Khao Yai is the ideal getaway, not far from Bangkok
People visit Thailand for any number of reasons; the great weather and beaches; the temples and culture; the nightlife; the fantastic food, and a myriad other attractions. This also applies to non-Thais who live here, but with travel options likely to remain limited for a while, visitors and locals who have been double-jabbed might be looking for other ways to spend their time rather than simply lazing on the beaches or taking in the temples.
We are now 20 years into our new millennium, and people the world over are more aware than ever of the need to preserve the flora and fauna of our planet, and to take care of the forests and jungles. We need to do this for our own enjoyment, and for that of our children, grandchildren, and the generations to come.
Residents and tourists cannot go wrong by getting back to nature in one of Thailand’s wonderful national parks. And the third largest of these parks, Khao Yai, is only a two-hour drive from the concrete spires and traffic jams of Bangkok. Thailand’s first commissioned park, it opened to the public in 1962, and remains the most popular with visitors.
Thailand now boasts 127 national parks, including marine retreats that are home to enigmatic whale sharks and multi-hued fish making their way through coral reefs, dense tracts of rainforest, humid jungles and mangrove forests, blossom-covered hills, mountains and valleys, winding cave systems, bird sanctuaries, and hundreds of waterfalls.
As Thailand slowly starts to welcome back visitors, they will be greeted by natural grandeur as well as amazing peace and quiet.
They will find themselves brushing through the lush, dew-dropped tropical vegetation in the mornings, enveloped by a miasma of never-smelt-before aromas, as well as living side-by-side with the varied local wildlife. And the chance to collect stunning photos to be shared on Instagram around the world.
On my short trip to Khao Yai I stayed inside the park to get the full benefit of the experience, sleeping and waking up with the animals, birds, and the sounds they make. One of the campsites inside the park, Lam Ta Khong Campsite, has just reopened after being closed because of Covid restrictions. Also available are more comfortable, but still basic, bungalows or lodges, where I stayed overnight (zone 1 Kong Kaeow, near the Visitor Centre) as I really didn’t fancy a snake crawling into my tent to spend the night with me. It is best to book in advance by contacting the Visitor Centre.
If you decide to stay outside the park, the nearby Pak Chong area offers everything from two to five-star accommodation. I recommend the budget-friendly Baan Saranya Lodge, with a cosy little restaurant and bar, where you can chat about your day’s adventures.
Khao Yai covers an area of 2,168 square km, and features five vegetation zones at different levels of elevation, from thick evergreen rainforest canopies to semi-evergeen rainforest, mixed deciduous forest on the northern slopes (400-600m); and hillside evergreen forest (over 1,000m). Before logging was banned, deforestation had created a savannah, much of which has now been reclaimed by secondary forest growth.
After I arriving and parking my backpack in my little bungalow room I headed back to the Visitor Centre, which everyone has to do, to learn about what is available for you on your mini adventure. There are several hiking trails, some you can choose to go on yourself, and some longer ones that you should definitely take with a ranger or guide. A few years ago even a ranger was lost in the park, never to be seen again.
Khao Yai is home to many different animal and bird species. It’s relatively easy to run into elephants, as well other mammals such as barking or sambar deer, gibbons, porcupines, and civets. More elusive species that can be seen from time to time include tigers, sun bears, Asian black bears, gaur, otters, and jackals. Many lizards and other reptiles live there, but there are no crocodiles, you might be pleased to learn.
Over the last decade or so, remote cameras have discovered that the tiger population in the park is starting to slowly grow, and cubs have been caught on camera with their families. It is still very rare for a day visitor to catch sight of them, though. But who knows … you might be one of the lucky few.
The nickname of a birdwatcher is a ‘twitcher’ (not the same as the social media app, twitter), and twitchers are in bird paradise in this park. Around 445 bird species have been logged in Khao Yai, and it has one of the largest populations of hornbills in Thailand.
Great Hornbills and Oriental-pied Hornbills fly over and around the park offices almost daily. A Rufous-tailed Robin is a rare sighting in Thailand, and has only been reported in Khao Yai. Other rare species can be seen daily. Jungle fowl like wild chickens are very common and are found near to accommodations, and beyond.
Other relatively common ground dwelling birds like green-legged partridge and Siamese Fireback are common throughout the park. The best time for a twitcher to visit Khao Yai is during the drier months, and from March to April, when the big bird migration to Thailand really gets underway.
You have to remember that Khao Yai is not a zoo, the animals are wild, living in their own habitat, and they roam or fly where they will in search of food or water. As such you are never guaranteed to see just that particular animal you were hoping to see.
The staff at the Visitor Centre are very helpful, and they suggested that I take a shorter trail by myself, and a longer one with a guide or ranger, who would be more likely to take me to the right place at the right time, to see the animals I wanted to see. I am glad I took them at their word.
The one-kilometre hiking trail I followed from near the Visitor Centre was just right to get me acclimatized to the surroundings, and I even saw a troop of monkeys, plenty of birds, and a large green snake coiled around a tree branch, which I carefully skirted my way around.
The next day I went on a longer hike with a ranger and several other hardy adventurers. Hiking in Khao Yai is always going to be interesting, but it is not a walk in the park. Be prepared to sweat a bit as you climb to higher elevations, and make sure you have enough water to drink. But it is all worth it when you come across a stag drinking from a clear blue pool, or a family of wild elephants feeding from the green trees and other vegetation.
Khao Yai is bursting with waterfalls, something I love, and always like to linger by. The most popular falls are Haew Narok, the largest in the park and located near the southern entrance, and Haew Suwat in the eastern section, made popular by the movie ‘The Beach’ (yes, they filmed many scenes here, not on an island). Swimming is not allowed at any of the waterfalls in the park. Other sights include the Nam Pak Chi observation tower, which is accessed from an easy half-mile walk from the main road, along a path that begins a short one-mile drive north of the Visitor Center.
Although I had a great time staying in the park, I did feel like I deserved a bit of pampering, and I checked in to the nearby Baan Saranya Lodge, not at all expensive, and I had the comfort of an air-conditioned room, hot showers … and a nice little bar!
While in the park I chatted to a few tourists who could not stop talking about the mini-tour they had taken, just outside the park, where they had seen a massive swarm of up to two million bats flying out of their caves into the night sky. They had told me that the cheapest guys offering the tour were ‘Greenleaf, and that they had an English-language website. I booked a tour from my mobile phone right there and then, while I was still in my basic bungalow in the park.
After a very satisfying hot shower in my new accommodation I had a simple Thai meal and a nice cold beer. Despite the bad name bats have gained (particularly since their apparent association with Covid-19) I was still looking forward to my encounter with them.
I headed over to Greenleaf at about 1.00 pm, where my tour was due to start from, and hung around with a couple of people, chatting while we downed a cold one. When the tour rolled out at 3.00 pm our Greenleaf group was joined by another two truckloads of tourists. Our first experience was along the side of the road, where our guide spotted a weird-looking spider and a long black snake, which he told us was non-poisonous. When we made our first real stop, a local natural spring, the guide said there was not enough time to go for a swim, but a couple of girls jumped in anyway.
Moving on we drove down a dirt track and parked in a field with a few other trucks containing tourists from higher-end guesthouses and travel agencies. We talked to other members of the group for a bit, listening to our guide talk about the history of the cave and the lives of the bats that call it home, while we waited for them to make their big appearance. The obviously well-rehearsed monologue of the guide was making me start to think that this tour was maybe a tad over-hyped.
And then we saw them! First, they trickled out a few at a time, but quickly they formed into a thick black ribbon, erupting from the cave mouth, swirling and snaking around the sky above us. It was mesmerizing; two million bats moving as one gyrating column. The bats come out just before sunset and take about two hours to fully exit the cave, though there’s really only about half an hour of prime viewing time before it gets too dark to take photos or see what’s going on. But for a good half-hour you don’t want to miss a second. You will be staring up at the sky the whole time, and it is a sight you will never forget. Two million bats! Unbelievable!
I think that my bat experience was the perfect way to end my short trip to Khao Yai. I feel disappointed in myself that I have not taken the time to visit it before – a mistake now rectified. I will be heading there again for sure as there is still so much yet to see. Maybe I’ll bump into some of you guys who have read this piece. Hope so!