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Delightful Thailand – Petchabun



Thailand – Delightful Petchabun


Misty mountains… somewhere on the slopes, covered in cold clouds, looms Phetchabun. THAI's in flight magazine had portrayed the town as a cool retreat, an oasis in a foggy misty mountain jungle. The map shows hillsides all around.

So let's go there, refresh in the heights. I am tired of steamy noisy dirty busy Bangkok, I want to check out Phetchabun tomorrow. Phetchabun's location, the way to get there as well as the lodging outlets are as nebulous as the supposed climate itself: Phetchabun is not in the north, not in the northeast, but not in Central Thailand either. About 350 kilometres straight north of Bangkok, Phetchabun lies smack in the middle of nowhere. And it is not in the Lonely Planet – I have no info about how to go there, where to sleep and what to do.

Getting There

But while the Lonely Planet misses this place, if you Google hard enough you will find that Thailand's TAT plus a few Phetchabun aficionados have posted useful information on the net. I get touring ideas, hotel advice, and I print decent town maps. There seems to be the usual "best hotel in town" in the 1000-Baht-range, but online I don't see their telephone number. Of the many hotel reservation services, only Hotelthailand.com offers Phetchabun online, so I call them for an instant confirmation. But that is not available: I have to fill the online form and wait for their reply, "we answer today, sir."

Now for the hotel I have to wait for the reply from Hotelthailand.com. But how to go to Phetch'? Online, I don't see flights to Phetchabun either with THAI or with PB Air.

I call THAI. The voice menu makes me press a number for English speaking service, then another number for domestic routes. Then a real person welcomes me in Thai. I mention "Phetchabun" and am reconnected again. The lady says: "To Phetchabun you need PB Air, ok you can booking with me, but tomorrow airplane full already." Khop khun khrap, I call PB Air directly: "We don't fly to Phetchabun, sir, we don't know how you can fly there."

The next morning, I use my hotel's expensive internet service for a quick look at Hotelthailand.com's answer, but they didn't reply yet. So my room in Phetch is not secured. And as the airplane is unclear, too, I call a taxi to the Morchit bus station, wait there ten minutes and sit in a decent air-con bound for Phetchabun. It is a five hour haul through dead flat area, mostly boring. From the bus I call Hotelthailand.com again and ask for my room. This time they do confirm the room by telephone.

In Phetch, the bus stops not at the station, but in a small soi. A very old bearded tuktuk driver with glasses cut out of a whiskey bottle wants to take me to the hotel for 30 Baht. I suggest 20. He clings to my arm as if drowning, I repeat my pricing idea, and finally he agrees. His Liliputean tuktuk is too small for 1 farang + 1 bag, but we need just three minutes to the hotel. I see no misty mountains, Phetch is just your usual hot upcountry job in a well-ironed valley. Kosit Hill Hotel awaits me with a meter-long fax from Hotelthailand.com, and they have the room for me.

Staying there

The Kosit Hill Hotel has a decent unused swimming-pool and rooms in three categories from about 900 to 1250 Baht. From what I remember, walk-in rates and online rates do not differ. I had opted for an 1100 Baht room. It's big, it has a big window with no balcony, it has – thank you – stone floor instead of a smelly carpet and the usual bathroom with a tub. Still, just my room gets noise from the attached karaoke parlour downstairs, and it gets greasy clouds from the kitchen. I ask for another room, but am declined – maybe they are full, maybe not. I sleep well anyway, the karaoke noise is low key and seems to peter out after 11 pm.

The Kosit Hill is not as sterile and pseudo-feudal as other 1000-Baht-digs in provincial Thailand. It is an open, breezy construction where you have some open air most of the time while roaming between room, reception and breakfast place. The hotel is full of flowers and full of old vitrins and drawers that present endless numbers of small things – anything from micky mouses to old pictures, decorative items and toys. You will find porcelain dogs on guard, as well as real cats roaming the floors. The huge collection is mildly entertaining and has a personal touch, but then it is too much of too many different things, and one would like to know just who collected all this.

I have no information about motosai rentals, but of course I need a machine for my local pothole research. I doubt that this town has official motosai renters, and from previous upcountry trips I know that the many repair shops and motosai vendors around the main road rarely rent out their machines.

A young guy logs the luggage to my hotel room. He speaks no English at all, but I manage to communicate in Thai that I need a motosai for three days. To give him an idea, I say I'd like a Honda Dream. He regrets, he only has a Honda Wave, but mai pen rai, for me that's just the same (do you know the difference?). He asks me how much a motosai is in Phuket or Pattaya, I say "150", which is true; I don’t mention that less touristy places like Ubon, Udon, Nakhon Phanom or Khon Khaen charge 200 to 300 Baht. He agrees to 150 Baht. I get quite a decent 100 ccm silver Honda Wave plus a real good helmet – that kind of actually protective helmet motosai renters never bother to buy for their customers, but that concerned people get for themselves. And I even fit into it. The hotel boy also informs reception about our motosai deal; I don't know if that is a good idea, but we agree I can pay and return the motosai key to reception.

Breakfast at the Kosit Hill is a sad affair. Like most 1000-Baht-hotels, they have a TV blasting Thai news. There are no cereals, tea comes from Lipton only (hell, why), coffee isn't any better. On my first two mornings, when they seem not to be fully booked, I get a set breakfast, on the third morning it is a buffet. If you don't like meat, but want a western breakfast somehow, you have to eat toast with omelette.

There are more hotels in Phetchabun. The huge Burapha complex on the northern edge of town supposedly offers decent 600-Baht-rooms. Opposite that one there is, according to my sources, another hotel which is supposed to have clean rooms without any windows – thanks for that. Wandering through town, in one narrow backyard I see what looks like a Sukhumvit soi 11 drive-in short time hotel. That place calls itself Sawadee bungalows and is in bad need of maintenance.

Around town

Phetchabun is supposed to have this "lake", where people meet for a stroll in the cooler hours. Ah, sit down to catch a breeze, watch people and socialise, that's my favorite Thailand pastime. But the "lake" actually looks more like a canal, merely five meters wide. There is no grass around it, just a small asphalted walkway, next comes the road going all around the water. You can sit down on the small asphalt strip near the water or on the stairs leading to the water – but cars and motorbikes roar by centimeters away, and it is difficult to get in touch with other people there.

Funny, the road around the "lake" has a special lane only for joggers. I see about four of them – all trodding in the same direction, as for a meeting of two joggers in opposite directions the lane would be too narrow.

There are more real lakes. One is just two kilometres out of town. It has a small park on one side, and again lots and lots of small restaurants, catering to teenagers on motosai. The whole area looks slightly sleazy, dirty and uninviting. And there is a big dam about 10 kilometres out of town. It is not easy to find the entrance, I always end up at the dam's administration complex, but finally I make it to the shore.

It has several simple restaurants built up in a way that you can't see much of the reservoir. Out of one restaurant steps a sexy Thai lady and smiles "Hello mister, you come alone khaa?" Who'd expect bargirl talk in the boondocks west of Phetchabun? She seems fun and anglophone, so I opt for a lemon juice there. When I sit down with her, a bearded Italian joins us and explains all of Thailand to me. He seems to be her boyfriend, as he explains all of his Thai girl to me too. Funny, she talks some Italian: she is able to finish a Thai or English sermon with an Italian "Capito?" I always felt that Italians and Thais have quite something in common: in terms of temperament, care for style and good food as well as in their nationalism and unsavoury corporate governments. This delightful Thai lady would fit perfectly into a piazza in Milano or Urbino, checking tomatoes on the market or chatting away with the neighbours.

While Miss Thai-Italian is obviously not available for me, they have a fat shy Lao girl on the premises and I am told that she would definitely like a western boyfriend. There is one more young Thai man; he is completely built up like a lady with a lot of make-up and jewellery. The italophone Thai girl explains to me: "She has hot dog, but she wants to be lady. She wants to take you to Oasis disco tonight." Uiuiui, well sorry, I already have an appointment, khaw thot khrap, ciao amici. Darkness has set in by now, and I bounce back to town.

After dark

Now where do you go for dinner, and what you'd do after that? I return to the central "lake" that looks like a canal. On the far side of that "lake", the lake road is dotted with small pleasant open-air restaurants. The water is not visible from there. Mostly they offer cook-your-own, which is difficult or boring for a single guy. Finally I land in the slightly upmarket T-Bar, where the tables sit on wooden planks on several levels, and they can do a fried rice there for me; it seems to be a place for the nouveaux-riches, and for the next nights, I prefer dinner at the night food market in a narrow downtown soi. (I never use Phetch's KFC.)

I check my e-mails in one of the noisy internet garages where screaming teenagers play dull killing games on asthmatic Win-98-SE-computers. Later I discover the more agreeable V.N. Net which looks from the outside like a provincial European ice-cream parlour, and they actually do serve ice-cream. Killing noise here is through headphones only. They have no printer, but new USB-ready computers plus a very charming service lady, who seems to speak no English. She is one more reason to come back there. One time by mistake I dish up not a Baht note, but a Euro bill – she grabs the money quickly and smiles "You give me?"; that's fortunately on my last evening anyway.

Is there anything else in town for the lonely rider? You can walk endlessly through the night market, but if you have seen other Thai night markets, this one isn't any more exciting. They feature a lot of OTOP products, though, like textile elephant shaped bags or scented soap with flower leaves inside. On all my walks through town, I see about five westerners, one with attached lady.

The Burapha hotel has a massage fishbowl with a rotten red carpet. It's inhabited by about five absolute drab queens – I stumble back out and swear to become a monk. Then there is Oasis disco north of the city center. The band there does the usual good job in copying Thai dance hits, and there are a lot of college kids. I am the only farang, but get no special attention. I don't try the disco that's supposed to be in the Burapha hotel.

On the way back into the hotel I hear hammering beats from one house even through the roar of my Honda Wave. Turns out to be a pub where a Thai band plays anything from Carabao Thai rock to look thung to Santana, the usual place with heavy wooden furniture and wild west deco. Now if one farang likes Thai live music pubs, then that's me, but this place in Phetch is mai sanook for me: There are only few people on this weekday, and the tables are really far apart from each other – you get kind of a lost feeling and can't smile to other tables. The place is cooled down way too much and has a light grey marble floor which doesn't fit in with the wild west theme. Then there are two what look like retired Bangkok whores who happily descend on me – I happily lie about my hotel's name and marital status and leave soon after.

On the way to my hotel room, I pass Kosit Hill's karaoke parlour and take a peek. It is actually like a huge dark living room with lots of couches and potted palms, the music videos are played on three big silver screens. They play quite nice singer-songwriter-music here, and I relax with my Heineken on my sofa. They also serve very nice heated nibbles together with the beer – I just wish they'd shred all the microphones on the premises, then it would be quite a comfy hangout. But someone always has to howl something over the PA, singing painfully wrong, so I check-bin quickly. The bill features not only the beer, but also the nibbles, not ordered but eaten by me, with 50 extra Baht.

Pothole Research

So much about Phetch by night. The place is better by day, though. The next morning I roar off for a mountain range called Khao Khaw. After 20 kilometres in boring flat savannah, the road gets steep. According to the information, I finally reach points more than 1000 meters above sea level. When I sit down for a rest, I actively seek to sit in the sun – shadow is too cool up there in December.

In the 70s, Thai communists used Khao Khaw as a refuge. High on a steep hill I arrive at an adequately steep obelisk in a well-manicured garden; this place commemorates Thai soldiers who died fighting against communists. Two kilometres on, there is what they call a war museum – a few helicopters and flak guns arranged over another hill, in another sterile garden. A few soldiers stand guard. A Thai family happily takes their pictures with the martial war toys as a backdrop; they suggest they snap me in that environment with my own camera, but for once I decline a photo suggestion. There are more things to see, like a library and a palace. Nothing is impressive at all; like so often in upcountry Thailand, more interesting than the destination is the way to get there – and the chance to meet holidaying Thais. But the places I see do get very few visitors on that weekday.

I roar on through chilly mountain air, my T-shirt and cotton jacket are not enough up here. You get nice views, but looking back on my memory card, I did not take one single picture: it was never special, the landscape so barren. According to one internet source the area is called "little Switzerland" – which would be a gross exaggeration. Anyway, north of the obelisk quite a few bungalow resorts dot the hills. I get astonished looks when I do stop there, clearly the first farang tourist they have seen and the only tourist on that day; at the somewhat deserted restaurant, they assure me food is available, but then they suggest anything but fried rice would take too long. For coffee I stop at another bungalow place, and they heftily try to make me rent a place – ten times I say I do have my hotel in Phetch, but they don't give up.

On the way back I pass by one of Thailand's many drive-by waterfalls. Like always, it is not that special, has the usual assortment of snack shops, educative nature-trails and a lively school class or so with a farang guide. They sell woolen snow caps here, drawn over empty water bottles.

For once, I am happy to get back to the valley for the evening. In this December night, the valley will be cool enough, and the mountainside will definitely not be inviting.

As I step out of the hotel the next morning, the helmet to my motosai is missing. I had put it into the motosai's basket without locking it, like everybody else who parks there. I wonder if I actually check the right motosai, they all look the same anyway, so I try my key on a few more motosais – and it works everywhere! I can't see the hotel boy who owns the machine, so I talk to receptionists and souvenir stall ladies; they don't seem worried about a lost helmet and I get a new, cheap one. Then I can set off for Tat Mok waterfall.

Now how do you find all those places? The available Thailand maps and road books don't help much. You find a few sketchy area maps online, and you might be able to convince Kosit Hill's receptionists to dish out the photocopied area map they keep locked away in a remote drawer. Put all those maps together, print the descriptions from the web, and use the available blue road signs to tourist attractions – and you will find most places of interest.

For Tat Mok waterfall you ride 11 flat kilometres straight east to Ban Chaliang Lap, then the road takes into the skies like a rocket. It is beautiful right from the moment it gets vertical. Thick mountain jungle envelops the very decent sealed road. Occasionally, there are great views back into the valley, and there you find picnic salas. I have no information about CPT activities here, but the area has a distinctive Ho Chi Minh trail feel.

The road to Tat Mok seems to be built for pleasure only. There are no villages, but a few what I think are guesthouses for youth groups. At the first checkpoint I am prepared to fork out money, but they just want to tell me that it is 23 kilometres to the fall. I drive ten kilometres on when I have to stop at another gate – to learn from another ranger that I still have seven kilometres to the waterfall; amazing Thailand. Again, no money required, I only have to write my name into a list of visitors.

It is absolutely great motosai riding here, on a smooth sealed road in mountain jungle with a lot of great vistas back down. Not as high as Khao Khaw, I guess, but much more lush and pretty. I meet a big road construction site, and all the female workers give me sexy looks. Should I drop off a load of name cards? Beyond the construction, the road perishes. Motosai now hobbles over stones, dirt and roots, and several times I drive through knee-deep water, my feet high in the air. This goes on for about three kilometres. Then one last piece of decent asphalt: The trailhead to the waterfall.

The walk up to the fall is great. You follow a little creek which you cross twenty times – of course on slippery boulders. You work your way through thick shady forest and over huge dead trees. Watch out to not eat the spiders hanging in your way. It is two kilometres only, but the rough path and the uphill trend make it strenuous. By accident I step into the water, which is just refreshing, so from then on I keep on stepping into the gurgling crystal creek. The fall itself is thin, but comes down a huge cliff. Nothing like Kaui's Kalalau Valley, but fall and walk to together are sure worth the effort. If you climb even more, you can make it to the pool under the fall, but I am too lazy to research if a dip can be had or not. On the whole hike up and down I meet one small group of twenty something Thais.

Getting away

If you ask me, Phetch offers a few nice day trips and not much after 6 PM. Unlike Isaan, I had no friendly encounters there. Fortunately, fun towns like Khon Khaen or Udon Thani are only 4 to 6 bus hours away.

An Israeli sees me checking out in the hotel lobby and offers a ride to the bus station in his pickup. That's about the friendliest thing that happened to me in Phetchabun

Stickman's thoughts:

Another truly delightful submission. Few people catch the flavour of Thailand as well as you do, very few.