I arrived into Bangkok in the middle of the night, on a flight that seemed endless due to my excitement and the many hours it takes to travel to the other side of the Earth from my home in New York City. The Bangkok humidity hit me like a ton of bricks the second the airport doors opened and I took my first step outside. My body suddenly was aware, my mind immediately was focused.
For the rest of my time in Thailand I would find that having my senses suddenly awakened would be the norm.
Bangkok itself is everything we have heard it to be: busy, loud, congested, exciting, fast. Escaping into my beautiful room at the Plaza Athenee in Bangkok was a relief for my jet-lagged self, a retreat I anticipated while I processed all the images, smells, and sounds consumed during walks through the city.
It was clear to me after a while why so many advised that I take advantage of a few days away from the big city to slow down and breathe. So I left the comforts of luxury that the big city offered and headed northeast to Loei, a short one-hour flight and a world away.
A favorite of Thai locals who want to cool off during hot summer days, Loei is a full-immersion experience. There may be certain spots where English is spoken, but there aren’t very many, which means recruiting a tour guide from the local tourism office is helpful.
As most travelers tend to do, I relied on what I already knew to get a sense of comfort in this foreign land. Loei reminded me in many ways of the countryside of my Caribbean homeland, lush and green, warm but not terribly so. Because Loei sits in one of the least-populated regions of Thailand, it was easy to slow down my pace, catch my breath, and be present in the moment.
Viewfinder Tip: Shoes are not permitted inside the temples and scarves must be worn to cover bare shoulders.
Cultural and historical beauties
The province of Loei is about 107 years old, and its history is rich and quite diverse. A great example of this can be experienced during a visit to the Thai Dam Cultural Village. This site comprises the Thai Dam people who migrated to Loei escaping oppression from Vietnam and Laos. Instead of fully assimilating, the “people without a country” hold on to their culture and traditions, and help to raise awareness, as well as funds for their community, through the sale of handmade goods.
There are no shortages of temples and other holy structures for prayer and ritual in Thailand, and in Loei, an important place to visit is Phra That Si Song Rak, a Buddhist stupa built in 1560 by Laotian and Thai kings as a pact of mutual respect between the two kingdoms. The name translates to “Stupa of Love from the Two Nations,” and is the location of the popular That Sri Songrak, a celebration of offering rituals.
I enjoyed taking in every detail of these places. My local guide taught me a lot about the historic references found throughout.
Also, the Phi Ta Khon Museum is an educational attraction dedicated to the traditions of Ban Luang and Phi Ta Khon (ghost mask) festivals. These masks are specific to Loei and nearby provinces, and aren’t made anywhere else. The museum has displays that explain the history of the masks and the festival itself. The museum also gives visitors the opportunity to watch a local artist at work.
Loei is known for its foggy skies. An excursion early one morning made for a fun experience getting lost in the mist, but a visit to Phu Rua National Park during sunrise is enough to take your breath away. The view of the fog dancing through the cliffs seems unreal—almost magical—as the glow of the rising sun makes its way across the valley. It’s easy to want to take a million pictures, but I quickly realized that it’s best to just sit and enjoy.
Spend a weekend in Chiang Khan, a favorite summer retreat for big-city locals, and cruise down the Mekong River during sunset. I especially enjoyed watching the fishermen casting their nets in the hopes of a late day catch. I also loved the peacefulness of our wooden boat gently sailing along the coast of both the Thailand and Laos borders.
For all that the bigger city has to offer, I felt I really got to know Thailand during my time in Loei. No, the destination doesn’t have the nightlife and constant excitement that Bangkok does, but its simplicity is unique. I felt really connected to this place and its people, and understood why so many love to visit and even stay and call it place home.
What trips comprise your favorite off-the-beaten-path travel experiences?