As you cruise down the mighty Mekong, just before you get to Khong Jiam, you’ll see a long cliff—Pha Taem—for which the 131-square-mile Pha Taem National Park is named. The hale and hardy can climb to the top for a bird’s-eye view of Laos. Explore the park—the most eastern region of Thailand and one of the most popular attractions in the Ubon Ratchatani province—to glimpse nearly 300 prehistoric rock paintings estimated at around 3,000 years old, as well as spectacular waterfalls.
The excellent visitor center is the first introduction to the magnificent murals, with subjects ranging from the giant Mekong catfish to geometric designs. A couple of viewing platforms make it easy to take in the ancient art, which was discovered in 1981 by a professor and his students from Silpakorn University. The paintings give remarkable insight into the culture and history of the time at which they were created. Most of the pictures are visible at the base of the Pha Taem cliff, in four groupings; an easy-to-follow trail takes you right there. Venture a bit farther afield for more art viewing at the Pha Chek and Pha Moei cliffs—these are less often visited and therefore quieter.
Natural splendors abound in the rolling plains and highlands of the park, which is part of the Phannom Dongrak mountain range. Look for the Nam Tok Soi Sawan waterfall, and of particular note, the Soi Sawan waterfall—two serene brooks, the Huai Soi and Huai Phai, join together from opposite sides of the fall, creating a necklace-like effect in the cascading water. It’s also here that you’ll find Thailand’s (reputedly) largest flower field and the oddly shaped, mushroom-like Sao Chaliang stone formations. Wildlife in the park includes Siamese hare, barking deer, and wild pig.
Looking for something extra special to write home about? Hike to Pa Cha Na Dai cliff for the first sunrise in Thailand; for the first sunset, head to Pha Taem.
Yet another highlight of the Central Mekong lies just over the border of Thailand in Laos—Wat Phu, or “mountain temple,” a stunning pre-Angkorian Khmer temple ruin that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 and is one of Laos’ oldest archaeological sites. The workmanship that went into the temple is mind-boggling—take a moment to revel in the pillars, barays, pediments, terrace, courtyard, sanctuary, shrine, and palaces, built of sandstone, laterite, and brick. Be sure to visit the natural spring; locals believe it gives out holy water. Look for the four large Buddha images at the altar at the front section of the sanctuary, as well as intricate carvings of Indra, the Hindu god of war, storms, and rainfall, and Vishnu, riding on an eagle. If you’re visiting in February, during a full moon, get ready for the temple’s biggest and most impressive festival, chock full of traditional monk-blessing ceremonies, elephant racing, a trade fair, Lao dancing, and more.