Phu Chi Fa: Sunrise Over the Thai-Lao Boarder

About 3 hours Northeast from Chiang Mai on the Thai-Lao border sits a small village with a handful of restaurants, a few dozen quaint guesthouses, and a row of small stalls lining the main street. The village (I’m not even sure the village’s name!) has a small, sleepy, authentic Thai feel to it with children running through the streets and chickens hanging out along the roadside. Around 4pm every afternoon a bus pulls up to the bus stop (a small parking lot located next to the Police Station) and villagers stroll down to offer their accommodations for the night.

The main attraction of the village is Phu Chi Fa, a mountain peak on the boarder overlooking Laos and the Mekong River. While it’s not the highest peak in Thailand, the view is stunning at sunrise. Mist fills the valley enveloping the villages that lie below while mountains peak out and rise above. It looks as though you are above the clouds as the stars slowly disappear and the sky brightens as it becomes painted by the sun.
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Getting to Phu Chi Fa:

Getting to Phu Chi Fa was easier (and less expensive) than I expected! I was traveling with two girls I met earlier on my trip but I would have felt comfortable making the journey alone. The easiest starting point is from Chiang Rai, and you have two options for seeing the sunrise:

  1. Hire a personal driver: You will need to leave very early in the morning (by 3am at the latest) in order to arrive at the peak by 6am since it is about a 3 hour drive without any stops. The driver will then wait for you to watch the sunrise and take some pictures after, and then will drive you back to Chiang Rai. Based on what we were offered and what some of my friends paid this will cost you about 2,400-2,500BHT. If you have a large group of people and are short on time this might be your best option.
  2. Take the bus and spend the night: The bus from Chiang Rai to Phu Chi Fa leaves daily at 1pm and returns the next morning at 9am. While it seems rushed, this will give you plenty of time to see the sunrise, hang around for photos after, make it back down to eat some breakfast, and then grab your bag to catch the bus. Bus tickets are 300BHT round trip per person. To buy your bus ticket you need to go to the bus station (located near the Chiang Rai night bizarre) around 9am the day that you want to leave. A man or woman will be at a small table located near bus stop 5/6 and you will see a sign that reads “Phu Chi Fa.” The bus will leave from bus stop 2. The bus was a minivan and quite comfortable. It stopped once, about half way in Thoeng, for us to use the bathroom. If you are traveling with less than 3-4 people and can spare an extra night this will be your best option.

Where to Stay:

We tried to look in to booking accommodations before leaving Chiang Rai and found this impossible to do. Most of the places we found didn’t have websites or online booking, and the one that we did was far too expensive for what we wanted to pay (we are on a backpacking budget after all!) We planned to find accommodations when we arrived. When our bus pulled in a woman told us she had rooms for 200BHT/person so we shrugged and followed her. The rooms were far from luxurious, but they were perfect for our 12 hours we would be spending in town. If you’re willing to pay more or to shop around I’m sure that you could find something that suits your level of comfort. Be aware that most of the people who live here speak very little English so be patient, polite, and remember that you’re in their country.

Sunrise at Phu Chi Fa:

If you’ve come all this way you want to make sure that you see the main attraction – the sunrise. The sunrise was at 6:55 when we visited and we left our guesthouse at 5am. The trick is to arrive while it is still completely dark (the stars are beautiful and there’s a good chance you’ll see a shooting star!) and be there for nautical twilight which is when the sky starts to get painted red – far before the official sunrise happens.

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Close to where the bus drops you off you will find several trucks lined up in the parking lot, ready to take guests to the top for 30BHT. You can choose to walk this instead, but at 5am in the cold you’ll be happy they are there waiting for you. The ride is short (about 5-10 minutes) and they will drop you off at the base of the hike. Here they have coffee (20BHT), snacks, clothing (scarves, hats, gloves), and flashlights (you will need a headlight, flashlight, or cell phone light) for sale.

The hike to the top has elevation gain but is not too strenuous and took us about 15 minutes. I would recommend a good pair of shoes (hiking boots or sneakers) and dressing in layers. It wasn’t as cold as we expected and it was warm on the hike up but sitting for 1.5 hours waiting for the sun to rise it got pretty chilly – it’s worth it though!

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After sunrise don’t go running off right away – you’ll have plenty of time to make your way down the mountain, get in a truck, grab breakfast, and get your bags before catching the bus. The crowds will slowly start to clear out but the views are still beautiful to snap a few more pictures!

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Tips and Tricks:

  • Bring toilet paper if you need it! Most places only have bum guns and won’t provide any toilet paper. You can buy it at any 7-Eleven before leaving.
  • I had read that most restaurants close by 6pm but we found this to be not true. There were a number that were open until at least 8pm. There are also several places to buy roti (one of my favorite things) and other snacks on the street. It’s never bad to carry snacks though in case you get hungry and can’t find anything! We picked some up just in case.
  • Bring your headlamp if you have one – it’s much easier for hiking and will save your phone battery for when you want to take pictures!
  • There’s not much you can do about the weather, but if you see that the forecast is overcast/cloudy/rainy, try to postpone. Our friends went a few days after us and the entire peak was in the clouds and they couldn’t see anything!
  • If you take the bus you should arrive in time to see sunset. The locals told us that it “wasn’t beautiful” and that we shouldn’t go to the summit to see it, but we got a great view from the beginning the main access road and we thought that it was beautiful!
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Cost:

Transportation:
Round trip ticket from Chiang Mai to Phu Chi Fa: 300 BHT
Truck up to sunset: 30 BHT
Truck down from sunset: 30 BHT
Accommodations:
1 night accommodation (based on double occupancy): 200 BHT
Food:
Coffee at the base: 20 BHT
Dinner (pad see ew): 50 BHT
Breakfast (omelet over rice): 50 BHT
Total cost: 680 BHT (~$21.25)

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