Billed as Thailand’s Grand Canyon by those honest people at the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT), if you go with this in mind you most likely will be disappointed, however you just want to go to a dried river bed to visit an unusual rock set in some spectacular scenery this could be a highlight of your visit.
Literally meaning 3000 holes, Sam Pan Bok is a lunar landscape covered by the a river for three quarters of the year, but in the sweltering heat of the hot season the H20 will retreat to cooler climbs leaving the river bed exposed. When exactly that is the local TAT office in Ubon gets regular water level reports and are happy to inform.
I’d been meaning to visit this place for a long time and after a few cancellations due to this year’s flooding keeping the water levels unusually high found time to go in February. I arrived at the place around one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and felt I was not exactly in a tourist Mecca, stalls selling cold drinks, Mama and Som Tum fought for custom with ones selling Sam Pan Bok T-shirts and sun hats. Apart from traders there were less than 40 tourists there, all Thai and mostly locals, though most likely it would get busier later, Thais won’t usually venture out to places like this till after 4pm for fear of darkening their skin. I guess if I’d come midweek I’d have had the place to myself.
The entrance gives a stunning panorama of the riverbed and the sign written in Thai only tells of the height the water reached during the recent flooding, an absolutely jaw dropping difference in water level. The rock itself, Sam Pan Bok, lays a few hundred metres walk along the riverbed to the right and lives up to its reputation as it gives you the feel you’re walking on an alien planet. The thousands of holes range from centimetres to metres in size, many filled with water and even having fish. The largest hole is a popular smimming spot if you carry a costume with you. There are also several boats tied up along what remains of the river who will do everything from ferrying you to the other bank to giving you a guided river trip.
Sam Pan Bok is located in the far east of Thailand in a small tributary to the Mekong River on the Lao border. Getting there is easy with your own transport, but a little more difficult without.
By Car or Bike from Ubon: Sam Pan Bok is 130km from Muang Ubon and a relatively easy ride along major highways. From the Ubon ring road follow route 2050 almost to Kemmerat then hang a right down route 2337 to the village of Song Kon and finally turn right at the T junction along route 2112 to Sam Pan Bok.
By Bus from Ubon: I went to the TAT in Ubon before I left to ask about buses and was told to get a bus from Ubon bus station to Song Khon village and walk the last 2km. Fortunately I decided to drive and when I got there discovered it was 7km from Song Khon not 2km. I went back to the TAT after I returned to double check the information I was given first time and was told there was no bus to Song Khon from Ubon only to Pho Sai about 30km away, but there was a bus to San Pan Bok from Kemmerat, which would mean to get there you need to take a bus from Ubon bus station to Kemmerat then change at Kemmerat to San Pan Bok. Check if the bus goes to San Pan Bok itself or drops you off outside the entrance on the highway, it’s a 4km walk from the entrance to the attraction.
Overnight: There are several paces between Ubon and Sam Pan Bok but all too small to likely have accommodation, so Kemmerat around 50-60k away is the only real option.