Hiking Phu Suan Sai: The Ultimate Guide
Located in a remote corner of Thailand’s non-touristy Loei province, Phu Suan Sai is a mountainous and rugged national park with an overnight hiking trail. And with backpacking options relatively limited in northeast Thailand, we were excited to check out this offbeat hike.
From Mueang Loei, our drive to Phu Suan Sai took much longer than expected. So we ended up spending the night in a small bordertown called Ban Muang Phrae – just in time for sunset.
In the morning, the village has a reputation for being covered in “mist.” Until 9am or so on most days, the village’s quiet streets are lined with fog as the locals begin their day.
For us, walking around the village in the morning was a peaceful experience as the locals were friendly, the weather was cool (a luxury in Thailand), and the environment was full of character.
Once the fog broke, we hopped on our motorbike and drove for roughly 40 minutes to Phu Suan Sai’s headquarters. Upon arrival, we paid 100 baht for my ticket (foreigner entry price), 20 baht for May’s ticket (Thai price), and 30 baht for the motorbike parking fee.
We also paid a 600 baht “ranger fee” for overnight hiking. This is a mandatory fee as you’re required to be accompanied by a ranger on the hike (for safety purposes). Don’t worry, there’s no elephants or tigers here… just the occasional cobra – kidding, well sort of.
The hike itself is pretty short (just 5 km one-way) and can be done as a long day hike. The first kilometer is the steepest section and the trail is mostly covered with leaves and broken bamboo – it’s semi-technical, but not difficult. However, its very easy to get lost as the trail isn’t well-maintained and the route changes season-to-season – which is why you need a guide.
Roughly midway through our hike, our guide Num took us on an unexpected flower hunt. We ended up being incredibly lucky as we found the ultra rare and exceptionally beautiful Sapria Himalayana (also known as the hermit’s spittoon).
As a root parasitic plant, the Sapria Himalayana isn’t dependent on photosynthesis for survival like most flowers. Instead, the Sapria develops on underground root system of parasites that extract nutrients and water from a host plant.
Once our last flower hunt came to an end, we still had another 90 minutes of hiking to reach the campground at the top of the mountain. Compared to the initial 1 km of trail, the rest of the hike was a breeze and we moved at a quick pace to reach the top – we wanted to beat the rain.
Phu Suan Sai’s campground for hiking is the highest in Northeast Thailand (also known as Isaan). The views here are supposed to be spectacular, but unfortunately due to the rainy weather and haze from the seasonal burning of sugar cane fields, our visibility was low – ridiculously low.
To our surprise, the campground ended up being an old military base for the Laos Army during the Thai-Laotian Border War in the late 1980s.
Complete with a series of reinforced bunkers, the rangers of the park thought it would be a good idea to maintain the base and use it as a rustic form a shelter for cooking and cowboy camping. Pretty smart, but sort of creepy at the same time.
Since it was lightly raining and cold, Num quickly put together a fire pit to warm all of us up. He also brought out a stainless steel pot to boil water, so we could hydrate our dinner for the evening – some Thai instant noodle soup that we got from Big C for 64 baht (a pack of 3).
With our bellies halfway full and a strong storm rolling in, we decided to pitch our tent underneath the campground’s makeshift shelter instead of underneath the twig-like branches of the trees.
Severe gusts of wind were forecasted for the evening, so we wanted a redundancy measure against falling branches – which the shelter so generously provided.
Shortly after setting up camp for the evening, we got socked in – the wind was fierce and the rain was so heavy that we couldn’t see a few yards in front of us – even the ground started flooding.
It ended up raining all night, so we went to bed early – wishing for a dry tomorrow.
By morning light, the rain had let up but the fog was so thick that it felt like you could cut through it with a knife. The fog broke around 7:30 am and we were able to explore the misty woodland environment with fresh eyes.
Even in the morning, we still didn’t have much of a view – just intermittent flashes of rolling mountain tops and the sight of a small village nestled in the valley. It seems like the fog, clouds, and haze combined forces to be a visual nuisance, as we only got glimpses of the view.
Deprived a view and threatened with heavy rains, we decided to head back down the mountain early. And since it rained heavily all night, the greenery of the forest turned a glowing sage color.
After the rainstorm, the forest seemed to take on new life and turned out to be more beautiful on the way down than on the way up. It felt like a completely different route, making the slippery and muddy hike down much more enjoyable than anticipated.
Even though we missed out on Phu Suan Sai’s greatest hiking attraction (the view), we still thoroughly enjoyed our experience and are planning to go back next season. Next time we’ll also combine this trip with overnight camping at Phu Hua Hom for the stunning morning views.
Long story short… we recommend this offbeat hike in Thailand – it’s worth the effort to get here. And if you do decide to visit Phu Suan Sai, please consider spending a night in Ban Muang Phrae as well – it’s a charming little village.
On the drive back to Mueang Loei, rural mountain roads weave through a variety of small villages. Roughly 25 minutes away from Phu Suan Sai, we ended stopping at an ancient Buddhist temple in the village of Saeng Pha, called Wat Si Po Chai.
There’s not a whole lot to see at this temple, but it’s definitely worth the stop to admire the architecture and history of the place – it’s over 470 years old.
#1: Phu Suan Sai National Park is only open for hiking from December through February. According to the rangers, the best weather (for clear views) is typically between the last week of December and the first week of January.
#2: The top campground has a reliable rain water collection system, so you won’t need to bring a lot of water with you. Just bring a water purifier (like the Grayl bottle) and you’ll have access to plenty of clean water – there’s no other water source outside of the collected rain water.
#3: If you’re taking a motorbike to Phu Suan Sai, the backroads (vs the main highway) offer much better views and less traffic. Just be aware that traditional gas stations are non-existent. There’s only small self-service stations outside of people’s homes in small villages. Make sure to bring enough small bills with you, as there’s no change for larger bills.
#4: The rangers / guides at Phu Suan Sai don’t speak English, so you’ll need to go with a Thai speaking friend or an extra guide (non-ranger) that can translate for you. As for rangers, we highly recommend booking Num in advance – he was patient, understanding, and kind.