Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani, or Ubon for short, is a huge province with a multitude of attractions. However, the most stunning of which has to be the rock formations at Hat Chom Dao, a section of the Mekong River between the Khemmarat and Pho Sai districts in Ubon’s northeastern distant corner. These geological wonders reveal themselves only in the dry season when the water level is very low. From December to April, the fully exposed rocky formations present an other-worldly landscape that calls out to photography enthusiasts who are sure to have a field day checking out here and another site Sam Phan Bok further down the Mekong. Called by some as the “Grand Canyon of Siam”, the alien-like landscape will not be out of place for the filming of a sci-fi flick set on another planet.
A private vehicle would make exploring this part of Thailand more convenient. Sam Phan Bok is some 114km from Ubon Ratchathani Airport. If you choose to drive close to two hours to your destination, you can easily rent a vehicle from the several rental car companies at the airport. For those who do not like driving, hiring a van or a car with a driver is another alternative.
The Best Approach is by Boat
English is not widely spoken at this region of the Kingdom. I had the good fortune of staying at Plaifah Resort Ubon where the proprietor Ms Lhing can converse fairly well in English. The resort is just a 10-minute drive away from Sam Phan Bok, which makes viewing the rocky formation at sunrise a doable option considering that you have to be up by 6am. They were also most helpful in setting me off for my rocky exploit — arranging a two-way transport to a docking area where I could get onto a wooden long-tail boat to access Sam Phan Bok via the Mekong. They even prepared some snacks for my early morning trip. I was thankful for such nice gestures for my stomach was growling as the feeble sun rose slowly over Sam Phan Bok.
There are a few approaches to Sam Phan Bok but I feel that the better approach was by boat because I was able to admire the towering rocks from afar from the comfort of my seat. Flanked by rocky formations on both sides of the Mekong, it looks more like a canyon when you are traversing on the Mekong. As the boat docked further downstream at Sam Phan Bok, my accompanying guide led me to some interesting rock formations. She spoke no English but at least she was able to recommend some good spots to catch a beautiful sunrise over the rocky terrain with the sun’s reflections shimmering amid the thousands of holes.
Sam Phan Bok translates to “three thousand holes” in the Lao language. The rocky terrain is notched with 3,000 or more impressions that look like they were carved out with a gigantic ice cream scoop. But in truth, they are the work of Mother Nature – eddies or currents helping to polish and sculpt the cavities during the rainy season which sees the rocky formations submerged in the Mekong and depressions becoming mini ponds in May and June.
You can easily spend an entire day on your rocky adventure, wandering on the rocks that stretch between the river and a grassy embankment for some 10km. At some points, the rocky ground gives way to steep inclines of powdery beige sand with tall grasses. I would recommend visiting around sunrise or sunset when the air is cool. At other times, you will be at the mercy of the sun.
The boat made a few more downstream stops where I saw the rocks shifting from shades of grey to fiery orange and jet black. At one spot where there was a tiny beach, a Thai kid stripped himself naked and jumped into the waters much to his parents’ chagrin. The boat then headed back upstream past my docking area towards two islets, literally named Song Khon (two islands) from which the nearby village of Song Khon (where my resort was) derives its name. At this point, my guide pointed to a spot which I later found out was the narrowest point of the Mekong south of China, spanning just 56m in the dry season. You can see many locals on both the Lao and Thai sides of the rocks repeatedly dipping their nets into the river because Sam Phan Bok has always been a good fishing spot due to the shifting currents and underwater holes. And for those who cannot get enough of the “rockscape”, the boat could easily dock on the Lao side where you could make your way to Sii Phan Bok (four thousand holes) for a “holey-ier” experience.
A Good Base for Exploration
Plaifah Resort Ubon makes a good base for exploring other interesting parts of Ubon. Around 35km away is the old town of Khemmarat, once an important town in this part of northeastern Thailand. It is worth a visit on the second and fourth Saturday evening of each month when its main street (Wisit Si Road) is turned into a pedestrian street where locals come to perform traditional dance as well as to sell food, souvenirs and other goods. Looking at the many attractive wooden houses in the old-town area, visitors can somewhat sense Khemmarat’s former glory as an ancient city, rich with culture and history dating back to the Rattanakosin era. Because Hat Chom Dao is along the way to Khemmarat, it would be good to plan a stopover there first to experience the sunset over the canyon-like site before heading to Khemmarat for a carnival of fun.
Lying about 22km away from the resort is Sao Chaliang (derived from the Thai word Sa Liang meaning stone pillar) — massive sandstone structures naturally sculpted by wind and rain for centuries, that now resemble towering mushrooms. The area is believed by geologists to be the remains of a dried-up ocean over a million years ago. On closer inspection, I found many shells embedded in their surfaces.
I also discovered similar formations in Pha Taem National Park which is roughly a further 55km southwards. If you care to catch the earliest sunrise in Thailand, the vantage point is not far from the park’s visitor centre — a cliffside overlooking the forested hills of Laos across the Mekong. Down below at 160m is a scenic trail that can be accessed from a flight of concrete steps. Most visitors go on the 1.5km trail, that cuts along the overhanging cliff face, to view five cliff paintings which give a glimpse of what life was like here some 3,000 years ago. Wooden viewing platforms are erected in front of the paintings so that viewers can better make out images of giant catfishes, elephants, turtles and beings with triangular heads. Pha Taem means cliff painting in Thai, thereby giving the park its namesake.
Where the Mekong Meets the Mun
Lunch for me was 20 minutes away at a riverside restaurant in Khong Chiam, a scenic fishing village on the cliffs of the Mekong overlooking Laos’ soothing green. My meal, simple but fiery, comprises Isaan favourites such as Som Tum (papaya salad), Tom Saep (a sourish, spicy soup with chunks of meaty bones) and Larb Moo (minced pork salad) with sticky rice. Issan cuisine is an amalgamation of Lao, Vietnamese and central Thai influences to produce what my guide Prang considers Thailand’s finest food. I could not agree more.
In the wetter season, from May to August, weekends and holidays see droves of Thai tourists flocking to this tiny village to see the Mae Nam Song Sii (two-colour river), which is the confluence of the muddy-brown Mekong and the dark-bluish Mun River (Thailand’s second longest river). A bridge spanning the Mun River to the south of the village is one of the best places to take in the view. The contrast is not evident during the dry season due to the low water levels.
Not far from my restaurant was a graceful hilltop stupa which also affords panoramic views of the rivers. Established in the mid 1970s by a monk who discovered a small cave in the hillside suitable for meditation, Wat Tham Kuha Sawan’s most prominent feature is the shrine room topped by an elegant golden stupa, surrounded by eight smaller ones. However, what was more eye-catching was a humongous gong that greets visitors arriving by the access road. It has to be the most gigantic gong you will ever see in your life!
It is rare to encounter foreign travellers in this part of Thailand, but it was a different scene over at the Chong Mek crossing (around 25 minutes away by car from Khong Chiam), where I saw some foreigners grabbing Lao visas on arrival to continue their journey to Pakse and Champasak in Laos.
For adventurous foodies, the Chong Mek market will prove an interesting browse – wild herbs, barking deer meat, frogs, eggs with semi-developed chick, ant eggs, beetles, silkworms and other insects could be purchased from the vendors. Anyone up for a Lao salad of raw ant eggs?
A visit to Wat Sirindhorn Wararam Phu Prao (the fluorescent light temple) capped my fruitful itinerary for the day, which had been well planned by my resort. The beautiful temple, situated on a hilltop, looks over Sirindhorn Reservoir to the west. Come before 6pm to witness a stunning sunset over one of northeast Thailand’s largest bodies of water. The reservoir stretches north to south for over 50km, with a width around 15km at its widest point.
Most visitors would stay after sundown to check out the glowing “tree” on the back wall of the temple. It is made up of fluorescence-coated mosaic that gives off a pretty green glow against the dark sky. Together with the surrounding grounds of glowing lotus mosaics, the yellow-lit temple holds its grandeur to a captive audience.
The next day I left Pho Sai for Ubon Ratchathani city. The drive on the well tarred road took about two hours. The city itself has some temples that are worth a visit but If you have only time to visit one temple, Wat Thung Si Muang is probably your best bet, without travelling too far out of the way.
Sporting a mix of Lao, Burmese and Thai artistic styles, Wat Thung Si Muang was built during the reign of Rama III (1824 to 1851) to house a replica of the Buddha’s footprint. Past the finely lacquered doors of the ordination hall, my eyes were drawn to 200-year-old murals depicting life during that time.
Strolling on the temple grounds had a relaxing feel as I saw centuries-old architecture, old trees and a lotus pond from which an elegant wooden structure rises on tall, angled stilts. This is Wat Thung Si Muang’s best-known feature — a beautiful, well-preserved Ho Trai (Tripitaka library) built over the waters to protect Buddhist scriptures from termites.
If you love shopping, it is good to time your temple visit in the late afternoon on the weekends because a fun and youthful walking street market takes over Srinarong Road nearby (two minutes by foot). You will come across merchandise like clothing, handicrafts, antiques and everyday wares, which are very well-priced when compared to touristy towns. However, the main draw here is the food, from deep-fried frogs on banana leaves, Vietnamese-style baguette, pork and shrimp dumplings, to duck noodle soup, deep-fried sticky rice and fermented sausage, it is a feast for all senses!
Near the bus terminal on the outskirt of town is Wat Phra That Nong Bua, another temple I would recommend spending some time at. Built in 1957, it is an almost exact replica of the Mahabodhi stupa in Bodhgaya, India where the Buddha is believed to have received enlightenment some 2,500 years ago. This is Ubon’s only rectangular-based pagoda, of which its width becomes gradually smaller as it extends up to 56m, culminating with a bell-shaped stupa crown.
Between the ornate golden trim are reliefs depicting scenes from the Jatakas. Stepping within, you will find glittering golden pillars supporting a high ceiling awash with twinkling gold surfaces. It is hard not to be awestruck.
Adjacent to the pagoda is an ordination hall that showcases Ubon’s distinctive modern temple architecture. Before its entrance are replicas of floats that were created for Ubon’s Candle Festival when massive, elaborately carved wax sculptures are paraded as a part of Khao Phansa, a Buddhist holiday marking the commencement of the Rains Retreat (Buddhist Lent) in July. The floats from Wat Nong Bua often clinch the top prize.
About 500m north of the temple is Ubon Square, an entertainment and retail cluster that has somewhat become Ubon’s new hub with a hive of activity unseen elsewhere in the city. Surrounding a Big C supermarket, the busy sector consists of building clusters designated as bazaars, each selling different categories of goods likes toys, mobile phones and accessories, clothing, handicraft and whatnots. Artisan cafes, eateries and boutique hotels have sprouted up everywhere. To the east, there is a standalone McDonalds, while at the west end is a Makro. There is a youthful energy in the air with Ubon Square merging with the trendy, youth-oriented shopping area of a large university.
Food options are aplenty with a neighbouring food market and long stretches of eateries offering cheap and delicious Chinese-Thai, Isaan and Vietnamese-inspired fare that are bound to keep your belly full and happy.
Come evenings, the hustle and bustle moves up a gear as the walkway, stretching from the Big C supermarket to the main road, morphs into a night market. The shopping never ends!
A Hidden Gem in Northeast Thailand
Underrated as a travel destination, Ubon is a big province with much to see and experience. You could easily spend a week here as food and lodging is inexpensive. The quintessentially Isaan province is transforming from a backwater stopover to an attraction in its own right — one foot still rooted in Isaan traditions, while the other foot steps into an exciting future.