If you’ve been lucky enough to receive a postcard from Thailand, it likely featured paradise islands, charming provincial towns or perhaps the sparkling lights of Bangkok. The country’s beautiful beaches and cosmopolitan big city are well documented, including here on Alex in Wanderland. But did you know Thailand also has one hundred and twenty-seven national parks?
I made it a goal this year to explore a handful of them. I started, appropriately, with Thailand’s first: Khao Yai National Park, just a few hours northeast of Bangkok.
Khao Yai, a sprawling park nearly three times the size of Singapore, is primarily visited by domestic tourists, as the lack of transportation options makes it difficult for independent international travelers to reach and camp in. The only other non-Thai nationals we saw on our trip were on tours, and once the park closed, I feel confident we were the only western people staying overnight within the park. But fear not – I have a handy guide heading your way soon if you want to arrange something like this for yourself.
We began our journey with a night in Pak Chong town, watching two million bats erupt from a cave and exploring the outskirts of the park. The next morning, we hopped on our rental motorbikes and set off on what we hoped would be an epic adventure.
One of Khao Yai’s biggest draws is its resident herd of a couple hundred wild elephants, and hopes were high that we’d be lucky enough to encounter a couple. As soon as we entered the park gates, civilization felt far away. We passed a traditional Thai spirit house, a viewpoint and a few trailheads along the nine mile drive into the Visitor Center. Two days later, I’d look back on this gorgeous, winding stretch as my favorite drive of the trip!
We weren’t able to check into our cabins yet, so we stored our bags in a locked room with the park rangers and had a look around the extremely impressive facility, which was part science museum, part information warehouse. The English-speaking staff handed out maps, gave us great info, and sent us on our way. We spent a full half hour here, and I could have done double.
We set off straight for a hike, the Pha Kluai Mai Waterfall to Haew Suwat Waterfall trek — not only was Haew Suwat Waterfall on our must-see list, but it was one of two trails listed by the Visitor Center as not needing a guide to complete. The visitor center map said 3km (1.9 miles), the sign when we arrived said 3.8km (2.4 miles); and the visitor center map estimated it would take two hours, but we had reached our destination in an hour and ten minutes, so we felt pretty pleased with ourselves. Allegedly there are gibbons and hornbills along this footpath, but our sighting was of the reptilian variety.
Technically you can drive right up to Haew Suwat Waterfall, but then you’d miss the crocodile we spotted, the quaint Pha Kluai Mai Waterfall we cooled off in, and the deep jungle we made our way through.
If Haew Suwat Waterfall looks familiar, it’s because it played a starring role in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach!
Don’t even think about re-enacting Leo’s big scene, however — due to the presence of crocs in the park, swimming is forbidden. Interestingly, they aren’t native to the area. Rangers hypothesize that an over-their-head pet owner may have released them, thinking they’d have a nice life in Khao Yai. Haew Suwat is 200m (.125 miles) from the car park, though it can also be reached by an intense, 8km trail from the visitor center.
We weren’t looking forward to the long walk back along the road to Pha Kluai Mai Campground, so we seized the opportunity to hitchhike back with a group of Thai girl scouts. We loved chatting with the kids’ chaperones, and the sweet way they waved goodbye to us — and the one munchkin who gathered the courage to say “see you later!” in English to the raucous laughter of her friends as they pulled away.
At the campsight, we had lunch at the small onsite restaurant and marveled at the amount of wildlife nearby. Here, the language barrier was a bit more significant and we ordered mostly with pointing and smiles.
Back on the bikes, our next stop was the long ride down to Haew Narok Waterfall, the largest and most impressive in Khao Yai. To give you an idea of the vast size of this park, driving between these two major highlights in the park was a forty-five minute journey!
When we parked, we found we were in for another mini-hike. The trail from the parking lot to the waterfall is somewhere between 800m-1km (.5-.6 miles) each way, according to various sources, and involves a lot of stairs.
There’s a wild story in the history of Haew Narok. In August 1992, a baby elephant stumbled crossing the stream leading to the falls, and was washed over the edge. His mother and other elephants in the herd tried to save him, and in total seven elephants died. When we read that tragic story, Haew Narok’s translation as “sunken hole of hell” seemed more appropriate.
In response, the park built the safe crossing platform shown below, that the elephants can often be seen lumbering across in the mornings.
With the sun setting soon and the clock ticking down on the 6pm closing of the park’s restaurants, we had time for just one more adventure. We decided to ride out to the Pha Diew Die Viewpoint, passing the Khao Kaew Spirit House along the way.
While we weren’t super wowed by the view itself at the Pha Diew Die Viewpoint — the views on the drive there were more impressive and produced better photos! — the fifteen minutes we spent walking (slash kind of running, since we were running late) the lovely raised platform loop were well spent.
After a last minute dinner at the visitor center cafe before they closed up for the night, we popped into the center to grab our bags and check into our cabin. Based on the total lack of information available online, we had no idea what to expect.
I’ll have more information on the camp accommodation in my upcoming guide, but suffice it to say we were thrilled — especially with this view!
That evening, we signed up for the park’s night safari. When our spotlight operator and driver arrived, we piled into the back of a pickup truck and spent an hour driving around the quiet, dark roads of the park, admiring the stars and the sounds of the jungle, and gasping whenever our spotlight caught an exotic animal in its beam.
We spotted dozens of deer, two pairs of porcupines, a mouse running across the road with a small snake in its mouth, a large spotted civet, an unidentified jungle cat, and — our favorite spot of the night — a feline that we very excitedly approached in hopes of an exotic find, only to come face to face with a common house cat. Our spotlight handler, who spoke not a word of english, was pumped about this find. “Meow!,” he nodded excitedly.
The next morning, we had one more piece of the park to enjoy before heading off to the big city. After breakfast in visitor center restaurant, we set off with fingers, toes and all appendages crossed that we might run into some peaceful pachyderms along the way.
Nong Pak Chi is a popular salt lick observation tower, an integral part of many of the park’s more extensive and rewarding trails, though it can also be reached from an easy 900m (.5 mile) walk from the main road, a path that begins a short 1.8km (1.1 mile) drive north of the Visitor Center. The park’s resident herd of two hundred elephants are frequent visitors to the salt lick below, and animals as exotic as tigers can occasionally be spotted here.
Sadly, our mini-hike was wildlife-free. But we enjoyed the early morning serenity of the trek, and it was the perfect goodbye to Khao Yai National Park.
Conclusion? I’m obsessed with Khao Yai National Park! I was bowled over by how clean, well organized and efficiently run the National Park itself was, and I look forward to returning someday to try a few more of the hiking trails, support the protection of Thailand’s stunning natural resources, and give elephant-spotting a second try.
While I’d actually visited a few of the national parks before — I went hiking in Doi Suthep National Park, boated around Hat Chao Mai National Park and Tarutao National Marine Park, took a tour through Phang Nga National Park, and even spent a night in Ang Thong National Marine Park, I felt like this trip was on a totally different level, and as a destination onto itself felt more akin to visiting a National Park in the US.
I can’t wait to share my guide for how you can do this trip yourself — stay tuned!
Do you make a point to visit National Parks on your travels?