Phae Meuang Phi is a geological curiosity: some two million years of erosion have sculpted relatively soft red sandstone into intriguing rock formations.
Although images of it feature heavily in Phrae tourism literature, it’s not an uncommon phenomenon in northern Thailand and if you’ve seen Pai Canyon or Mae Wang National Park then maybe don’t bother with this one; indeed similar Sao Din in neighbouring Nan province is also more extensive and picturesque. The cost of hiring a songthaew from Phrae town probably isn’t warranted but if you are at a loose end and do have transport or you are a particular fan of unusual geological features, then it is an easy 18 kilometre each way drive. The mushroom-shaped pillars, formed where harder strata cap a softer underlying layer, only cover a tiny area but there are further trails you could take into the surrounding area. The forest is low, dry dipterocarp, so don’t expect lush jungle, but it is very good for birdlife.
The name translates as ‘Forest City of Ghosts’ (Spirit Grove may be better though), and while we saw nothing remotely sinister about the spot the area has always been considered sacred by local inhabitants and the name is derived from a rather creepy legend. An old local woman, walking in the area, came across deposits of gold and silver which she loaded into her basket to take home. Spirits however seemed to take offence and she became more and more lost, unable to find the way back to her village until, after depositing the gold and silver back on the ground, she suddenly came across the path home. Recounting the story villagers then returned to look for the gold and silver the following day though despite following the woman’s footprints found no sign of the treasure. Footprints led only to an empty wooden coffin where they abruptly ended. We reckon the old lady probably wouldn’t have been invited to many village social occasions after that and ever since it’s been known as City of Spirits or Ghosts.
It’s a forest park, not national park, so there’s no entrance fee and considering it is only a minor league attraction facilities are good. There’s information and a map in the carpark, plus some good little cafes with even – during holidays and weekends – barbecued chicken, pork and sausages on offer. Paths are well maintained and roofed seating areas are provided. The rocks are around 200 metres from the carpark and a basic loop of the area including viewpoints takes around 10 minutes at a slow pace, though as we said, plenty of other paths seem to crisscross the vicinity and from a distance we spotted further rock formations, which may be worth exploring. The bare rock and gravel landscape can get very hot and dusty during the middle of the day so try and time your visit for earlier or later.
If you have made it out this way, then you may as well have a quick peek at Prathat Chedi Wat Doi Pang. It’s the tall white chedi rising above the scrub to the right of the road just before you arrive at Muang Phi. A signpost in English indicates a dirt track -- in decent condition and around 1 kilometre long -- that takes you to the chedi. The brick chedi peeking out from a dry, scrub-covered plain is vaguely reminiscent of Burma’s Bagan and though there’s not a lot to visit as such views are great.
All in all, though it certainly is a long way off being one of Thailand’s more spectacular landscapes, if you include some grilled pork, a cold beer and a stroll through the woods there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
How to get there
Drive north on the Phrae-Nan highway (Route 101) for around 11 kilometres, then turn right onto Route 1134 for 5 kilometres. The site isn’t well signposted but look out for directions on the right side to the Phrae Department of Rural Roads. An absurd empty new four-lane highway leads past the department to another right turn – this time better indicated – leading the final two kilometres to the park.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 24th February, 2016.