Phu Kradueng – Once in a Lifetime

“Once in a lifetime, we are conquerors of Phu Kradueng,” so says the sign in Thai that greets all the tired and determined adventurers when they reach the plateau at the top of Phu Kradueng mountain in beautiful Loei Province, North East Thailand. It’s a tough but well-facilitated hike that sees you gain over 1000m (3280 ft) in about 5kms, a hike that might take anything from 4 to 7 hours to complete depending upon your fitness level, the number of rest stops you take and the trail conditions.

Monks performing the morning alms ceremony at the Pha Nok Khao, the place that songthaews to Phu Kradueng depart from. All photographs in this article were taken by the author.

Hiking to the top of this mountain is seen as a right of passage by many Thai people, nowhere near all of them young. Once they reach the top they have to hike another 4km along the thankfully flat plateau to the huge campsite. Tents and other camping gear can be hired for a reasonable price at the National Park HQ before you begin the hike, just show the receipts upon arrival at the campsite (A limited number of huts, suitable for families are available but will almost certainly need to be booked in advance to be sure of getting one). However, the exertions of the hike up are made much more tolerable by the numerous rest points offering basic Thai food, cold and hot drinks, and things that might be useful like hiking poles, hats and even souvenir T-shirts.

Sign that greats hikers when they reach the top. The Thai script translates as “Once in a lifetime, we are conquerors of Phu Kradueng”

Prices at these rest areas get higher the more you ascend which is understandable as the vendors higher up have to travel and carry their goods up a lot further, IMO it never gets anywhere near to ‘rip off’ territory though. Now here’s the good part…porters will carry up your kit for you for 30 Baht per Kilogram, trust me, it’s a bargain, but you must commence the hike from the HQ quite early (by about 10 am, the National Park opens at 6 am) or you will have to carry it all yourself, also it might arrive a few hours later than you do so make sure that you carry anything you will need immediately upon arrival at the campsite yourself. The sight of the porters carrying their loads up and down the mountain is impressive, they earn their money.

One of the porters nearing the top. They carry 30 kgs (66lbs) up to the campsite for 30 Baht per kilogram

Most stay for at least 2 nights on top of the mountain as this is the minimum amount of time needed to see some of the plateau’s sights. Basic Thai-style food is served at a large catering area adjoining the huge campsite with prices that are pretty reasonable considering that everything has had to be carried up the mountain. Much of the plateau, including the campsite, also has adequate 4G coverage and power banks can be charged overnight at the Visitor Centre for a small fee.

Wild elephants are found on the plateau and traces of them are often seen but actual sightings are much less common, they usually stick to the quieter sections of the plateau which are not open for casual visitors. However, the campsite is surrounded by an electric fence that keeps elephants out but not some of the other indigenous wildlife. Deer are commonly seen in the campground and can be amazingly tame. Wild boar can sometimes be seen there too, I’ve seen them there foraging right up to people’s tables in the catering area.

This wild boar had lost its fear of people and was foraging about the catering area

The main daytime activities are hiking to the many cliff viewpoints along the Southern edge of the plateau but bicycles can be hired too and indeed offer the only really practical way of getting to the Lom Sak cliff, 9 kms away, for its famous view of the sunset and back to the campground in the dark. Lights for the bicycles are provided and the sunset trips are usually a group activity. I was talking to someone selling refreshments at the Pha Yeap Meak cliff viewpoint who told me that a small herd of wild elephants can often be seen from this cliff in the forest below, now that would be quite a sight to behold!

Myself looking out over Pha Mak Dook cliff in the early evening

There are also a few waterfalls off of some of the trails but obviously, the amount of water flow varies according to the recent weather conditions. Another popular activity is a 2-kilometer hike that starts from the Visitor Center every day at 5 am (no extra charge) to the Pha Nok Aen viewpoint to watch the sunrise, those that don’t mind the early start are often rewarded with a view of the “Sea of Clouds” (cloud inversion). Phu Kradueng has its own, unique micro-climate up on the plateau, and parts of some of the trails away from the cliffs reminded me of something you might see in woodland in the U.K. It can get very cold up there and visitors should be prepared for this, it got down to a chilly 7C at night on my recent visit and it often gets even colder than that. Once the sun cuts through the early morning mists though the climate is wonderful for both hiking or cycling and indeed this cool climate is part of the reason the Thais enjoy spending time there.

Picturesque Anodard Pond, about 2 kms from the campsite

A hike to the top of Phu Kradueng begins at the National Park Headquarters not too far from highway 201 on the way to Leoi. Most people drive there and use the free car park at the HQ. It’s also possible to get a bus from Bangkok’s Mochit Bus Terminal to nearby Pha Nok Khao, a tiny settlement at the foot of a spectacular mountain cliff, and from there songthaews (two-row buses like the Pattaya ‘Baht Buses’) will ferry you into the National Park HQ. As the buses often arrive at Pha Nok Khao very early in the morning and depart very late in the evening there is a large restaurant that sells pre-cooked meals, drinks, and snacks and even provides rest areas for weary travelers.

Foreigners are charged 200 Baht to enter Phu Kradueng National Park which still plays along with the much criticised ‘dual pricing’ policy but does represent better value than many other Thai National Parks due to the number of facilities available, things to do, and the time you are likely to spend there. Phu Kradueng is closed to visitors during the Rainy Season (Late April to the beginning of October) and the trails often become very muddy and waterlogged after heavy rain even outside of it. You can contact Phu Kradueng National Park (+66 42 810 833) for an update about conditions if necessary.

A large sambar deer stag in front of the small restaurants at the catering area

I’ve made the trek up Phu Kradueng 3 times now and enjoyed every visit although the hike I made up in October 2020 was a muddy and slippery affair so worth keeping the weather in mind when arranging a visit. If you have the flexibility then I would advise a mid-week visit as the campsite tends to get much more crowded at the weekend, especially if it’s over any kind of holiday period.

I’ve travelled in Thailand every year since 1987 and run a YouTube channel called “Karl’s Thailand” that focuses on the more adventurous side of Thailand. I will be putting up a video of a recent visit to Phu Kradueng I made with Michael from the “Attempt Adventure Podcast” soon which will show both the ascent and some of the key locations to visit on the plateau. My YouTube channel features many exciting locations in Thailand. Here’s a recent video that features another adventurous hike in Kanchanaburi Province.