Doi Phuka is Nan province’s largest, best known and most spectacular national park, covering a wide swathe of forest-clad mountains — the western limits of the Luang Prabang ranges — in the northeastern part of the province, parallel to the Lao border. Its total area is a substantial 1,704 square kilometres and it’s home to the province’s highest peak, Doi Phuka, which stretches just shy of 2,000 metres tall. It is the source of the Nan and Wa rivers and covers forest zones ranging from dry dipterocarp at lower altitudes up through deciduous, evergreen and montane evergreen to natural savanna and pine forests near the summits. (Note that while it is sometimes spelled Phu Kha, it is always pronounced poo-ka rather than pukka.)
Other than the towering mountain of the same name, the park’s most celebrated features are two unusual tree varieties, one very rare and the other thought to be unique to Doi Phuka. The chomphu phuka tree (bretschneidera sinensis), which gives the park its name, is a medium-sized, pink-flowering tree found nowhere else in Thailand, while primordial-looking tree fern caryota gigas is also endemic to the region. The chomphu tree once grew across Yunnan, northern Vietnam and Laos but is now feared to be extinct in all those regions, making Nan possibly the last place on the planet where they grow. Both can easily be seen while driving through the park and while the chomphu is spectacularly dull for most of the year, Thais flock from all over the kingdom to see its celebrated February blooming.
The park stretches from Chaloem Prakhiat district in the far north all the way south to Mae Charim, though the main entrance and park buildings are conveniently located on Route 1256, roughly half way between Pua and Bo Kluea; public transport will drop you off right outside the park entrance. Being the region’s most popular park, it is also the one with the best tourist infrastructure. The park entrance and main facilities are situated close to the mountain itself, which is the best preserved section of the park, so viewpoints around here provide endless vistas of forest and hills though sadly — a common feature in Nan –remoter edges of the park have suffered from extensive encroachment and deforestation. (It will be interesting to see if conservation steps are taken along the lines of those made at higher profile parks such as Khao Yai or Kaeng Krachan, but don’t hold your breath.) Since the area only received official national park status in 2000, it was too late to save much of the local wildlife, so the numbers of mammals and birds is disappointing for an area of this size.
The park headquarters offers a range of accommodation including a campsite, plus a restaurant, minimart, above-average visitor centre and some marked hiking trails. The principal trail, for which the visitor centre obligingly offered us an English-language printed map, leaves from opposite the park headquarters. A largely uphill circuit of around four kilometres takes around four hours while park wardens reckon if you do it backwards, so mostly downhill, three hours ought to be sufficient. If you want to do it backwards then walk straight north along the park road and the trail end is just past the campsite. (The logic being that the uphill section in the reverse direction is mostly road so you can hitch a ride!) Park wardens can accompany you for a tip — though the trail is reasonably clear — but to be on the safe side they will not let you begin hiking after midday. The trail leads past aforementioned ferns and chomphu trees, through primary and secondary forest and reforestation areas. During wet periods it is notorious for leeches and there is a lot of up and down hill walking involved, so don’t bite off more than you can chew.
If you are overnighting in the park, longer treks could be arranged with park rangers to visit caves and waterfalls.
Note that there is a shorter trail from the park buildings to a viewpoint (turn left at the campsite), while the two species of famous trees can actually be seen from the roadside. Route 1256 cuts through the middle of the park and so affords plenty of awesome views without having to enter the park itself. Around eight kilometres past the entrance, towards Bo Kluea, a carpark and viewpoint with convenient coffee shop has great views looking west plus handily placed roadside chomphu and tree ferns. There is now a park admission hut here too, so even if you haven’t entered the park proper, and bought a ticket, they may well try and charge you at this point. We already had a ticket at this juncture and we’re not certain if saying you need a pee and a coffee will suffice, otherwise it’s 200 baht to see a tree. (There’s also another campsite at this point.)
While park chalets are cosy enough with warm bedding provided, if you’re camping up here during the December-February winter months it can get seriously cold, so go prepared. The park restaurant serves up Thai standards at thankfully standard prices and is open from 07:30-18:00, or 20:00 during high season, so don’t get caught out there either.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.