Golden Hour at Phu Chi Fa
As a woman who unabashedly appreciates fashion and beauty, over my collective makeup wearing years I’d reckon I’ve viewed at least a dozen YouTube tutorials on perfecting the “no makeup, makeup look”. Now, for my readers who are not quite familiar with makeup application, the aforementioned “natural” look is typically quite far from its namesake.
It’s the kind of look requiring meticulous and precise application of powders, bronzers, and highlighters, the result of which magically appears so effortless and fresh, to the untrained eye it would seem that the makeup wearer in question very recently awoke from a record night’s sleep, returned from a 10 day getaway to the Bahamas, smashed an early morning HIIT workout, and downed a 64 oz jug of green juice. While I myself am still in pursuit of mastering the no makeup, makeup look (what’s the difference between BB and CC cream anyway?), the natural beauty of Thailand needs no emphasis (highlighter or contouring). From the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters in Thailand’s southern provinces, to the lush, rolling mountains in the north, and the countless rice paddies in between, the bountiful, natural beauty of the land of smiles is simply irrefutable.
As a part of CIEE’s application process to teach in Thailand, David and I had the opportunity to rank our preference of teaching placement. To be completely honest, we ranked the southern provinces as our first choice, imagining ourselves cultivating a weekly habit of surf lessons in the morning and casual beach-side dinners in the evening. As fate would have it, we ended up at Phusangwhittayakhom (a blessing in disguise) and shortly thereafter fell in love with the school’s community and the understated beauty of the north. Upon arriving in Phu Sang, the warm and unwaveringly generous locals encouraged us to visit two local attractions. The first was the quaint and lovely Phu Sang waterfall, the perfect destination for an easy hike or a leisurely afternoon spent picnicking and swimming. A picturesque 30 minute motorbike ride away from our school, we made a point to check out the waterfall during our first weekend in Phu Sang.
The second bucket list item suggested to us by our new friends, was to witness the sunrise atop one of the largest mountain peaks in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai Province, known as Phu Chi Fa. This excursion required a bit of logistical engineering on our part, as the mountain is about an hour and a half drive away from Phu Sang and calls for an early departure time in order to catch the first few glimmering rays of sunrise. In a previous post, I mentioned that Dave had the bright idea to rent a car in Chiang Rai when we returned from our New Years trip to Ho Chi Minh City, as we would be returning within a week catch our next flight to Krabi. On the weekend between our two trips, we found ourselves plan free with our rented Toyota Vios in tow, creating the perfect opportunity to experience sunrise at Phu Chi Fa. We invited our new friend and fellow farang, Alex, along for the ride. Like us, Alex came to Thailand as a part of CIEE’s Teach in Thailand program. She had an earlier orientation than we did, arriving at her teaching placement (a private, primary school ~10 minutes from our school) three weeks before us. During our second month in Thailand she reached out to us to say hello, we went for dinner at the local barbecue joint, and the rest is history. To our delight, Alex accepted our invitation. We made plans to pick her up at 4 AM on Saturday morning.
The drive to Phu Chi Fa was a winding one, to say the least. Alex struggled with a bit of car sickness, as I was struggling with my second bout of traveler’s sickness. Dave was our fearless navigator, cruising through the meandering roads with confidence (even with the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car!) as we listened to a compilation of Thai rock n’ roll, compliments of the CD left in our rental car. Around 5:30 AM we reached the sleepy town surrounding the mountain. Friendly policemen ushered us to park the car and directed us towards the long queue of songthaews bringing visitors up the mountain. A songthaew is a small truck serving as a shared taxi, typically with two rows of seats facing each other and an open back “door” for people to climb on/off board. Songthaews rival tuk-tuks as the most popular mode of public transportation for tourists in Thailand. We hopped in the back of the open air songthaew (basically a pick up truck with benches) for a 10 minute, exhilarating ride up the mountain, underneath a starry sky, as the cool air whipped our hair around our faces.
The songthaew driver stopped at the beginning of the 750 meter trail we would take to the peak of Phu Chi Fa. We paid 30 THB each and offboarded the truck, surveying the beginning of another workday for the Thai merchants busy setting up their stalls to form a small market across from the trailhead. A man sat at the beginning of the trail selling pocket flashlights to unprepared passersby, a business we imagined lost much of its allure with the invention and commonality of smartphones. iPhones ablaze (Huawei for Dave), we joined our fellow sunrise seekers in ambling our way up the mountain. In what we now recognize as typical Thai hustling, we passed by several adorable children dressed in traditional Thai clothing posing for photos and dancing with visitors for a small amount of change. When we reached the top of the mountain, a little before 6:00 AM, we were surprised to find a small crowd of 100ish people already cemented in their sunrise viewing spots. We followed suit and established a spot for ourselves as we awaited the first rays of sunlight to break through the indigo sky.
For the next hour we were the expectant audience to an exquisite art show, as the dawn and the night tangled and meshed, casting the sky with hues of coral, cotton candy pink, and periwinkle. As the sun claimed her rightful position in the morning sky, the rolling fog in the valley below stood illuminated. For the sake of art, I stayed in place so I could capture a time-lapse version of daybreak. It was a bit surreal, standing in such a primitive place amongst a sea of smartphones and cameras (my own included). A part of me longed for a simpler time. A time without the pressure of the perfect Instagram caption. A time where I experienced nature with my complete presence of mind and relived my experiences in the pages of my diary or at least in the developed film from my Kodak camera. I suppose the convenience of today’s technology is a boon, as well as a detriment. We can look back at any moment in time we choose to capture, but were we really there in the first place? I mean there, there - not just physically.
Phu Chi Fa Sunrise Time-lapse:
Once the daylight of the morning was upon us, we explored the mountain for a bit; taking in the views from various vantage points and marveling at the beauty of the rolling green hills and the golden sunlight dancing upon them. Eventually, we joined the throngs of visitors making their descent back towards the village, occasionally pausing to admire another stunning vista. When we had reached the trailhead, we caught another songthaew (for an additional 30 THB each), which dropped us off where we had parked the car. We loaded back into the Toyota Vios and rolled down our windows, welcoming the sweet serenades of Thailand’s various rock n’ roll artists providing the soundtrack to our journey back home.
We bid our sweet friend Alex farewell, dropping her off at her apartment around 9:30 AM. Having worked up an appetite since our early rising hour, Dave and I went in search of an American breakfast. Unfortunately, we did not have much luck with this venture back in Phu Sang (unless we wanted to cook for ourselves that is), so we settled for one of our favorite greasy Thai dishes - crispy pork fried with Thai basil and chilies over a heaping pile of rice, topped with a fried egg (pad kra pow).