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Phu Phra Bat Historical Park

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Huge boulders appear to balance atop impossibly small rocks, rimmed by ancient Buddha images and caves shrouded in legend. A famous tale set at Phu Phra Bat Historical Park proclaims: “There is a sense of mystery here, a primeval force, which speaks, through ancient cave paintings and chiseled motifs, of those that lived long ago.”

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A one-of-a-kind historical park.

A one-of-a-kind historical park.

The park combines a distinctively beautiful landscape with a multi-layered trail of arts and religion stretching back over 3,000 years. Though we rank Phu Phra Bat among the Isaan region’s best attractions, its location amid the Phu Phan mountains in the rural northwestern corner of Udon Thani province keeps the crowds to a minimum.

Appearing as if propped up by a prehistoric race of giants, the park’s massive mushroom-looking rock formations were probably the work of erosion that took place when the terrain was immersed under an ocean millions of years ago. Narrow “stems” of sandstone somehow hold up the weight of harder and larger chunks of rock up above. Similar formations can be seen at Phu Pha Thoep and Pha Taem national parks, among other places, but some of Phu Phra Bat’s look like they’re defying the law of gravity.

Millions of years old balancing act.

Millions of years old balancing act.

Much of the park’s lower section consists of continous basalt that tapers into granulated sandstone and patches of soil where bamboo and local hardwoods grow. The escarpment rises steeply to a cliff, Pha Sadej, where you can take in breathtaking views of the western hills and, on a clear day, all the way to the mountains of Laos.

Great spot for a picnic.

Great spot for a picnic.

Several streams which ultimately feed into the Mekong River trace their sources to Phu Phra Bat — a fact that proved crucial for a certain captive princess (more on her below). During the rainy months, water trickles down the rocky slopes in countless places, filling natural imprints while glistening atop the swirling rocks.

It’s not surprising how ancient people found a landscape that seems to defy the normal rules of nature to be spiritually charged. Between three and four thousand years ago, people of mysterious origin painted pictures of animals, human figures and geometric designs on many of the grottoes, with the best known located at Tham Woau and Tham Khon.

Window to the ancient.

Window to the ancient.

Some time around the year 1,000 CE, members of the Mon Dvaravati civilisation were also drawn to the area. They crafted tall stone markers around many of the largest rock formations, indicating that the “balancing” boulders were deemed sacred. The sites may have been used for religious ceremonies involving a mix of animist, Hindu and Buddhist rites.

The markers pop up all over the park.

The sturdy markers pop up all over the park.

The most haunting set of stones is found at Kou Nang Usa, also known as “Thai Stonehenge.” Ranging in height from one to three metres, seven markers have stood through the centuries in a circle surrounding a jagged rock formation rising from a broad stone floor.

Thai (or Mon) Stonehenge.

Thai (or Mon) Stonehenge — fun to imagine what might have gone down here.

The Mon — and perhaps later the Khmer — also carved several Buddha images into small caves and crevices. Many of these were partially destroyed by invaders from Yunnan in the late 1800s, but one exceptional image remains in tact at Tham Phra. Punctuated by a finely carved “roof” topped by what appears to be seven smaller depictions of monks, the image is somewhat hidden in a narrow niche.

Phu Phra Bat's attractions pop up around corners, making the park a lot of fun to explore.

Artifacts and formations pop up around corners, making the park a lot of fun to explore.

First appearing long after the Mon left their mark, a local legend set at Phu Phra Bat recounts a beautiful princess, Nang Usa, who was imprisoned by her father/king in a dark room carved into the tallest rock formation. Briefly escaping her hermit captor’s sights while bathing, she sent a flower garland floating downstream to the Mekong, where a certain prince, Tao Baros, discovered it. He quickly traced it back to Phu Phra Bat, where he and Nang Usa fell in love.

Nang Usa's rocky chamber.

Nang Usa’s rocky chamber.

From there the legend takes some bizarre twists, including a temple-building contest between Nang Usa’s father and lover that results in Tao Baros beheading the king before being cursed by forest spirts due to his cheating ways. (For the full story, see a riveting translation by Julian Wright, excerpted in the first paragraph here and provided courtesy of Mutmee Guesthouse in Nong Khai.) Many of the park’s rock formations were named after the tale, including Kork Mah Tao Baros (“Tao Baros’ Horse Stable”) and Tham Rishi (“Hermit’s Cave”).

This one's called Heebsob Nang Usa.

This one’s called Heebsob Nang Usa.

Just beyond the historical park’s borders, a 1.5 metre-long carved footprint, known as Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok, is said to have been magically imprinted into the rock by the Buddha himself. It’s this legend that Phu Phra Bat, or “Buddha Footprint Mountain,” was named after. The print is marked by an imposing Lao-style chedi built in 1922. In the surrounding temple grounds, several more rock formations are joined by garish concrete statues of tigers and Buddha images.

Nearly century-old chedi at the Buddha footprint.

Nearly century-old chedi at the Buddha footprint.

Just before reaching Wat Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok, a hand-painted sign points south to a forest trail leading to a series of lesser known ancient paintings. The first is Non Sao Aei, where the entire side of a large boulder is covered in stone-age grafitti. Depictions of elephants and birds emerge from the chaotic melange of cryptic shapes.

The recent

Where’s caveman Waldo?

From here, we found the trail difficult to follow due to a lack of markers on the rocky ground. Those who are brave enough to keep going should find four more rock painting sites over a span of two kilometres. The hike culminates at a 25-centimetre-long Buddha footprint known as Phra Phutthabat Lang Tao, named after a nearby rock that apparently resembles a turtle.

While these sideshow sites are overseen by the temple and not so well preserved, the Thai Fine Arts Department has done an excellent job with the historical park itself. At Wat Louk Khoei, a Dvaravati sanctuary built into a towering rock formation, the sandstone slabs used during a restoration were purposely chosen to contrast the original stones, allowing visitors a clear picture of what the original sanctuary looked like without attempting to hide the modern work.

One of the more striking sights.

Wat Louk Khoei: one of the park’s more striking sites.

An easy-to-follow trail runs in a roughly two-kilometre loop past all of the park’s main attractions. Visitors who aren’t up for the fairly strenuous hike up to the viewpoint can access most of the highlights via a lower trail. Each site is marked by comprehensible English descriptions, and quality English maps are provided at the info centre.

The way up to the viewpoint.

The way up to the viewpoint.

During our visit, a very friendly English-speaking official advised us to take the trail to the left after entering the park, passing the cave paintings on the way up to the viewpoint. From there we hiked downhill in the other direction to Thai Stonehenge, Tham Phra and Usa’s tower, which are all clustered close together, before finishing at Wat Louk Khoei. We passed dozens of smaller rock formations along the way.

It took us three hours to explore the park, plus another hour spent around Wat Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok, which is four kilometres southwest of the park entry booth. The park rents out a few basic fan-cooled bungalows and provides a campground, but no other accommodation is available in the immediate vicinity. A small kitchen next to the car park cooks up simple Isaan and Thai fare to go with cold drinks.

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What next?

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