Pha Taem National Park
Situated in a remote region of Isarn, Pa Taem National Park really is off the beaten track. A cursory glance at a map will reveal that Pa Taem and the nearby township of khong Chiam are hard up against the Mekong and form part of a small bulge which is the eastern most extremity of Thailand. Getting there is no easy feat and it is for this reason alone the place is off the beaten track as a mainstream tourist destination. The nearest city with an airport is Ubon Ratchatani, approx. 80 km – or a 90 minute drive – to the west. Most visiting the area do so with their own transportation; by car or motorbike. There may be public busses running out from Ubon but if there is, they are few and far between. The best way of visiting the area is with your own vehicle as there are a number of attractions within the park, spread over three different locations, and having your own transportation will give you the mobility and flexibility to visit all on your own schedule.
As mentioned Pa Taem is a large national park which runs North to South along the Mekong and has a spread of approx. 50 kilometres. There is three distinct areas to visit – North, central, and South – and from my experience the best way to visit the three areas is to divide it into a day for each. I used the township of khong Chiam as a base for the first two days to enable me to visit Soi Sanam Waterfall, Pa Check Viewpoint and the southern Sao Chaliang on day one. On day two I visited Saeng Chan and Thung Na Mueang Waterfalls and the cave temple of Wat Thum Pathiham. For a reasonable standard of accommodation in Khong Chiam I would recommend the Kiangnam Resort. Khong Chiam is a pleasant, relaxing township with some nice restaurants along the riverfront to have your evening meal at while dusk falls over the Mekong. There’s also a temple on the hill just above and behind the township with what possibly may be the world’s largest gong. It’s a nice spot to visit for a sunset view over the river and township below.
Another advertised attraction of Khong Chiam is the two colours river viewpoint. The town is situated on a headland at the convergence of the Mekong and a tributary and apparently at the right time of year it’s possible to see the greener waters of the Mekong mixing with the muddy brown of the tributary. I think this requires a degree of good luck as at the time of my visitation, the region was a month into the dry season and both rivers still looked distinctly mud brown in colour. A nice photo opportunity at the two colours viewpoint – part of a temple complex on the headland – is sunrise over the Mekong. The tourist numbers visiting (or lack there-of) tells the real story of Pa Taem National Park. There are no buses full of package tourists running riot over the various attractions and the roads are relatively empty inside the park area. At most of the locations I visited, there were just a handful of sightseers. I planned my tour so I was at Pa Taem during the week days and in some sites I visited I was the only sightseer there. The months between November and February are probably the best for visiting the area. It’s officially the dry season and generally the skies are clear and conditions are cooler. Even so with the sun blazing down from blue skies above, the afternoon heat is still quite oppressive so any trekking should be done in the cooler morning hours.
For my first full day I planned to visit the lower end of the national park with Soi Sawan Waterfall and a hike to Pa Chek – the majestic viewpoint over the Mekong and Laos beyond – being on the to do list by midday. With an early start I was at parking area, which marks the starting point for the walk to the waterfall and the viewpoints, by 8 AM. There are a number of hawker’s stalls around the parking area selling snacks and cold, bottled water for those wishing to stock up before they start hiking. As with most national parks in Thailand, there’s a 400 THB entry fee for foreigners but at 8 AM on a weekday there were no park staff to be seen at the checkpoint. The walk to the waterfall is an easy amble along a sealed road after which you will arrive at an information area with directional arrows to the various sites. Soi Sawan waterfall is a short climb down a cement stairway – off to the left – at the end of the sealed road. As expected with the dry season being well under way the flow over the falls was down to a bare minimum. For those who enjoy seeing waterfalls in full flow, visiting between the months of June and October is the better option.
The trail out to the viewpoints of Pa Check and Pa Moei is a fairly sedate trek over largely flat ground. For the most part it’s actually a four wheel drive track evidenced by the twin tyre trails along the ground. However things change significantly when branching off to the viewpoint of Pa Chek as the track narrows from one for vehicles to a track barely recognisable, single file goat trail. As the final descent to the viewpoint weaves through thick tree growth the trail is barely recognisable in some places, so care needs to be taken as you push your way through the undergrowth. Eventually the trail breaks clear of the tree line and opens up to the wider vista of the Mekong and Laos beyond. It’s a 5 – 6 km round trip and much of the track is in open spaces so go in the morning to beat the heat, and take at least 1.5 litres of drinking water per person as well.
The round trip, allowing adequate time for taking photos and taking time to savour the impressive views across the Mekong and to Laos beyond, can be done comfortably in about three hours after visiting Soi Sawan Waterfall. If you arrive at the carpark at around 8 AM you should be back there by midday for a cold drink and roasted sweet potatoes to recharge the energy levels before pushing on to the next attraction. As mentioned Soi Sawan Waterfall and the viewpoints are attractions at the southern end of Pa Taem National park and although not very far from Khong Chiam – approx. 31 km – the trek out to Pa Chek will absorb at least half the available daylight hours. It was for this reason that I decided to visit the central area the following day as there are a number of interesting sites to visit. Darkness falls quickly in November in this part of the world – the sun sets at 5.30 PM and its dark by 6 PM – and although the drive to the central area, which Saeng Chan Waterfall and Pathiham Cave, are only a few kilometres further north I wanted a full day at my disposal for photography purposes. Nonetheless on the return to Khong Chiam, and at the most southern section of the national park, there are arrays interesting geological features which are unique to this area of Thailand. Sao Chaliangs are strange looking sandstone formations, almost like a naturally occurring Stonehenge, which dot the landscape in various sizes and are the remnants of the effects of time worn erosion on the rock strata. At the very bottom end of the national park there is a sealed road branching off route 2112 to a Sao Chaliang formation which is easily accessed and involves only a short walk from the parking area. In the blazing heat of the mid-afternoon it’s an easy site to visit.
At the time that I travelled to Pa Taem I was also fortunate that it coincided with the super full moon event (once every 64 years) and was lucky enough to catch the moon rise over the Mekong while having my evening meal at a river side restaurant.
My second day at Pa Taem was probably the most rewarding in terms of the number of interesting sites visited. The central region, which includes Saeng Chan and Thung Na Muang Waterfalls, is approx. one hours (50 km) drive from Khong Chiam Township. The directional signage off route 2112 is a bit obscured so if you have google maps, with a GPS tracker, that is an ideal way of ensuring you don’t miss the turn off. There is a good sealed road – distance about 10 km – down to the waterfall sites. There is a turnoff to Saeng Chan to the right which takes you directly to the carpark above the falls. There is a short stairway to the pool at the bottom of the falls. Saeng Chan is quite unique as far as waterfalls go as the water flows through a hole in the overhead strata. Even allowing for the fact it was the dry season and the flow was rather muted, it was still an interesting sight to behold.
Thung Na Muang Waterfall is back out on the main road with plenty of directional signage about to take you straight to the carpark above the falls. Once again there is a short, steep trail down to the bottom of the waterfall and an interesting feature at the mid-point of the stairway is a huge jungle creeper; in places it is one meter in diameter. As with Saeng Chan Falls the water flow is a bit muted due to the influence of the dry season. Once at the bottom there is a jumble large rocks between the end of the path and the face of the falls so if you want to get closer for a better photo opportunity, care needs to be taken when scrambling across the steep and slippery surfaces.
Wat Thum Pathiham is well worth a look, even though it is at the of a 22 kilometre side road. There is a sealed road, which winds its way through some quite impressive scenery, after which you will arrive at a parking area with directional signage for those wishing to hike the dirt trails out to the stone-age rock painting sites. Thum Pathiham Temple is approx. one kilometre down a sealed track which branches off the termination of the sealed road. The gold domed top of the temple is just visible from the road to indicate you are in the right location. Follow the narrow cement track and a few minutes later you’ll be pulling into the temple parking area.
For direction to the cave simply ask one of the staff on the temple grounds and they will have the designated guy put the power on for the lighting then lead you down into the cave. There is a long, winding stairway which takes you down into the subterranean world and the larger cavern with its array of Buddha images within. The guide will open the gates and you can then enter and take time to view the large reclining Buddha and take photos. Most of the locals visiting are there for worshipping purposes.
At the very northern end of Pa Taem National Park, and actually outside the park boundaries, is the unusual geological feature called Sam Phan Pok. Called the “Grand Canyon” on the Mekong, Sam Phan Bok is a labyrinth of weathered sand stone filled with rock pools and divided by a multitude of river channels. Making your way to Sam Phan Bok is a relatively easy exercise as the turnoff from route 2112 is well marked. The road is a few kilometres beyond the northern perimeter of Pa Taem and is a straight run of approx. three kilometres down to the parking area at the river’s edge. There are a number of small restaurants and toilet facilities next to the parking area to make a visitation a bit more comfortable. From the restaurant area a sloping, cement access roadway drops down to the sandy embankment and a rocky plateau, which forms part of the attraction, stretching away in the distance to the south. The actual sightseeing area is at least one kilometre from the parking/restaurant area so unless it’s early morning or late afternoon, a walk out to the feature isn’t recommended. The staff working as guides in the area don’t speak very good English so the information they provide regarding sightseeing trips is a bit garbled. The only way to get an extensive look at the site is by taking a boat trip. This will enable you to cruise the channels between the labyrinth of rocks and also get to the very far end of the feature. The boat departure and drop off point is actually a good distance from the restaurant area so transportation is also required to get the location where the boats are moored. At the time of writing this trip report the current prices are as follows: boat trip (approx. 1 hour) through Sam Phan Bok = 500 THB per person. Transportation to the boat departure point is 200 THB for the round trip. For overnight accommodation if you are going to Sam Phan Bok, the Plaifah Resort is highly recommended. http://www.plaifahresort.com/ and they also offer a tour option to view the sunrise over the Mekong and Sam Phan Bok.
Pa Taem national Park is quite possibly the best kept secret in Thailand Tourism at the moment. It is definitely off the beaten track as there are no tour bus loads of hordes scrambling over each attraction to be seen anywhere. The majority who make their way there are normally the independent type traveler looking to get away from the mainstream tourist traps. If you want to get off the beaten track in the most eastern area of Thailand then Pa Taem National Park is definitely worth a few days of your time.
Pa Taem National Park
Location: Ubon Ratchathani Province, THAILAND.
Nearest town: Khong Chiam; approx. 93 km from Ubon Ratchathani.
Nearest Airport: Ubon Ratchatani.
Nearest rail terminal: Ubon Ratchatani.
Getting there: take either the train or a domestic flight to Ubon Ratchathani. The North-East train line ends at Ubon (departure from Hualumphong) and Nok Air has daily flights there also (departures from Don Muang Airport). Once in Ubon Ratchathani you can catch a mini-bus to Khong Chiam. The mini-bus departure point is the bus terminal in Ubon Ratchathani, minibuses depart hourly from 06:00 to 18:00 and stop in Phibun Mangsahan before dropping passengers in Khong Chiam and continuing onto Chong Mek, Warin Chamrap and back to Ubon. The ride from Ubon Ratchathani to Khong Chiam takes around 1.5 hours. There is also a bus service from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani which departs daily from Mo Chit bus station.
Nearest ATM and accommodation: Khong Chiam.
Recommended accommodation in Khong Chiam: Ban Khiang Nam Hotel (prices range from 600 – 1200 THB per night).
National Park access: North from Khong Chiam via route # 2112. All main attractions are on roads which branch right off route # 2112.
NOTE: as with all national parks in Thailand, there is an entrance fee for foreigners. Rates are normally 200 – 400 THB.
Soi Sawan Waterfall: approx. 30 km North from Khong Chiam P.O. There is a carpark with some basic restaurants and toilets at the entry point to the park. The waterfall is a further 600 meters on from the car park.
Pha Chek View point: approx. 3 km from Soi Sawan waterfall, plus the 600 meter walk from the car park. Round trip is approx. 7.2 km.
Pha Moei Viewpoint: approx. 3.8 km from Soi Sawan Waterfall, plus 600 meters from car park. Round trip is approx. 8.8 km.
Geological formations (Sao Chaliang): approx. 18 km North from Khong Chiam P.O.
Thung Na Mueang Waterfall: approx. 48 km North from Khong Chiam P.O.
Saeng Chan Waterfall: approx. 50 km North from Khong Chiam P.O.
Wat Thum Pathiham: approx. 52 km North from Khong Chiam P.O.
Other worthwhile attractions
Sam Phan Bok: approx. 95 km North from Khong Chiam P.O. NOTE: Sam Phan Bok is just beyond the Northern Boundary of Pa Taem National Park.
Two Colours Viewpoint: located on the headland, formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Mun rivers, in Khong Chiam.