Sam Phan Bok

Sam Phan Bok: Exploring the weird and wonderful Grand Canyon of Thailand

Yes, Thailand has its own Grand Canyon! Discover this photogenic geological marvel in our explorer’s guide. Find out everything you need to know — how to get there, what to see, and its nearby attractions!

When exploring a country, you sometimes come across things that you least expect. Case in point: we recently discovered that Japan has its own 16-kilometer sand dune desert by the sea in Tottori. Pretty cool, right? It just so happens that Thailand has its fair share of weird and wonderful natural attractions too. One of the weirdest: the large, crater-filled Sam Phan Bok rock reef found by the Mekong River, fittingly nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Thailand”. We’re pretty excited about this find. Here’s everything you need to know about this otherworldly attraction in Thailand, from how to get there, what you should look out for, and how to make the most of your visit!

About Sam Phan Bok

Sam Phan Bok is the biggest rock reef along the Mekong River. It is found in Thailand’s Isan region in the rural northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, which sits on the border with Laos to the east and Cambodia to the south.

Sam Phan Bok is also known as the Grand Canyon of Thailand for its interesting layers of pockmarked rock, eroded over the years by the rushing tides of the Mekong River during flooding season. Of course, the geological phenomenon of Sam Phan Bok is worlds apart from what the actual Grand Canyon in Arizona looks like, but it is certainly worth exploring for its own unique reasons! Down the entire stretch of Sam Phan Bok, you’ll find thousands of oddly-shaped holes scattered along the riverbank, which is likely how it got its name — Sam Phan Bok roughly translates to “3,000 shallow lakes”. Many come to visit the attraction to witness the Swiss cheese appearance of the terrain and to look out for unique formations such as the famous Mickey Mouse-shaped hole.

Sam Phan Bok is not widely known outside of Isan, making it a fairly undiscovered natural wonder. With very little crowds, it’s easy to discover this remote rock reef by yourself on foot. Alternatively, you can see the canyon from a different perspective on a long-tail boat cruise down the Mekong River.

The best time to visit Sam Phan Bok

As the Grand Canyon of Thailand is essentially part of the Mekong River’s riverbed, it is very much a seasonal attraction. The best time to visit Sam Phan Bok is during the dry season from December to May, when the river is not overflowing with water. While dry, you’ll be able to view the eroded rock landscape in all its natural glory, from microscopic burrows to cavernous chambers. You might also find some partial pools of accumulated rainwater in these holes, sometimes filled with fish. When the Mekong’s tide is as low as it gets, it may even seem like you can walk right across the riverbed and cross the border into Laos! (Don’t actually try this, no matter how tempting!)

Popular visiting times are at sunrise and sunset, when the temperatures are lower and the golden sunlight shimmers beautifully against the layered stone surfaces.

During the rainy season, the Mekong’s brown waters flood the canyon almost completely, rendering the holes inaccessible.

How to get to Sam Phan Bok

Sam Phan Bok is located in Ubon Ratchathani, close to the Emerald Triangle, the lush jungle-covered juncture where Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia meet. If you travel from Bangkok you’ll need to cover a distance of almost 700 kilometers. It is best to visit Sam Phan Bok by traveling north from the small tourist town of Khong Chiam, easily accessible from the major city of Ubon Ratchathani.

From Khong Chiam, it is approximately 80 kilometers to get to Sam Phan Bok. You’ll find many other scenic attractions along the journey, including Pha Taem National Park and a few lovely waterfalls. You can catch a van from Khong Chiam to take you close to Sam Phan Bok, and from there you can either take a walk down to the canyon’s riverbed or hire a four-wheel drive to take you closer for a fee.

Making the most of your visit

Here are some pretty neat things to do to get the best Sam Phan Bok experience.

Spot as many weird rock formations as you can

There are many oddly-shaped holes scattered across the terrain. These include the Mickey Mouse hole, in the shape of the iconic Mickey Mouse logo.

Mickey Mouse hole, Sam Phan Bok
Image via Wikimedia Commons

You can also find a peculiar protruding piece of rock that many are convinced looks exactly like a dog’s head, or go on a hunt to locate the distinct pot-shaped rock, often embellished with flowers and offerings by the locals in true Thai spirit. Easier to find are heart-shaped holes, which seem to garner plenty of social media attention.

Head down the river on a guided long-tail boat tour

At the edge of the water, you will find many tour guides who are happy to take you down the river to see extraordinary spots along the riverbank. If you are looking for a unique perspective, step into one of their wooden long-tail boats to embark on a quick voyage. The cost of a tour varies depending on the duration of the ride. A short ride costs around THB 500. Hour-long rides can cost up to THB 1,000.

Go stargazing late at night

The stargazing at Sam Phan Bok is incredible; many photographers and videographers come here to take plenty of time-lapse videos and long-exposure shots. Here, the night sky is dark enough to see the Milky Way clearly. Check out the Instagram snapshots below and see for yourself!

Other attractions you should visit on the way

Thinking of heading to Thailand’s Grand Canyon? There are a few other places of interest in the vicinity worth adding to your travel checklist as well. Don’t miss these scenic spots!

Two-Color River

Located close to Kaeng Tana National Park, near the riverside village of Khong Chiam, the Two-Color River (Maenam Song Si) is where the brown waters of the Mekong River and the blue waters of the Mun River come together. The best place to see this spectacle is on the shore right in front of the Khong Chiam Temple, and the best time to check it out is in April.

Pha Taem National Park

Pha Taem National Park skirts the Mekong River in Ubon Ratchathani Province, with Laos’ Phou Xieng Thong National Protected Area sitting on the opposite side of the river. Shrouded in tall dipterocarp trees and known for hiding rock cliffs that feature intriguing 3,000-year-old rock paintings, the park is a popular destination for nature lovers and explorers. It is also home to the wondrous Sang Chan Waterfall and the Sao Chaliang mushroom-shaped sandstone formations. Check them out below!

Sang Chan Waterfall

This enchanting and photogenic waterfall flows through an eroded hole from a rocky outcrop above.

Sao Chaliang 

The Sao Chaliang sandstone pillars look just like giant mushrooms! There is a viewpoint above the geological marvels that provide an impressive view of the rocky surroundings.

Sao Chaliang sandstone formations
Image by Tourism Authority of Thailand

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