Pack a sweater

Best known for the annual Phi Ta Khon festival, Loei province has a lot more going for it than some scary costumes. Splendid Mekong River scenery, mist-shrouded mountains, vast fields of temperate flowers and a slow-paced lifestyle define this rural slice of Northeastern Thailand. If you’re a nature-lover seeking a road less travelled, Loei should be just the ticket.

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Before becoming a Thai province in 1907, Loei passed back and forth between the Ayutthaya kingdom of the Chao Phraya basin and the Lan Xiang kingdom of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The provincial symbol, Phra Tat Si Song Rak (a chedi in Dan Sai), was built over 500 years ago as a symbol of friendship between the two powers. Though the friendliness didn’t last forever, a little-known border crossing in Tha Li district now shows how Thailand and Laos are keen to cooperate.

Geography buffs might want to gaze over the exact point where the Thai-Lao border finishes its path along the narrow Hueang River and begins sharing the Mekong. Though rice is cultivated in the valleys, most of the province consists of forested plateau that occasionally gives way to jagged karst, resembling Kunming in Southern China. Flowers and potted plants are big business in the rolling hills to the west, where a vineyard even produces some wine.

Loei is home to a handful of hill tribes, most notably the adept cotton weavers of the Tai Lue and Thai Dam in the province’s central and northern reaches. Quite a few Vietnamese have also moved here over the last century, while influences from nearby Northern Thailand have further contributed to Loei’s mixed cultural makeup.

Despite being fairly easy for independent travellers to explore, Loei remains popular mainly with domestic tourists who flock to the riverside town of Chiang Khan and mountains of Phu Kradueng and Phu Ruea national parks. In December and January, temperatures in the higher altitudes sometimes drop below zero degrees Celsius; a fact that makes Loei remarkable in the tropics.

Freezing temperatures might not sound too enticing to foreigners retreating to Thailand’s generally hot weather, but frost-tinged pines and hail are downright mesmerising to the Thais who drive the province’s modest tourism industry. While this is often cited as the coldest place in the Kingdom, most of the province stays steamy enough for shorts and T-shirts for the majority of the year.

More of a home base than destination in its own right, the provincial capital, Amphoe Muang Loei (or just "Loei town"), is a small but lively city with a few universities set along the Loei River. Though not a place for sightseeing, the town has some excellent markets where you can sample forest mushroom curries, deep-fried crickets and pickled bamboo shoots wrapped in banana husks.

Well connected by bus to the rest of Thailand and, as of 2013, to Luang Prabang up in Laos, Loei town has one exceptionally friendly guesthouse that makes this a great spot to drop anchor for some offbeat exploration. Motorbike hire and decent local transport allow you to make the most of the province’s many sights and activities. Just don’t expect much in the way of pizza or burgers.

Loei’s pride and joy, the Phi Ta Khon / Bun Luang festival takes place annually in June or July (the exact dates change year-to-year) in the historic town of Dan Sai, some 80 km west of Loei town. Dan Sai’s few hotels get booked out months in advance, provoking many to stay in Loei town or Phu Ruea and hit the festival on a day trip.

Loei town is set to the west of the Loei River smack in the middle of the province. The town centre is marked by a traffic circle, where Sathon Chiang Khan Road cuts north, Nok Kaeo runs west, Chum Sai hangs east and Soet Si shoots south before crossing a bridge. Another main drag is Charoen Rat, which runs north to south a bit further east and accesses Wisutthithep Road to the north, and a bridge to a lovely park to the south.

Eateries and other small local businesses line all of these roads, with the combined night, day and wholesale market clustered around Charoen Rat Soi 1 near the river.

The police station is located on Phiphat Mongkhon Road, a bit to the north of town, between Sathon Chiang Khan and Charoen Rat. Loei Hospital is situated further west at the corner of Nok Kaeo and Route 201, a major highway that runs all the way north to Chiang Khan and south to Phu Kradueng National Park and eventually to Khon Kaen. Route 203 is the main westerly highway, taking you on a windy ride through the mountains and on to Phu Ruea National Park, Dan Sai, and Phitsanulok province.

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