Earlier this month when I launched this bi-weekly Travel Diary series, I had a gut feeling that this coronavirus pandemic could drag on a lot longer than many people had thought. Maybe it could even take a whole year. However, feedback revealed that readers were more optimistic and believe it won’t be that long. Some even suggested that it would benefit them more if — instead of featuring destinations suitable for the season that matches the current time of year, but may not be useful if the travel ban is still in place — I should just skip a couple of months ahead.
With Thailand’s shrinking rate of new infections, they could be right. And I do hope so. Therefore, let’s fast-forward to August.
Three months or so from now, the rainy season should already be in full swing. While some may avoid travelling during the wet period, I think it is a great time to hit the road, since the sun tends to be less harsh thanks to the thick clouds that not only help weaken the rays that otherwise give off scorching heat but this is also when the sky is more interesting when photographed.
Unlike now, nature will once again spring back to life. Even in dry dipterocarp or mixed deciduous forests, except for the charred spots on the bark of the tree trunks that are not yet washed off by the rain, the vegetation, from ground level to the canopy, will seem so lush, as if it had completely forgotten about the fires that ravaged the areas in the previous dry season. Hopefully, during this refreshing break, concerned agencies and the locals affected by air pollution and other widespread consequences of man-made fires will come up with measures that effectively prevent it from happening again in the years to come.
Anyway, over the past 16 years — which is as far as my archive of digital photographs goes — apart from the usual travel features, I also worked on weekly columns called Road Map and Freewheel. The first, which lasted from mid-2004 to late 2006, was about exploring Thailand’s back roads and the interesting sites that they led to. The latter was a bicycling column that began in 2011 and has been suspended since last May because I no longer had enough time to ride.
These projects and other work trips have led me to quite a few places in the Kingdom, usually to off-the-beaten-track places.
Compiled here are some of the destinations I have visited during the first half of August in the past decade and a half, with updated information. They are pretty varied, from the sea and mountains to old temples, a waterside community and even a historical park.
I hope you might find some of them interesting enough to add to your own travel plans. As for recommended destinations for the other half of the month, you’ll find them here the Thursday after next.
Nobody knows how long this pandemic will last. Anyway, let’s be hopeful. One day we’ll be able to travel freely once again. It doesn’t hurt to have some plans, does it? To make it easier for you, here are some travel ideas that — I’m keeping my fingers crossed — you might be able touse in case the coast is clear three months or so from now.
During one of my trips for Road Map, I did a survey of Loei’s northern districts, starting from Na Haeo National Park, which is now known as Phu Suan Sai National Park, to the towns of Phu Ruea, Tha Li and Chiang Khan. This is a route I highly recommend. Along the way, you can drop by the village of Ban Muang Phrae which is separated from Laos by a very narrow section of the Hueang River, the centuries-old Wat Pho Chai, which has one of the country’s tallest ho trai (the tower for keeping Buddhist scriptures) and a prayer hall with folk-style mural paintings. I checked satellite images and the internet and found that a wooden tower which was crumbling when I visited the temple 15 years ago is still there and fully restored. The funny thing is the colour of the prayer hall’s roof, which used to be grey and is now red, while that of the structure next to it has changed from red to grey. It took me a while to verify that Google Maps didn’t mark another temple as Wat Pho Chai. The waterfall shown in the picture is Namtok Pla Ba in Phu Rua. As for Chiang Khan, back then the town by the Mekong River was not a popular tourist destination like it has been over recent years. Every time I go to Chiang Khan, I couldn’t help but think of the peaceful town of wooden shophouses I saw more than three decades ago when I was a university student. I still remember telling myself if I had enough money, I would buy the entire stretch of the town’s road and keep it like that. Of course, it’s a dream that never came true. Even today, I think the best I can afford in Chiang Khan is nothing more than a tourist T-shirt.
Every time August arrives, Phu Soi Dao comes to my mind. These mountains in Uttaradit’s Nam Pat district, known for their highland meadows and flower fields interspersed with groves of majestic pine trees, is one of my alltime favourite hiking destinations. Why early August? It’s simple. Most of the wildflowers on these mountains which straddle the Thai-Lao border, especially the lovely ngon nak (Merdannia gigantea), bloom en masse in the rainy season, which is also the time when water is easy to find on the mountaintop. If you climb Phu Soi Dao during the drier times of the year, you will miss the flower fields. Earlier in the rainy season, such as July, you may still be able to enjoy the wild blossoms but it’s still not the peak period. Later in September, the flower fields may no longer be in the best shape, as some of the plants may have been trampled flat by careless photographers and their friends who want to have pictures taken while being surrounded by the delicate flowers. I’ve climbed Phu Soi Dao more than a dozen times, and in early August, before the National Mother’s Day long holiday, is my preferred period. Still, since there may be some years when the peak period shifts due to weather, it’s wise to check for the best dates with the Phu Soi Dao National Park first. The officers can also help arrange porters, which I highly recommend because the trail to the mountaintop has several steep sections, and hiking up with heavy loads is no fun for most city-dwellers. Also, the service is a way you can help needy locals earn some extra income. To contact Phu Soi Dao National Park, visit its page on Facebook or call 095-629-9528.
That August, in order to save cost and time, I took a long road trip to cover not just the route in northern Loei but also the mountain roads that link the city of Phrae to Nam Pat in Uttaradit province. This is a beautiful drive I highly recommend. From Phrae, I first went to Phae Muang Phi, an eerie landscape carved by Mother Nature. Then I moved on to Khun Sathan National Park, where I spent a night. The next morning I continued through the mountains to Na Noi, Na Muen and Pak Nai where I had a delicious meal of several fish dishes before taking a ferry to the other side of Nan River. I reached Nam Pat town, which is just 24km from Sirikit Dam, that same afternoon. Mark the place names I just mentioned on Google Maps and you’ll have a clearer idea of the route. By the way, a trip through this mountainous area can be done at any time of the year. If you do it in the rainy season as I did, watch out for collapsed roads.
Quite a while after shifting from trekking to mountain biking, I was curious if I could still do well in the wilderness. To test that, I arranged a trip to revisit Chang Mop Waterfall, which was part of a longer trail to a breastshaped hill called Khao Nom Nang. Both the hill and the waterfall are located on the northwestern rim of Khao Yai National Park. It was a pleasant day trip. The waterfall may not be so spectacular but the natural world along the way during this season was amazingly refreshing. This can be a great hiking trip for beginners. Of course, to venture into the forest, you need a guide. To find one, consult the local tourism group of Ban Sap Tai, the starting point for trekking trails in this part of Khao Yai. Visit facebook.com/bansubtai.pakchong.korat.
Like Khao Yai National Park, which is its western neighbour, Thap Lan National Park is part of the Dong Phyayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, which is included in Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. Also like Khao Yai, Thap Lan boasts several attractions from waterfalls to scenic lookout points and reservoirs. But there is one thing Thap Lan has that may not be as easy to find in Khao Yai: the lan palm (Corypha lecomtei). The tall palm, which lends its name to the park, grow in large numbers near its headquarters. The tree flowers only once, when it is 20-30 years old. Each tree bears millions of tiny florets on the massive panicle-shaped inflorescence that rises above the tree’s leafy top. Soon after flowering, the tree dies. This rare event happens only in the rainy months. It was in August that I took the picture of a flowering lan palm. In September, according to the exhibition at the park, the flowers are more developed and thus ready for pollination by both wind and insects.
A 15-minute boat ride from Phuket’s Makham Bay, Koh Taphao Noi is the location of a lighthouse that dates back to 1899. Apart from the lighthouse being perched on a hilltop, the island, which is under the care of the Royal Thai Navy, is also home to one of Phuket’s oldest Sino-European buildings, which now serves as a small museum, a World War II terret built by the Japanese army and — birdwatchers may love this — a variety of birds, including many pairs of Oriental pied hornbills. During that trip, I also got to release some young sea turtles raised by the navy. It’s a pity Lieutenant Suchin Rakchart, the lighthouse officer during my visit, passed away two years ago. For more information about Koh Taphao Noi, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Phuket office via its TAT Phuket page on Facebook. After the lockdown is lifted, you may also call 076-212-213.
While much of Thailand is affected by the rainy season, the east coast of the southern peninsula and the islands in the area have nicer weather, thanks to the mountains that help deflect the southwesterly monsoon. So if you wish to enjoy the sea, sand, sun and coral reefs in August or any time between June and September, Koh Tao, Koh Nang Yuan (shown in the picture), Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and the islands of Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park are among the destinations that fit the bill.
For those who like to avoid the crowd and do not mind cloudy 2015 skies, taking a vacation in certain areas along the Andaman coast might be a good idea. My early-August holiday in Phangnga and its world-famous bay was a relaxing experience. It didn’t rain all day or every day, and the waters of the bay were calm. Without the bright sun, the atmosphere, at least to me, was just more mellow.
The mountains of Chiang Dao and Mae Taeng districts of Chiang Mai province are blessed with many single and double tracks, making it a perfect riding destination for mountain bikers of various breeds, from XC and trail to enduro riders. I was there on a biking trip held by Trailhead Thailand, which is run by the organisers of the well-known International Chiang Mai Enduro race. Along the scenic trails, there were many new things for me to learn, including a plant called sabu dam (Jatropha curcas). The Thai name translates to ‘black soap’. Lek, the guide, showed me he could make bubbles by blowing the plant’s leaf stalk!
2011 & 2012
Chiang Mai’s Doi Pui and Doi Suthep comprise one of the most popular playgrounds for international downhill mountain bikers in this part of the world. Even in the rainy season, the trails on these mountains rarely see an absence of riders. Some downhillers even prefer the wet season, because while the uppermost part of each trail — the part that runs through the montane evergreen forest — tends to be muddy and slippery (which to these lovers of adrenaline rush means more challenging and more fun), the rest of the way, which shoots through the dry dipterocarp, and the mixed deciduous forest has nicely packed surfaces that offer great traction. This is not to mention the shade and cooler weather. There are a few downhill mountain biking groups in the northern city. The most famous are X-Biking Chiang Mai and Mad Monkeys, which are run by local downhillers. The first also offers post-ride bike cleaning and a bike park with a pump track and various jumps. Both are easy to find on the internet.
Sukhothai Historical Park, located about 12km west of Sukhothai downtown, covers a huge area. Luckily, you can explore the park on rental bicycles which are available near the park's main gate. With lusher greenery and more shade, the rainy season is a good time to visit the park.
In case you don’t want to travel too far, the century-old Hua Ta Khae market and community near Suvarnabhumi Airport is a decent destination for a day trip. Apart from the nostalgic atmosphere and homemade-style food, the waterside community offers crafts and works of art by its residents and students from the nearby College of Fine Arts. For more information and updates about the community, search for ‘@LoveHuaTakhae’ on Facebook.
Pai, in Mae Hong Son, has long been known as one of Thailand’s most popular cool-season destinations. Guess what: this charming town with an international population is even more enchanting during the rainy season. With fewer tourists, you get to be more in-touch with the residents, many of whom are interesting people who have left city life for peace of mind and wellness. This is also the time when you can enjoy the town’s many restaurants without having to wait for the tables, and take photos of the district’s various attractions with nobody else in your pictures.