Strange rock formations, viewpoints, wildflowers and a waterfall topped by a Buddha cave are among the attractions in Phu Pha Thoep National Park. It makes for a worthwhile day trip from nearby Mukdahan town, especially if you’re up for hiking the more demanding trails.
Formerly known as Mukdahan National Park, Phu Pha Thoep covers only 48 square kilometres of a mostly rock-floor plateau that tapers into rolling hills blanketed in mixed deciduous forest. While this isn’t a top spot for wildlife spotting, you will see a fair share of birds, butterflies and maybe a wild boar or flying squirrel. From October to November, parts of the park come alive with some 10 species of wildflowers.
Many visitors come specifically for a “garden” of mushroom-shaped rock formations, collectively known as the Hin Thoep group and found within sight of the visitor centre. Sculpted by nature over the last 100 million years (give or take), large “trunks” of sandstone rise from the stone ground and are topped by broad boulders that appear to have been intentionally placed here. According to the locals, some of the upper sections resemble a crown, camel, crocodile and satellite dish.
Continue northeast up the gradually sloping rock and you’ll pass a modest Buddha shrine. The terrain up here reminded us of a desert. A few lizards scurried amid grassy patches of rough sand as the Mekong came within view beyond the stumpy shrubs. Apart from a soft breeze, there was little to interrupt the stillness.
From here the “trail” gets a little confusing, with no markers along the stone ground and only a few brown signs pointing to the attractions found deeper in the park. We wandered east under a heavy sun until the crest of a cliff, Phu Oot, appeared along with an impressive vista of forested hills. Visitors with small kids will want to keep them close, as the cliff sneaks up and there are no railings.
Continuing north, we eventually discovered an actual forest trail after poking around the rocky landscape and referring to our not-so-accurate map for a while. Finding the attractions can feel like a treasure hunt, but with an impassable cliff on one side and a broad slope of rock stretching straight back down to civilisation on the other, it would be nearly impossible to get really lost.
The landscape changed drastically as we descended into clusters of bamboo, finally emerging in fairly thick jungle. Water dripped from towering trees as the trail rambled over rocks before hitting a cross roads: right to Tham Phra Waterfall and left to more viewpoints. A sign on the left was marked, “trail closed,” making the decision an easy one.
The sound of splashing water became clearer as we hiked back uphill along a trail that seemed to be rarely tred upon. Finally we emerged at the bottom of a sheer sandstone cliff from where a thin shower of water fell down to a stream. Another 50 metres and we discovered Tham Phra Waterfall itself: a small but graceful cascade of clear water shrouded in thick foliage.
From the west side of the stream we could barely see a sign with nothing but a white arrow, pointing up. We hopped from rock to rock, crossing the stream, and found that a series of steep steps and ladders ascended the cliff.
At the top, water flowed past a flat rock terrace where a meditating Buddha image sat under a stone roof. It’s a serene place to reflect or meditate to the sound of flowing water, but bring a mosquito net if you intend to sit here for a while. Also keep in mind that the waterfall dries up for much of the year.
Lao-style nagas adorned a natural stone shelf, and old wooden Buddha images that have been left here over time filled a pair of glass cabinets. The doors were left open; a deep-rooted belief in karma stronger than any padlock.
We spent around four hours in the park, returning to our tuk tuk drenched in sweat. Tham Phra Waterfall is only two kilometres from the visitor centre, but the lack of shade for the first part coupled with the subsequent rugged trail and lack of clear signage makes it a fairly challenging hike. Pack a few extra bottles of water if planning to continue along the trail to Pha Manow and Pha Sai, which is closed during the rainy months.
Phu Pha Thoep is convenient as a day trip from Mukdahan that could also include stops at Mukdahan Tower and Phu Manorom. Those wanting to hang around can rent a tent for around 200 baht or settle into one of a few big and basic bungalows in the 1,000 baht range. A handful of stalls near the visitor centre sell cold drinks and Isaan food. The park provided us with an English brochure and small map.
If you have plenty of time and your own wheels, consider continuing another 40 kilometres south to the remote Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park, where you’ll find 3,000 year-old cave paintings and a mountain topped by a series of natural lotus ponds.
How to get there
Phu Pha Thoep National Park is located 15 kilometres south of Mukdahan town. It’s a straight shot down Samut Sakdarak Road (Highway 2034) until you see the brown sign on the right, from where it’s another two kilometres to the gate. Blue songthaews run this way but you’d have to walk the final stretch to the park, or get off at a nearby market and hire a tuk tuk.
If you have loads of energy, you could rent a mountain bike at Nikorn Bicycle across from the River City Hotel and pedal all the way down here. For those of us who lack such stamina, the best bet is probably to hire a tuk tuk in Mukdahan; expect to pay 400 to 500 baht for a round trip. Admission to the park is 200 baht for foreign adults.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 19th September, 2015.