Megan Cindric, 129 YinD
An ~unofficial~ travel guide
Phu Kradueng National Park is one of the most popular parks in all of Thailand, situated in Loei province in Issan. I know what you’re thinking: “Issan? Mountains?? There’s no way!” Well, I’m here to tell you that yes way, there’s mountains, and boy are they steep. The initial trek is a bit difficult, but once you reach the summit there is a wide, flat plateau that can host up to 5,000 visitors during peak season. While this trip was more difficult than we’d originally anticipated, it was well worth the journey, and camping in Thailand was by far one of my favorite experiences.
The summit offered breathtaking views, cool and relaxing nights, and easily accessible trails around the summit. As you hike up you’ll see the ecosystem change around you, and by the time you reach the top you’ll be shocked to find yourself surrounded by pine trees & prairie grass. The two major cons I can think of 1: the sheer amount of people traveling here, and 2: the mud leeches that took us completely by surprise. While it certainly wasn’t the secluded hiking trip I was used to, it was still wonderful to sleep in a tent under the stars and to feel cold for the first time in nearly 2 years.
Travel Time from Bangkok: 8-10 hours
Cost: The standard tourist price is 400 baht, but with our Thai ID’s we were able to lower the price to 200 baht per person. At the summit there are tents & sleeping bags available to rent at reasonable rates. It was about 210 per person per night with all of our supplies. There are plenty of restaurants with 50-60 baht meals available, and water is 50 baht for a large bottle. We did a pretty even mix of our own food & restaurant food, and prices were reasonable.
Weather: We went in early October and it was incredible! The park is closed over rainy season (June 1st to September 30th), and it can get cold in the winter months. When we went, the weather was warm & breezy during the day, and cool enough for sweaters and pants at night.
Would you go back? Definitely!
Getting There: Most of us were coming from various parts of Issan, so half of our group spent the night in Loei’s central city, and the other half stayed in Udon Thani. In hindsight, it is much faster to stay in Loei the night before summiting – we left Udon at 5 AM but because transportation setbacks we didn’t get to the park until around 1 PM. They stop allowing visitors into the park at 2 PM, so plan accordingly! From Loei’s bus station, take a bus bound either for Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, or direct to Phu Kradueng. If you don’t get a direct bus to the park, there is a small station where they will let you off to catch transportation to the park, just ask the bus driver. From Loei’s city it’s about an hour to the park entrance, where you can catch a red song-taew into the park. They will either wait until there are at least 10 passengers, or you can pay a bit more to leave immediately (we did and it was 60 baht per person). Once you get to the park, go through the visitor’s center to sign in and get your park paperwork filled out before starting to summit the mountain.
If coming from Bangkok, your best bet is to try to either take an overnight bus to Loei, or to go the night before and stay in the city. There are bus options from Mo Chit bus terminal, but you won’t be able to leave from Bangkok and summit the mountain in the same day.
**Note – there are porters for hire that will carry your gear to the summit. The rate is 30 baht/kilogram, but while the hike is difficult, I don’t think it necessarily warrants this. On our descent we saw a man being carried by the porters, so if you were curious yes, that’s an option too**
Once you get to the park and get checked in, you’ll begin your summit. The first kilometer is rather steep, as well as the last kilometer or so (just when you think you’re to the top it’ll get extremely steep again, fair warning). The entire trail is about 9 kilometers, and it took us 4 hours to summit going at a fairly steady pace. The trail up is broken up into sections ranging from 300 – 1000 meters, with small rest stops that break up the trek rather nicely. These stops are a great place to rest, buy some water, take pictures, etc before continuing up the mountain. Take care in the steep sections, as it can be difficult to see the best path and occasionally there is loose soil that you can slide on. Check which path the porters & other hikers are taking!
The last kilometer is by far the worst, with steep stairs & ladders. Suu suu, though, and you’ll be greeted at the summit with a spectacular view of the mountains below, pine trees, and flat ground. From there, follow the trail for another 3 kilometers (don’t worry, it’s flat and a dirt road) to the welcome center, where you can rent your camping supplies & find your tent!
Food: One of the upsides to Phu Kradueng is the availability of food and supplies. As I mentioned, along the way up the mountain there are little rest stops selling everything from ice cream to t-shirts to coffee. On the summit there is also a sort of makeshift village where you can buy hot meals & extra supplies. We packed oatmeal and Mama packets, as well as dried fruit, cereal, chips, etc. We had more than enough, but it was reassuring to know that if we’d somehow under packed we wouldn’t starve on the mountain. While most of the restaurants are happy to provide hot water for your own meals, you may still want to buy one hot meal to share or a coffee to be polite (this is how they make their living after all). There’s great coffee available on the summit, and a variety of restaurants offering everything from pad thai to stir fry to ba-tan-go. Your best bet is to pack some food staples, and take advantage of the available food if you get really burnt out on eating Mama like we did. In addition to this, national parks are considered “alcohol free zones,” and as such there won’t be alcohol sold anywhere in the park.
Clothes: Even in October, it got downright chilly once the sun went down! Sleeping bags are a must, but it’s also a good idea to bring some long pants and a flannel or sweatshirt. During the day the weather can get quite warm in the sun, so bring comfortable hiking clothes as well. Most of us did this hike in Chacos, and while it was manageable, we definitely regret not bringing adequate hiking shoes. Also bring some tall socks, both for the cold and for the leeches (don’t worry I’ll get more into that later). A towel for sweat on the hike up would have been useful, as it was very hot and sunny.
Other Stuff: On the summit the mosquitos were surprisingly sparse, but in their place came mud leeches. These little buggers are surprisingly agile, so I’d recommend bringing a pair of tall socks & tight pants for when you’re out and about at night. Also a flashlight or headlamp to help you navigate to the bathroom and to find your way to Pha Nok Aen to watch the sunrise. Tiger balm is another great way to keep the leeches off of your feet, plus it helps with those sore muscles! We brought cards to play in the tent, and wish we brought a speaker for our day hike to the cliffs.
Tents: Phu Kradueng has two options for sleeping: renting a tent, or renting a bungalow. The campground on the summit is massive, we’re talking space for 5,000 tents, easily. During the holidays and during peak season (bpit term, Songkran, and peak cold season) this place is packed. We arrived Friday night and were shocked by how many people arrived Saturday afternoon. This was a 3 day holiday weekend, so it was certainly busier than usual, but if you’re trying to beat the crowd, try to come on a weekday or at the beginning or end of the season.
That being said, there are plenty of tents available in a variety of sizes, and it’s easy to rent on your arrival to the summit. We went with 2 3-person tents & had plenty of space for the 5 of us and all of our bags. There are 2-person tents for 150 baht, 3-person for 200 baht, and 4-person for 400 baht (prices are per night). There are also sleeping bags for 30 baht per night & pillows for 10 baht per night. The tents are set up in surprisingly close quarters, but you’re allowed to move your tent if you’d like! They’re also close to the public bathrooms and showers, all of which were clean & easily accessible. While the showers are free, there was a bit of a line during the morning or evening, and since the showers are rather cold your best bet is to shower around noon or when it’s a bit warmer outside.
Bungalows: Another option for staying on the summit is to rent a bungalow for a larger group. There are houses for rent that can house 6 people for 900 baht/night, or a 12 person house for 3600 baht/night. The bungalows have hot water and towels provided, but you have to reserve them in advance from the DNP website. You can pay online from 7-11, but remember to book ahead of time!
Things to Do: Once you’ve summited Phu Kradueng, there are a number of paths and trails you can take around the plateau, ranging from 500 m to 9 kilometers. These roads are exceptionally well-paved, and there are mountain bikes available for rent from around 350-400 baht.
Cliff Viewpoints: There are trails leading out to all of the cliff points, all easily accessible from the central campsite. The trail closely follows the cliff’s edge, offering beautiful views and a nice breeze. Many of these points also offer food and drinks at small stalls, so if you run out of water don’t fret!
For the sunrise, Nok Aan cliff is only about a kilometer from the campground, and can offer stunning views of the valley. However, this is an incredibly popular tourist destination, and the crowds can get very overwhelming very quickly. Another option is to hike back to the trailhead to watch the sunrise. While the cliff isn’t as large, you will most certainly beat the crowds. On the day we hiked down, we were the only ones at the trailhead and had a spectacular view of the sunrise over the clouds!
While it is the farthest from the campsite, Lom Sak cliff is the most popular cliff for watching the sunset. There is another stand here as well for snacks and water, but like Nok Aan cliff this is a popular tourist destination. If you are looking for a less crowded spot to enjoy the sunset, hike back along the cliff trail until you find a suitable and quieter spot. Also, don’t forget your headlamp for the hike back!
Waterfalls: Unfortunately, when we went the trails to the waterfalls were closed off due to elephant activity in the area. When the trails are open, there are a number of scenic spots worth the trek, and many are only 1 or 2 kilometers from the site! The trail forms a large circle, so you can make an easy day trip out of hitting up all of the waterfalls.
Wang Kwang Waterfall: This is one of the closer waterfalls, only one kilometer from the campsite. It’s a quick and easy hike, and it’s possible to walk behind the waterfall without ever getting wet!
Tham Yai Waterfall: This is one of the most famous spots at Phu Kradueng, known for the bright red maple leaves that turn in November and December. It is on the waterfall loop, around 2 kilometers from the campsite.
Overall this trip was an unexpected challenge, but also an amazing experience to see a different side of Thailand. If you’re someone who enjoyed hiking back in the states, or someone wanting to try something new & challenge themselves, this is certainly the trip for you. The accommodations at the top give you the perfect miss of creature comforts like hot coffee, while still “roughing it” with the cold showers & mud leeches.
Check out more travel articles here.