Not only a place to relax, play some golf, or take in a music festival, Thailand’s first national park is also a wildlife haven.
By Dave Stamboulis.
Although Khao Yai is just an hour or two from Bangkok, not so many visitors make it up to the area, or truly experience what a magical place it is. To most Bangkokians, Khao Yai represents one of the nearest spots to Bangkok to go relax in a boutique resort, play some golf, or take in a music festival. In fact, the area is probably better known for its steakhouses and cowboy-themed attractions than for being a national park. Yet Khao Yai is truly one of Asia’s premier parks and a treasure trove of wildlife and natural beauty.
Khao Yai has a colorful history. Originally used as a settlement by the Ban Tha Dan people, whose temple ruins can be seen today, the area then became a haven for criminals and fugitives due to its dense forest cover and distance from Bangkok. Eventually, the ruffians were cleared from the area, Years later, in 1962, Khao Yai became Thailand’s first national park. In 2005, Khao Yai was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it has become a model for other national parks in Thailand.
Taking up an immense 2,100 square meters of grassland and forest, Khao Yai is home to over 3,000 plant species and over 300 types of birds, including the majestic great pied hornbill. Plus, there’s a major wildlife corridor that includes gibbons, wild elephants, gaur, sambar, macaques, Asiatic black bears, and the occasional rare tiger, as well as a fearsome population of leeches, which make their presence extremely well known during the rainy season. The park also has over 50 kilometers of hiking trails, wildlife observation towers, and a collection of beautiful waterfalls, including the famed Haew Suwat, which cascades over a 20-meter cliff into a large pool below and was made popular by the film “The Beach.”
While Khao Yai is close to Bangkok, its layout isn’t exactly conducive to those without their own transport. The park gate, the farthest point that public transport will deliver visitors, is still 15 kilometers shy of the visitors’ center where the campground and canteen facilities are located. In addition, except on some of the shorter trails, guides are mandatory for trekking, both due to the presence of wildlife and for jungle navigation, so for small parties or individuals without time or money, taking a tour is actually the best option.
I booked a trip with Greenleaf Tours, an outfit that sits along the main road into the park. While its rooms and food are aimed at the backpacking crowd and are nothing to write home about, the agency boast some excellent guides who have been leading trips in Khao Yai for more than a decade, and they know the park inside out. The guides come equipped with binoculars and telescopes and are happy to point out the different types of bulbuls, broadbills, and other abundant birdlife. Out for the day with them, visitors are fairly assured of seeing the giant hornbills whooshing out of the trees, perhaps a few wild elephants, some white-handed gibbons, plenty of crab-eating macaques, and possibly something rarer, like a leopard cat. The guides can also point out small stick insects, scorpions, and snakes that lie hidden along jungle paths, which you’d most likely never spot on your own. In addition, the tours provide leech socks to keep the dreaded bloodsuckers at bay.
After a morning spent on the road viewing macaques and hornbills and then several hours in the jungle trekking and looking for forest dwellers, we had lunch at the Nong Pak Chi observation tower, which looks out upon a large salt lick where elephants, deer, and other animals come to graze. We then drove to the Haew Suwat waterfall, where we could cool off and wash away the grit from jungle walking. Before returning home, we stopped to watch the sunset colors and mist descending on the magical forest spread out above the grasslands. It may not be far from Bangkok, but Khao Yai is as rejuvenating as a five-star spa treatment, at a fraction of the price.
Khao Yai is accessible via train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong to Pak Chong station. From Pak Chong, public songthaew run along the park road to the gate, but further transport to park headquarters must be arranged in advance.
The Khao Yai National Park Headquarters (PO Box 9, Amphur Pak Chong; 044 297 406, 044 249 305; www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/asp/style1/default.asp?npid=9&lg=2) manages several campgrounds, which rent tents and bedding. It also stocks maps and can assist with guides for going trekking.
For guided trips, Greenleaf Tours (52 Moo 6 Thanarat Rd, km 7.5;044 365 073, 044 365 024; www.greenleaftour.com) is at km 7.5 of the park road and does free pickups for all tour joiners from the Pak Chong Railway Station.
Foreigners pay THB 400 to enter Khao Yai; however, if you have a Thai driver’s license or work permit, you pay the Thai price of THB 40.