Follow the Moon River 45 kilometres east from Ubon city and you’ll reach Phibun Mangsahan, a small but bustling city known for its river rapids and steamed sala bao buns.
Drawing almost no foreign travellers, it makes for a fun stop, if only for lunch, on the way to Khong Chiam and Pha Taem National Park.
The main attraction is the Kaeng Saphu rapids, a point in the Moon River where rocks protrude from the surface during the dry season and draw hordes of locals looking to cool off. You can hire an inner tube to ride the not-so-scary rapids and float downriver, but keep in mind that English is not widely spoken around here. Outside of the dry season, the rocks submerge and Kaeng Saphu reverts to just another scenic stretch of river. Many of the open-air eateries stay open year round, offering Isaan classics like som tam and gai yang that you can munch on in a riverside pavilion. Find Kaeng Saphu a few hundred metres south of Luang Rd and the bridge that shoots away from the centre of town.
Down near where the buses and minibuses drop off on Phrom Saeng Road, take a wander into Phibun’s huge roofed market to check out exotic ingredients like grilled buffalo skin, red ant eggs, fresh tadpoles and giant Mekong catfish, or pla buek. You won’t need to look far for sala bao, white Chinese-style steamed buns with fillings like barbecued pork and sweet taro, sold out of shiny silver steamers (they make a great breakfast).
If you have more time, stop by Wat Phu Khao Kaew on a hill to the west of town to soak up the views and explore the interesting Khmer-style ordination hall with a glazed ceramic exterior and lion guardians with toothy gins. It’s easily accessible off Highway 217, just before you enter the city. Those interested in famous Thai monks could also head a few km east of town to Wat Don That, where the ashes of famous meditation master, Ajahn Sao, are kept.
Phibun is also home to Ubon Ratchathani province’s main immigration office [T: (045) 441 108], offering the usual visa extensions in the far southwest corner of town along Sathit Nimankan Rd (Highway 222). It’s open on weekdays from 08:30 to 16:30, except public holidays. Note that there’s also an immigration office in Khong Chiam.
While Phibun probably isn’t worth more than a day trip, at most, there are a few accommodation options for those who can’t get their fill of sala bao. The dirt-cheap but functional Phiboonkit Hotel [T: (045) 441 201] has a great location in the centre of town on Phiboon Rd; or you could splurge for the resort-style Kaeng Saphue Riverside [T: (045) 204 318], which offers simple but comfy rooms with river views in the 800-1,500 baht range on the east side of the Moon.
How to get there
Red local buses and white minibuses run to Phibun Mangsahan several times every hour from Ubon city’s main bus station, costing around 40 baht, and dropping off near the market. Minibuses continue to Khong Chiam and Chong Mek, with the last departing around 17:00.
If coming from Ubon city with your own wheels, head across the river into Warin Chamrap, continue straight through the centre of town and bear left onto Highway 217, which runs straight into Phibun. To reach Khong Chiam, cross the bridge in Phibun and then take an immediate right onto Highway 2222 for the final 35 km to the Mekong.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 29th July, 2015.