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A Hidden Treasure at Pha Taem National Park

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

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

This December I have organized yet another special Northeast tour. As usual, it has been planned around the silk fair in Khon Kaen, after which we will travel northward to the Mekong River and follow it eastward and southward to Khong Jiam in Ubon Ratchathani province. With a wet monsoon year expected, I hope to visit a glorious wildflower field complete with all the makings of paradise. I am hoping, too, that if we 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 is an example of the unplanned experiences that can happen on Kasma’s trips; she’s always open to finding something new and delightful. [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.

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation
Sao Chailiang Rock Formation
Mekong River & Laos
View of Phe Taem clif
Pha Taem Cliff 2
Cliff Painting 1
Cliff Painting 2
Cliff Painting 3
Pha Taem Meadowland
Wildflower Field 1
Wildflower Field 2
Various Wildflowers
Two Wildflowers
Another Wildflower Field
A Weeping Wildflower Meadow
Sundew Flowers
Sundew Wildflowers
Another Sundew
Sundew Close-up
Nepenthes Pitcher Plant
Reflecting Pool
Plateaus
Mekong River Sunset

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation, Pha Taem National Park

Another Sao Chailiang Rock Formation at Pha Taem National Park

View of Mekong River & Laos from the top of Pha Taem cliff

Looking up the cliff of Pha Taem from the petroglyph trail below

The trail on the bottom of the cliff to view the cliff paintings

A gigantic cliff painting of a swimming elephant with a fish

Cliff paintings of fish, fish traps, human figures and handprints

Cliff paintings of Mekong River giant catfish, human figures, more

Golden plateau-top meadowland near Soi Sawan waterfall

A boggy wildflower field on a rocky plateau

Weeping rocks water the wildflowers

Deep purple-blue, yellow and white wildflowers and a red sundew on the bottom left

The deep purple-blue dusita, yellow soi suwanna and white star flowers

A multi-colored boggy wildflower field

A weeping wildflower meadow; red sundews on the bottom left

Two sundews among white wildflowers

A family of yellow-flowered sundews in a rocky crevice

A lavender-flowered sundew in wildflower field #4, Pha Taem National Park

A close-up of a sundew with small insects trapped by its sticky secretion

A nepenthes pitcher plant

A reflecting pool on the rocky plateau by the wildflower meadow

The mesa-like plateaus of Pha Taem National Park

Sunset on the Mekong River in Khong Jiam

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation 1 thumbnail
Sao Chailiang Rock Formation 2 thumbnail
Mekong River & Laos thumbnail
View of Phe Taem cliff thumbnail
Pha Taem Cliff 2 thumbnail
Cliff Painting 1 thumbnail
Cliff Painting 2 thumbnail
Cliff Painting 3 thumbnail
Pha Taem Meadowland thumbnail
Wildflower Field 1 thumbnail
Wildflower Field 2 thumbnail
Various Wildflowers thumbnail
Two Wildflowers thumbnail
Another Wildflower Field thumbnail
A Weeping Wildflower Meadow thumbnail
Sundew Flowers thumbnail
Sundew Wildflowers thumbnail
Another Sundew thumbnail
Sundew Close-up thumbnail
Nepenthes Pitcher Plant thumbnail
Reflecting Pool thumbnail
Plateaus thumbnail
Mekong River Sunset thumbnail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.