Eastern Thailand’s spectacular Pha Thaem National Park is one of my favourite places in the little-visited Isan-Region. The main attraction here are a series of rugged cliffs towering over the Mekong River, but you’ll also find some awesome waterfalls, interesting rock formations and ancient rock paintings.
During my tour of the Isan, I spent two days exploring every nook and cranny of the area. Here’s my personal guide on everything you need to know about visiting Pha Thaem National Park.
This post may contain affiliate links, and I might earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. For more info, click here.
The Best Things to Do in Pha Thaem National Park
I’ve ordered the sights below roughly from South to North, as the southern section of the park is where the visitor centre is located and where most people will likely start their explorations. The further north you come, the more remote and harder to reach the attractions will get, culminating in the isolated Cha Na Dai Cliff.
Pha Thaem Cliff Viewpoint
The namesake cliff is the most famous sight in the National Park and towers over the surrounding landscape. The views of the Mekong River, the adjacent plains and the hills over in Laos are quite spectacular.
The landscape is impressive enough that the spot was used as a filming location in ‘Alexander’ – Oliver Stone’s 2003 Biopic about Alexander the Great, where the Mekong stood in for the Hyphasis River.
If you’re spending the night in the park, I recommend catching the Sunset from the viewpoint. Apparently, this is also one of Thailand’s best spots to watch the Sunrise, although it was a bit too cloudy when I tried.
That said, the atmosphere and light at dawn was amazing, so photographers might want to try their luck no matter the weather forecast. Just make sure to watch your step on the cliff in the darkness – there are no guardrails or anything, and it’s a long way down.
Pha Thaem Cliff Hike and Ancient Rock Paintings
Pha Thaem Cliff is also the starting point for a scenic hike along the side of the cliff that passes several sets of prehistoric rock paintings. The pictograms are thought to date approximately 3,000 years back, although dating non-organic pigment is notoriously difficult.
No matter their age, the paintings are definitely impressive. There are groups of stylized anthropomorphic figures with triangular heads, sets of handprints and depictions of animals, including some fish that are thought to represent the Giant Mekong Catfish.
The first two sets are the biggest and arguably the most impressive ones, but I think they’re all worth checking out. That said, if you’ve got an issue with heights you should probably skip Set 4, as getting close requires walking on a half-meter wide section of rock past a 20m deep drop (without railings, of course).
Also keep your eyes peeled for snakes and giant millipedes, of which I encountered quite a few, when I did the hike early in the morning. The hike is about 4km or 2.5 mi. long and took me a little over an hour to complete.
Sao Chaliang (Mushroom Rocks)
In several parts of the park, you can find sets of mushroom-shaped sandstone rocks that are the result of millennia of wind erosion, making for a bizarre and photogenic sight.
Easiest to reach and most impressive is the set of Sao Chaliang next to the road leading from the southern entrance to the park to the visitor centre at Pha Thaem Cliff. I also stumbled upon various mushroom rocks in the northern part of the National Park near Cha Na Dai Cliff.
Soi Sawan Waterfall
If you’re here in the rainy season from July to October (or shortly thereafter, like I was), it’s also worth checking out several waterfalls in the park. At 25m or 80ft., Nam Tok Soi Sawan is the tallest among these.
While it can’t hold a candle to some of the bigger waterfalls in the country, I think it’s worth going there for the pretty canyon it’s set in alone, plus there are more great cliff viewpoints nearby.
To get there, you have to follow Highway 2112 north for about 15km or 9mi. from the southern entrance to the park and turn right at Ban Nong Pea Yai village, before continuing for about 5km or 3mi to the waterfall.
Sang Chan Waterfall
Nam Tok Sang Chan is definitely one of the more unusual waterfalls I’ve come across, as it flows through an opening in an overhanging rock. Again, it’s probably most impressive in the rainy season, but I thought it was still well worth visiting at the beginning of the dry season in November.
To get there, drive about 10km or 6mi. north from the turn-off for Soi Sawan Waterfall and turn east at Ban Na Pho Klang Village, from where it’s another 10km east to the turn-off for Sang Chan Waterfall. Nearby, you can also check out the small Thung Na Muang Waterfall as well as the huge vine of a strangler fig.
Cha Na Dai Cliff
The remote northern part of the National Park is even more impressive than the southern half, and again the main attraction is a cliff towering over the Mekong River. I’d say that the views from Cha Na Dai Cliff are even more striking than the ones from Pha Thaem cliff, and the isolated location certainly adds to the appeal.
The cliff is very hard to reach by following a 20km long access road, that you can only navigate with a 4×4 or if you’re a little crazy like me, by scooter. Be warned though, that almost the entire approach you’ll have to basically balance your scooter on one of two narrow concrete causeways and there are sections where you’ll have to drive over the bare rocks.
Not many people seem to make the trip, judging by the surprised reaction I got from the National Park Guard at the cliff, but if you’re down for a bit of adventure, I highly recommend it. Surrounding the cliff are some minor waterfalls, like the tiny Nam Tok Huai Pok, and more unusual rock formations, like the Twin Rock Pillar.
The path leading to the cliff starts near the small Wat Tham Phathihan, which is about 5km or 3mi. north-east of Ban Na Pho Klang Village (where you’ll have to turn off the highway to reach Sang Chan Waterfall).
A One-Day Itinerary for Pha Thaem National Park
I spent two days here, but if you’re pressed for time, you could manage to see the highlights of the National Park in a day. Start out early and try to maybe even catch the sunrise at Pha Thaem Cliff, before hiking the loop trail past the Rock Paintings. On the way back to the cliff, you’ll pass the most impressive set of Mushroom Rocks in the park.
Afterwards, continue north to check out Soi Sawan and Sang Chan Waterfalls, before pressing on to Cha Na Dai Cliff (if you’re up for the adventurous path leading there). Definitely make sure to bring enough water and food as the only place selling anything is near Pha Thaem Cliff.
How to Get to Pha Thaem National Park
There’s no public transport into the National Park and the fact that it’s very spread out means, that you’ll need your own set of wheels anyway, to check out more than one attraction. I recommend renting a scooter, either in Ubon Ratchathani or in pretty Khong Chiam, like I did. I got mine from Ban Apple Guesthouse in Khong Jiam.
Accommodation in Pha Thaem National Park
The only accommodation inside the park is the camping site near the approach road to Pha Thaem Cliff and the visitor centre. If you don’t have a tent, you can rent one, including a mattress and sleeping back at the campsite. There was no shortage of equipment when I was there, as I was the only one sleeping in the park.
If you prefer a real hotel, you can also stay in nearby Khong Jiam village. Before coming to the park, I stayed at the friendly, low-budget Ban Apple Guest House (+66 45351160), but there are also a few mid-range options, like Baan Kieng Tawan. If you’re looking for a bit of luxury, you can try Tohsang Heritage Khongjiam.
Food and Drink in Pha Thaem National Park
During the day, there are a few food stalls at the visitor centre near Pha Thaem cliff, but that’s really the only place in the National Park to grab a bite. If you’re visiting the more remote northern sections, make sure to bring enough water and food to get you through the day.