11 July 2024

The small province of Bueng Kan in the Northeast was way off the tourism track until recently but is now enjoying a surge in visitors thanks to some mythical beliefs.

Local tourists are flocking to two new attractions in Phu Langka National Park known as the Naga and Nakee caves – the latter a name given to female creatures.

The belief in the sacred creatures according to Buddhism and Hinduism is a key factor in attracting tourists to the province, though a love of nature and for trekking is also playing a part. The suncracked stone and bumps resembling naga and nakee heads are beautiful and photogenic. It’s also a challenge to climb to the top of the rocks to enjoy a panoramic view of Thailand, the Mekong River, and Laos.

However, visitors shouldn’t just rush in. The rise in popularity has led to demand surpassing the capacity of the national park. At present, the Naga Cave is fully booked via QueQ application and the authorities have announced walk-ins are not allowed.

The 4th head of the Naga – a bump resembling a naga head. (Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae)

It is almost impossible to book a trip to the Naga cave, as evidenced by the number of people who have tried and failed. Many believe that the daily quota is at its limit until the end of this year or perhaps even April next year. But that’s not dampening the enthusiasm of those who want to visit Bueng Kan and its more popular neighbor Nakhon Phanom to fulfill their spiritual hunger for the land of the naga.

Phu Langka national park spans Nakhon Phanom and Bueng Kan but access to the Naga or Nakee caves is from Bueng Kan province. A few visitors make a day trip but most spend a night or two in the area called Bueng Kong Lhong.

The Naga cave, discovered in May 2020, is the more challenging geographically of the two. It takes the average person many hours to explore but that has done nothing to water down its popularity, especially since visits by celebrities and YouTubers to pay respect to the sacred creatures and hopefully earn good fortune have turned it into a social media sensation.

People go to both caves but with the Naga quota full, head for Nakee cave and other attractions. Since Nakee is less geographically challenging, it takes only a few hours to get to the top and back. There are some steep slopes but most of the journey is okay.

The sun-cracked stone is beautiful and begs to be photographed. (Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae)

Plan your trip well

Don’t mix up Nakee Cave and Naga Cave. They are both in Bueng Kan but Nakee Cave is still open to walkin visitors and thus more convenient for anyone planning a trip. Trekking at the Nakee cave is easier too and takes less time. The caves are named after the belief in the legend of the mythical serpents in Thai as well as other Southeast Asian cultures. Thai people are familiar with the creature and the Naga and Nakee are often featured in films and TV series.

With almost 3,000 hotel rooms, Nakhon Phanom province has much more in the way of accommodation but visitors to the caves can save time by staying in the Bueng Kong Lhong area. So the first challenge for those wanting to visit the attractions is to book a room. Don’t rely solely on travel agency websites as the spaces run out fast. Homestays run by the locals are a good choice and include Alisa homestay, Kru Sawaiand Seka Resort. We were lucky enough to get a whole house (4 bedrooms) at the Alisa homestay as someone just canceled their trip, and our stay was very pleasant.

The 3rd head of the Naga – a bump resembling a naga head. (Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae)

With accommodation sorted and the decision is taken whether to travel by bus, car or plane, the next challenge is to physically prepare for the trek. Those who are out of condition should walk and warm up their muscles for a few days before the trip even though the Nakee trail is not so tough. Resting well the day before the walk is a must. A trip will take about one or two hours depending on the level of fitness.

The one way route is almost 4 km. Along the way, there are spots to rest and for the steep part, there is a rope for a climber to grasp. And once you reach the top, the reward is a fabulous view of the Mekong river.

The 9th head of the Naga – the latest “head” discovered. (Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae)

Once you reach the Nakee, officials will guide you to first take the ATK test. It costs 80 baht per person. You can skip this if you have proof of a negative PCR test done less than 24 hours before. Then you head to buy an entry ticket (20 baht each) and you are good to go. There are volunteer guides at the cave and one will accompany a group. They will show you a point of interest, for example, “a head” of naga. There are 9 heads at the Nakee cave.

The guide also assists you along the route and alerts you when the route is more challenging. Our guide, Mae Thong Arya, was very helpful, showing us how to pose for the best photos. Sometimes she would pose at a spot to make her point. And when she took a group photo, she would tell us to change our poses.

The only payment the guides receive comes from tips and while this is not compulsory, the groups tend to be generous. Mae Thong, our 63-year-old guide, said she usually did two trips a day. She also has to spend 80 baht out of her pocket for ATK tests.

Those who want to see the sunrise must arrive early at the cave but for non sun-rise persons like us, arriving late in the morning helped save time. There was no queue at the ATK booth nor by forced stops along the way as people in front took photos. An official at the ticket booth said that there were about 200 people on the day we went which was a good number. “On a peak day, there are over 1,000 people at the cave,” she said.

Tourists can arrive at the Nakee cave from 5am onwards but the last entry is 3pm so as to prevent anyone from becoming stranded. It’s important to stay on the route too and not wander off on a whim. Listen to your guide and follow the rules of the national park. And remember to always respect nature.

For more information, call the Phu Langka National Park at 08-4792-3505 and 0-4253-0766 (from 9am to 4pm).

By Veena Thoopkrajae

The aged rock at the national park is beautiful. (Photo by Kanokchan Pattanapichai)