Backpack to Phu Chi Fa

This is an overdue blogging on one of the best places in Thailand for a relaxing getaway. Although this place was getting more attention, thanks to the internet, Phu Chi Fa was still relatively freer from the tourist crowd. In fact, most of the tourists here were locals. There were less foreigners.

Phu Chi Fa means ‘The Hill that Points to the Sky’. It is located around 3 hours drive away from Chiang Rai. I came across it when I was looking through TripAdvisor on things to do in Chiang Rai, other than Wat Kong Run. When I saw writings on Phu Chi Fa, I knew I had to go there. But how? It was not easy, unless one was willing to pay for an expensive tour package from Chiang Rai. I traveled alone. So, tour package was out of question. Luckily, with a bit help from here and there in the internet, I managed to reach Phu Chi Fa the town near Phu Chi Fa before sunset.

I wrote quite detailed explanation of my ‘adventure’ in TripAdvisor. This is what was written back then.

Here are the tips on going to this heaven from Chiang Rai and stay there for less than 1000baht.

Go to Terminal 1 Bus Station Chiang Rai, which is within the town. Ask around for Phu Chi Fa. You will be shown to a counter, where a hand-written signboard is hung above a desk. Tell the lady who sits behind the desk that you want to go to Phu Chi Fa. The return tickets is 300 baht (at this time of writing). The van will come to pick you up at 1pm. The journey takes more than 3 hours. The same van will pick you up the next morning at 9am, at the same spot of the van station at Phu Chi Fa.

I reached the Phu Chi Fa station around 4.15pm. Without any reservation of a accommodation, I was confident (blindly) somehow that I could find a place to rest. At the van station, there was a lady who held out a cardboard, written in English telling me she had a place for 500 baht only. So, I took it. The chalet came with free wifi and hot shower. It was just alright.

Some travelers opted for a tent. This costs 300 baht.

After checking in, I took a quick walk up the steep tar road to view sunset at the top of Phu Chi Fa. The road stretched a long 2.5km and it was really difficult for me, who was walking faster than my normal pace, as I was trying to reach before the sun set. That 2.5km distance brought me to the car park near the view point. There was another 760 meter to continue on. However, these 760 meter was not so taxing as the earlier 2,5km.

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Moon above the Pointing Hill

The reward was worth it. There were less than 20 tourists at the top, leaving the view point almost empty for quiet time, and appreciation of the wonderful sights of the mountains and surroundings, of Thailand and Laos.

I came back to learn that there were pick up trucks to bring anyone up (or down) for a fee of 30 baht each way. My guest house arranged one to pick me up at 5am. That would give me an additional hour to sleep in, as I was planning to get up at 4am to walk up.

Do bring torchlight. At the top, there were more than 150 tourists already taking their seats on the ground, awaiting for the sunrise. However, the better spot to view the landscape is not on the peak of the view point but to the left. A few steps further, I was able to avoid the crowd and enjoy wider landscape view.

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Another good place to take photo is to walk back down the trail, and stop at the nearby spot where the cliff can be seen. As the sun rises, but still below the height of the cliff, the view is simply breath-taking.

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Internet articles will tell you that the place is really cold and one can suffer hypothermia. Not true. You should have your jacket with you but the temperature is not that bad. The guesthouse thick blanket is already good enough to provide warm sleep.

The articles will tell you that there are hardly any eateries there. Time has changed. There are several places you can enjoy your dinner and breakfast the next morning. However, I brought some snacks up to the cliff, since that I knew I would be spending hours there. I was hungry. Thankfully I had something to keep the hunger away.


There are the tribal kids, all dressed up, singing for any amount of money donation. Support them, if you want to. They do look adorable.

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Native child

Be prepared to have a sleepless night. During the peak season (Nov to Jan), many locals would head there. They must have been really excited to see one another that they would stay up all night, just to chat and laugh. In a high volume. My German friends told me they suffered in their thin tent. As for me, in the chalet, I could hear my neighbours talking into the late morning but it was not that loud to disturb my sleep.

I am planning to go back there again. And this time, maybe I will stay for two nights. The life there seems so easy and relax, some thing that this aching old body of backpacker would wish to enjoy longer, just to get away from the crazy city life.

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A secret gem of Thailand – Phu Chi Fa.

*I was told Phu Chi Fa was best to be visited between Nov to Jan.

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Backpacking in Laos

When it comes to Laos, I have only two places in mind to visit – Luang Prabang (World Heritage Site) and Vang Vieng (tubing town). There are other tourist sites – Vientiane (capital city), Pakse, (Si Phan Don) 1,000 Islands and Phonsavan (Plain of Jars) in Laos but since that I have limited days, I have settled for these 2 main choices.

There were ups and downs in my Laos trip. Generally known as the lay-back country or backward environment where almost anyone is expected to enjoy a life away from city buzz and hectic schedules, a trip in Laos demands patience and tolerance. And bargaining power. Here, I would just state the highlights of my trip.

1. Sunset Hill, Vang Vieng.

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All the tiny houses and green fields, viewed from the top of heaven.

Somewhere 4 km away from Vang Vieng town, across the Nam Song river, onto the path that leads to Blue Lagoon, nested a hidden gem (not listed in Tripadvisor or almost other online guides). Heading from the town, look out for the signboard that states ‘Pha Ngeun’. On this signboard too, the word ‘mountain view’ and ‘school’ are listed. Head in the unfamiliar path and shortly, a hut/booth appears. Pay 10,000 kip to the friendly teenage gatekeeper who speaks no English and you should be heading your way up the hill.

To the villagers here, this is their Pha Ngeun Mountain. Don’t let the word mountain scares you. It was really a high hill, that offered great view from the top. The signboard also says 500m. I have learned my lesson to take anything shared with me with a pinch of salt. The journey up was definitely more than 500m, demanding but still doable. I hiked up the hill, wearing sandals. Some slopes were tiring but the reward was magnificent.

There were two shelters built on the hill. The first shelter gave a reasonable view of the paddy fields in the valley, trapped between mountains. Catch a short break and then continue.

Around 10 minutes later, with another nice view along the way, I reached the bottom of rocky peaks. The path up these peaks was easy to be found. I realised later that I was stepping on broken pinnacles, to hike up to the top of the pinnacle peaks. At the top of the peak, I saw heaven.

There was a shelter built at the top, offering a majestic view of the whole green, luscious paddy field, surrounded by proud mountains. Tiny houses could be seen scattered along the red earth road that I had used earlier, heading to Blue Lagoon.

The hike got me huffing and puffing but the view at the top kept me breathless. I was alone at the top and yet, I could feel the world was with me. I was alone up there, enjoying this wonderful, beautiful view, and it was all mine, for those hours I spent there on my own.

It was cooling. The breeze was welcoming me. The joy was pure.

This site is good for sunrise/sunset view, if only one could negotiate the path when the light is not favourable. It took me 40 minutes to hike down. The whole journey was so worth the time and the money. It did not matter to me if I had hiked up a hill or a mountain. What did matter to me was that I hiked up and found my little heaven.

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As much the heart yearned to stay and watch the sunset, it was too dangerous to walk alone in the path, without any light.

 

2. Kuangsi Waterfall, Luang Prabang

Kuangsi waterfall is situated at a distance of 40 minutes car ride from Luang Prabang. There is much hype over this waterfall that I have to witness it for myself. Instead of taking the shared or private tuk tuk from the town area, I booked for a shared van tour ride to Kuangsi waterfall at the price of 50,000 kip. The entrance fee to Kuangsi cost me another 20,000 kip.

Unlike the other waterfall sites I had been to recently, Kuangsi waterfalls are felt along the river where the river flows down. There are 4 stages of the waterfall along the river in the park. Stage 4 is the highlight where the water drops from a high cliff.

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Kuangsi Waterfall, mother nature’s wonder.
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The trek was steep.

Cross the popular bridge where many photos were snapped, I found a hiking trail leading up to the hilltop for a view of the surrounding. Again, this path was demanding as the slopes were steep. Trees and small streams greeted me at the top, offering me one view of a nearby valley.

Tourists found their laughter in Stage 1. They swam and they dove. They hardly knew one another but they shared their joys that afternoon.

 

3. Tak Bat, Luang Prabang (and other areas in Laos)

Tak Bat is the morning alms tradition, uphold by the Buddhist monks. Early in the morning, after their chanting and meditation, these monks would head out of their monastery to seek for alms, from grateful and supportive villagers. To the villagers, monks uphold the practice as advised by the Buddha. They are also seek in times of emotional difficulties and for help. In gratitude, villagers offer support to the monks who have chosen to leave behind the life of unnecessary possession.

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Unlike in Vang Vieng, here a senior monk still leads tak bat.

To be a monk is not to escape from responsibilities. It is a commitment in seeking for self-actualisation.

Rows of monks can be seen in towns in Laos. To see them in the act of Tak Bat, I had to wake up as early as 5.30am and try my luck at different streets in hope to catch glimpses of the orange robes. There was something sincere and downright humble in seeing villagers still upholding this tradition, keeping it alive after years of modernisation.

These village ladies and men were believers. They knelt to show their respects. They offered to show their support. They rejoiced because they knew it was a well-done act.

And these monks were a field of merit to Buddhists all around. Homage to the blessed ones.

 

4. Tubing on Nam Song river, Vang Vieng

Tubing was the main activity in Vang Vieng. It was the haven for party-ers who wanted nothing but crazy blasting music, beer and weed as they went tubing down the river. It had stopped now. 4 bars were still standing as I tubed my way down the quiet, wide river.

Tubing activity in Vang Vieng starts at 9am and ends at 6pm. The shop stops taking new customers at 4pm. It costs 55000 kip, plus 60000 kip for deposit. The deposit will be returned if the tube is given back before 6pm. Free life jacket is provided. A free tuk tuk ride is offered to the start point for the tubing experience. The whole journey of tubing is 1.5 hours during rainy season and 4 hours during non-rainy season.

My advice? Bring along your sandals. You need them to paddle. Hehehehe.

The whole journey was relaxing although the current was strong. There were a few bumpy areas as the water was bouncy. One or two areas where the water swirled. Mountain views were seen although I was not really adjusted to the idea of floating yet on the strong current. So, I did not really get to enjoy the view much.

Kayaks would pass by and happy Koreans would greet me. There were more kayaks than tubes on the river. As I did not stop at any bar, I was floating alone. Nam Song was brownish and wide. The current was crazily strong and I had no control how I was rotated around, on my tube.

Another advice – try to stay close to the left hand side of the river. No one told me. I ‘over-floated’ my destination and no one was there to help my tube to stop.

 

5. Cycling

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Bicycle cost me around 10,000 kip. I was constantly reminded to lock up my bicycle. Apparently theft was an issue in Luang Prabang. There were enough stories about stolen motorcycles in Luang Prabang that made me hesitated on renting one. Moreover, motorcycle rental was expensive. One could easily cost me 140,000 kip, and that was without petrol.

So, I packed my lunch, cycled under the cloudy sky of Luang Prabang, snaked my way around the river and was charmed by the old-looking houses facing the river. Stopped by the river to eat my meal and just let the day rolled by.

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This was my bicycle in Luang Prabang.

In Vang Vieng, instead of signing up for a tour package to Blue Lagoon, I decided to cycle from the town to the Blue Lagoon. Guaranteed, going uphill at times was not really easy, plus the mud was not that appealing, the ride was worth it as it allowed me to stop several times to snap photos of the paddy fields and mountains.

 

6. Enjoy the sunset at Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang

On the day I arrived in Luang Prabang, I was determined to catch a good sunset. There had to be one, in my whole Laos trip. It was impossible to catch a good sunset due to the evening rain.

It cost 20,000 kip to enter Mount Phousi. There were 355 steps all the way to the top. Some stopped in the middle, to catch a breather. It was doable, although it did take a little determination and patience.

At the top, I joined the crowd, waiting for the sunset that was not so promising, during this rain season.

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Sunset in Luang Prabang, in the rainy season.

 

7. Slow-paced Life

Coming to Laos, one is expected to leave the concrete city world behind and just lay back. Enjoy the greens. Enjoy the water. Listen to children’s laughter. Look at how the villagers juggle between their culture and the world the tourists are introducing to them. Like it or not, these people have a lifestyle that we no longer have the luxury to enjoy easily in our city homes. They envy us for our gadgets. We envy them for their simplicity.

 

Laos, to me, was an intriguing country. This trip did satisfy my curiosity on what the country was about. I came and saw heaven, from the top of Sunset Hill, in Vang Vieng. I came and saw wonders in the cold, strong current Kuangsi Waterfall in Luang Prabang. The people had been introduced to the business world for tourists and they are learning how to milk from curious visitors. I would safely say that I am done with Laos, from the soul-less Vientiane to the expensive and village-like Vang Vieng to old, but progressing Luang Prabang.

Charming, but for how long still?

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View from Buddha’s Footprint Temple.

Backpacking in Lombok: Coconut trees, emerald-green water beaches and waterfalls

May 17: KL to Lombok: RM136 Airasia.

Sendang Gile Waterfall

May 18: The scooter ride from Senggigi La Casa Homestay took longer than 3 hours, as the road from Senggigi to Pemenang and then to Senaru offered some many beautiful sceneries. It was impossible not to stop. Senaru is known for the point where hikers will climb Mount Rinjani. Not me. I was there for two known beauties – Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls.

Entrance fee was 10,000 rupiah for a foreigner. I got myself a guide. That cost me another 60,000 rupiah. It was worth it, coz Anong really watched over me – offering to carry my items for me, warning me of slippery path, being my cameraman and more. The walk to Sendang Gile was only 10 minutes from the entrance.

After spending a few minutes struggling to snap good photos of Sendang Gile, I was ready for the real beauty – the most famous beautiful waterfall in Lombok, other than Benang Kelambu waterfall. So, Anong walked with me for another 30 minutes, on the path, bridge, passing by the tunnel and across the stream. And there, I felt my joy. I saw it from afar. Tiu Kelep Waterfall This is Tiu Kelep waterfall – the ageless waterfall. It is known as such as the water never runs dry, even during non-raining season. A bath in the pond beneath the waterfall is said to cure anyone of any skin disease. There were less people there than at Sendang Gile waterfall. Spent several minutes trying to get the best photos and then, dipped myself in the water. It was really cold.

On my down the hilly road, the terrace paddy field on my right caught my site. I had heard of Teres Genit Village and its paddy field. It was beautiful.

Teres Genit Village, view from somewhere near Rinjani Lodge.
Teres Genit Village, view from somewhere near Rinjani Lodge.

Down the hill and turned right, feeling adventurous, I rode out to seek for Teres Genit Village to have an up-close view of the place. It was another 6km before I found a split road. Instead of turning left, I rode my scooter into the straight path

Before the day became dark, in an unfamiliar land, I decided to ride back to Senggigi. Also in hope to see sunset at Senggigi beach. It was not easy. Too many wonderful scenery along the way that made me stop too often.

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On my way to Bangsal to catch public ferry to Gili Trawangan.

May 19: Parking my scooter at the motorcycle park for only 10,000 rupiah (for one night), I walked past all the touts and headed for the office where I bought my public ferry ticket, for 15,000 rupiah. Plus entrance fee into the island and other stuff – another 3,000 rupiah. The ferry ride was a 45 minutes journey. Sitting on the left hand side was a blessing as shade helped to protect one from the burning sunlight. As the ferry (which was a normal boat) reached Gili Trawangan, I understood the fuss over the island and its sisters – Gili Meno and Gili Air. I did not go to the other two. Gili Trawangan is known as the party island. I moved away from the crowd, and found my own space in this lovely island.

Almost everywhere, the beach looks like this in Gili Trawangan. Multi-fold colours of water.
Almost everywhere, the beach looks like this in Gili Trawangan. Multi-fold colours of water.

Stayed in Intan Inn Hostel, in a room of 3 beds. I booked one bed but ended up having the whole room to myself as it was a low season. With in-room bathroom and aircon. Cool, right? No blanket, unfortunately. Sigh. Still, it was a good place to stay in. Cheap and at the right location. Not far from the main road, and quiet enough. Good wifi connection. One can handle Gili Trawangan by walking around. If not, one could hire bicycle for 40,000 rupiah. Or take a ride on cidomo.

I walked. It was easier to snap photos that way.

Walk to the end, near the viewpoint, one could see the surfing activities. I sat in water but spent more time snapping photos of the surfers.

IMG_6477Before the evening came, I made my way to search for the viewpoint. It was not easy to find the spot. I swore I was lost before turning up at a spot so flat, among the bushes and trees that I knew it was there I would stand to greet the setting sun. More tourists showed up, sharing the small space. It was never that crowded. Just a nice size of people who wanted to get away from the partying crowd. The sun set at 6pm and I made my way back to the main road. There, I passed by the night market, where I bought 10 sticks of sate for the price of 20,000 rupiah.

Sunrise at the main road of Gili T. Across the water, stood Mount Rinjani.
Sunrise at the main road of Gili T. Across the water, stood Mount Rinjani.

I headed back to Lombok. The initial plan to catch a fastboat or cheap public ferry to Bali was cancelled after reading the net stories/experience of those who dared. The advice would be to take morning ferry to or from Bali. Afternoon sea was rougher. Still, after finding out that Lion Wings offered lower price for flight, I changed my itinerary, to include flight to Bali, from Lombok. So, it was time to set out again – back to Senggigi.

May 20: The journey back to Senggigi took longer than I had expected. I stopped by Pantai Vulkanik Nipah, a curve along the highway, where it stood out as a cliff. It was also known as Malimbu Hill. The cove after the cliff displayed wonderful mixture blue and green sea., where the beach would rise up to meet the green valley.

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Pantai Vulkanik Nipah (Nipah Volcanic Beach)

By the time I reached La Casa Homestay and headed out for Benang Stokel and Benang Kelambu waterfalls, it was already close to lunch time. The journey took me through the city Mataram.

Benang Stokel Waterfall
Benang Stokel Waterfall

The journey took me 2 hours, across the city and then to quiet town roads, leading into village. As the turning approached, there would be many stalls selling tourists’ souvenirs. Turned left and headed for a long journey into Aik Berik Village. Here, I faced another situation where there was an attempt to coax me to pay a tour package for Benang Stokel and Benang Kelambu waterfalls. I refused to pay for the package, which was more than 150,000 rupiah. At the end, I settled for 50,000 rupiah, where I thought I would be getting a tour guide. I was not given any. Entrance fee was supposed to be only 10,000 rupiah. Felt bitter. And was already tired.

The walk to Benang Stokel started almost immediately after going through the main gate. There would be a path on the left. A walk around 10 minutes on that path led me to the area where Benang Stokel waterfall stood.

Turning back, and back to the main road, I walked up the hill. This was more tiring than walking towards Tiu Kelep Waterfall. I was told that I could ride my scooter in. However, I had no idea that the walk would take more than 30 minutes. Although there were others who offered to fetch me for a fee, I continued walking. The path split twice. Somehow, my tired mind told me to continue with the left turning. So, I did. Eventually, I found someone who would fetch me for free. It was a short ride, as I was almost there.

Benang Kelambu waterfall
Benang Kelambu waterfall

Some tourists walked here. Some drove here. Some paid for tour package to come here.

Although I had wanted to check out Tanjung Aan, Pink Beach and the other beaches in Lombok, somehow, my watch told me that I was running out of time. The afternoon was about to roll into evening. Moreover, I was getting a bit tired of seeing beaches for awhile. So, I headed back and reached the beach behind Jayakarta Hotel in Senggigi, around 5.30pm.

May 21: The next morning, La Casa Homestay helped me to call for Damri bus to pick me up at the main road. I was heading for Praya Airport, to catch my flight to Bali. Lion Wings flight to Bali took only 30 minutes and cost me RM80.

Tips:

  1. Despite what they claim, no tourists need to pay for tour guides/tour package, just to get into the areas to see the waterfalls. The entrance fee are only 10,000 rupiah each. I paid for a tour guide at Senaru and was happy with my decision.
  2. Try to fill your gas/petrol at Mataram. The price would be half of what one pays for petrol, sold by villagers, along the way at Pemenang.
  3. The best time to ride out and see the beaches in Senggigi, in my limited experience, is around 9am. Any earlier, too misty. Any later, less calming sea.
  4. Use Maps.Me app from Android. Download Indonesia map. It really helped when I did not have any data plan. Maps.Me works without internet. It is not perfect but it helps.
  5. If you are willing to, pay more to ride on safer boat from Bangsal, Lombok to Gili. I paid 18,000 rupiah. A fast boat ticket should be around 73,000 rupiah. At least it would not be overloaded. However, if you should go into public ferry, try to sit near the very few life jackets/life buoys.
  6. Heading to Gili T, try to sit on the left hand side of the boat as you enter the boat. Heading to Lombok, sit on the other side. This should help you to avoid sunburn.
  7. Try Intan Inn Hostel cafe for meals. The food was good and the price was lower than those on the main road of Gili Trawangan.
  8. If you really want to take the fast boat from Gili T to Bali, then, it is best to buy the ticket when you are on the island. Do not buy online as the price is higher. But if you want to buy online, then, I have heard of good remarks on Blue Water Express.
  9. The best time to travel between Gili and Bali is in the morning, when the sea is calmer. Avoid using these boats during rainy season.
  10. I was told that there would be hostel room for the price of 50,000 rupiah a night, with air con and hot shower. I could not verify this. This would definitely be better than the 120,000 rupiah I had paid for La Casa Homestay. La Casa Homestay is around 4km away from Art Market. Generally, the whole Senggigi town is a quiet town. So, it does not really matter where one stays in Senggigi as it would be quiet nights there.

Generally, although my stay was short, I had fond memories of Lombok and Gili T. Definitely would recommend friends to these islands.