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Exploring a Pristine Corner of Upper Isaan
Loei Province, located in the far west of upper Isaan or Northeast Thailand, is among the most sparsely populated and remote provinces in the country. Fortunately, it is this very isolation and relative emptiness that make it such an attractive destination for both cultural and natural ecotourism.
The provincial capital, Loei, retains a charming small town feel. With a population of just over 20,000, it is located at the centre of a fertile basin surrounded by low mountains, but is easily accessible by good roads from Phitsanulok, Khon Kaen and Nong Khai.
Separated from nearby Laos by the broad Mekong River in the east and the much smaller Hueang River to the west, the province has a distinctly Lao cultural feel that is manifested in the local dialect, religious architecture, history and cuisine. Yet links with Bangkok and central Thailand are also strong, as exemplified by the provincial symbol, the stupa at Wat Phra That Si Song Rak in Dan Sai, founded in 1560 as a sign of enduring friendship between the Kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Luang Prabang.
Loei is defined by its numerous mountain ranges separated by rich farmlands producing an astonishing variety of crops. Traditional crops include rice, soybean, maize, sesame, bananas, tamarind, lychee, longan and mangoes. In recent years new crops have been introduced that have added substantively to the province's rich agricultural output, including rubber, macadamia nuts, coffee and temperate flowers such as roses, hydrangeas, petunias, African violets and phlox. Grapes flourish in vineyards around Phu Ruea District, and “Chateau de Loei”, first bottled in 1995, is now exported to Europe, Australia and Japan. Loei has also long enjoyed a reputation for growing the best cotton and producing the warmest cotton quilts in Thailand.
Yet it is the mountain ranges and outcrops that give the province its unique natural ecotourism appeal. Thailand is fortunate to have many rich agricultural regions, but few provinces have as many or as pristine national parks as Loei. Then there's the mighty Mekong – Loei adjoins the right bank of this great river for more than 100km, from Chiang Khan District in the west to Pak Chom District in the east, offering fine views of the mountain ranges of neighbouring Laos, boating trips, swimming in season – and of course the freshest of freshwater fish and river shrimps.
Muang Loei and Beyond
Loei is a quiet little town that goes to bed by 11pm. There's nothing in the way of nightlife, but there are good hotels and better restaurants serving a satisfying choice of Thai, Lao, Chinese and Western food. There's also a bustling night market on Thanon Chumsai with many tantalizing and very reasonably priced food stalls. The city centre has a palpably Chinese character, and the lak muang or city pillar stands next to Sala Chao Pho Kut Pong, a Chinese temple said to be the city's oldest shrine. Loei is conveniently situated at the centre of the province, and makes an excellent base for excursions to surrounding national parks and other attractions.
Beyond the provincial capital, Loei Province has two important and highly revered Buddhist temples that host annual pilgrimages. These are at Phra That Si Song Rak in Dan Sai and at Phra That Din Thaen in nearby Na Haeo, both in the west of the province. Then there's the beautiful and unspoiled Mekong River between Pak Chom and Chiang Khan, two traditional small towns of wooden shop houses and narrow streets joined by a winding riverside road that offers fine views of neighbouring Laos, shoals, rapids and sandbanks, as well as rich farmlands and orchards. Loei's Mekong Valley really is a bucolic, rural idyll.
Away from the Mekong, Loei boasts two of the country's leading national parks, Phu Kradung and Phu Reua, the less well known but beautiful and isolated Phu Suan Sai (also known as Na Haeo National Park) and Phu Luang Wildlife Preserve, as well as numerous waterfalls along the Thai-Lao border and in the mountain ranges surrounding the province. Because of the paucity of population, much of Loei is covered with various types of forest – mainly tropical evergreen mixed with deciduous trees and pines and even maple trees – as well as savanna on the uncultivated lowlands.
Culture, Traditions and Way of Life
Loei has a distinctive local culture which combines elements of both North-eastern and Northern Thai traditions. The rural population is overwhelmingly Thai Lao (they like to call themselves “Thai Loei”), while the main urban centres have a noticeable and commercially significant Sino-Thai element. There are no hill tribes, but two culturally distinct Tai groups proudly maintain their cultural traditions in rural Chiang Khan District.
These are the Tai Dam of Ban Na Pa Naat who migrated to the region from Northwest Vietnam in the late 19th century, and the Tai Phuan of Ban Buhom who migrated from the Luang Prabang region of Laos at about the same time. Both communities combine elements of spirit worship with their deeply-held Buddhist faith, continue to speak their Tai dialects at home, and weave distinctive tube skirts for their womenfolk. In recent years, following the retreat from communism in nearby Laos and Vietnam, they have also re-established close cultural links with their original homelands.
It's possible to get some sense of local culture at the Muang Loei Provincial Centre at the Rajabhat University Campus about 4km north of the capital, as well as at the nearby Ban Na Aor Cultural Village, which also doubles as an unusual homestay, providing accommodation in a variety of different styles of Thai-Loei stilt houses. Another institution offering insights into the cultural world of the Thai-Loei is the Sirindhorn Art Centre at Si Songkhram Witthaya School, located near Wang Saphung about 25km south of the capital. This unusual art centre showcases the paintings of local students and artists, as well as housing a sculpture garden and exhibition hall.
The spiritual heart of Thai-Loei culture is located away from Loei town, at a number of pilgrimage sites in the west of the province. Phra That Satcha, located in the compound of Wat Lat Pu in Ban Tha Li, is a relatively new but spiritually significant chedi styled after the famous Phra That Phanom chedi that symbolises Buddhism in Northeast Thailand. Constructed in 1976 following the collapse of the venerated Phra That Phanom chedi in Nakhon Phanom, Phra That Satcha enshrines relics of the Lord Buddha and soil from the damaged Phra That Phanom.
Another most unusual Buddhist pilgrimage site located in rural Na Haeo District is Phra That Din Thaen. Unique in Thailand, this highly venerated chedi is built solely of earth with no brick, stone or even wooden supports. According to local legend, it was constructed in 1604 when a wandering holy man visited Na Haeo and helped the local people to construct the chedi if they stopped spirit worship – a condition that, judging from local spirit houses, may not have been fully met! Inevitably the passage of time and the effects of wind and rain wear down the mound, but local people have planted it with frangipani trees and there are rows of buckets available for the faithful to build up the mound from a deep cut in the nearby hill.
Just five hundred metres distant from the earthen chedi is another important temple that also plays a role as a pilgrimage site. Like Phra That Din Thaen, Wat Si Po Chai Na Phueng dates from around 1600, and despite some recent renovations it certainly looks its age. The imposing restored chedi and unusually high stilted bell tower and hor trai scripture library would be sufficient to make this a temple worth visiting, but the real gem is the ancient viharn housing the venerated Prachao Ong Saen Buddha image, cast in an alloy of gold, silver and copper in the Chiang Saen style. The north wall of the viharn is decorated with mid-19th century murals from the Buddhist jataka tales, while the temple doors bear bright and somewhat naïf paintings of temple guardians.
The most important temple in Loei and the heart of the Thai-Loei pilgrimage tradition is found at Wat Phra That Si Song Rak in Dan Sai. The chedi here is built in Lan Chang style reminiscent of Luang Prabang, and stands almost 20 metres high, with a curiously bent finial as a consequence of its great age. Founded in the mid-16th century by King Pra Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya and King Sai Setthathirath of Lan Xang, the temple's name means “Sublime Love of Two (Nations)”. Dedicated to an enduring friendship between Thailand and Laos, it has also come to represent the spiritual centre of Loei Province.
Along the Mekong from Chiang Khan to Pak Chom
One of the best ways to experience the backwaters and byways of Loei is to travel between Chiang Khan and Pak Chom along the banks of the beautiful Mekong River. This can, of course, be done by motor vehicle, but the ideal way is to cycle, taking your time and perhaps stopping for a night or two at one of the small towns or isolated resorts that dot the Mekong riverbank.
Chiang Khan is a lovely old wooden town, relatively undiscovered until recently, but now beloved of upwardly mobile Bangkok visitors, many of them young, who throng here for the cold season and have made the town's narrow Chai Khong Road into a veritable walking street, especially after dark. Here the old wooden houses are being rapidly spruced up, while former shop houses are converted into boutique hotels and trendy coffee bars. It's quite a scene, with riverside restaurants offering ‘Luang Prabang cuisine' standing cheek-by-jowl with family homes converted to welcoming homestays.
Aside from bustling Chai Khong Road, Chiang Khan's main attractions are Wat Si Khun Meuang with some unusual early 19th century murals painted on the front wall of the viharn, and of course the Mekong riverfront, now dignified for much of its length by a paved esplanade offering good views across the river into Laos. Small boats shuttle back and forth ferrying local people between the two river banks, but non-Thais wishing to visit Laos will need to head west to Tha Li District, where the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge across the Hueang River is a recognised international border crossing.
Heading east from Chiang Khan along the road to Pak Chom, the first point of interest are the rapids at Kaeng Khut Khu. Visitors love to gather here to watch the swift waters – but also to visit the extensive market that has grown up at this point and to indulge in an orgy of snacking that includes som tam papaya salad, gai yang grilled chicken and, most especially, fresh river shrimp cooked with lemon grass and mint.
Phu Tok, about 10km further east, is a low hill that rises above a natural basin. In the early morning during the cold season this basin fills with fog, and is promoted by the locals as ‘the misty lake'. A further 10km or so beyond this a side road leads south to a nearby hill at Ban Paha Baen. Here a simple shrine containing a Buddha footprint called Phra Phutthabat Phu Khwai Ngoen is currently being converted into a major temple, with a tall sala under construction over the revered footprint which is, at present, not visible. Still, the project is due for completion sometime in 2012, and the views from the summit of the hill are wonderful.
Just before Pak Chom there is another set of rapids at Ban Hat Bia, then the small town of Pak Chom forms the last settlement of any size before Nong Khai Province. Reminiscent of Chiang Khan a decade or two ago, little happens in this out-of-the-way place, but there are small restaurants for refreshments, and a few resorts are under development – no doubt a sure sign of things to come.
National Parks, Waterfalls and Ecotourism
Loei is a great place for nature lovers, trekkers, bird watchers and flower lovers. Phu Kradung National Park in the south of the province is large, isolated, well maintained and can be very cold by Thai standards – it is said that the last snowfall recorded in Thailand fell here, but snow aside temperatures on the plateau regularly fall to freezing during the winter months. It's a 9km hike to reach the plateau, uphill all the way, so visitors need to be fit. But once on top there's a well-laid out visitor centre, accommodation and restaurants, while there are famous viewpoints like Pha Nok Aen, Pha Ma Duk and Pha Lom Sak to visit, as well as at least seven waterfalls and many forest trails to explore. A visit to Phu Kradung really requires a stay on the summit of one or two nights, and is for serious nature enthusiasts.
Nearby natural attractions outside the park include a natural rock garden at Suan Hin Pha Ngam with two adjacent waterfalls, and a series of tall karst outcrops surrounded in the cool season by masses of Mexican sunflowers.
Phu Ruea to the west of Loei City is a more family-oriented national park, with surfaced roads leading all the way to the summit, and carefully signposted trails, waterfalls and cliff views, as well as good accommodation facilities at the park headquarters. Phu Ruea rises over lovely countryside, much of which is given over to the cultivation of temperate flowers for Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. Long rows of roses, violets, phlox and every sort of cold climate flora stretch for hundreds of metres by the roadside. Also in this area are two isolated but easily accessible waterfalls at Nam Tok Pla Ba and Nam Tok Song Khon.
Loei is a deeply Buddhist province, and the usual Buddhist festivals seen elsewhere in Thailand are observed here as well, notably at the end of Buddhist Lent, traditional Thai New Year, and Loy Krathong. But Loei also has its own specific traditions.
At the full moon of the twelfth month (usually November), when Loy Krathong is celebrated, people flock to Phra That Din Thaen to participate in the Ton Dok Mai Parade when religious offerings known as ton pheung made up of flowers and candles on bamboo frames are carried in the procession.
Still more famous, and really exemplifying the unique nature of Thai-Loei culture, is the Phi Ta Khon Festival held annually at Dan Sai over three days at some time between March and July – it's difficult to be more specific in advance, as the actual date is set by spirit mediums. Known colloquially as the “Ghost Festival”, it combines elements of spirit worship, traditional fertility rites, ancestor veneration and Buddhist merit-making. The festival's most celebrated aspects are the ghost costumes and elaborate spirit masks which, at times other than the festival, can be studied at Dan Sai's Phi Ta Khon Museum.
The first of the three days celebration is the least serious and most fun, when celebrants – many amiably inebriated – dance with giant phallic symbols to appease the spirits (and have a jolly good time). On the second day rockets may be launched, and there are traditional games, dance contests, beauty pageants and costume parades. Finally the third day, with most of the fun out of the way, is given over to quiet contemplation and acts of merit-making at the temples, where villagers listen to Buddhist sermons.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media