A trek up the ‘Hill Pointing to the Sky’ makes Sukanya Ramanujan muse on the meaning of life and so on…
It is 2 a.m. local time when my alarm goes off but I have already been partly awake for the last 15 minutes or so wondering why I have decided to do something so mad. It is after all a Sunday morning and I am on holiday. By waking so early I feel like I am going against every law of nature. It doesn’t help that the bed feels so comfortable or that the room is just the right temperature for a snooze. One part of me wants to just get back into bed but I know I am just kidding myself. I am all set to go to Phu Chi Fa after all.
Phu Chi Fa (roughly translating into ‘hill pointing to the sky’) is a very popular destination in Northern Thailand. It is located on the border with Laos, about 100 km from the city of Chiang Rai and hundreds of people (mostly Thais) trudge up the hill every day to witness the sun rising from a sea of mist surrounding the hill. “Watch the sun set in Thailand and rise in Laos” is how the saying goes. I stumbled upon Phu Chi Fa through a happy Google search accident. However, the serendipity factor stopped there. I had already booked and paid for my accommodation on the other side of Chiang Rai from Phu Chi Fa. The ideal scenario would have been to stay at a hotel close to the mountain. My guide from Lanna Treks tells me that even in the best case scenario the ride will take at least two hours to get to Phu Chi Fa in the early morning. Then there is a short hike up the hill to catch the sunrise, all of which translates into getting out of the hotel at 3 a.m. at the latest.
We set off on a very optimistic note from the hotel but what my guide hasn’t told me is that he is going to experiment on a new shortcut to get to Phu Chi Fa (as the regular route from Chiang Rai could easily add on another half hour to the drive). Surprisingly, we only miss turns a couple of times, though each time I keep checking my watch to see if we will make it on time for the sunrise. After a weary two-hour drive and one last missed turn we finally hit the signboard that points us to Phu Chi Fa. I could cry for joy.
We get to base camp exactly at 5.30 a.m. The rows of cars parked in the overfull parking lot are witness to the fact that the smarter tourists have either camped around the hill or overnight in one of the resorts around the Park. However, without accepting defeat we quickly begin to climb the last kilometre on foot. I am reminded of my early morning trek up the Matanga hill in Hampi a few years ago hoping to catch the sunrise there. The climb is fairly moderate but I keep panting for breath. All along the route, the Lanna tribals have dressed up their children and are making them sing or play traditional instruments in the hope of earning some money. Somehow, seeing the cheerful children and hearing their voices makes the climb easier and we finally reach the summit. It would be too much of a cliché to say that what I saw took my breath away. Anyway, the fact is that the climb has already taken away whatever little breath I had, so when I look over the edge and see the sea of clouds and the mist swirling around in the valley below and over the other hills I can only sigh and shed a tear. The sun had made a small appearance earlier during the climb but is now well hidden behind the clouds. Some of the tourists have already started to turn back after taking a few photographs. Been there, done that, check. Their vantage spots are now taken up by the pro photographers with their tripods, among them a Buddhist monk with his DSLR. I feel oddly left out — more pro than the amateurs but more amateur than the pros.
As we wait, the sun occasionally peaks out but mostly we keep seeing more and more waves of cloud and mist rolling in. As the crowds thin out it becomes easier to walk around the summit and admire the wildflowers growing everywhere. In the end though, the sun clearly decides that she would like a day off. With the rain beginning to come down now, most of the rest of us also pack our bags to leave, with only some diehard students still yelling and screaming near the summit.
On our way back down, my guide takes me down a quiet, unused path — not only does it have wooden railings for support on both ends but it is also hemmed by rows and rows of wildflowers.
I think about what going to Phu Chi Fa has meant for me — I feel changed somehow, as if just looking at the sheer magnificence and brilliance of nature has humbled me. This show has gone on for thousands of years now, and will continue to go on for thousands more to come. And I was here just for a day!