Who says Thailand is only about the beach and the seaside? There exist locations across the Northern part of this geographically diverse nation where you’ll find the purest of mountain breezes. This month we explore one of them in-depth, that being the province of Loei.
Sharing a Mekong River border with Laos, Loei province is in many ways more similar to the north of Thailand than to the rest of Isan, even earning the nickname “the Mae Hong Son of the northeast.” Loei is an up-and-coming Ecotourism region surrounded by undulating mountain ranges, abundant with various kinds of flora and capped with fog enshrouded summits.
Loei was believed to have been founded by people from the ancient Kingdom of Lan Na, which reigned for five hundred years between the thirteenth century and the eighteenth century. During that time, there was prosperity amongst Dan Kwa and the Dan Sai villages. However, the province’s remote location was a disadvantage and led to both places succumbing to crippling famines. Starvation led many of Dan Kwa and Dan Sei’s people to what is known today as Loei, subsequently proclaimed a province by King Chulalongkorn at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Loei is located approximately five hundred and twenty kilometres away from Bangkok and can be travelled to in three different ways. The most common is by land, in the form of a car or a bus. If you decide to drive from Bangkok, highway number one is the point of departure, also known as Phahonyothin Road, which will then take you there. If you prefer a stress free and comfortable ride, then buses are an economical and enjoyable option. These can be both air-conditioned or not, although the former is highly recommended. Getting to Loei takes approximately ten hours by bus, so not having to worry about melting into your seat is a big plus. If you prefer a faster route, then Thailand’s low-cost carrier Nok Air is a great way to go.
The province of Loei has one of the more curious mottos out of all Thai provinces. It is extravagantly known in full as “City of the Sea of Mountains, Coldest Place in Siam, and Beautiful Flowers of the Three Seasons,” quite the boast. Loei is a genuinely wonderful paradise of mountainous ranges. Three peaks in particular are of note: the Phu Kradueng, the Phu Reua and the Phu luang all stand tall and proud above the province’s skyline and provide its distinctive identity.
Another distinction of Loei is that it is one of the few places in Thailand that can reach temperatures below zero degrees Celsius. Loei’s winters have often reached the minus two mark on the thermometer, making it one of the coldest places in the kingdom. Temperatures are not freezing year-round however, far from it. Thirty degrees Celsius is commonly observed during the summer and early spring. In that sense, Loei’s climate can be said to be truly continental.
If there’s something that they forgot to include in Loei’s kilometric motto, it is probably “City of the bizarre but decidedly charming cultural ghost mask festival.” It is left to the imagination whether this is because they didn’t want to scare visitors away or because their motto was already getting out of hand. Regardless, this festival is the province’s pride and joy, amassing much of its populace’s cultural essence. Covid permitting, the festival is held sometime between March and July. Once the visionaries and mediums reach consensus over a specific date, the Phi Tha Khon ghost festival extends across three entire days, during which several ceremonies take place.
Day one sees Wan Ruam, which translates to “day of assembly” during which the town’s inhabitants ask Phra U Pakut for protection from evil. Phra U Pakut is the Mun River’s spirit, over which he supposedly guards. A sequence of games and activities is held for the remainder of the day, whilst people wear extravagant and intimidating masks made from coconut leaves and rice husks. These take the shape of grinning demon-like creatures with horns and multiple facial and body ornaments. Ornaments range from the more common wooden bells to the more unorthodox wooden phalluses which are waved around displaying the blessings inscribed on them. This festival is said to have originated long ago when in one of his past lives, Buddha unexpectedly returned from a long and arduous journey that had left everybody beginning to suspect his death. The celebration upon his reappearance was said to have been so clamorous that it awoke the dead.
On day two, the Thai Rocket Festival is held. Many rockets are launched into the sky in what is seen as a merit-making ceremony. The dances and the mask parades continue throughout the day.
On the final third day of the festival, all the village gathers to listen to sermons and lectures imparted by the more prominent and respected Buddhist monks.
Loei is a region that, so far, hasn’t been gripped by mass tourism, even though it has much to offer. It is one of Thailand’s most sparsely populated provinces, which means that if you seek a touch of tranquillity and solitude, it is exactly the place to go. The Loei traveller will find bliss in the freshness of its mountainous breeze and the quietness of its natural forestland, and see a side of Thailand not customarily encountered.
All in all, Loei is a province that is well worth the time to get there. Discovering its rich and unique culture whilst simultaneously enjoying the cleanliness and peace of its environment is something that can be truly gratifying. If time allows, schedule your visit during their Ghost Festival, you won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the country!