When you think of Thailand you think beaches, islands, partying, heat, elephants, and coconuts. Okay, lets not beat around the bush… you also think of lady-boys and ping-pong shows. In June, I experienced Thailand in a very different way from the above-mentioned, except with one similarity. Any guesses? Anyone? Nope, unfortunately not the lady-boys. It’s the dreaded heat. I guess you can’t exactly escape it, but perhaps in our “so-called” winter it can get slightly more comfortable for all of 2 weeks.
A friend recommended this undiscovered attraction called “Samphanbok” (also known as 3000 shores, or the grand canyon of Siam), and within 3 days, I was there. Seems like there is a consistent trend in my life to be spontaneous, but I’m loving it! So anyways, I arrived at Ubon Ratchathani and found out that the Ubon airport was burned down sometime last year, but were able to quickly recover with a makeshift airport while they complete the reconstructions. Got to hand it to Thailand for always being great at “post-crisis” situations!
Now, Samphanbok isn’t exactly in Ubon Ratchathani, so I rented a car and made a fun roadtrip out of it. There is plenty to see on the outskirts of Ubon before finally making it to Samphanbok. Here’s a snapshot of a little map the rental agency provided me with, and my not-so-legible personal notes to accompany this beauty of a map. And so began my journey.
I made my first stop at the Two Color River, known as “Maenam Song Si”. This is where the brown water from the Mekong River merges with the blue water from the Mun River. The colors are most visible when the sun is shining though; otherwise what you’ll be looking at is basically a One Color River, in other words… a river.
Also, if you’re worried about the infrastructure during your road trip, here’s a photo on the road to ensure you all the roads are brand new, and are barely being utilized by cars. Hooraaaah!
My next stop was at the Pha Taem National Park. If I had more time, I would have probably stayed there for much longer. There is so much to do at Pha Taem, it could easily take up your entire day. There is a beautiful 10km hiking trail at this National Park which is highly recommended by the locals there, especially for the gorgeous view, and for the fact that you get to see 3000 year old cliff paintings along your hike (which sadly, I didn’t get a chance to conquer due to my time constraints). However, I did get to enjoy the beautiful views from the cliff overlooking the Mekong River and Laos. Hello Laos!
♦ Fun Fact: Since Pha Taem National Park is situated on the eastern most part of Thailand, it also happens to be the first place where the sun sets in Siam. So if you want to be the first to witness the sunset in Thailand, go here!
One of the most exciting spots in Pha Taem for me was the Sao Chaliang, a cluster of towering mushroom-shaped rock formations where I was able to get my climb on!
There was a small hiking trail around the corner of this rock formation, so I took to discovering the hidden treasure. After a short hike, I found myself on a plateau of rocks that were all dried up and broken into little plates. Also, there’s evidence of people coming here and playing stones! I quite enjoyed seeing these natural formations, but then again, I love Mother Nature entirely too much so what I find amusing, others might find boring. C’est la vie!
My next adventure was to the Sao Sawan waterfall, which turned out to be a misadventure because in the scrotching heat, there isn’t going to be any water to create the falls. Oops, I should have known better. Of course, I then decided to skip all the waterfalls and head straight to Samphanbok. By this point I was absolutely starved, so as soon as I reached my destination, before even taking a quick gander at the view, I headed straight to the only restaurant in sight, to refill my aching bellies.
♦ Travel Tip: Either you get to see really beautiful waterfalls or you get to see Samphanbok, but you cannot have the best of both worlds. Waterfalls depend on the rainy season (Jul – Nov) while Samphanbok drowns in it and is nowhere in sight! On the other hand, in the dry season (Dec – Jun), Samphanbok is a beautiful canyon, while all the waterfalls are as dry as deserts. On the bright side, there’s something to see in Isaan all year round!
Now, when you arrive at Samphanbok, don’t be disappointed if you see nothing at first (in other words, don’t be so quick to judge!). Speak with one of the local song-thaew drivers (thai communal taxis), and they will drive you down to a location close to the river, where all the long-tail boats are docked. Oh I almost forget to mention, when you rent the song-thaew to take you down, you are also given a tour guide free of charge, who joins you on the long-tail boat ride! These tour guides have a wealth of information to share, so make sure to get one of those as well, considering they are free of charge, but of course, do not forget to tip the tour guide at the end of your journey.
You could also choose to walk down, but the drive was only 100 THB and in the sun, it seemed like a much better idea than to try and hike it. The song-thaew driver also waits for you until you’re done to bring you back up. He ended up waiting for us for over 4 hours. Once we were down there, we were offered 2 types of long-tail boat rides.
Option 1: 500 THB for going to 3 point of interests
- Where the desert meets the sea
- Viewing the dried up rock formations and corals
- The highlight, which is the actually canyon itself
Option 2: 900 THB for going to 3 point of interests as well as a 1 – 2 hour ride along the Mekong River. This also gives you a bit more time at each of the point of interest.
I decided to go with option 2, since it was only 3:00pm, and I was in no rush. Also, the long-tail boat drive will take you to the most narrow part of this Mekong River that larger boats are unable to access, so that was pretty cool! There were some gorgeous rock formations along the entire long-tail boat ride, and again, I don’t think my lens could do it justice. If I came here a month earlier (in April), It would have been even more extreme, as the water level is lowered by another 10 meters during April, the hottest and drying month in all of Thailand. Here are some shots of the Long Tail boat ride along the Mekong River.
And here are some photos from 2 point of interests, the coral like red rocks, and the Thailand desert (Haad Salung)! The rocks actually have a nice red tint to them, and they only surface during dry season. Otherwise, this entire landscape is flooded with water, as the Mekong river rises during rainy season. I can hardly imagine this vast space being consumed entirely by water!
However, I must warn you that you should take your runners with you, as you will be climbing on some rocks at the main point of interest, which is the known as the highlight, and point of interest #3 to get to the canyon view. Some trails are barely as wide as 10 inches with canyons on either side. So if you’re afraid of heights, you might be in a bit of trouble! It was just absolutely breathtaking once we got up there. I completely forgot that I was even in Thailand. It surely didn’t feel like Thailand. I did not know this existed, and I was thankful that I went to discover it. Here are some photos of the 3rd point of interest, and the highlight of this trip.
♦Travel Tip: The best time to visit Samphanbok is between March and April, when the water is about 10 meters lower than what it was when I went it June. That would be an entirely different landscape, and I can barely imagine the water being any lower. Would make for a much drastic canyon though! Do not risk visiting Samphanbok past June, as the canyon is likely to fill up, and all you would get is a view of the flooded Mekong River.
After my long adventurous day (which started at 5am since my flight was so early in the morning), I was completely exhausted, and in need of some major downtime. I chose to stay close to Samphanbok, 5km away at the only decent logging that I could find and was able to get a hold of on the phone, called “Baan Natchana.” The entire property consisted of about 5 cabins, and costs 900 THB per cabin per night (each cabin can sleep up to 3 people). Again, another great bargain in Isaan, considering how clean and well maintained the cabins were. I also got an a la carte breakfast in the morning! The perks of staying with a family owned residence far exceeds any hotel in my opinion!
The next day, I drove a bit further north before making a left back to head to the Ubon airport. I spent my time at Haad Chom Dao, which translated to English means, Star Gazing Beach. Because the water level was so low, it wasn’t exactly a beach view with a filled up sea of water, but rather the view of a river bed, which I believe to be way more interesting! I also saw the lovely behinds of some cows on my drive out of there.
My last destination before heading to the Ubon airport was Khem Marat, a semi-larger town compared to the other ones I passed. I stopped in this town to have some lunch, and stumbled upon the most amazing Thai restaurant. As a local, I can safely say that this was by far one of my favourite Thai restaurants. If you ever find yourself in Khem Marat (yes the chances of that happening are rather low, I know), please do yourself a favor and go to this restaurant. Except I have no clue what the name of it is anymore, but I do have a photo of the tables and the view, so many that helps… or not at all. Either way, that marks the end of my 36 hours in Isaan and adventure to Thailand’s best kept secret, Samphanbok.