Established in 2011 as Thailand’s 76th province (or 77th if you include the special administrative area of Bangkok), Bueng Kan remains a rural backwater with riverside villages in view of paddies and jungle-cloaked sandstone plateaus. The scenery captivates many travellers, but a handful of thrilling attractions in the countryside are the big draws for most.
Hin Sam Wan (Three Whale Rock) is a sandstone formation that resembles a family of enormous sperm whales propelling over the treetops. Further east, the vertigo-inducing walkways at Wat Phu Tok lift you hundreds of metres up along a rocky massif dotted with Buddhist cave shrines. At the east end of the province, Phu Wua Wildlife Sanctuary hosts wild elephants and waterfalls, while nearby Phu Langka National Park has a mystical, mountaintop Naga Cave.
Fishers chug their wooden sampans out on the Mekong River 45 km east of the provincial capital in Bung Khla, an enchanting place to relax as you glimpse the modest wats that dot the forested hills of Laos. Head west for 20 km from the provincial capital to find Ban Ahong, another sleepy town set astride a boulder-strewn pinch that creates rapids in the Mekong. Cloaked in rubber and rice farms, the province’s inland reaches are also worth exploring.
Bueng Kan province covers a far-flung corner of Isaan (Northeast Thailand) along the Mekong River, with Nong Khai province bordering it to the west (Bueng Kan was part of Nong Khai province before it became a full-blown province on its own) and Nakhon Phanom to the east. To the north lies the remote Bolikhamxay province in Laos.
Bueng Kan is notably challenging to explore without a vehicle. If you don’t mind renting one in Nong Khai, Udon Thani, Khon Kaen or other busier centres in Isaan, Bueng Kan works great as part of a longer Mekong road trip. (But do make sure to have insurance and an international or Thai licence first.)
Bueng Kan is best suited to travellers who feel comfortable straying from the banana pancake trail, and who perhaps speak a bit of the Thai and/or Lao languages.
The provincial capital towns of Nong Khai and Nakhon Phanom are more easily accessible—from Laos and from elsewhere in Thailand—and have more impressive Mekong scenery than you’ll find in Bueng Kan town. Unlike those destinations, going to Bueng Kan would be a mistake if you don’t plan to leave the capital town to hit the outlying attractions. Some travellers skip the capital town altogether and stay elsewhere in the province, such as Bung Khla.
Another fabulous and more popular alternative is Loei province, which also straddles the Mekong some 220 km west of Bueng Kan town. It has a similarly compelling collection of natural attractions along with picturesque riverside towns, such as Chiang Khan. If you head that way from Bueng Kan, also factor in a night at Sangkhom.
The only potentially bad time to visit is late in the rainy season from August through October, when parts of Bueng Kan occasionally flood and some roads become impassable. As with the rest of Isaan, early rainy season is the time to see the paddies shimmering bright green as wildlife and waterfalls become most active in the forests. Dry season also works well for Bueng Kan, but do expect hazy skies and a parched landscape in March and April.
The provincial capital of Bueng Kan lies between the Mekong River and Highway 212, which more-or-less follows the path of the Mekong all the way from Nong Khai to Mukdahan. If doing a road trip, we suggest diverging to the rural back roads that run closest to the river, where the scenery is exceptional in Bung Khla, Ban Ahong and many of the villages scattered in between.
Bueng Kan town—and we definitely consider it a town, not a city—is composed of mostly one- to three-storey buildings in a three square-km grid that extends south from a lengthy riverfront walkway. It’s a typical Isaan town with a fresh market, a few hotels and plenty of som tam and grilled meats, but it lacks tourist attractions apart from some creative street art.
A clock tower stands as a handy reference point within a traffic circle at the centre of Bueng Kan town on Thai Sammakhi Rd. The older part of town extends towards the Mekong in a grid of narrow lanes north of the clock tower, while the newer area hosts Highway 212 to the south. Along the river lies a three-km walkway and a riverfront road with several restaurants. On the east side of town, the Bueng Sawan Reservoir can also be fun for a jog or a bike ride.
Banks and ATMs can be found near the river on Bueng Kan Rd and Mi Chai Rd, as well as on Thai Sammakhi Rd and at the Lotus’s shopping complex off Highway 212. The public hospital and the police station sit side by side less than a km east of the clock tower, while the post office is a tad north of it on Thai Sammakhi Rd.
Bueng Kan Hospital: 255 Chao Mae Song Nang Rd ; T: (042) 491 161
Bueng Kan Police: Chao Mae Song Nang Rd ; T: (042) 491 256
We visited Bueng Kan during the Covid19 pandemic and did not do our usual hotel checks. We did find that some of the lodgings are not on hotel booking sites like Agoda and Booking. Also note that Bung Khla, which is arguably more interesting than Bueng Kan town, has lodgings of its own.
If you’re travelling on a budget with a vehicle, we can recommend the M Grand Hotel (159 Moo 10 (seven km south of town off Highway 222); T: (095) 146 5363), located seven km south of town on a quiet lane off Highway 222. For 600 baht per night, the three-storey property’s spacious air-con rooms are equipped with fridges, fans, TVs, desks, hot-water showers, small back porches and beds that we found notably comfy. The WiFi worked well during our stay, and the family owners were friendly at check-in and while serving 100-baht breakfasts of fried eggs and pork presented right inside the skillets.
If you want to stay in town, a few small hotels are scattered around the quiet northwest area near the riverfront road. The Mae Nam Hotel has a great location with air-con river-view rooms sporting balconies for 590 baht per night, while rooms set further back cost 100 baht less. Another option that looked promising two blocks back from the riverfront is the Sunshine Grand 77 Hotel (77 Bueng Kan Rd ; T: (096) 632 4752), where the brushed-cement rooms go for 600 baht per night.
The area’s best equipped hotel is probably The One Bueng Kan (459 Moo 1 (off Highway 212 near Lotus’s) ; T: (042) 492 234), a four-storey property with a kid-friendly swimming pool and air-con rooms ranging from 24 to 50 square metres. Rates start at around 900 baht. Set outside of town near the Lotus’s shopping centre, The One appears to be a solid choice if you have a vehicle and want a buffet breakfast and other big-hotel perks.
A good place to start is the night market on Santirat Rd, a short walk northeast of the clock tower along the south side of the municipal fresh market. The usual Isaan fare—think whole grilled fish, sai oua (fermented sausage) and fiery som tam with grilled chicken and sticky rice—is readily available. Meanwhile, a “walking street” night market sets up along the riverfront, near the corner of Chansin and Santirat roads. It’s the place to graze on finger foods while perusing T-shirts, sandals and other cheap wears.
The provincial capital normally hosts a Thai-Lao market on Tuesday and Friday mornings along Soi Bueng Kan, but it was closed due to pandemic-related border restrictions when we visited. Once it reopens, stop by to check out the forest food products and handmade attire imported from Laos.
Though we didn’t get a chance to try them, several restaurants and cafes offer river-view seating on Chansin Rd. One spot that we’ve heard good things about is New Por Jai Restaurant, specialising in Isaan-Thai fare.
25 km southeast of downtown Bueng Kan
Hin Sam Wan (Three Whale Rock) helped to put Bueng Kan more firmly on the alternative travel radar after drone photos of this eye-catching sandstone formation started making the rounds on social media in 2018. It has swiftly become one of the Isaan region’s signature attractions.
Visitors can walk for more than 100 metres on Three Whale Rock, which uncannily resembles two adult sperm whales and a calf at the crest of a roughly 200-metre cliff. Accessed from the same area, a fourth formation delivers a similarly attractive vista of the surrounding countryside and the Mekong River. On a clear day, the jungle-cloaked hills of Laos are visible as well.
There are no railings, and a tumble off Three Whale Rock would probably be fatal. Be sure to keep an eye on young children.
While it’s the most famous, Three Whale Rock is only one of several rock formations and viewpoints in Phu Singh Forest Park, which spans a forested plateau that can be explored by hired pickup or on foot. The namesake Lion Cliff almost looks like a scaled-down version of The Great Sphynx in Egypt. Another huge rock resembles an elephant head, and one impressive viewpoint is pegged with natural holes that collect water during the rainy months.
Phu Singh didn’t really become known outside of Bueng Kan until the late 2010s. Prior to then, it was primarily visited by Buddhist monks who meditated in the breeze. Huts for the monks still stand in some places.
We were asked to check in at a park office after arriving, but unlike at Thailand’s national parks, we were not told to buy any tickets. The only expense was 500 baht for a pickup and driver, and we split that cost with a couple who we met in the car park. The tour takes two to three hours and includes stretches where the trucks rip steeply uphill and through deep mud pits. Our driver was friendly and patient, but English is not widely spoken at Phu Singh.
Near the gates you’ll find a cluster of shops selling cold drinks, coffee, noodle soup, souvenirs and cheap ponchos.
The entrance to Phu Singh Forest Park is 25 km southeast of downtown Bueng Kan. Expect to pay around 600 baht for a round trip by tuk tuk. If going on your own, head east on Highway 212 and look for blue signs pointing south down Highway 3007, where more signs lead you to the entrance. The park is open from 05:00 to 17:00, and it does attract a sunrise crowd.
45 km southeast of downtown Bueng Kan
The 360-metre-tall sandstone massif at Wat Phu Tok towers over the surrounding countryside, affording tremendous views from walkways and cave shrines perched amid the vertical cliffs. The site is a thrill for adventurer lovers, but those who suffer from acrophobia might want to stay put at ground level.
Officially known as Wat Jetiyakhiri, this forest temple is so famous that it was chosen to appear in Bueng Kan’s provincial seal. It was founded in 1968 by Ajahn Juan (pronounced jew-an), an ocher-robed Thai Forest Tradition monk who was drawn to Phu Tok for its caves and precipices that are ideal for a form of meditation that aims to overcome one’s fears.
Ajahn Juan was clearly not afraid of heights. He oversaw the construction of an extensive network of steep stairways and wooden footpaths that were built, somehow, right along steep faces of burnt-orange sandstone. We admit to being frightened while navigating the narrow planks. Only the notably short railings and your own sure-footedness will prevent a 200-metre plunge.
The walkways look rickety and precarious in places, but keep in mind that they have stood in place for five decades with the help of monks and locals who continually reinforce and maintain them. The upper section was closed during our visit due to required maintenance. The walkways and stairs have never collapsed with anyone on them, as far as we know.
Throughout the exciting journey up and around the cliffs you’ll find shrines built into caves of various sizes. One of the largest houses wax figures portraying dozens of late Forest Tradition monks who are legendary among Thai Buddhists. Meditation enthusiasts could plan on spending a full day exploring the caves and viewpoints set up on seven levels, which represent the Seven Factors of Enlightenment from Buddhist teachings.
Perhaps the mental and physical work that Ajahn Juan put in at Wat Phu Tok provided some comfort when a plane crash took his life in 1980. Several other monks died alongside him in the tragedy, which occurred when the monastics were on their way to Bangkok to partake in ceremonies for the birthday of Queen Sirikit. Relics of Ajahn Juan are enshrined in a marble chedi at ground level.
It was once possible for foreign travellers to stay overnight at Wat Phu Tok, but we’ve heard that overnight stays were banned after a couple of foreigners got a little too touchy with each other in one of the caves after dark. Don’t forget that this thrilling temple is also a sacred religious site.
Wat Phu Tok is 45 km southeast of downtown Bueng Kan, 20 km east of Ban Siwilai and 30 km south of Three Whale Rock, which can be visited on the same day trip. Expect to pay close to 1,000 baht for a round trip to Wat Phu Tok by tuk tuk from Bueng Kan town. Otherwise, head east out of Bueng Kan town on Highway 212 and turn right down Highway 3009, where you’ll see signs pointing west to Wat Phu Tok after around 20 km. Admission is free and some excellent Isaan food stalls are found near the entrance.
45 km east of downtown Bueng Kan
Covering 186 square km of eastern Bueng Kan province, Phu Wua Wildlife Sanctuary is home to some 30 elephants and many other species, including a rare chameleon that was named after the park. Camping, wildlife spotting and hiking to waterfalls can be arranged, though some travellers get entranced by the riverside town of Bung Khla before venturing into the jungle.
Phu Wua’s most popular waterfall is Nam Tok Chet Si, whose name translates as “Seven Color Waterfall” thanks to the rainbow effect of the sun shining through the cascading water. The falls span a wide sandstone shelf and there’s room to swim when the current isn’t too strong. Visitors park downstream and take a shared boat to the falls for 20 baht per person. The car park is only 15 km east of Wat Phu Tok, making Chet Si doable on the same day.
Chet Si is the only part of Phu Wua that we’ve visited so far, but other waterfalls include Tham Fun, Tham Phra and Chanaen. To reach these and arrange wildlife spotting trips, we suggest starting at Bunloed’s Homestay (T: 087 861 0601 ; bunloedhuts.jimdofree.com) in the village of Ban Kham Pia, a few km from the entrance to Phu Wua. Mr. Bunloed is an experienced guide who rents cheap huts by a rice field near Bung Khla, a small town set along the Mekong that’s also worth a night.
Some travellers argue that Bung Khla makes a better base than Bueng Kan town. Its riverfront is more picturesque and lodgings like Ban Pak Rim Doy Resort (T: 081 954 3762) and Sao Homestay Tai Yor (T: 082 363 3318) are likely to please Thai-speaking travellers who enjoy the rural lifestyle. Bung Khla is also about the same distance from Wat Phu Tok as Bueng Kan town.
If visiting Phu Wua and Bung Khla, you might set aside an extra day to head 50 km south to the mysterious Naga Cave of Phu Langka National Park. We’ve not yet visited, but friends tell us that this remote rock formation resembling a coiled-up serpent—complete with scales and a head that looks poised to strike—is worth the multi-hour climb up a steep mountain slope. The trailhead and a visitor centre are located off Highway 2026, three km east of the town of Bueng Khong Long. You’ll find some rustic lodgings there as well.
Ban Kham Pia and Bunloed’s Homestay are three km south of Highway 212 in Bung Khla, which is 45 km east of downtown Bueng Kan. Admission to Phu Wua Wildlife Sanctuary costs 100 baht for foreign adults and 50 baht for kids. Expect to pay the same for tickets to Phu Langka National Park if you’re also visiting the Naga Cave. Public transport does not run directly to any of these places and we’d prefer to have a private vehicle, but buses running from Bueng Kan (and Nong Khai) to Nakhon Phanom can drop travellers in Bung Khla or Ban Don Chik, where Mr. Bunloed can pick them up with some notice (see his website for more info). Tuk tuks are available in Bung Khla as well.
Bueng Kan has no airport or train station, and buses park in a few different areas near the clock tower on Thai Sammakhi Rd rather than at a proper bus station like you’ll find in most Thai provincial capitals. Minimal buses run straight to Bueng Kan from Bangkok’s Morchit Station, and from Chiang Mai, but most travellers catch a bus here from one of the neighbouring provincial capitals or drive themselves in a vehicle rented in one of those cities.
Buses run direct between Bueng Kan and Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom and Udon Thani, with each of these departing Bueng Kan several times per day. Tickets cost between 100 and 200 baht. Note that the last buses to all of these cities depart Bueng Kan at around 15:00.
Bueng Kan has a small number of tuk tuks and motorbike taxis, but we don’t know of anyplace to rent a motorbike. Most of the town is walkable.
Before the border with Laos was restricted due to the Covid19 pandemic, foreign travellers who had a Laos visa in hand could take a boat across the Mekong to Paksan, or enter Thailand from there. Very few foreign travellers ever used this crossing. From Bueng Kan, boats departed twice per day at around 08:00 and again sometime after 13:00. Thai authorities announced plans in 2019 to build a new Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to connect Bueng Kan and Paksan, but we’re not sure if it will ever materialise.
Last updated on 1st November, 2021.
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