A Hidden Treasure at Pha Taem National Park

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand’s northeastern (Isaan) region is best known for its enormous three- to four-thousand-year old petroglyphs, adorning the steep vertical wall of a sandstone cliff overlooking the Mekong River and Laos. Known to be the world’s largest grouping of prehistoric cliff paintings, more than 300 pictographs in red and ochre colors stretch over 180 meters of cliff wall and include subjects like an elephant, turtle, fish of different sizes, fish traps and storage jars, human-like figures, handprints, tools and utensils, farming and hunting scenes and geometric designs. Together they represent the finest prehistoric paintings in the country.

Cliff Painting 1
Cliff painting of elephant
Cliff Painting 2
Cliff paintings

Pha Taem Cliff 2
Trail to view petroglyphs

Besides the cliff paintings, impressive rock formations and graceful seasonal waterfalls are major attractions drawing park visitors. Located in the border province of Ubon Ratchathani, the park spans the most easterly points in the country and is a popular place for vacationing Thais to come and watch the sunrise to welcome in the New Year.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation
Sao Chailiang Rock Formation

But on my most recent trip there in December 2009, the most exhilarating highlight for me was none other than a wildflower field on a rocky plateau in full bloom and abuzz with bees. Perhaps it’s because it’s a new and completely unexpected experience, but more likely because of the captivating beauty of the vast plateau-top meadow – a little paradise for a nature lover like me.

Pha Taem Meadowland
Meadowland near Soi Sawan waterfall

It was all unplanned. I had just climbed back up the steep trail after viewing the petroglyphs and was waiting at the cliff-top Visitor’s Center for the rest of my group of American travelers, who had decided to continue on the long trail, to return. While browsing local textile products (a main focus of my Northeast tour is visiting traditional weaving villages: see A Treasure of Northeastern Thailand: Weaving Villages) in the gift shop, a park official running the shop started asking me about my group.

Park rangers in the parklands of the Northeast seldom see casual groups of American travelers. They always seem eager to greet western tourists, but because most have a very poor command of the English language, they are limited to giving information about the sights to see through the Thai friends accompanying them.

Various Wildflowers
Various wildflowers

I asked him whether the beautiful Soi Sawan (“Heaven’s Necklace”) waterfall was still flowing at this time of year. Not much, he replied, as it had been a particularly dry year. But he insisted that I should take my group to the last of the wildflower fields still in bloom, situated in the same section of the park as the waterfall. Since I hadn’t visited the wildflower field before, I inquired about its accessibility – whether it’s by a road we could drive up to or whether we had to hike in and how long a walk, etc. Our group had a packed schedule the previous day exploring Mukdahan, including the fascinating other-worldly terrain of Phu Pha Thoep National Park, and then driving a long distance on rugged roads to reach Khong Jiam in the late afternoon. It’s getting close to mid-day and I had promised them a free afternoon to relax at our charming resort with sweeping views of the Mekong River, so if the wildflower field wasn’t very accessible, I probably wouldn’t be able to talk my group into going.

Two Wildflowers
Dusita and white star wildflowers

Noticing that a couple of the older people in my group had spent most of the morning waiting at the Visitor’s Center since they found the trail to view the petroglyphs too steep and difficult to negotiate, the ranger hesitated for a moment, then picked up his phone and made a quick call. When he completed his call, he informed me that he’s made special arrangements for a ranger at that section of the park (about 20 kilometers away) to take us to the meadow in our own vans.

Sure enough, when we arrived at the Soi Sawan waterfall parking area, a park official hopped into our van while another ranger lifted the barricade to a narrow unpaved road and in we entered. Along the way, I noticed signs pointing to a few other wildflower fields, but the ranger told us that those were done blooming and the only one still in bloom was the furthest one in. We also drove passed a handful of domestic tourists walking along the dirt road but I never saw them again. I thought to myself that if we had tried to walk in to the wildflower field, we probably would have given up like these tourists after finding nothing special at the first couple of bloomed-out fields.

Sundew Flowers
Two sundews among white wildflowers

The road finally dead ended. There was a storyboard with pictures of some of the wildflowers we would see in the field. Many of them had been named by HRH the Queen who’s very fond of these wildflower fields and visited often at the end of the rainy season. Among the ones we would see were the striking deep purple-blue dusita (Utricularia delphiniodes) and the lovely orchid-like yellow soi suwanna (Utricularia bifida).

Another Sundew
Lavender-flowered sundew

A pathway from the signpost opened up into an enchanting meadow carpeted with millions of tiny flowers waving in the breeze. It’s a magical sight to behold and its all-encompassing aura, from open blue skies and fluffy clouds to the masses of colorful flowers and weeping boulders that water them, was something infinitely larger than photographs could ever capture or words could adequately describe. It didn’t take long for most of the members of my group to drop down on their knees to take close-up pictures of the gorgeous flowers, as if to worship at nature’s altar.

It was very quiet and peaceful there and we were the only people to be seen on the trail meandering through and around the vast meadow. A soft breeze played with the flowers, a light fragrance filled the air and the humming sound of bees could be heard all around as they busily gathered nectar from the flowers.

Sundew Close-up
Close-up of a sundew

After soaking in the breathtaking scenery, I soon noticed close to the ground, interwoven in the tapestry of the beautiful and delicate flowers, a hidden gem – a colony of sundews (Drosera), a family of insect-devouring plants that commonly thrive in boggy areas. (They are so named because of the dew-like drops that cling to hairlike follicles or tentacles all around the plants, but these are not at all dewdrops but a sweet sticky secretion that both attracts and entraps the insects the plants feed on.) For an avid gardener like me, who holds a fascination for carnivorous plants and grows many varieties in my own Oakland garden, seeing so many sundews happily growing in their natural habitat was cause for much excitement. We soon also found a few patches of water-loving carnivorous nepenthes pitcher plants.

For these bog plants to survive, this field would have to maintain some measure of moisture year-round. Indeed the field was weeping with water perhaps seeping from underground springs. To be in the middle of a lovely bog in full bloom on a rocky plateau in the dry Isaan region during the dry season of a drought year was something quite extraordinary!

Mekong River Sunset
Sunset on the Mekong River in Khong Jiam

When I visit again in the future, I hope to see a glorious wildflower field complete with all the makings of paradise. I am hoping, too, that if I run short on time, that I’ll be able to talk a park ranger into giving us the same kind of VIP treatment we so graciously received on my last visit.

Note: Finding the unexpected wildflower field was an example of the unplanned experiences that could happen on Kasma’s trips; she was always open to finding something new and delightful. She retired from the trips in 2020. [note by Kasma’s husband, Michael]

Pha Taem National Park Slide Show

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

[portfolio_slideshow togglethumbs=true size=large]

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.

Buddhism Wednesday Photo

Thai Monk (Wednesday Photo)

Thai Monk in Kalasin Province

Thai Monk
Thai Monk in Kalasin Province

Kasma took this picture of a monk kneeling in front of the altar at Wat Phra Phuttasaiyaht Tham Phu Kao in Sahatkhan, Kalasin, Thailand.

It’s hardly possible to travel in Thailand without coming across Buddhist monks. Monks are universally revered as representatives of the Buddha; it is the robes and “The One Who Knows” that is being revered, not the individual self dressed in the robes.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Food Travel

Thai Street Food

Thai street food is definitely one of the highlights of a trip to Thailand.

Grilling Fish
Grilling fish at Nong Khai market

Every winter for the past sixteen years, I have been taking small groups of Americans traveling around my homeland. [Note: Kasma retired from doing these trips in 2020.] A tour guide I am not, but a friend in food I am, and we literally feast our way around the country. There are only so many times one can visit historical parks, museums and temples before losing interest, but I never tire of taking people on market walks and introducing them to the exceptional delicacies that are only available from street and market stalls.

Chive Dumplings
Chive Dumplings at Don Wai Market

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

On one trip comprised mainly of foodies, every time we made a stop, whether to visit an art gallery or a temple, a number of people in the group quickly disappeared as soon as they got out of the van. I know where to round them up, as they would invariably be found among street stalls, either watching food being cooked or sampling food. You’d think that I don’t feed them enough, but that’s in addition to the three big meals and countless snacks I provide every day. Some of them weren’t even very discrete, causing me worries of them getting sick. But courage they had and plenty of trust in the local herbal pills to overcome stomach problems.

Prepared Food To Go
Prepared street food

Because of the Thai penchant to please, many western tourists miss out on the finest of the country’s cuisine when they limit their food intake to restaurants. Establishments frequented by tourists automatically water down the Thai dishes served to fair-skinned Caucasians. Enough of them through the years have demonstrated that they cannot take the full range of exciting flavors Thais enjoy. Many restaurants translate only those dishes on their menus that they think foreigners like – those sweet, rich foods with little spice.

Roast Duck
Roast duck in Chinatown market

Without a good command of the language to communicate your desires, you can assure yourself of getting real Thai food by dining off the streets, where you are, more frequently than not, treated like everyone else. In the huge metropolis of Bangkok where traffic is horrendous, most working Thais have little time to cook. They purchase ready-made food from sidewalk vendors on their way to work and on their way home from work. Many of these sidewalk operations offer a wide selection of curries, soups, salads and desserts in huge pots and trays. From them, you may be able to get some fine, home-cooked food untempered for tourists.

Street Food Sweets
Street food sweets at Chatuchak

Note from Michael: Although many westerners claim the best food in Thailand is street food and although you can get fantastic food on the street, Kasma does maintain that the very best Thai food is to be had in excellent restaurants, if you know how to order. Two of our particular favorites are Reun Mai (in Krabi) and My Choice (in Bangkok). However, as Kasma mentions, there are some foods  found almost exclusively at street food (such as the chive dumplings in the second picture, above).

As of these days (February 2020) there is somewhat less street food in Bangkok, though it can still be found in some areas.

We have many more posts on street food:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, September 2010 & 2020.

Cooking Wednesday Photo

Kasma Makes Green Papaya Salad (Wednesday Photo)

Kasma Pounds Som Tam

Kasma Makes Green Papaya Salad
Kasma pounds Green Papaya Salad

Although Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) (or Som Dtam) is an Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) dish, it’s available all over Thailand, especially as street food or in markets (usually made by a transplanted Isaan vendor).

Here Kasma showed the students in her weekend Intermediate Cooking Class #4 how to make green papaya salad.

See also:

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Food Markets Wednesday Photo

Loei Market Vendor (Wednesday Photo)

NE-Style Crispy Grilled Sticky Rice

Loei Market Vendor
Yummy grilled sticky rice in Loei

This picture of a smiling vendor selling grilled sticky rice was taken in the morning market at Loei. I’ve seen it sold at a street stall on Sukhumvit Road at Soi 55 (Thong Lo); presumably the vendor is from Isaan.

In Northeastern Thailand (Isaan or Isahn) the preferred rice is Sticky rice. For most meals it’s served in small baskets and one dips the hand directly in the basket and rolls the rice into a ball for eating.

This picture shows another alternative, seen is most Isaan markets is a crispy grilled sticky rice, on a stick. It’s really quite delicious, typically dipped in a mixture of beaten eggs, salt and pepper and then grilled until golden brown and lightly charred and crispy. In Thai it is called kao jee; Kasma calls it Northeastern-Style Crispy Grilled Sticky Rice.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Food Markets Travel

Isahn (Isaan) Impressions

I’ve only travelled extensively to Isahn (or Isaan) – Northeastern Thailand – one time. Here are some thoughts and impressions.

Grilled sticky rice in Loei
Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Kasma was in Khon Kaen in Northern Thailand on the day this is written. She was leading one of her small-group trips to Thailand to Isahn (Northeastern Thailand).

In December 2004, Kasma and I took an exploration trip up there along with our driver, Sun; at the time she was thinking of doing another NE trip and wanted to see how things had changed since her previous trip in 1998. I had travelled quite extensively in other parts of Thailand with Kasma so was curious to see what Isahn was like, particularly since you meet people from the northeast all over Thailand.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Kanom Jeen noodles in Korat
Kanom Jeen noodles in Korat

Isahn is one of the poorer regions in Thailand. That’s one reason you meet so many people from there throughout Thailand – they have to leave their homes to make a living. Just one example is the woman who sells kanom krok (grilled coconut rice-cakes) at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) on weekends. (I’ve written about her in Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) She has come to Bangkok with her husband to sell street food and send money home while their children are raised by the grandparents.

Serving green papaya salad
Serving green papaya salad

When we travelled there in December 2004, it seemed much less tropical than the rest of Thailand. Much of the land has been deforested so it is certainly not as lush as the south and central regions.

As always, anywhere in Thailand, some of my most vivid memories are of the markets and the food. Every town seemed to have a bustling, lively market, often with some things I don’t notice elsewhere (such as grilled sticky rice on a stick, rats). One of my favorite memories was eating kanom Jeen at a market in Korat. Kanom Jeen are a type of fermented rice noodle, eaten all over Thailand but especially popular in the northeast. You’ll find a vendor in nearly every market – you can choose from any number of different toppings to put on the noodles.

BBQ chicken in Loei
BBQ chicken in Loei

Another lasting impression is just how very spicy-hot Isahn people can eat. Although I couldn’t eat very hot at all when I first met Kasma, over the years I’ve learned to enjoy food that I think is very spicy. At an early stop on our trip, we were ordering Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam), one of the best know dishes from Isahn, and the vendor asked if I could eat spicy. Kasma said I could and told him to make it “regular.” Well, their regular is off my spice scale! Their regular is incendiary! Som Dtam and Barbecued Chicken (Gai Yang) were two of our staples throughout Isahn.

This trip was also the first time I ate Bplah Som – sour fish. It’s fish that is mixed with salt, garlic and cooked rice and then left out to ferment (sour). After a few days, it’s fried up crispy and has a delightful, sour flavor that’s hard to describe.

Detail at Khmer ruin
Detail at Khmer ruin

During our trip we visited a number of Khmer-style ruins. Throughout history, much of the area has gone back and forth between the Khmer of Cambodia and Thailand. The ruins are reminiscent of Angkor Wat, although much smaller; on the other hand, we had many of the ruins nearly to ourselves. On this trip, we did not visit Phimai, perhaps the best known of the Khmer ruins in Thailand, or Phanom Wan, both in Korat. We did visit are Prasit Puay Noi in Khon Kaen and several ruins is Surin province: Prasat Hin Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Prasat Sikhoraphum.

Mukdahan Rock Formation
Mukdahan Rock Formation

One more interesting feature in the north east would be the unusual rock formations. Many of them feature rocks perched on the tops of other rocks in quite improbable positions. Phu Phra Baht Historical Park in Nong Khai. In Mukdahan there’s Phu Pha Theup National Park, a hilly, rocky plateau with fabulous mushroom-shaped rock formations. There’s also Sao Chaliang in Khong Jiam. We spent many hours wandering around these natural areas.

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani
Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Of course there are numerous temples. Isahn, more than the rest of Thailand, remains more traditional Buddhist. Young men here are more likely to ordain at some point in their lives, a traditional practice once followed throughout Thailand. The temples range from more traditional ones, to forest monasteries (Wat Pah Pong, established by Ajahn Chah, is found in Ubon Ratchathani province) to less traditional, such as the temple built entirely from ceramics – Wat Bahn Na Meuang in Ubon Ratchathani.

Weaving Village near Galasin
Weaving Village near Galasin

Then there’s the weaving. Traditionally, nearly every village had an area where the women would get together to weave, cotton or silk. Although much of the weaving activity has disappeared there are still many outstanding weaving stops in the north east, from Mukdhadan to Khong Kaen to the Thasawang co-op silk village in Surin. For more on weaving in the NE, see Kasma’s blog entry:

Making spring roll wrappers
Making spring roll wrappers

There was so much more: fabulous dragons at temples; hieroglyphics that are thousands of years old; a factory where they make gongs (we got to watch the tuning process, which involved a lot of banging!); watching them make spring roll wrappers at Sri Chieng Mai in Nong Kai.

Such a rich region! Suggestions for travel: if you go on your own, do your research before you go so you know where to go. Plan to drive: either renting a car on your own or renting a car with a driver – it’s a big region and you’ll log a lot of kilometers getting from place to place.

Checking the tone of a gong
Checking the tone of a gong

I’ve barely scratched the surface. For more, check out:

Written by Michael Babcock, December 2009.