Phu Hin Rong Kla, bizarre rock formations and montane forest

view from the road leading to Phu Hin Rong Kla

A view from the road leading to Phu Hin Rong Kla

Near the Laotian border and at the junction of three major regions — the North, Isan (the Northeast) and Central Thailand — Phu Hin Rong Kla rises 1800 metres high. Since 1984, an area of 307 square kilometres, comprising an impressive flat-topped mountain and its surroundings, makes one of Thailand’s most interesting, but relatively little known, national parks. Besides spectacular views, curious rock formations, waterfalls, various forest types, and Hmong hill tribe villages, the park offers the visitor a fascinating glimpse into the most turbulent chapter of the country’s modern history — the years of the communist insurgency.

For visitors without their own means of transportation, the park’s tableland can best be appreciated from the quiet district town of Nakhon Thai in Phitsanulok province, where a few times a day a song thaeo (pick-up) leaves for the national park. At the entrance of the park, about twenty kilometres from the town, you may be welcomed by some Hmong children from a nearby village peddling their dried flowers and colourful handicrafts. A steep, meandering road leads after less than ten kilometres to the visitors’ centre at the top. Nearby the rock formations of Lan Hin Taek (‘field of the cracked stones’) wait for exploration.

Deep fissures cut through the rocks of Lan Hin Taek.

Deep fissures cut through the rocks of Lan Hin Taek.

Once part of an inland sea in which sand was deposited for millions of years, the area is composed of hundreds of metre thick layers of sandstone. Phu Hin Rong Kla consists of such sandstone beds, at least 100 millions years old, and sometimes overlying interbedded shales. At Lan Hin Taek, scars and fractures in the sandstone resulting from the uplifting were transformed by the weathering process into rows of deep cavers. These curious rong kla (‘hardened channels’) are partly overgrown with thick layers of lichens and mosses, ferns, wolf’s claws, orchid and flowering shrubs. The monotonous call of the barbet, a green bird usually hidden in tree tops, contributes to the feeling of walking through a prehistoric landscape. In 1973, however, this was the scene of a bloody battle when hundreds of soldiers attempted in vain to conquer the communist stronghold on the mountain.

You will find other bizarre rock formations at the edge of a steep rock cliff a few kilometres past the visitors’ centre, where erosion had produced a field of unique sandstone knolls, like large molehills or, using a Thai metaphor, a stone plaza looking like a huge khanom khrok pan (a pan to make a kind of Thai sweets) placed upside down. Locally it is known as Lan Hin Pum, the ‘field of the knob-stones’. Twenty years ago, former students from Bangkok used to sit here in the cool breeze to recover from malarial bouts, often also homesick  and peering in the direction of the capital they intended to ‘liberate’. When, somewhere else in the country, their communist comrades had gained victory over the government forces, they could see a red flag hoisted over a nearby cliff. Now the national Thai tricolour permanently flies from a flag-pole. The hospital that was behind the knob-stones burnt to the ground during a bush fire in 1985, and some of the medical items that survived the fire are now on exhibition in a small museum at the visitors’ centre.

The rock formations are teaming with orchids.

The rock formations are teaming with orchids.

In 1973, after the heroic people’s uprising against the military dictatorship, Thailand was plunged into three years of experimenting with democracy. Reform-minded activists were allowed to openly ventilate their ideas, and students often attested to their leftist sympathies. However, the establishment was carefully preparing a come-back. Right-wing elements started to campaign against the reformers, branding all of them as communists with an inferiority complex intent on destroying the nation and the monarchy. The polarization between rightists and leftists soon turned the democratic experiment violent. A well-known Buddhist monk even stated that communists should not be regarded as human beings but as devils — therefore it was a virtue to kill them.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the social climate in Thailand was sometimes close to mass hysteria. Rumours of food poisoning by the Vietnamese triggered epidemics of koro panicking Thai men believing their penises were shrinking. In October 1976, the situation exploded and in Bangkok tens, maybe hundreds of students were massacred by right-wing groups. As the coup de grâce, the military took over again and installed an ultra-rightist government. It was under these circumstances that thousands of reform-minded citizens — often from Bangkok — lost all hope that Thai society could be improved in a peaceful way and decided to join the guerilla forces of the outlawed Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) to fight for democracy.

A wooden hut at the Communists' Training Camp.

A wooden hut at the Communists' Training Camp.

Situated within the so-called ‘Guerilla Triangle’ — also comprising the infamous CPT-stronghold Khao Kho — Phu Hin Rong Kla became one of their main destinations. The isolated, rugged and forest-clad mountains suited the purpose of the CPT well. The few inhabitants, Hmong hill tribes embittered by government policy aimed at eradicating their poppy cultivation, were among the CPT’s earliest allies. Furthermore, attacking the strongholds in this triangle often required the concerted action of the government forces of three different regions — a manoeuvre that was sometimes lacking in cohesion. With the influx of thousands of disillusioned citizens, the communist insurgency became a more formidable threat than ever before.

Jumping from rock to rock and passing beds of lilies and flowering ginger shrubs, you can reach an open space of bare sandstone, the so-called ‘multiple-use area’, once the place where the insurgents met for social activities. A rusting anti-aircraft gun is reminder of the threat of air raids. During such raids, a nearby cavern formed by a huge overhanging, orchid-clad boulder served as a natural shelter. From this spot, a path leads to lush forest where the choruses of cicads are as loud as whining chain saws. While crossing a picturesque brooklet that meanders downwards, one may wonder, whether the insurgents had enjoyed the scenery as much as present-day visitors.

The water wheel constructed by students from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

The water wheel constructed by students from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

After two hundred metres, I came upon a collection of mouldering wooden huts hidden under canopy, the former communist headquarters. A wooden cage, once serving as prison, still stands as a monument to the tight discipline in the camp. A few kilometres from the headquarters, along the newly constructed Highway 2331 that crosses the plateau from the Phitsanulok side to Lom Kao in Phetchabun province, is a similar hamlet of wooden huts, the former centre for military training and political education.

Initially, the new arrivals from the cities were enthusiasts. A university teacher from Bangkok recounts that the students became less egocentric and improved their bad habits. Chain-smokers collectively stopped smoking and their revolutionary spirit even impressed the CPT-cadres. The wooden water wheel at a nearby stream is witness to this unity and cooperation. It was constructed by former engineering students from the Chulalongkorn University, and was used to mill and polish the rice for the whole area. However, for many the tight discipline was hardly tolerable, while contraventions of the regulations were punished without mercy. The cadre consisted of dogmatic, hardline-maoists of Chinese origin. They even regarded growing flowers as a ‘bourgeois activity’, and it was thus strictly forbidden.

A painting representing daily life at the Communists' Training Camp.

A painting representing daily life at the Communists' Training Camp.

In Bangkok, meanwhile, the ultra-conservative government was soon replaced by a moderate regime that initiated a policy of national reconciliation. A blanket amnesty was offered to insurgents who laid down their arms.  Many of the former activists — homesick and disappointed  by the narrow-minded communist cadre — left the strongholds and returned home.

Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (1978), internal struggle between pro-Vietnamese and pro-Chinese factions weakened the CPT, while China even withdrew its support. In 1981, the important CPT stronghold of Khao Kho was captured by government forces under command of general ‘Big Tiger’ Phichit. When Phu Hin Rong Kla was assaulted a year later, the insurgents had already left. The government had won the ‘people’s war’, and the ‘Thai domino’ was still standing firm.

During the 1980s, communist resistance in Thailand completely petered out. Many of the former insurgents now hold top in what they once abhorred as the ‘military-industrial complex’.

The village of Phu Hin Rong Kla Phatthana is just a kilometre from the main road in the centre of the national park. Here the Hmong (in Thailand better known as Maeo) still live their traditional life. In front of the wooden and bamboo huts, women and girls are making their colourful, intricate embroideries. Old women toting baskets full of firewood collected from the forest trudge homewards, while everywhere beside the huts and on the road red beans and maize are drying in the sun. Cans of pesticides also indicate that growing cash crops, including cabbages, has completely replaced their former poppy cultivation. The driver of a local pick-up is smoking a filter cigarette while waiting for more passengers. When he smiles, a row of gold teeth is exposed.

The rare ginger Caulokaempferia alba is abundant on the rock formations of Phu Hin Rong Kla.

The rare ginger Caulokaempferia alba is abundant on the rock formations of Phu Hin Rong Kla.

Behind the village, a path leads across dense forest to a small Buddhist temple. Around the simple, wooden construction, and markedly contrasting with the peaceful setting, a number of bomb fragments and scrap from a crashed government helicopter are displayed. ‘USA’ and a death’s head are painted on one of the pieces.

Only one, middle-aged monk resides at the temple. He moved in after piece had already come to the mountain. On the wall is a portrait of Achan Man, the famous meditation master of the Northeast and a source of inspiration for thousands of Thai monks. Achan Man taught that a retreat in the forest for meditation is the road to follow to achieve complete detachment.

On Phu Hin Rong Kla, the forests served as a retreat for thousands following the most serious internal conflicts of Thai society in recent history. Due to the warfare at that time, as well as extensive slash-and-burn agriculture by the Hmong, environmental degradation had been rampant.

Yet, surprisingly, many remote areas have remained relatively untouched, as for example, the quite extensive evergreen mountain forest in the eastern section of the park.
There are also stretches of fine pine forest, apart from the more common mixed deciduous forests and the shrub vegetation on the exposed rocks. It is believed that a few tigers still roam the park, besides numbers of other large mammals.

©Sjon Hauser: text and images

Practicalities

To fully appreciate this place where beautiful nature and modern history interweave, you should stay at least a day in the park. Accommodation nearest to the park is in Nakhon Thai. Just a few kilometres east of this district town, along the road leading to the main entrance of the park, are Ruean Kalae, Phet Resort and Ban Phak Phing Chai with ‘bungalows’ for 350-600 baht per night. Ang Doi Guesthouse and Phitsanu Narat Guesthouse in Phitsanulok’s Chat Trakan district, and Falkland Resort in Loei’s Na Haeo district — the latter among my top 5 of amazing accommodation off the beaten track, see the article Top 5 verbazingwekkende accommodatie — are respectively 50 and 75 kilometres from the park’s headquarters, and thus also conveniently located as a base for a full-day trip to the park. Alternatives are to stay one night in one of the forestry bungalows for rent near the headquarters or in  accommodation along the road descending from the eastern entrance on the Phetchabun-side to the Hmong-village of Thap Boek, amidst extensive fields with cabbages on the mountain slopes.