An oasis of sakura

Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park in Phitsanulok offers natural beauty and a slice of history

published : 2 Mar 2023 at 04:00
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Visitors flock to view cherry blossoms at Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

The van took such a steep, winding road that I felt nauseous and closed my eyes from the lush view of the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park out the window. After an indefinite period of time, I breathed a sigh of relief upon arrival at a village. I did not expect that my first trip to Phitsanulok would take me to such new heights.

“It is cold and dusty,” I thought, looking at the dirt road full of potholes ahead.

Ban Rong Kla, around 130km from the city, greeted us with its monumental milestone. While waiting for a pickup truck, I went to a flea market that sells homegrown produce like sweet potatoes and sugar snap peas. Nearby, food stalls were bustling with tourists. The village is home to ethnic and Thai people who practice agriculture.

“Tourists are coming to see sakuras. A lot of traffic,” said Hongyok, an ethnic student at the market.

Wild Himalayan cherry trees, or phaya suea khrong, blossom from December to January annually, sometimes later than usual depending on weather conditions. Villagers work on their farms, but in the bloom season, they set up stalls in front of their houses bringing the quiet neighbourhood to life. We bought raincoats from the market, put them on and jumped into the back seat of the pickup truck.

Again, I did not anticipate that it would be a very arduous journey.

The car drove up to Phu Lom Lo. Raincoats came in handy when a storm of dust swirled around. I crouched down and held a handrail firmly. Hiding in the protective outfit, I glanced through a narrow slit to revel in the beauty of the national park. It covers 6,215 rai of land, which includes a variety of forests and watersheds. Dry dipterocarp trees gradually make way for hill evergreens.

Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park. 

At a height of 1,660m above sea level, Phu Lom Lo offers a panoramic view of mountainous grasslands, though on the day of our visit it was crowded with thousands of tourists, many of whom climbed stones for photographs.

An alternative gateway to Phu Lom Lo is Ban Kok Sathon in Loei. After a stopover, the car moved up and down rolling hills. Pink cherry plantations finally came into sight.

“They fully blossomed last week during the Chinese New Year,” said an official. Still, visitors enjoyed taking photos of the remaining blooms. Upon closer view, their trunks are rough, flaky and full of strands. Tiny bunches are clustered around branches. They are pioneer species that can grow fast and tolerate wildfire, making them suitable for reforestation.

“It is the first time I have seen phaya suea khrong. They already withered at Ban Rong Kla, but I was lucky to find them at Phu Lom Lo,” said Vilawan Rueksuk, an office worker from Chon Buri who drove to Phitsanulok for the once-a-year experience.

A photogenic spot near a straw flower field. 

I was disappointed to miss the full bloom. Only after the van continued its journey did I come across something else — the Political and Military School — on the roadside. Located in remote jungle, Phu Hin Rong Kla was once captured by the Communist Party of Thailand. Provided with board and lodging, comrades were trained on communism and guerrilla warfare.

Made of interlocking wood panels, shelters and nursing rooms — relics of the past — are scattered in the forest. Their structures stand wobbly on the plain ground. Inside, there are only beds. In front of each house is an identity plate. One of them was a student at Thammasat University who fled after the popular uprising of Oct 14, 1973. Here, he was in charge of weapons.

The communist stronghold also provided space for festivities. After intensive training, comrades chilled out by playing music, singing and writing songs. I have heard some of them, especially Kuen Rung by Caravan band leader Surachai Chantimatorn, known as Uncle Nga. Formed in 1975, the band pioneered the genre of phleng phuea chiwit (songs for life).

Soon, we arrived at a straw flower field. It is a photogenic spot that attracts visitors. In 2008, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation issued an order to launch the royally-initiated reforestation project to promote human-nature co-existence. In the past, hill dwellers grew crops like cabbage and ginger and raised animals in the forest.

Wood shelter at the Political and Military School.

After returning to the city, we explored religious and cultural sites. Visitors can learn the official story of Phitsanulok at Chan Royal Palace, the abode of kings in the Ayutthaya period. King Naresuan stayed here at the time of his birth and regency. The Department of Fine Arts announced the registration of the palace as a historical site in 1994. Southward, there is a learning centre where I met crowds of students on an educational excursion.

However, history is not all about national heroes or legendary figures. Artisan Sgt Maj Thawee Buranaket is an example of how an ordinary person can make a difference in curatorial practice. His collection of used items culminated in the founding of his folk museum in 1983, despite a lack of support from his family and the public perception that it resulted from a hoarding disorder.

Under the canopy, wood houses scatter around his property. One of them displays objects of everyday use in lower northern culture. For example, there are krua fai (kitchen) and pha lai (multipurpose balcony) installations that reflect local wisdom and belief. In those days, people folded up their house ladders to put off animals and burglars at night. They have an odd number of steps because, unlike temples and crematoriums, they belong to the human world.

Inside the Sgt Maj Thawee Folk Museum.

Walking further, visitors can find a wide range of ingenious traps. A box with fruit baits was used to catch rats at a rice paddy. Made of woven bamboo strips, a device was set up in front of a snake’s den. It is believed that a person should not pound a snake. If its back is broken, the person will flounder. If the creature survives, it will take revenge. When the snake slithers through the trap, sharp bamboo will cut it to death.

A nearby house displays common household items in Phitsanulok. Taken before 1957, a large photograph in black and white shows the Nan River flowing through the city. The province was known as Mueang Song Kwae because the Nan River or Kwae Yai converges with Kwae Noi. In those days, houses were set up by the river until officials ordered relocation due to eyesore and pollution issues.

A friend of mine, born and raised here but currently based in Australia, told me that students in her generation learned these bits and pieces of the history of their hometown. Yet nobody cleared up her doubt about where she belongs. Is it in the lower northern or upper central part of the country?

“When I was young, the weather forecast often used it alternately,” she said. “But there is one thing you can be sure of. We call our province Phitlok. I think it is shortened for convenience.”

Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park.

A straw flower field is part of a royally-initiated reforestation project.

Panorama view at Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park. 

Chan Royal Palace Historical Centre. 

The Sgt Maj Thawee Folk Museum.

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