up
The way up is incredibly steep, and the ground can be a little loose underfoot. There are regular rest stops with water, cooked food, fruit and snacks available to buy. Other hikers and the shop owners were incredibly impressed with my limited, broken Thai, and more than willing to help me get what I wanted. As always in Thailand, a smile goes a long way! Remember to stay hydrated and well-fueled. If you’re taking three days for the trip, you can take your time – you have an early start tomorrow, you’ll need to conserve your energy!
As you reach the top, the steep climb levels out to a plateau with beautiful views and a queue to have your photo taken with a “Congratulation” sign. From here, it’s just a few (thankfully flat!) kilometres to the campsite.
Sign in and grab a tent and camping equipment – though watch out for pesky deer breaking in to steal your instant noodles! The tents are already set up, so just find one without too many holes in a good location. It’s too cold here for mosquitoes, so small holes in the tent won’t matter.
The campsite has a number of restaurants and shops, so it’s worth buying enough water to last you the next two days, and maybe some snacks. I bought a 6L bottle, and decanted it into my own drinking bottle while I was there, then gave it to a neighbouring family when I left. Have an explore before dinner, and when your bag arrives, tip your porter a hundred baht for saving you so much effort.
If you need to charge anything, you can pay to use the electricity supply at the information centre. The charging here is really slow because they’re powering the entire campsite and everyone’s phones.
Before you head to your tent for the night, check what time the sunrise viewing sets off – it changes depending on the time of year. There’s a sign up in the information centre telling you the time, and they will announce it over the loudspeaker at some point during the evening. You’ll want an early night because this will be an early start.
Bright and early, meet the guide and other hikers outside the information centre, with your torch/flashlight. It’s a short walk to the sunrise viewing point, but unfortunately, going alone isn’t an option – there are elephants and other wild animals in the park, so wandering around in the dark alone isn’t safe. Try and stick close to the front of the group – this way you can nab a good seat to watch the sunrise. Instant coffee and cakes are sold at the sunrise viewing point, to snack on while you wait. Sunrise from here is just beautiful – well worth the early rise!
Once the sun has risen, the walk back to the campsite is safe to do without a guide, and you can grab breakfast before exploring the plateau.
There are a number of short routes near the campsite, through the jungle and alongside waterfalls. These are restricted in the afternoon, because of elephants who head to the jungle for shade in the afternoon sun. So explore these trails first, and then find some lunch at the campsite.
Don’t forget to bring your torch/flashlight with you when you set off for the afternoon – you’ll be heading back after sunset. The main trail snakes from the campsite out to the cliff where you watched the sunrise just a few hours earlier. The trail sticks to the cliff-edge, offering views across Isaan for miles. There are regular paths heading off to the side, back towards the campsite. As it gets closer to sunset, try to find a group to stick close to – once it sets, you don’t want to be on your own walking back in the dark! The view of the sunset from the far end of the trail is beautiful.
Even though it’s longer, the trail along the cliff is a lot safer at night, as there aren’t as many wild animals here. You might hear some barking deer, which sound a lot more intimidating in the dark than during the day!
Another campsite dinner and a shower await you back at the campsite, and you can stay up a little later today – unless you want to see sunrise a second time.
The Way Down
The next day, it’s back down the mountain! Set off early to avoid the heat of the day. The hike down is much faster than the way up, so you should be at the bottom and enjoying some lunch in no time.
In front of the information centre is a songthaew stop where the driver will ask where you’re going and split the price between the passengers. They should keep you right – telling bus drivers where you’re going and pointing you in the right direction.
After three days of hiking, you’ll probably want a good rest – and Khon Kaen and Loei are both great places for this. Enjoy a Thai massage and have a look around the traditional Isaan city. I was lucky enough to stumble across some traditional Isaan dancing in Khon Kaen in the street.
From Isaan, the choices are endless – head North, get a sleeper to Bangkok, stay around and explore some more national parks, even cross the border into Laos. Unfortunately, I was headed back to Lop Buri for another week’s teaching…
Find out more information about Phu Kradueng at here.
For information about train travel in Thailand, check out this site.