The district of Khao Kho is not on any international tourist route though Thai visitors adore this region. This is a place for nature lovers. Soaring mountains, rolling hills, lush valleys, cascading waterfalls, gushing rivers, and two wildlife-rich national parks – all part of the attraction! Khao Kho is in the north-central Thai region of Phetchabun. This blog post is about our brief travels there. A region we consider as a great example of the ‘real’ Thailand. And a region well worth visiting.
We took the time to visit as part of a larger trip through northeastern and central Thailand – more examples of what we playfully term the ‘real’ Thailand. And now having visited, we can happily recommend it, so come see what it’s all about. Driving, a hire car or personal vehicle, is, in our view, the best way to make the most of a visit here. It provides so much more freedom and the opportunity to personalise your itinerary.
As well as being the name of the district, Khao Kho is also the regions tallest mountains at 1143 meter and forms part of the western range of the Phetchabun Mountains. Despite the reference to Alps and Switzerland often seen in Thai tourism info and online, there’s no chance of snow here – ever! Though for the two or so winter months it experiences each year, temperatures do drop to single digits overnight!
Scenic viewpoints are in abundance and saw us stopping regularly to snap yet another picture as we travelled the region. Quilt like farms stretching across the valleys; native pine forests covering the mountainsides; massive wind turbines clustered together atop another ridge seemingly sitting amongst the clouds.
August, apparently, is a busy time for the district as Thai tourist flock here to experience the fog-filled valleys. In time for sunrise, scenic viewpoints right across the region fill with people. All wanting to experience and capture the sight of the early morning fogs filling the valleys while they sit above and take in the magical views. Sadly, our late May visit was too early in the rainy season for us to experience such a phenomenon.
Thanks to the elevation, slightly cooler climate and abundantly fertile soil, Khao Kho district is also a food lover’s dream, as we discovered stopping at the first roadside stall we came across. Fresh avocado, almonds, macadamia, plums, and prunes – for expats like Vivien and I who live on the coast in a genuinely tropical climate, such products are rare and expensive treats. But here they were, growing on the steep hills just behind the fruit stall – fresh as you can get and at bargain prices!
That first fruit stall was the beginning of our Khao Kho food discovery tour. Fresh melons, late season strawberries, more tropical delicacies like lychee and star fruit, root vegetables, sugar snap peas, many varieties of lettuce, the most massive cabbage patches we have ever seen, and corn by the paddock.
Certified organic farms were also a pleasant surprise. We stopped at the attractive ‘Italia Gusto’ complex for lunch and had some of the most refined Thai Food we had tasted and at around 180 THB a plate well worth it. Yes, there was a great Italian menu, and even a wood fired pizza oven but when in Thailand – we usually choose Thai. We discovered the owner, a Thai national, also operates a herbal resort. A segment of the restaurant complex is dedicated to his herbal mixes, lotions and food products using their ingredients. All organically grown less than a kilometre away. Nothing backyard or amateurish about these products. Very professionally presented. But sadly for us, all the information on the products was in Thai. Having said that, some freshly made sesame biscuits and a few other treats did find their way into the bags!
The Antoni Gaudi-esque, Wat Phra Thart Pha Kaew, has to be one of the most arresting and beguiling temples we have seen in Thailand. Built atop an 830-meter peak in the northern sections of Khao Kho district, the Wat (temple) is a spectacular sight. The dazzling Buddhist temple is decorated with 5 million colourful mosaic tiles, bright glass beads, and beautiful pottery. Elaborate dinner plates, pots, and lids are set into the walls as you climb the stunning stairs to get a closer view of the opulent temple. Smaller surrounding buildings are decorated similarly. In front of the Wat, and to me, even more impressive, is a massive sculpture of five serenely attractive Buddha images seated on emerging lotus buds. We are talking about Buddhas, luminous shimmering white and at least 6-8 stories high – if it was a building. Truly inspiring. On the morning we visited the weather was overcast and heavy, dark clouds clung to the mountains behind. A light mist sat in the valley. An atmosphere I would describe as ethereal. These building all form part of a Dharma meditation and mindfulness centre for monks and Buddhist followers.
It seems that this region has a dark past. In the 1960s to the 1980s, Communist insurgents made the national parks of this district their hideouts and fought a bloody guerrilla war with the Thai military. Itthi Military Base sits atop Khao (mountain) Kor and was the Army base during the hostilities. Now a museum, it tells the story of those times. You can see vehicles, guns, and other weapons that were used during the fighting, as well as maps, reconstructions of bunkers, and other exhibits and displays. The nearby ‘Khao Kho Sacrificial Monument’, made from marble, honours fallen police officers, military personnel, and local people who tried to protect the area during this time of trouble. The monument and museum are definitely worth a visit – for the history, gorgeous gardens, and outstanding district views. The viewpoint here is said to a great place for spectacular sunsets.
The region has many more natural and other attractions ensuring a visit full of diversity. Depending on the time of year, you can hike or bike through the Savana plains of the Thung Salaeng Luang National Park. Go kayaking or white-water rafting in season. Check-out Si Dit Waterfall or admire the gardens of a Royal Palace. November and December deliver native tulips and other wildflowers in the national parks as well as celebrations around the arrival of the Cherry blossoms in January. Autumn’s onset sees the seasonal colour changes of the deciduous trees. Something that many of us living in the more tropical parts of Thailand don’t get to see.
And as an aside, the farm vehicles we encountered while travelling through the district were well worth stopping to stare and take a snap. The farmers on the vehicles thought we were the funny ones, stopping to take photos of them and their contraptions as they go about their daily tasks!
Our few days in the Khao Kho district provided a great introduction to this ‘off the beaten track’ region as far as international tourists are concerned. Yet furthered our understanding of travel in the ‘real’ Thailand. And all just 400 km north west of Bangkok.
The next stop on our travels as we headed south and back towards our home in Hua Hin on Thailand’s Gulf Coast was Khao Yai. More on that soon!
An abridged version of this story was originally published under the title ‘A Road Trip Through Thailand’s “Little Switzerland”’ in the March 2019 edition of International Living Australia magazine. Vivien and I are the authors of both versions of this story. International Living Australia magazine is a subscription-only publication which Vivien and I regularly write for.