Cherry blossoms, mountain trekking, and foggy mornings are not something you immediately associate with Thailand. Yet that is what my wife and I found recently in Loei Province directly north of Bangkok near the Mekong River.
Loei is a popular destination for Thai people and I predict it will soon draw more international tourists. There are direct air connections with Bangkok and a rapidly growing tourism infrastructure. Mountains, national parks, cold nights, hill-tribe people and delightful little villages are the attractions. Now you can add cherry blossoms.
Two years ago few people knew of the cherry trees in Loei. They had been planted in a national park in an attempt to rejuvenate the countryside which had previously been devastated by slash-and -burn agriculture. For visitors there was no proper vehicle access and no nearby accommodation.
That has changed. Road access to the trees themselves is still along a rough track and the nearest accommodation is about 45 minutes away, but visitors are arriving in increasing numbers and most are loving the experience.
We were accommodated in a home-stay on a strawberry farm owned by the local tourist industry promoter who is an ex-teacher. The room was basic but fairly comfortable, there was a bathroom with warm water, and the owners provided breakfast and dinner.
A rental car had brought us this far but we were advised to go to the trees with a local in a four-wheel drive vehicle. It arrived at 5 a.m. It was a struggle to stay awake as we bounced through the darkness ever climbing higher. At last we reached a small car park. From here we had to walk.
The walk through the black night was not easy, but reaching the mountain top was a thrill. The first few streaks of daylight were appearing in the east and slowly everything was bathed in light. What a view! We were not alone, however. A young Thai couple emerged from the darkness and climbed to the very top. We watched with happy hearts as the man asked the girl to marry him and she accepted.
The cherry trees were back along the road. Side tracks led to areas where thousands of blossoming tress provided a sensory experience as grand as any I have seen. We sat with hearts thumping below the brilliant pink shroud, glimpsing the blue sky beyond.
As the cherry blossom petals fell from the trees I reached up and caught one in my hand. It was as brilliant as a beach towel and as soft as a child's cuddle toy. The scene was gentle, the flowers so delicate, and colour so vibrant that the total effect was perfect beyond belief.
Hours passed and breakfast was forgotten. We were lost in our own world completely removed from the one outside. Finally the driver said it was time to go.
Back at the homestay we enjoyed a local breakfast then it was suggested that we walk through the nearby Hmong hill-tribe village. Electricity, a bitumen road and a water supply system have transformed this into something resembling a typical Thai village, but the people still have their own culture and traditions, which they guard jealously.
We were invited into homes, offered something to drink and shown a courtesy that was quite unexpected. We met elders, ordinary people and children. It took me back 40 years when one-on -one experiences like this were fairly common in many parts of the world. Mass tourism has almost put a stop to that.
Few Westerners visit here at the moment so perhaps we were a curiosity. I hope increasing tourism doesn't change this welcoming attitude.
There are currently no non-stop flights from the Canadian west coast to Thailand, but Air Canada, Thai International and Cathay Pacific offer one-stop flights from Vancouver to Bangkok via Hong Kong. Other airlines operate one-stop flights via other cities.
Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Thailand 2016, available as an e-book from www.amazon.com/Experience-Thailand-2016-Guides-ebook/dp/B01911VVBU/