Pha Thaem National Park is overlooking the Mekong. The national park is 90 kilometres from Ubon Ratchathani, and it is best to make a stop at 7/11 on the way out from Ubon Thani to purchase drinks and visit toilets. It takes 1.30 minutes to 2 hours to drive from Ubon. You need your vehicle to get here or book a tour of the town. There is also the option to go from Kong Chiam and rent a motorbike there.
On the way to the national park, there is a checkpoint where you pay for entrance, last time I was there; it was a 400 baht charge for foreigners. After the checkpoint, you will drive past the mushroom-like pillars named Sao Chiang. The monolithic stone pillars consist of two different types of sandstone. The standing post is from the Jurassic period 180 million years ago, and the mushroom roof on it is younger, from 130 million years ago.
Rivers and wind have worn down the pillars over the years.
The Historic Rock Paintings in Pha Thaem National Park
Drive on, and you will get to the “Visitors centre” with toilets and where you can read some background information about the prehistoric paintings. You can also enjoy a lovely view of the Mekong 160 meters down the river. (But note, there is no railing/fence! So do not go too close.)
From the visitors centre, it is about 1 kilometre to walk to the peak, the no. 2 of the rock paintings. (There are 4, but then you have to walk 4 kilometres) It’s a rocky staircase down, and a bit uneven, but then follows a nice flat path to walk on with a view of nature and the Mekong. The mountains belong to the Dangrek(carrying pole mountain) range.
First, you get to the paintings at Information sign number 1. This rock painting is a bit difficult to distinguish. Then you move on to peak no. 2 about 300 meters later. This fantastic ancient painting is 180 meters long and shows various aqua animals, turtles, giant Mekong catfish and even pigs. There are maybe as many as 300 motifs.
There are around 200 sites with ancient rock paintings scattered all over Thailand, mainly in the north and northeast.
Rock Paintings in South East Asia
If you look at the total all over Southeast Asia, there is around 1000. Extremely little research has been devoted to this “rock art”. Humans kind of look like aliens or creatures with vases on their heads. Also, someone has interpreted rice fields. The rice fields are the wavy patterned motifs over the creature’s heads.
An interesting fact, in the past red colour, was often used in burial ceremonies. Interestingly enough, in these sandstone mountains, there are also quartz and iron.
Possibly the hand palm has been used in the creation of the murals. The artists could have dipped their hands in paint and then painted on the bedrock. It is supported by the impression of palms on the walls. Animal blood was used for dyeing. However, it is not known exactly how old the paintings are. But it is estimated that they are older than 3000 years.
After your walk, you return to the same visitor centre. There is a lovely café at the visitors centre. Actually, an excellent place to wait if someone in your company can not do the walk for some reason.
Also, If you get here during the dry period of the year, wildflowers bloom on Thailand’s largest meadow by a waterfall. The locals call it Heaven’s necklace, Soi Sawan.
Overnight in Kong Chiam
From Pha Thaem to Kong Chiam, where it is convenient and pleasant overnight, it is about a 30 minutes drive. Also, an exciting option is to take a boat trip along the river. Kong Chiam is an excellent place to chill for some days; after all, it is by the mighty Mekong. But it is also a popular spot to stop by before you continue into Laos and Pakse via the overland border.
For our tour programs Kong Chiam was a starting point for exploring Southern Laos and the 4000 islands and Vat Pho in Champasak, and then proceeding overland via the Khone falls to Siam Reap in Cambodia.
The drive from the Laos border to Siam Reap can be done within one-day nowadays. Furthermore, on the way, you pass some of the lesser-explored temple ruins in Cambodia such as the recent Unesco World Heritage Koh Ker
Pha Thaem National Park is one of my favourite national parks in Thailand. I hope I can return there soon. The rock paintings fascinate me, and I never get tired of the Mekong river views.