A Natural New Year
Bangkok actually can be pretty chilled at this time of year. Half of the city has gone home or on vacation, traffic is light, and you can actually get a seat on the BTS. But why not head up or down country and have a quiet celebration communing with nature? The views are certainly spectacular, the weather most likely good, and you might see a spot of Thailand you never knew looked so nice. Here are two of my favorites at polar opposites of the kingdom.
Phu Chi Fa
A lot of Bangkokians head north for the New Year, as the temperatures are actually cold at night, the air is clear, and the northern mountains come into their own. There are plenty of spots to choose from around Chiang Mai, although the closer you stay to the Lanna capital, the more crowded it gets, with legions of souped-up 4WD vehicles laden down with the kitchen sink making their way to every viewpoint and campground available. Head a bit further north up past Chiang Rai, and then make your way east towards Nan. Up here overlooking the Lao border you’ll find Phu Chi Fa (also Phu Chee Fah), popular with Thai crowds, although well off the beaten path for foreign visitors.
Meaning “mountain pointing to the sky,” an appropriate nickname given that the high point of the 1,628-meter peak located here sticks out like a finger pointing upwards to the heavens, this magical spot overlooks the Mekong River valleys, with views of endless jungle clad peaks jutting up in the distance. The big attraction here is the sunrise, made all the more magnificent during the cool season months by the entire valley below being filled with a dense sea of mist, which is caused by cold air draining down the mountain slopes, which reduces the air temperature in the valley to condensation point.
You’ll have to forego the usual latenight party and hangover, as well as brave the cold temperatures (yes, it actually can get down to freezing up here) and make a dawn start to do the short hike up from the parking lot to the mountain top, but the rewards are epic. The first sun of the New Year rises up from the mountains of Laos, and lights up the sea of clouds that amass like snow far below you.
Travelers can stay in the small village of Rom Fah Thai about 15-minutes below the mountain, or else spend the night camping just below the peak. An added plus here is the fact that Phu Chi Fa is a Forest Park and not a National Park, so you don’t have to pay an entry fee, which is a rarity when it comes to viewing natural wonders like this up north. To get here, head east from Chiang Rai on Highway 1020, turning off at the town of Thoeng, where there is also public transport up to Rom Fah Thai.
If you don’t like the cold, and really fancy being a Robinson Crusoe and having a New Year’s beach escape almost all to yourself, far from the maddening crowds of Samui and Phuket, head for Thailand’s last best kept secret. Large and mysterious, Koh Tarutao has a history of being an island of captivity. In the early 1930s, Tarutao was chosen by the Thai Department of Corrections as the top spot for a penal colony, and by the end of the decade, was home to thousands of prisoners. While those days may be long gone, the captivity factor still remains though, only this time it’s intrepid island lovers who are stuck on Tarutao, and a journey to one of Thailand’s last undeveloped jungle and beach paradises has a way of making it hard to leave.
In 1940, there were over 3,000 prisoners incarcerated along Tarutao’s east coast at Ao Talo Wow (Ao means bay). There were crocodile and shark infested waters, getting off the island was pretty much impossible, and when Tarutao stopped receiving food and medical supplies from the mainland during WWII, both prisoners and wardens turned to piracy in the Straits of Malacca as a way of survival.
Today, Ao Talo Wow can be reached by mountain bike, and boasts a newly built and informative museum detailing the history of the penal colony years, along with the ruins of the old prison camp. The west side of the island is home to some of the most pristine white sand beaches in the country, and while there are national park bungalows (the only developed accommodation allowed on the island) located at Ao Phante Malacca where the boats dock and Ao Mole a bit further south.
If you want to really get away from it all, head down to Ao Son, a campsite reached on foot through the jungle. There’s a cafeteria here to keep you sated, and your final sunset of 2018 promises to be memorable, shared with perhaps just a handful of other seekers of solitude.
The famed television series Survivor shot its 2002 seasonal series here, and it’s easy to see why, as much of the island is untamed jungle, home to commonly seen dusky langurs and hornbills, as well as pythons, and sea turtles at the right time of year.
The name “Koh Tarutao” comes from the Malay pulau tertua, which means old and mysterious island. With its dense forests, high peaks, and large swathes of unexplored jungle it indeed lives up to its name, and you might find yourself captive to its charms far past your departure date. It’s certainly Thailand’s most unique spot to ring in the new.
Koh Tarutao can be reached by daily speedboat from the Pak Bara pier in Satun Province. Minivans run to Pak Bara from Hat Yai taking 3-4 hours. Hat Yai is also the nearest airport, with plenty of daily flights from Bangkok. Bungalows at Ao Phante Malacca and Ao Mole can be booked via the Thailand National Parks website, www.dnp.go.th .