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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to get there
Phu Phra Bat Historical Park is located 65 km northwest of Udon Thani, 65 km southwest of Nong Khai, and 60 km south of Sangkhom. Motorbikes can be rented in all of these places. Car rental and private taxis are available in Udon.
From Udon Than, take Highway 2 north out of the city and, after around 15 km, follow the sign left (west) onto Highway 2021. Another 40 km and you’ll reach the town of Ban Phue, where things get a little confusing — a few hundred metres after a blue sign pointing right, take a right at the traffic light and then a left at the next traffic light (there’s no sign here), which will put you onto Highway 2348 for the remaining 10 or so km to the park, marked by several signs along the way. 2348 runs east-to-west through the whole northern part of Ban Phue, so if you get lost, take any north-running street until you find it.
From Nong Khai, head west on Highway 211 (the riverfront road) and take a left (south) in Tha Bo onto Highway 2020. Eventually 2020 will bend west and take you into Ban Phue, from where you can follow the directions above. From Sangkhom, take Highway 2376 south out of town, which will take you almost the whole way to the park. You’ll just need to hang a right for the final five or so km.
The park cannot be reached directly by public transport, but you can take a minibus to Ban Phue from Rangsina Market in Udon Thani (hourly from 06:00) and then arrange a tuk tuk for a round trip to the park for 300 to 500 baht. The last minibus back to Udon departs at 18:00.
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