The most compelling destination in the area to the east of Nong Khai is the extraordinary hilltop retreat of Wat Phu Tok. One of two sandstone outcrops that jut steeply out of the plain 35km southeast of Bung Kan, Phu Tok has been transformed into a meditation wat, its fifty or so monks building their scattered huts on perches high above breathtaking cliffs. The outcrop comes into sight long before you get there, its sheer red face sandwiched between green vegetation on the lower slopes and tufts of trees on the narrow plateau above. As you get closer, the horizontal white lines across the cliffs reveal themselves to be painted wooden walkways, built to give the temple seven levels to represent the seven stages of enlightenment.
The ornamental garden
In an ornamental garden at the base, reflected in a small lake, an elegant, modern marble chedi commemorates Phra Ajaan Juen, the famous meditation master who founded the wat in 1968 and died in a plane crash ten years later while on his way to Bangkok to celebrate the queen’s birthday. Within the chedi, the monk’s books and other belongings, and diamond-like fragments of his bones, are preserved in a small shrine.
The first part of the ascent of the outcrop takes you to the third level up a series of long, sometimes slippery, wooden staircases, the first of many for which you’ll need something more sturdy than flip-flops on your feet. A choice of two routes – the left fork is more interesting – leads to the fifth and most important level, where the Sala Yai houses the temple’s main Buddha image in an airy, dimly lit cavern. The artificial ledges that cut across the northeast face are not for the fainthearted, but they are one way of getting to the dramatic northwest tip here on level five: on the other side of a deep crevice spanned by a wooden bridge, the monks have built an open-sided Buddha viharn under a huge anvil rock (though the gate to the viharn is usually locked). This spot affords stunning views over a broad sweep of countryside and across to the second, uninhabited outcrop. The flat top of the hill forms the seventh level, where you can wander along overgrown paths through thick forest.