11 July 2024

The government has revived controversial plans to build a cable car in Phu Kradeung National Park, a hidden gem whose pristine mountains have long been accessible to hikers only.

While the move has excited many tourists and locals, concerns are growing about the project’s potential negative impacts.

Phu Kradeung

Established as Thailand’s second national park in 1959, Phu Kradeung covers 348 square kilometers of land with its peak rising 1,316 meters above sea level. Phu Kradeung’s relative inaccessibility comes from the high plateau on which its major attractions are perched. The pristine plateau stretches across 60 km² at a height of 1,200 to 1,250 meters above sea level and is adorned with forests, meadows, waterfalls and viewpoints.

The park’s name is a combination of two words, Phu (mountain) and Kradeung (bell). Numerous anecdotes surround the origin of the area’s name, with explanations ranging from the distinctive bell shape of the mountain to a local legend that residents used to hear the sound of bells emanating from the plateau on holy days.

Hikers have also reported hearing a ringing sound when their trekking poles strike rocks in Phu Kradeung.

Every year, thousands of mostly Thai tourists flock to the park to enjoy treks in its forested highlands. The main route runs for over 10 kilometers of an often steep path, but offers beautiful viewpoints, waterfalls, and more for people to enjoy. Porters are also on hand to relieve the burdens of holidaymakers with heavy backpacks and luggage.

What supporters say

The Cabinet approved the Phu Kradeung cable car project in principle on December 4 after it was proposed by the Loei provincial authority. But further progress depends on the results of a study on its potential impacts. Construction of a Phu Kradeung cable car first gained approval in 2012 but has been shelved since then.

Proponents of the project say that as well as acting as a tourist attraction, a cable car would increase safety on the plateau.

“Every year, tourists die on Phu Kradeung,” said Phuriwat Chotnopparat, the chief of Loei’s Phu Kradeung district.

A cable car could be used to transport tourists suffering medical emergencies down from the plateau quickly so they can receive treatment.

But its main purpose would be to increase Phu Kradeung’s accessibility, giving visitors who are unable to hike long distances an easier way of enjoying what the national park has to offer. And the resulting increase in tourists would be a boost for the local economy and livelihoods, the project’s proponents say.

Fierce opposition

However, not everyone is happy with the plan. Panudet Kerdmali, president of the conservationist Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, insists a cable car should be the last option for Phu Kradeung since there are many other ways to manage tourism.

“Phu Kradeung is a national park. It should be protected. The park is rich in wildlife and more,” he said.

Critics say building a cable car in the park would cause permanent changes to the natural surroundings and risk serious damage to the environment. It could also attract unsustainable numbers of tourists, leading to environmental degradation and waste-management problems. Wild animals in the areas may also be affected, conservationists warn.

Many fans of Phu Kradeung’s pristine beauty are also praying that the project will be canceled, worried that the original charm of the plateau – which has inspired an eponymous song – will be lost forever if it goes ahead.

“I hike along the paths with friends and family members. We talk as we walk. When we feel tired, we sit down together. These moments are special,” one Thai visitor to the park said.

There are also concerns that Phu Kradeung’s porters would lose their livelihoods if the cable car is built. But district chief Phuriwat says the project’s benefits outweigh its downsides, adding that most of the porters are old and likely ready to retire.

Study underway

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation says the potential impacts of the cable car project will be assessed carefully to ensure undesirable effects are minimized.

“A full environmental impact assessment must be conducted, reviewed and approved before the cable-car installations can go ahead,” it said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk