Introduction to Loei
According to the dictionary, the Thai word loei (pronounced leuh-ay) means to “pass beyond” or “at a far extreme.” Some writers suggest that since the spelling of ‘loei’ and ‘Loei’ is identical in Thai script, herein must lie the origin of the name.
Whether or not this is true, it is certainly appropriate. Loei province is refreshingly well off the beaten track, and so far it has successfully guarded its scenic treasures and small city of approximately 30,000 people from coach loads of baseball-capped tourists.
"If ever there was a cow town in the Northeast, it would have to be Loei …… That said, we like it a lot”
So reads a major travel guide written over a decade ago. No doubt the authors would still agree today, for it has lost nothing of its charm, and whilst Thailand’s tourist arrivals have now topped 10 million, only a tiny handful find their way to this mountainous little bijou. Its airport was once served by Thai Airways flights, which were suspended unprofitably several years ago. Now the runway lies redundant, and at the time of writing, voiced intentions of reviving air connections have not yet taken off. Good, say the purists. Let’s leave Loei out of the foreign tourist loop, stave off development, and reserve it for those who would can appreciate and enjoy it, just the way it is.
And it is not difficult to love Loei, just as it is. Although geologically akin to Northern Thailand, it is culturally on the cusp of Isan, the expansive northeastern part of the Land of Smiles, which is so delightfully distinctive. The name has its origins in the Sanskrit word Isana, which defined the Mon-Khmer Kingdom that once prevailed in this region, and in turn, the Angkor Empire which subsequently reached far into this territory. Those influences have filtered down through the centuries to precipitate in this richly varied and hospitable corner of Asia.
The sensitive traveller notices the “Isan Difference” quickly, in food, music, language and a much more relaxed attitude to life. The cuisine is livelier, and whiffs of lemongrass, spices, fresh lime and garlic meet the nostrils with pleasurable and piquant frequency. The music is jollier, more rhythmic, and tempts even the clumsiest western feet to dance. The lilting popular songs are called “Look Thoong” which charmingly means “Children of the Fields” and their appeal has even inspired talented foreigners to master the complicated linguistic nuances and subtle notes to appear on national television, a cross-cultural performance which delights the whole Kingdom. Listening to local conversations, the ear discerns a local dialect that is closer to Lao than Thai. You soon acknowledge that although still in Thailand, you are enjoying something that is not only quite different from the rest of the country, but also far removed from the well-trodden tourist bastions, where the second language is English. In Isan, unless you have a few words of Thai, you will have to communicate with smiles and gestures rather than speech, a method that will be more than willingly reciprocated.
Loei province occupies 11,424 square kilometres of the upper northwest part of Isan. It is located roughly 520 kilometres from Bangkok, and nestles in the Loei River valley, which extends northwards 47 kilometres to the picturesque border town of Chiang Khan on the Mekhong River. The mountains which rise to 1500 metres enclose some of Thailand’s finest nature reserves, and shield a patchwork of fertile plains and verdant valleys. Temperate flora including pines and deciduous trees thrive on the higher slopes, the latter turning to glorious autumnal shades in November and December. At these altitudes, night frost can occur during November to February, giving an almost alpine feeling to the peaks. It is perhaps this aspect which inspires some travel writers to exaggerate the climate with dramatic statements about “temperatures plummeting below freezing” which of course applies only to high altitudes during the night. Loei town may be nippy when the sun goes down in the winter season, but it certainly doesn’t have icy streets. It is similarly painted as “the hottest province, with temperatures over 40C in April and May” a level also reached by other parts of the country, - but with no high mountains offering an escape from the heat.
What to Do
For those who wish to relax, Loei’s languid and laid back feeling is admirably conducive to doing very little, and wandering around the small town or strolling along the river can easily see half a day and a whole roll of film pass by whilst absorbing the local sights. The main attractions lie in the surrounding province however, most of them made by Mother Nature, and all of them memorable. Aside exploring the vast National Parks, touring slowly by car treats the eye to unfolding panoramas of delight as the countryside reveals its vignettes of village life. At sunrise or dusk, these images can seem surreal in their mix of light and shade, colour and texture, profiles and patterns. Caricatures of remote rural Thailand appear and reappear, each one similar, yet always different, inevitably deserving a backward glance, or a foot on the brakes and a fumble for the camera. Along the road, brightly coloured gourds “Nam Tao” hang out for sale. Displayed by the dozen and swinging in the breeze, these natural water containers traditionally carried into the fields by the farmers make an eye-catching sight. Water buffalo add their benign and benevolent stares to the white smiles hidden underneath the straw brimmed hats of peasants as they look up to see you momentarily enter their lives.
What to See
In the town itself there is little of interest apart from the local market by the river, and the pleasure of finding a restaurant and watching Loei go about its daily work, as you enjoy doing just the opposite. An equally pleasant experience is to have lunch outside the city at Hua Krating Lake, where diners aboard floating bamboo salas are served by boatmen armed with tasty local treats. Raising the flag on your raft indicates you are ready for the next course, or second helpings of the same. There are lovely views from here and this is a lively people-spotting venue, particularly at weekends.
Some 30 minutes south of the city, Suan Hin Pha Ngam Park forms part of a limestone mountain range eroded over centuries to form an interesting shape similar to that in Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan province. Often referred to as “Kunming Mountain” a well-maintained path leads through some challengingly tight boulder spaces up to the panoramic peak.
A major tourist attraction some 70 kilometres from town is the vast flat-topped summit of the table mountain, Phu Kradung. Reached after a mildly strenuous 5-kilometre climb of 3-4 hours, with steeper sections assisted by bamboo ladders, the superb national park covers an area of roughly 350 square kilometres, at an average altitude of 1300 metres. Traced through this ambrosia of natural wonder are 50 kilometres of mostly level walking trails whose scenic routes on open grassland are enhanced by splendid trees, including stands of maple, beech and oak, handsome companions to the graceful pines. Although the accepted origin of the name “Bell (Kradung) Mountain” is the corresponding shape, some say it has roots in the wild bull (Kratin) which used to inhabit this high wilderness. This may be so, for amongst the abundant vegetation, including rhododendron and giant azaleas, timid wild creatures still retreat at the sound of human footsteps. Wild elephants, panthers, jackals, bears, boars and monkeys are on the list of residents here, and even tigers are talked about. This is obviously not a day trip, and accommodation is available in bungalows and tents provided by the Forestry Department with whom bookings must be made well in advance, avoiding if possible weekends and Thai public holidays, which tend to be heavily booked. The park is closed during the rainy season, usually June to early October.
The smaller national park of Phu Reua (Boat Mountain) 49 kilometres from town has a summit of 1365 metres which is accessible by vehicle, and provides stunning views southwards over the town some 50 kilometres distant, and northwards towards Laos. On foot, the track leads up first through tropical vegetation to evergreen and pine forests, an easy 6-kilometre hike, taking roughly 3 hours. The park covers 120 square kilometres and takes its name from the junk-shaped outcrop at the summit. Marked hiking trails make it easy to appreciate the abundance of flora and fauna. Highlights include the “Turtle Rock” because of its shape, and “Gold Cliff” which is covered in gold-coloured lichen. The Buddha image at the summit is a pilgrimage site. Overnight accommodation is available as above.
Less visited, strictly supervised and best explored on a 2-night guided tour organised by the Forestry Department, are the high and richly wooded slopes of Phu Luang (Royal Mountain) which is 49 kilometres from town, and rises to 1550 metres. This nature reserve is covered with an immense variety of tropical and temperate flora, including deciduous and coniferous zones. It is also home to a number of wild animals including tigers, although these are rare sightings. The park is closed during the rainy season from mid-July to early October.
Further afield and spreading over into the neighbouring Khon Kaen Province, the 350 square kilometres of the Phu Pha Man National Park has a number of interesting caves with pre-historic wall paintings. Other local caves include Tham Maholan, the site of a small temple, and Tham Bhothisat, a large hilltop cave with 14 different caverns.
One startling stretch of countryside in the Phu Rua district is guaranteed to make you look twice. More reminiscent of the south of France than tropical Asia, the hectares of vines growing in the cool air and rich earth introduce you to Chateau de Loei, the brainchild of Dr Chaiyudh Karnasuta, who recognised that this combination of climate and soil were ideal for grape cultivation. Proving the many sceptics wrong, he went ahead and established Thailand’s first premier winery and Thailand’s first serious attempt at viniculture. The resulting vintages were launched in 1996: a fruity red made from Syrah grapes, and a fresh tasting white from the Chenin Blanc variety. With expertise borrowed from France and Australia, Chateau de Loei coaxes two crops a year from the willing vines, and produces half a million bottles annually, a bounty which has found appreciative markets in Europe, the USA and Japan as well as satisfying the palates of patriotic oenophiles in Thailand. Conducted tours of this unusual Thai attraction include an interesting description of wine making techniques, and the opportunity to purchase other locally made products, including macademia nuts, oranges, lychees, tamarind, longan, and vegetables.
Other sights around Loei worth mentioning are the large Buddha image and illuminated cave at the Erawan Caves (50 km) the lovely countryside surrounding Tha Li (47 kms) and the picturesque riverside town of Chiang Khan (47 kms)
There are a number of lovely festivals and fairs in Loei including those to celebrate cotton, which is a major industry, but none to match the unique yearly event which is quickly gaining an international profile and reputation.
This is a country full of ghosts. Nobody can be sure, but it is thought that even misty and gloomy Scotland cannot match the concentration of ethereal beings flitting around nightly here in the Land of Smiles. The sheer number of Thai spirit houses outside most dwellings (and incidentally the Chateau de Loei vineyards) attests to the perceived necessity of providing a small residence for land spirits, which might otherwise go seriously bump in the night after being displaced by human activity. The variety of “Phii” as they are called, is endless, and it is against this background that Loei’s wonderfully unique festival of Phii Ta Khon should be outlined.
People argue that the name is either a corruption of the Thai language meaning “Ghosts with Human Eyes” or “Ghosts Follow Villagers.” Whatever the exact origin, this three-day “Thai Halloween” is an extraordinary event held annually in June or July in the village of Dan Sai, 80 kilometres from Loei town, where a similar but smaller festival also takes place. Some say the 200-year-old festival has roots in Buddhist folklore when delighted folks and local sprits emerged to celebrate the emerging sage’s return to the city after a period of absence. It is certainly linked to merit making, and a call for rain, but a likely genesis lies in ancient fertility rites. It is the ‘ghosts’ that define and dominate this event, making it uniquely and dramatically impressive. Hundreds of men appear dressed in ragged patched robes, wearing either hilarious or horrific masks with grotesquely exaggerated features, many mud-covered for that extra-ghoulish effect. The effect is stunning as this bizarre procession moves slowly through the town, no one ghost dressed the same, but most of them armed with phallic-shaped ‘weapons’ of all designs sizes and colours which are brandished threateningly at the crowds of delighted onlookers. There is no limit to this penile creativity, with some oscillating nicely on springs, others popping unexpectedly out of concealed spaces to whoops of embarrassed delight from the crowd. Some are so uniquely outrageous that the ghosts are persuaded to part with them for an agreed sum, and they can end up as unlikely collector’s items in stately homes, upstaging priceless antiques. Music, clanging cowbells, dance, revelry, and appropriately, enough noise to awaken the dead accompany the weird and amazing sights. The first two days of this amazing Oriental Mardi Gras are devoted to everything defined as fun - parades, contests, prizes, sporting events, and bamboo rain-making rockets which roar into the sky. The third day is less boisterous and marked by religious sermons and merit making, before the masks are finally cast into the river, and this memorable event is over, for another year.
Loei is an ideal destination for mildly adventurous folks who love nature, and wish to experience a unique area of Thailand, relatively unaffected by the known negative effects of international tourism. Hiring a vehicle and exploring the province opens up an unbeatable mixture of travelling experiences, including forays along the Mekhong River, which is less than 50 kilometres away. Further afield, major towns, interesting in themselves, include Phetchabun (80 kms) Khon Kaen (120 kms) Udon Thani (143 kms) and Nong Khai (170kms) where the Friendship Bridge connects Thailand with Laos over the Mekhong. For the more athletic, the National Parks described above are some of the most beautiful in Thailand, but best visited outside of the rainy season between June to October.
The Loei Palace Hotel is centrally located, managed by Amari Hotels and Resorts, and makes a very comfortable base in a town previously known for rather basic accommodation. It features a swimming pool and gym, and can advise and arrange tours to suit your requirements, and maximise your enjoyment in this lovely part of the Kingdom.