09:00 AM. Despite our early departure the sun was already high in de sky, and the first sweat stains started to get visible on our t-shirts. Carefully we jumped from rock to rock. Bit by bit, Sam Phan Bok, The Grand Canyon of Thailand, and its three thousand holes unfolded before us. Wow!
The Grand Canyon of Thailand
“Sawasdee, can we park here?”
“No no, go down”, he said as he pointed to the right.
We got back on our motorbikes and followed the four wheel drive ahead of us. A group of Thai passengers amusedly watched our driving skills from the back of the vehicle. They are tourists just like us, who usually come from Bangkok and stay one night to visit Sam Phan Bok and the nearby Pha Taem National Park. A quick visit, take some photos, and head back again.
It’ll definitely result in a Facebook-worthy profile picture!
Over bumpy rocks, dusty roads and dodging cows we arrived at the parking lot: basically the edge of a cliff overlooking a terrain littered with loose stones and rocks. Is this really the parking lot? Uncertain, we parked our motorbikes and walked to the local snack stall run by an elderly Thai woman. The stall included bags of chips, a cooler box full of ice-cold cokes and a squat toilet without toilet paper.
She shooed us away: “No, you should not be here – over there” as she pointed to some rocks a little further away. Standing on the rocks stood the group of Thai tourists, armed with extended selfie sticks, umbrellas and hats for protection against the fierce sun. Climbing, scrambling and jumping along, we gave chase and finally saw the canyon in all her beauty.
Three thousand holes
‘Sam Phan’ means ‘three thousand holes’ in Thai. Some holes are dry, while others are filled with clear pools of water where you can see fish swimming. The Mekong River sliced through the landscape. From a distance the Mekong appears innocent, but up close it is raging and ruthless. It felt like we had arrived on another planet.
During the rainy season the brown water of the Mekong floods the canyon almost completely. Centuries of erosion on the rocky landscape has given the terrain a Swiss cheese appearance, and with a little imagination you can recognize different figures – such as the hole in the shape of Mickey Mouse, a favorite among Thai tourists.
Sailing the Mekong River
A handful of long-tail boats bobbed in the water. On the shore was a canopy with two Thai men laying in the shade. We walked over to arrange a boat trip.
“Sawasdee, how much is it for a boat trip?”
“Is it possible to go with the boat?”
Laughing, one of the men shook their head, “no”.
These men clearly did not speak English. A series of wild hand gestures ensued: Why not? Are the currents too strong? Or is the water level too low? When can we go then?
“…no”, he said again with a big smile.
Confused, we walked away. Perhaps it really is too dangerous.
We walked back to our motorbikes until we suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching long-tail boat. And yes, a boat filled with Thai tourists was approaching from across the river.
Luckily a Thai tourist jumped off the boat who spoke wonderful English, and agreed to interpret for us. As she started talking the eyes of the Thai boat drivers lit up, and after a few aaaaaha’s they agreed that we could board the boat for 500 baht.
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Fossilized coral, lava rocks and a sand dune
From the boat it was clear how powerful the Mekong is. The brown water currents are strong and sucking, resulting in whirlpools that create the holes in the canyon. Without knowing where we were actually going, we disembarked after ten minutes and met a Thai girl who didn’t speak any English.
We followed her in the burning sun and came out to a landscape full of “pakarang”. Every few meters she stopped, pointed to a rock, and said “pakarang”. “Pakarang, pakarang, pakarang”. We shook our heads to show we didn’t understand, while trying to figure out what in heaven’s name “pakarang” meant.
Back at the boat we checked Google Translate, and we discovered that we were in a field of fossilized coral, as well as some shiny lava rocks.
The boat turned around for the last stop at a beach at the foot of a huge sand dune, which was quite unexpected for this area. On the banks, potatoes and peanut plants were thriving on the sandy bottom.
Feeling fulfilled we got back on our motorbikes again – another experience we add to our list of cherished Thailand memories.
Good to know
The canyon is fully visible during the cool season between December and May. Entrance is free, and a boat trip including a short tour costs 500 baht. At the entrance, four wheel drives are ready to bring you closer to the canyon entrance for a small fee.
Because there is virtually no shade, it’s best to visit Sam Phan Bok in the morning (preferably before 09:00 AM) or at the end of the day close to sunset. Wear good hiking shoes and remember to bring enough water. Set aside at least an hour to explore the canyon and to take photos.
It is best to visit Sam Phan Bok from Khong Chiam, a small tourist town located on the Mekong. From there it’s about 80 kilometers drive over the 2112. You will first pass the Pha Taem National Park, which you should definitely check out on the way back to Khong Chiam. You can book a taxi or tour at any guesthouse, or you can drive there by car or motorbike.
From Khong Chiam you can easily get to Ubon Ratchathani, which you can reach by plane from Bangkok for a good price. At the airport it is possible to rent a car, but you can also take the bus at the bus station (± 2 hours drive).