According to the dictionary, the Thai word loei (pronounced leuh-ay) means to “pass beyond” or “at a far extreme.”
Loei is refreshingly well off the beaten track, and so far it has successfully guarded its scenic treasures and small city of approximately 30000 people from coach loads of baseball-capped tourists.
This province has kept its charm, and only a tiny handful find their way to this mountainous little bijou.
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.
There is a difference between Isan and Loei that some can notice 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 11424 square kilometres of the upper northwest part of Isan. It is located roughly 555 km from Bangkok, and nestles in the Loei River valley, which extends northwards 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. 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.
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.
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.
Laying south of the city lies Suan Hin Pha Ngam Park, which 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.
Another major tourist attraction is the vast flat-topped summit of the table mountain, Phu Kradueng. Reached after a mildly strenuous 5 km climb with steeper sections assisted by bamboo ladders, the superb national park has an average altitude of 1300 metres. Traced through this ambrosia of natural wonder are 50 km 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 (Kradueng) 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. The park is closed during the rainy season, usually June to early October.
The smaller national park of Phu Ruea (Boat Mountain) has a summit of 1365 metres which is accessible by vehicle, and provides stunning views southwards over the town and northwards towards Laos. On foot, the track leads up first through tropical vegetation to evergreen and pine forests. The park 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.
The high and richly wooded slopes of Phu Luang (Royal Mountain) 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 is Phu Pha Man National Park, which has a number of interesting caves with pre-historic wall paintings. There are other local caves such as 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 Ruea district is the hectares of vines growing in the cool air and rich earth at Chateau de Loei. Dr. Chaiyudh Karnasuta 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 Cave, the lovely countryside surrounding Tha Li, and the picturesque riverside town of Chiang Khan.
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.
Thailand is a country full of ghosts so Loei has a festival called Phii Ta Khon.
This three-day “Thai Halloween” is an extraordinary event held annually in June or July in the village of Dan Sai, where a similar but smaller festival also takes place. Some say the 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 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 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. Further afield, major towns, including Phetchabun, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nong Khai which is where the Friendship Bridge connects Thailand with Laos over the Mekhong River. For the more athletic, the national parks are great to enjoy outside of the rainy season between June and October.