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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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
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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.