Pha Taem National Park, Ubon Ratchathani

What we say: 3.5 stars

Pha Taem National Park is certainly not one of Thailand’s best known parks, but this small park in Ubon Ratchatani’s Khong Chiam district packs a lot into its 340 square kilometres and is well worth a visit if you happen to be in these parts.

Looking south from Pha Taem - Laos on left and Thailand on right

Looking south from Pha Taem, with Laos on left and Thailand on right.

The park consists of a rocky plateau gently rising from the west covered in dry dipterocarp forest, which culminates in sheer cliffs dropping down into the narrow valley of the Mekong River. This is the most easterly point of Thailand and overlooks similar cliffs and forest on the Lao side of the river.

Monks checking out Laos from the cliff top at Pha Taem

Monks checking out Laos from the cliff top at Pha Taem.

Its main features are unusual sandstone rock formations (known locally and signposted as Sao Chaliang), the cliffs themselves which feature extensive rock paintings, the spectacular views across the Mekong and its plentiful and varied flora.

Sao Chaoliang

Fairies just out of shot.

Some of the most stunning rock formations are conveniently situated by the road between the park entrance and the park headquarters, though similar features cover a wide area that you can traverse by following one of the trails leading off across the plateau. The headquarters has good maps and info if you are interested in hiking — some trails also lead to small waterfalls. The headquarters are situated right on the clifftop so you don’t need to walk more than a few metres to take in the truly spectacular views.

Looking north

Looking north.

The most popular hiking trail leads off from near the car park and park headquarters and leads you down the cliff face to pass by the most important cliff painting sites. This picturesque and easy trail — it’s concreted with steps — then takes you along the foot of the overhanging cliff past five painting sites spread along 1.5 kilometres before climbing back to the cliff top. From here another 1.5 kilometres or so of easy track takes you across the plateau and back to the car park. It can be a hot and badly shaded path during the dry season but in the rainy season it comes to life with a multitude of wild flowers.

Tiny honey-dew flowers

Tiny honey-dew flowers.

Check out the trees for orchids and if you look close to the ground you may be lucky to find the carnivorous, insect-eating honey-dew flower; flowering shrubs abound.

Wild orchid

Wild orchid.

The lower section of trail along the cliff face is also very good for bird-life since you’re level with the treetops as you look off to the right towards the valley. While the plateau is mainly covered in bushes and low dry dipterocarp vegetation, the cliff base houses much lusher flora. As the rains fall the rocks are also attractively covered in myriad fern, moss and lichen varieties.

Flowering shrubs - rainy season

Flowering shrubs during the rainy season.

Below is a particularly spectacular flower — a member of the curcuma family we think — spotted in the lower forest.

Rainy season flora

More rainy season flora.

The cliff paintings themselves are thought to date to around 3,000 years ago, although noone is exactly sure and anywhere between 1,000 and 3,500 year dates are plausible, and the stone-age graffiti may well have been produced over a lengthy period of time anyway. Much of the cliff face here overhangs — sometimes dramatically — as softer shales compose the lower strata which are capped by less easily eroded sandstone, which has protected the paintings from the elements.

3,000 year old cliff paintings

3,000-year-old cliff paintings.

Many of the images are remarkably well preserved and you can clearly make out some accurately reproduced Mekong catfish, an elephant, turtles and triangular headed aliens. There are handprints, reverse (negative) handprints, abstract designs and some unusual geometric paintings that are thought to depict paddy.

Neolithic landscape?

Neolithic landscape?

Walking at a leisurely pace and with plenty of time for stops, we’d allow a couple of hours for the round trip. The park headquarters has a small shop selling snacks and drinks while on the far side of the car park is a restaurant with cold drinks and cheap Thai lunches.

Riverbank between Pha Taem and Khong Chiam

Riverbank between Pha Taem and Khong Chiam.

Note if you have organised this trip through one of the local Khong Chiam guesthouses or an agent in Ubon Ratchatani then it is worth asking about the possible return by boat down the Mekong — if you’re lucky staff at headquarters may be able to help you out. You would need transport for the few kilometers to the small village on the riverbank at the foot of the park from where boats will charge you 1,000 to 1,500 baht to take you an hour downstream to Khong Jiam town. This ideally needs organising in advance though you could try asking around at the boat pier in the village if you can find someone to take you down there.

Sunset near Khong Chiam

Sunset near Khong Chiam.

Entrance to the park is the standard 200 baht per person for foreigners. A visit here isn’t ideal in the dry season, but Pha Taem is a great little park to visit during the rainy or cool seasons.

Last updated: 11th December, 2014

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
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