Sunday, August 31, 2014

Phetchabun, Middle Earth in Rainy August

Fresh Veggies
A bag of Chinese cabbage plucked fresh from the hills of Phu Tub Berk cost 80 Baht per bag. And per bag, there were about 15 of those, inclusive of snails, slugs and many other unidentified slimy crawlies as they ventured out on my kitchen top. We go to the markets in Bangkok to buy one for our home cooking, it cost 30 Baht. Compared to what was freshly harvested which was only 5.3 Baht thereabouts. 25 Baht, that's how much going into transporting fresh produce from their source to our nearest market for our convenience, the real cost is one sixth the selling price.

Nice Little Place
It was the weekend before Thai Mother's Day. We decided at the last moment to go for a road trip. It was 400km from the city to the area of Khao Kho and further onto Phu Tub Berk, the province of Phetchabun. Not much accommodations could be found on Agoda. The hoteliers there may still be trying to figure out what is GPS and what is GPRS, so any attempt to locate them will be futile using the IT avenue. We had to source from local Thai forums, spot the numbers left by reviewers and called them guesthouses up. The guesthouses on the highlands operated in a more or less backwards fashion compared to what you would find in well established spots of Thailand. In addition, don't expect grand amenities and large compounds.

Accommodation on Phu Tub Berk
Our lodge on Phu Tub Berk had no air conditioner. The larger establishments had found no interest in the area yet. Most of the operations remained small, with accommodation simple and containing only between 5 to 10 units each. However, the view of the surrounding was spectacular, especially those located high on the peaks. And high, it was about 1400m above sea level on Phu Tub Berk. Naturally, it was cooling. Averagely, temperature drops at a rate of 0.65 degree Celsius per 100m, so this central highland plain at Phetchabun not too far from Bangkok was a good venue to escape the heat. In the late afternoon, the rain clouds enveloped the rolling hills, it was about 22. And in the early morning, it was 18 when we were there.

Our first destination was Khao Kho from Bangkok. Took Asia Highway 1, turned off north onto 21 after Saraburi towards and pass Chai Badan. After a great long distance towards and just passed Phetchabun on the same route, left on 2258 and there was where the driving fun uphill began. A distance later, right onto 2196 and that was the main scenic route into Khao Kho. It was a picturesque area of rolling hills that were lush and vibrantly green. The shadows crept across the terrain between moments of sun and shade. The breeze was humid and cool turning my hot tea cold in no time. There was no throng of tourist from Bangkok, just a scatter. It was not peak season yet, that was supposed to be set in year end winter. And so the camping grounds were deserted, only a small number of bright yellow and blue tents assembled. Home stays and accommodations were clustered together where the best hilltops were. Most offered an open roof where visitors could ascend to take in the early morning seascape of clouds. I did not.

A new Camping Ground

Where the lone Guard Stayed
I went adventuring to stumble onto a new camping ground high on another peak far away from the better known viewpoints when the sun rose. The elderly guard was more happy to see company from his many nights of lone sentry and his sleep over in a tent set up among construction materials. He said he was not sure what the place was called, and that the owners were striving to have it completed by the end of the year. It will be one of the best spots I could ascertain. From between where the two contemporary wooden housing set like futuristic space docks lined to the horizon, the morning fog was thick like a disorderly yet majestic blanket after a night of slumber. Dark crest of a hundred mountains peaked from the white in layers far into the distance. He chatted much with us and told of the sunset that few knew, where the landscape will be painted crimson with shadows of the mountain lords in vision. Well, I never got to see that, next time when I return I will. We bid him farewell after I had loaded my memory card with countless shots. Another car came panting up the steep narrow road, the lone guard happily greeted the next explorer.

The Sense on Khao Kho

Breakfast with a View
I did not want to have the complementary cheap sausage and eggs breakfast back at our resort. We headed back into the main Khao Kho region to a renowned resort called The Sense and had breakfast with a view. That’s when I had to pay for equally cheap sausage and eggs breakfast. Never mind the quality, I just wanted to make my tummy stop growling. The sight was well worth it. We sat outdoors overlooking the valley, I spent more time fiddling with my camera then putting food in my mouth. The Sense was one of the most expensive and up market resorts on Khao Kho and I saw the reason why. The setting was magnificent. In cable TV we have pay per view, The Sense was pay for view.

The Temple
Situated some distance below where the upcoming camping ground was, the crowds were building up at Wat Phra That Pha Kaew. She shared the same view of the mist filled valleys from a lower height. It is very typical of Thais on their holidays to go pray at any temples they spot along the way and so that temple was like a magnet drawing crowds into her compound. Thais prayed there for good luck, lottery, good health and wife not to discover their gigs. I should have been there earlier, I was there at 10. By then, all her narrow roads were plugged with cars parked inconsiderately and we had to engage aggressive challenge mode with oncoming traffic making their way downhill. Eventually with car parked, it was nice to stroll in the cold morning air and at many occasions be shrouded in mist. Temples in Thailand do have themes, and for Wat Phra That Pha Kaew it was balls.

A Ball from Heaven
Lord Buddha there has balls, many in fact. He fancied shiny crystal balls and pilgrims can sponsor a ball for the construction process to a tune of a few thousand Baht. There were also large balls embedded on the flooring that looked like Thor was having a game of marbles with Buddha and gave it a flick too much. The ordeal out of the temple was something as we tried to leave. Some pricks parked inconsiderately blocked my car and I had to make a hundred turns to get out. Then again the challenge mode against oncoming traffic on the already narrow roads made worst by cars parked alongside. My entire merit making beforehand was gradually washed away by my thunderous curses which lasted a good half an hour.

Moai @ Khao Kho
Back to our resort and a good bath, we navigated north towards Phu Tub Berk after checkout. Along the way, we stumbled onto Moai Khao Kho featuring one of those Easter Island statues that said "dumb dumb" in Night of the Museum. It was a cafe serving simple meals and coffee at inflated prices. These Moai things are sprouting up all over Thailand far out from Bangkok where natural attractions are. I had spotted one similar cafe back when I was at Suan Peung. I was told there are a few more across the Kingdom. Crowd magnets and a good pit stop on long journeys they are indeed.

It was a nice Drive
After paying for pricey beverages, we looked for 2331 via GPS and found our way there. 2331 was a steep incline on snaky entrails like roads where my car guzzled petrol. I swear I could hear her 2.4 gulping thirstily with disregards to expense. More curses followed diminishing my recent good karma at the temple as I struggled to overtake the so many slow moving heavy vehicles climbing up the narrow mountain road. At times I was the cause of traffic as I drove slow to take in the view. I could feel the aura of curses regarding me resembling monitor lizard emitting from the cars that overtook me.

Just Vibrant
The vista, it was so full of foliage compared to the last time I was there in 2009. Back then, I came smacked in the middle of winter. It was cold dry and dusty, the landscape was brown and deprived of moisture. Only brown sandstorm stirred by the vehicle upfront I remembered, only the barren mountains. This trip, it was different. It drizzled too many when the dark clouds met the pavement. My fog lights were on casting yellow as we maneuvered within the misty magical landscape. The outside temperature, my dashboard read, rapidly dropped to a low 22. And when we emerged out from the dark clouds as we climbed, there was gentle sunshine and the clear blue skies that painted the vegetation in tones of luminescence green. It was such a pleasant drive as we headed in and out of the clouds hovering at different heights in the landscape.

And the Skies Opened, in the Middle
At times we stopped at the hill tribe markets, on many others we parked on muddy pits to enjoy coffee at the shed perched on viewpoints so awesome. Cafes and lodging of all sorts had sprung up so many compared to the region's desolated past. In fact on this middle earth trip, I had too much coffee and many more tea, it kept me sleepless in our lodge listening to the howl of the midnight gale. The winds were in full force, the clouds were pushed up the cabbage farms marinating them in full moisture. The results of which were bright green leafy vegetable so fresh when the sun rose while the farmers did their picking. The morning spectacle was astonishing as the sun hung low. Below was a breathtaking canvas of striking white clouds so inviting like a vast sea of cotton yield, and above the stark gloom of the dark rain clouds. The sky opened in the middle.

Just Brilliant
Trips to the central highlands I reckon, is for nature oriented lovers. The nature reserve offered hiking to clandestine spots, and a number of waterfalls along the driving route were good convenient stops for Som Tam meals. They suck, they really do and they went on tourist price tags, they were just for filling my hunger. There were one or two good eateries, an interesting one was Chinese on Phu Tub Berk. No pubs, no nightclubs no karaoke up there. To BYO and enjoy wine out the decks in the cold dark nights. There was a Seven Eleven but only on Khao Kho I found. There was no Starbucks, but I found a good too many local cafes. You most likely get an overdose like I did if you visit thus. There was no petrol station in the mountains, I had to fill from an ancient petrol pump where petrol was first drawn up a glass measuring cylinder. It was generally more costly too at 50 Baht per liter. When to go will never be in April summer. I had thought only December was good, like most Thais making their journey north to experience what they call extreme cold of winter. But it will be just barren dry land unlike in the rainy season August I went. It was like an attractive Windows screensaver, except when the wind blew the grass swayed making waves in unison, the cloud shadows creeping the vibrant fields.

Full set of photos are at