The dramatic and rugged Doi Pha Mon mountain range is situated in the remote, far southeast of Chiang Rai province with the Mekong and Laos lying at the foot of its eastern slopes. The stunning viewpoints, including the most famous peak of Phu Chee Fah, have long been popular with Thai tourists, but remain little known to many Western travellers.
On a clear morning, the views over a vast swathe of Laos’ Sainyabuli province are breathtaking. Rising up to more than 1,700 metres, bear in mind the peaks will be cloud-covered for much of the year and frequently damp and foggy during the rainy season. The best period to visit is during the cool, dry months of November to February, when an extra feature will be the picturesque early morning mist drifting in the cool valleys. Mountaintops appear as islands amid an ocean of mist, which disperses as the heat of the rising sun hits the valley floors. (This may last until early or mid morning depending upon weather conditions.)
The thing to do when visiting is get up to one of the viewpoints in time to see dawn rise over Laos and the Mekong. Sealed but occasionally treacherous tracks lead up from the resorts, main road and villages on the western slopes of the summits to car parks. From here, uphill climbs of 400 to 800 metres take you to the peaks. We’d say take a flashlight but if it’s a weekend at Phu Chee Fah there’ll be so many other visitors hiking up, the path will already be well lit. Popular lookouts on a winter weekend are literally standing-room only.
For this reason we’d strongly recommend avoiding weekends, or looking at one of the quieter viewpoints apart from Phu Chee Fah itself. During weekdays many resorts are more or less closed and you’ll have less choice for eating and drinking but during Thai public holidays and cold season weekends it can turn into a circus and you’ll be paying twice as much for a chalet as well — if you can find one at all. (The proliferation of camping sites shows how busy it gets.)
The main village, Rom Fah Thai, straddles the mountain road and is entirely lined with market stalls, cafes, souvenir shops and strolling Thais wrapped up in their winter woollies, making it about as close to a ski-resort atmosphere as Thailand gets. It can get seriously cold up here, even for those from northern climes.
The smaller, much quieter village of Pathang lies towards the northern end of the range and has the equally spectacular Prathu Siam viewpoint. This is a normal, non-touristy village with just a handful of resorts and restaurants, but the views are stunning and it is a much quieter option. Resort and guesthouse owners may be able to indicate other lesser-known viewing spots as well.
Phu Chee Fah can be problematic if you don’t have your own transport both to get here and once you’ve arrived. By public transport the northern end is best accessed from Chiang Khong and there are occasional songthaews going as far as, but no further than, Pathang. Chiang Rai has minibuses and high season fan buses to Rom Fah Thai but there’s no regular transport running along Route 1093, which skirts the western slope and links up the various sites. Finally Thoen, easily reached by bus from Chiang Rai, has infrequent songthaews to Rom Fah Thai.
More awkward is how to get around once you’ve got up here. Resorts are scattered all over but restaurants and shops are only found in the two aforementioned villages. Roads linking summit viewpoint to the villages and Route 1093 are between two and three kilometre steep climbs to reach car parks, from where you’ll have the final hike up to the viewpoints. We did find a vehicle and driver for hire for 800 baht to take in several different points but these are hard to find – forget it during busy periods – and they won’t speak a word of English either.
If you’re arriving by motorbike, then there are three options: from the north along Route 1155 from Chiang Khong to Wiang Kaen for 20 kilometres, then a further 30 kilometres to Pathang; from the south from Phayao’s Chiang Kham, around 55 kilometres away on Route 1093; or approach from Thoen on Route 1155. This is around 40 kilometres of scenic but easy riding. Northern and southern approaches are also very scenic but more challenging rides. If you’re arriving by car then easy, and if on a bicycle – good luck!
Doi Pha Mon stretches approximately 60 kilometres north-south, with the Mekong and Laos to the east and the valley of the Ing to the west. The mountain range begins after Pak Ing – where the river flows into the Mekong – and terminates before Huak district, just over the border with Phayao.
Chiang Khong is the largest town to the north, with Thoen and Chiang Kham to the south. Huak incidentally is the northernmost land crossing with Laos and while currently not open for foreigners to cross, has plans to open up in the future. Summits rise to more than 1,700 metres, often terminating in jagged peaks and cliffs, before dropping abruptly to a narrow riverine strip on the Mekong’s west bank. These steep eastern slopes are mostly covered by protected forest; villages and resorts, plus Route 1093 running below and parallel to the ridge, lie on the western slope. A picturesque valley full of farms and orchards runs below, splitting the range into two strips and Route 1155 runs along here between Wiang Kaen and Thoen.
Two side roads lead up from Route 1155 to Phu Chee Fah, linking Pathang, Rom Fah Thai and Phu Tawan villages and making for a very scenic loop. A wider loop can be made, time permitting, by continuing south after Phu Tawan into Phayao province and joining Route 1021 between Chiang Kham and Thoen. If you’re arriving from Thoen then the link between Route 1155 and 1093 comes out almost directly opposite Phu Chee Fah itself. If you turn left, a short distance will take you to a clutch of resorts at the foot of a steep road up to the viewpoint, while turning right takes you 2.5 clicks into Rom Fah Thai village, with another access road plus all its resorts and cafes. At time of writing Route 1093 between this turn off and Pathang, 23 kilometres north, was in very bad condition, though north of Pathang, the 1155 up the valley from Thoen and the highway leading down to Huak and Chiang Kham were all fine.
The old KMT village of Pathang is much quieter than Rom Fah albeit with a much reduced choice of accommodation and restaurants, while dotted along the road are several Hmong villages. (These will have grocery stores and petrol.) Rom Fah Thai has ATMs and a police box – we didn’t see either elsewhere – while the closest town for hospital, post office and so is Thoen.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.