Thailand is a big country – 513,120 km² to be exact. Most travellers would know or have visited Bangkok, beach resort of Phuket, seaside town of Pattaya or the northern cities of Chiang Mai at some point of their trips to Thailand. But the name Khao Kho may not register on most travellers’ mind. With this travelogue, I hope readers will place Khao Kho- Northern Thailand’s “little Switzerland” in the highlands in their bucket list.
Khao Kho is a district of Phetchabun province, about 392km north of Bangkok. It’s a mountainous region with cool weather all year round and famed for its gorgeous highlands scenery and ”sea cloud’ which are a beautiful sight to see. But sighting is not guaranteed as the sea cloud forms only with ideal conditions. If sea clouds are your key objective, then the rainy season from July to September would be the best period, followed by November to January, which are the coolest months. Other than that, the region has various attraction that’s worth a visit.
Travel Route from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Khao Kho
Currently, there is no developed tourist infrastructure supporting this region and it’s only accessible by private car or tour agencies plying the region. Thus for this trip, we hired a local driver instead of self-driving as I was travelling with my family and preferred less hassle. Engaging a private driver on such a trip is marginally more expensive as the driver’s lodging and meals have to be factored in. The Google Map stated 5hr 38min drive time is just a “textbook” estimation, our actual journey took slightly over 7 hours including one meal and three toilet stops along the highway. We commenced our journey at 10.00am after arriving 9.20am at Suvarnabhumi Airport and reached Khao Kho shortly after 5.00pm.
Day #01 – Movement to Khao Kho
A ‘ritual’ that I do on my family oversea trips is to take a picture of my wife pushing my two daughters on a trolley at the airport departure lounge. From toddlers to now teens, lining up the pictures over the years certainly bring back fond memories and adds fun to our vacation album.
The rest-stops along the highway PTT petrol stations featured clean toilets, convenience stores, cafes and also local snacks pop-up stalls. A 5-min break can drag into a 15-min event. So three rest stops can add almost an hour to the journey time. But as we were on a free and easy schedule, we moved on a leisurely pace with our driver never exceeding the road speed limit.
Our driver brought us to lunch at a diner called Tapae 2 Roasted Chicken which is famous for free-range BBQ chicken and Thai cuisine. The smoky aroma of the roasting chicken and healthy crowd will naturally attract you to this eatery located beside the highway, about 3.5hr from Suvarnabhumi Airport along Route 1.
Bustling eatery with clean dining ambience. When there’s a good crowd, it’s a sign of good delicious food.
Our lunch of roasted chicken, fish and pork, spicy papaya salad, tom yum soup, drinks and dessert came to about 850bht (S$36) for 5 person. The tamarind-based dipping sauce for the chicken was exceptional. The diner also places very nice Khanom Tuay (a steamed coconut custard dessert) on every table. But it’s an optional item that you are not obliged to take.
Khao Kho Wind Farm
After about 7 hours on the road, we finally reached the Khao Kho Wind Farm in the Phetchabun district. Located 1,050 meters above sea level, the wind power station consists of 24 windmills which can supply 140 million units of power or about 20% of the province’s total energy needs. This would be our only attraction visit on day one as it was getting late. There is an entrance fee of 60bht per adult at this venue.
The wind farm is best visited as an end-of-day activity as the blue hour during sunset is spectacular. I had originally planned to visit the wind farm as a 2nd-day activity but having our experienced driver take over the visit planner certainly helped a lot.
The venue has beautiful lookout points of the surrounding highlands and small floral gardens. Recommended duration of stay here is about 1 hour.
Locals camp at the area with views of the mountains of Petchabun and Phitsanulok region. Understood from my driver that tents with basic amenities are available for rent per night at 500bht with pay-per-use toilets and shower facilities at the camping site.
The cool weather meant a wide range of colourful flowers can thrive in this area, like this patch of beautiful lavender plants.
One of the best experiences at this attraction is taking the shuttle bus and enjoying the view of the windmills silhouetted against the setting sun, as it moves towards the entrance.
The wind farm transportation is open-deck shuttle buses that ply the route from the entrance to the wind farm in a continuous 10-15min interval loop. The path is sandy which can get dusty when the wind blows. If you are averse to dust, do standby face mask for the transit.
Accommodation in Khao Kho – The Blue Sky Resort
After a quick dinner at a nearby eatery, we check in at almost 930pm at our resort. This is one of the best resorts in Khao Kho and is ideal for couples or families with kids. The Blue Sky Resort Khao Kho was built with a rural English countryside theme, designed to make guests feel as though they were really in Europe.
Our family suite with loft was cosy and nicely furnished. The bedding and linen gave great sleep quality but we would have preferred carpeted floor. The resort’s complimentary WiFi signal was somewhat weak and erratic as it was in a highland area. But we loved the resort nonetheless.
My children’s beds at the loft area. The super-single size mattress meant an adult would have enjoyed sleeping here too, which also has its own air-conditioning.
The washroom does not come with a bathtub but has a rain-shower faucet and good water pressure for great shower time. There is also plenty of hooks for hanging towels and clothes. The set-up is not stellar but clean and functional.
The room patio is very spacious with a daybed and you will fall asleep here too. You can see my tired wife and younger daughter resting after a long day out as I was quickly taking pictures of the room.
Day 2 morning saw my wife and myself (our daughters could not get out of their warm toasty beds) waking up early for a 1.15hrs drive to Phu Thap Berk peak, which is a 1,768 m high mountain famed for ocean clouds and numerous cabbage and strawberry farms along the foothills. The villagers at this mountain are the Hmong hill tribes, who are migrants from the northern part of Thailand. This mountain peak is a must-visit for anyone visiting Khao Kho region.
Phu Thap Berk
Instead of the anticipated ocean clouds, we were rewarded with a lovely sunrise instead. The drive up the peak took about half an hour from the base on a relatively steep windy road.
Camping site with tents for rent starting from 500Bht per night (2-men tent with pillow, mat and blanket) and pay-per-use toilets (5bht) and shower (20bht) facilities. 4-man tent costs 900bht/night.
There are also basic lodges or chalets with better furnishing for those who preferred more luxury. An ideal arrangement would be for visitors to have a one-night stay-over upon arriving here, have a good rest, watch the sunset on arrival, do stargazing at night and enjoy sunrise the day after.
Vistas of cabbage plantation as far as the eyes can see. Phu Thap Berk is indeed the “cabbage bowl” in all of Thailand. Other popular crops include strawberries, bananas, carrots and the small crisp Thai apples. Flowers are also grown widely with roses being particularly a favourite.
While the sea cloud did not appear, the sunrise was nevertheless breathtaking, piercing the early morning mist.
A Hmong stall owner with her grandson at one of the many eateries facing the mountain valleys. All the restaurants here have al fresco sitting area that looks out to the scenery of the splendid highlands.
One of the cabbage plantations. It’s highly probable that the cabbages in Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand originated from here.
A few of the local produce stalls along the road leading to the peak. Most sell similar products which are really fresh and just off the farms.
The Phu Tub Berk strawberries are a must-buy. Some may look whitish or not deep-red but it is certainly one of the sweetest I have ever tasted.
Other than Japanese melons, the locally grown melons are the sweetest I have eaten in a long time. The whitish honeydew is much sweeter than the rock melon. Sold at 100 bht/kg. I could not resist buying one.
Certainly not the usual carrots we have in our supermarkets. These little carrots are sold in bundles and the leaves can be eaten like a vegetable.
A beautiful view of a local mountain lodge with unobstructed view of the surrounding region. Can you spot the Khao Kho Wind Farm on the right in the background?
On the way back to our resort, we spotted a group of kids wearing Hmong costumes. It seems to be one of the tourists’ “traps” but we didn’t mind paying the 20bht photo fee for each kid. Their parents could use the money for their school fees and milk powder.
The Hmong children appeared in great health and not being forced to work against their will. Otherwise, I would not have supported such child exploitation endeavours.
Breakfast at The Blue Sky Resort
I have to include this part of the day as breakfast at the Blue Sky Resort with the beautiful view was a definite highlight of the trip. With the delicious breakfast spread, this is one breakfast where you will want to take it slow. The resort restaurant is also a popular culinary destination, especially during dinner.
The resort has one of the most unique and sweetest function rooms I have come across. The creatively placed flowers (though fakes) at the ceiling certainly make the room a very instagrammable place.
The view of the resort ground among the valley was refreshing and peaceful. For once in Thailand, you can breathe in the good clean mountain air and don’t hear vehicular noise.
The resort’s renowned garden is an end destination by itself with many non-guests and wedding couples dropping by to take pictures at the beautifully manicured sanctuary.
The garden attracts many honey bees here which in turn, helped in pollinating the flowers. A perfect example of a symbiotic relationship.
Macro photographers will adore the photo opportunities at the garden, as the bees go about doing their work.
The resort thoughtfully set up cosy little tents among the garden grounds for visitors to experience picnics in the garden.
The beautiful wild grass along the garden walkways will tempt and entertain visitors as well. Looking at my wife and daughter (and many other guests) blowing the seeds, I realised why the grasses grow so well here.
The resort also has a cafe conveniently located on the garden ground so that you need not walk far when feeling thirsty.
A view of the resort from the garden. The property is still undergoing expansion, where foreigners or locals can also buy units there for time-share arrangements.
One of the resort tea rooms transports guests to a typical quaint English countryside.
One look and I know why they named the resort Blue Sky.
The resort is low-lying with 2-story being the highest so that the English village theme and view of the terrain are not compromised.
Pino Latte Cafe
The Pino Latte cafe was just a short 20min drive from our resort. This is the most popular and famous cafe in Khao Kho and seems everyone converges here at some point in their trip here.
There are many areas to sit and enjoy the cafe’s wide range of beverages, snacks and light meals. But there may be a waiting time as crowd of visitors keep streaming in.
Even the cafe’s wooden landmark is a must-photograph point of interest at the location.
The best seats at the cafe are those by the edge, offering a sweeping view of the mountain valley. Little wonder they call Khao Kho the ‘Little Switzerland of Thailand”.
The cafe also has limited accommodation which requires booking months ahead due to their popularity. The rooms are tastefully refurbished containers with each offering an unblocked view. When the conditions are right, guests can also enjoy the sea fog right from the room.
Chose your photograph angles at the cafe, where the modern architecture lends itself to some nice interpretation.
While we had a coffee break at the Pino Latte Cafe, it was this quaint local food diner a short walk from the famous temple that attracted our attention. The eatery is nothing fancy but its reasonable-priced dishes and a great view just by the table will win your vote.
You will want to try the Khanom Jeen, a multi-coloured twirled rice noodles accompanied by three types of fish-based sauces. This type of noodle originated from the Mon people who inhabited the region which is now central Thailand.
One of the spiciest but most delectable Som Tum (papaya salad) we have tasted so far. Even our Thai driver sweated eating this dish but could not stop eating.
Moo Ping (skewered BBQ pork) and meatballs. Perfectly prepared and memorable. When my fussy daughters finished the entire plate, I know it was done right.
Wat Pha Son Kaew (Temple on Glass Cliff)
This is one of the most unique Buddhist temples you will visit anywhere in Thailand. Located on an 830m peak, the temple is likened to Antoni Gaudi-inspired architecture. Photographers will especially have inspired moments trying to frame each unique angle to project the temple in its spectacular setting. Entry is free but ladies wearing above-knee apparel will have to put on the sarong available on complimentary loan.
The temple is designed with so many angles opened for interpretation that you may need more than 1.5hours to complete a cursory visit. The five sitting Buddha statues take centre stage at this temple. The main Wat exterior, gardens and adjoining buildings are completed and opened to visitors.
The amazing five Buddhas in increasing size are like an optical illusion, defying the usual Buddha statues you see elsewhere. Front, side or at an oblique angle, you will not see Buddha in the same way again.
The mosaic tiles pattern will appeal to artists and designers looking for creative inspiration.
The main pagoda and surrounding buildings are adorned with over 5 million colourful mosaic tiles and pottery items, challenging your perception of what a Buddhist temple should look.
Observe closely and you may detect a marine theme among the artwork.
The builders of this temple certainly put an immense amount of work into the construction. But it also looked like they had fun doing it.
A visit to Khao Kho is never quite complete without a visit to this beautiful restaurant that serves delicious Thai cuisine with a vantage view. This eatery is consistently ranked among the top ten restaurants in Khao Kho. The restaurant name bears the natural spectacle the venue is famous for – Talay is Thai for Sea and Mok is Cloud.
Many visitors to this eatery frequently exclaimed the “view is worth the meal”. Certainly so but it’s good that the food does justice to the ambience of the mountain range. We simply love the green curry with rice (90bht), deep-fried chicken mid wings (80Bht), fried pork with garlic (160Bht) and the Thai milk tea was superb (70Bht). I am sure their other items on the menu are just as great.
On day three morning, we were finally rewarded with the gorgeous sea fog that we travelled so far for. The fog forms when cold air travel over a warmer surface. I understand from our driver who in his recent visit here just two weeks before, his client did not have the fortune to see the sea fog although they stayed almost a week hoping to see this beautiful sight.
The sea fog slowly engulfed the entire valley below, giving it a dream-like feel. Looks almost like a Chinese painting too.
Imagine those visitors staying at the bottom of the valley soon to be totally immersed in a ‘misty soup’. Definitely an interesting experience indeed.
The valley disappears under the heavy sea of fog, making us feel as if we were above the clouds at a high altitude during a flight.
The fog may come thick and fast but with the heat from the rising sun, it will slowly dissipate and be ‘refilled’ again the next day. It is estimated the sea fog will be a regular occurrence for at least two to three months between December and February.
A farewell shot at the venue before we return to our resort prior departing for our next destination at Khao Yai, about a 5-hour drive away. With us is our friendly and experienced Thai driver cum guide, Khun Jackie (right of photo). Our elder daughter elected to sleep in and missed the natural spectacle.
A mommy and daughter’s moment enjoying the fabulous scenery. For once, my daughter willingly put aside her handphone.
The Moai Cafe, is an interesting cafe that you won’t miss on the route to Khao Yai. This cafe is good for a coffee break. Their local lychee honey is reasonable priced (150B for a 1L bottle) and you can also buy pickled tamarind (the region’s famous produce) and various other local snacks at the cafe.
The cafe comes with a verandah overlooking the Nam Chun Yai River. This is one of the final views of the highland region that you will see when departing Khao Kho.
This travelogue is just skimming at the surface of what Khao Kho has to offer. For nature lovers and travellers who prefer off-the-beaten-track location, this “little Switzerland” of Thailand is ideal for reinvigorating the soul and avoiding the hordes of tourists. The lack of easy accessibility and the fact that this region is not ready for international tourists can be a blessing in disguise. You get to enjoy prices that are cheaper than in Bangkok and the locals are friendlier. One main requirement is to engage a driver or rent a higher capacity vehicle (to better handle the mountain routes) so you can really have an adventure in the highlands. Do check out my Khao Yai travelogue, which you can arrange to visit on the same trip. For my other Thailand adventures, you might check them out here.
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author.