Phu Chi Fa
In an area of outstanding natural beauty, this stunning peak is a word-of-mouth secret with minimal crowds or touristic tackiness. It is not one of the largest peaks in Northern Thailand but its remote location, winding approach roads and final spectacular view makes it a trek worth making.
The area is today part of Thailand but the area is traditionally a 'Tai-Lao' homeland. The border division between Thailand and Laos created by the Mekong River (visible for the eagle eyed from the summit) is relatively new.
An outstanding array of rolling hills, verdant valleys and elegant peaks.
Flora and fauna
Farmland and orchards/vineyards turn to bush, scrub and grass near the summit.
Chilly, for Thailand, in the morning and a very pleasantly cool temperature throughout the day.
By Bus from Chiang Rai
Head to the Chiang Rai bus terminal (the old one where the night bazaar is located) and walk down the line of buses to the end. There will be ticket vendors behind tables, just say "Phu Chi Fah" and they'll point you to the right person. Round-trip tickets are 400 baht with departures every day at 13:00 from the bus terminal. Once you get to Phu Chi Fah, the bus driver will show you where to meet for the ride back which is at 9am the following day (you should meet it at 8:45). The ride takes 3 hours and after 2 hours the driver will stop at a rest area for a 10-minute bathroom break. It seems that now (27.10.2017) there is no bus at all.
Be aware of the challenging nature of both the road and the (pickup truck) drivers upon it. Cars are available for rent starting at around 1000 baht per day (plus refundable deposit around 20,000 baht) at Chiang Rai airport and a full tank of petrol (~1000 baht) will get you there and back safely.
For car,driver and guide hire, from Chiang Mai to Phu Chi Fa:
Leave the city southbound on Route 1 (Phahonyothin Road). Take the turn off for Road 1020 which will lead you south and then east. 1020 eventually splits in a rural town - with a left turnoff continuing as the 1020 and 'straight on' becoming the 1021. Follow the 1021 - you will begin to see signs for Phu Chi Fa and will take a left turnoff for the 1155 before reaching the town of Ngao. This road passes through some incredible scenery but you will need to keep an eye on signs at junctions - eventually you will come to a checkpoint, keep right. A little further you will reach a T junction - take a right, following the signs for Phu Chi Fa Forest Park. From now it is a direct road and you will see signs for the amenities - parking, camping, information, and the 'viewpoint', i.e. the peak.
The walk from town to the base is very possible although not trivial, but it's easy to find someone to take you for 30 bhat per person, just ask your guesthouse. From the base, it's a 750 meter hike to the summit and is not particularly challenging terrain although closed-toed shoes are recommended.
The town is very small and completely focused on staying one night, summiting, and leaving, so don't expect to find motorbike rental/etc.
Enjoy a traditional song from local children in hilltribe costume as you climb.
There is a minimal amount of warm clothing and souveniers available for purchase at the final car park near the summit. Don't pay more than 80 baht for a scarf.
There are several restaurants in town for dinner and breakfast. The food is surprisingly delicious!
If you're not into instant rice porridge (sold at stalls near the peak), pack food for breakfast when you go for the sunrise.
There are homestays available nearby and guesthouses at the base where the bus drops you off. These guesthouses don't have websites and don't really speak English so you can't book in advance, but there is always somewhere to stay so don't feel bad about arriving without a plan. A woman is usually waiting at the bus stop offering rooms for 500 bhat up at the top of the hill -- these rooms are actually quite nice with WiFi and hot water, and her English is quite reasonable.
All guesthouses know why you're in Phu Chi Fa and will have a shuttle to the base of the climb. Standard rate is 30 bhat each way and the driver will tell you a pickup time to get back down. You can technically walk from town to the base but at 5am the 30 bhat is totally worth it.
There is camping available very close to the summit and in town.
You will pass some rather affluent looking townlands on the way up the mountains.
Don't push your luck with the edges of the climb, and drive cautiously. If tired, pull over somewhere safe and take a nap. Alertness is needed on these crazy corners which the locals have no worries about overtaking on.
There is little choice but to retrace your steps for most of the journey. Taking the 1021 eastward rather than westward back to the 1020 will bring you through Phayao Province, near Phayao itself and to Chiang Mai along very obscure roads in a little under four hours.