A thrilling adventure
Crouching under tight pinches and long green snakes coiled into towering limestone rock, we emerged at a waterfall where an old lady taught us to make rice noodles by hand. Known as “Loei’s Kunming” thanks to a landscape resembling the Southern Chinese region, Suan Pha Hin Ngam and Nam Tok Phaeng Din made for a thrilling adventure.
This “Forest Park of Beautiful Stones” is nestled down a side road amid countryside famous for its rock formations. The moss-covered karst cuts straight up in many places, reaching 800 metres at the highest point. While longer treks can be arranged, we settled for an hour-long guided hike through a forest with rocks resembling various animals and other objects.
We’ve seen more than a few islands and mountains that supposedly look like chickens, camels and elephants in different parts of Thailand, but they always seem to disappoint. At Suan Pha Hin Ngam, one rock truly does look like a baby elephant raising its trunk upwards, while another is an uncanny T-Rex hanging its head low over the trail. This is a place where kids’ imaginations will run wild.
Guided by an enthusiastic nature expert who was raised in the nearby village, the walk first led past a cave shrine marked by two buffalo horns set up on old-fashioned scales, a feature of folk superstition that symbolises fertility. Our guide made up for a lack of English skills by pointing and demonstrating by hand, though he wasn’t quite able to convey the significance of the scales.
We crawled under low-hanging rocks before reaching a steel walkway that meandered beneath the canopy. Our guide cut a thin slit on a tree to reveal a blood-like red sap from under the mossy bark. He also pointed out a tree snake coiled nearby along with numerous flowers, mushrooms and some kind of millipede that bundles up to disguise itself as a tiny brown nut.
After descending a steep set of stairs, we emerged into a dark and rather spooky section of narrow caves and cliffs perched so close together that they felt like the walls of a secret castle passageway. This labyrinthine environment made it clear why visitors are required to employ a local guide.
A draping of strong dreadlock-esque roots hung from one cliff, and we were shown how to climb them — just like regular climbing ropes — to reach a height of several metres from the ground. Nearby stood a larger-than-life stone penguin shrouded in spindly vines that, according to our guide, had hosted a Burmese python earlier in the day.
Keeping our eyes open for snakes, we once again climbed a stairway to a wide viewing platform where a couple of women peddled lottery tickets under an umbrella. We tried to distinguish more animals in the surrounding mountains, tapped on a slab of stone that rung with a metallic sound, and stood under the very top of a giant, 1,000-year-old palm tree.
At the end of the hike, we sampled tea sold by local vendors before hopping in the back of an ee-taek (Thai-style tractor) for a spin on a muddy lane. The sparkling rooftop of a forest temple and Phi Ta Kohn-style statues of Spiderman and Angry Birds flashed by as we rode. It was too bumpy to take a decent picture.
A few hundred metres further up the road, we came to a second parking area where the roar of cascading water could be heard. In several small pools amid the multi-tiered Paeng Din waterfall, a group of kids balanced on a log while wrestling to see who would splash off first. A crew of wiry locals pounded som tam with a mortar and pestle, inviting us over for a bite.
While not the most impressive waterfall in Thailand or even Loei province, Paeng Din is the perfect refresher after working up a sweat from the hike. Take a left just before the waterfall and you’ll come to Phu Pha Baw, another viewpoint overlooking “Thai Mount Fuji”, so called because it resembles Japan’s sleeping giant when fog settles on its peak.
A makeshift restaurant beside the parking area also whipped up pungent som tam along with kaeng pla-rah khanom jeen, a fiery curry dish made with noodles pounded from a mixture of glutinous rice flour and water. The chef let us make our own noodles using a certain type of strainer that rendered the milky mixture into thin hairs, which quickly congealed in the charcoal-heated water.
Entry to the waterfall is free, but the guided walk at Suan Pha Hin Ngam costs 100 baht per person (paid in advance at an office near the parking lot), plus 15 baht per person for the tractor ride. A tip for the guide is also a good idea, at least if they do as fine a job as ours did. Some visitors do only an extended tractor ride, so make sure to request the hike as well. Limited English is spoken — the attraction receives few foreigners — but the locals were quick to welcome us.
If the spirit catches you, some small on-site resorts are run by locals and offer bungalows for between 400 and 2,000 baht per night. Along the access road, a couple of pavilions with good views are perfect for a picnic. You’ll also pass the trailhead for another cave and waterfall that can also be reached by ee-taek, though we didn’t leave enough time for those.
Take Route 201 for 45 km south from Loei town (also the way to Phu Kradueng National Park) and hang a right (west) on to Route 4016 in the village of Ban Nong Hin, following blue signs for Suan Pha Hin Ngam. You’ll need to make a U-turn then cut over to the shoulder road in order to access the turn off. From there it’s another 15 or so km along a scenic road with green signs continually pointing the way (just be careful not to bear right on to Route 3021). The turn off for Suan Pha Hin Ngam is marked by a large red sign that says “Kunming Mueang Loei” in English. We know of no public transport to the park so you’ll need your own wheels; expect a taxi or tuk tuk in Loei town to charge at least 500 baht for a roundtrip.
Admission: waterfall is free; guided walk at Suan Pha Hin Ngam 100 baht per person; 15 baht per person for tractor ride
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.