Despite being just an hour or two from Bangkok, not so many locals make it up to Khao Yai, or truly experience just 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 it is 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 rather colorful history. Originally used as a settlement by the Ban Tha Dan people, whose old 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 and years later Khao Yai became Thailand’s first national park in 1962. During the early 1990’s, the park was closed to the public due to the intense deforestation taking place around it caused by development greed, but then reopened after more stringent regulations regarding conservation were set in place. In 2005, Khao Yai became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has become a model for other national parks in Thailand.

closeup of macaque in Khao Yai National Park Thailand

Closeup of macaque in Khao Yai National Park ThailandTaking up an immense 2100 square meters of grassland and forest, Khao Yai is home to over 3000 plant species, over 300 different types of birds, including the majestic Great Pied Hornbill, plus a major wildlife corridor that includes gibbons, wild elephants, gaur, sambar, macaques, Asiatic black bears, leopard cats, 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.

Barking deer in Khao Yai National Park Thailand

Barking deer in Khao Yai National Park ThailandWhile Khao Yai is close to Bangkok, the layout of it isn’t exactly conducive to those without their own transport. The park gate, which is the furthest point that public transport will deliver visitors, is still 15 kilometers shy of the visitors’ center, where most of the trails start from and where the campground and canteen facilities are located. Additionally, 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, it almost makes as much sense to come in on a tour as it does to do it oneself.

I booked a trip with Greenleaf Tours, a rather basic backpacker’s outfit that sits along the main road into the park. While its rooms and food are nothing to write home about, the agency boast some excellent guides, one of whom is known as The Birdman for being a keen birder and avid photographer who loves going out into the jungle probably even more than he loves guiding. Birdman has been leading trips in Khao Yai for more than a decade, and he knows the park inside out. The guides come equipped with binoculars and telescopes, long zoom lenses, and pairs of very well trained eyes, 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 sloth bear or 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. Additionally, the tours also provide leech socks, to keep the dreaded bloodsuckers at bay.

Tourists under a waterfall at Khao Yai National Park in Thailand

Tourists under a waterfall at Khao Yai National Park in ThailandAfter 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 5 star spa treatment, at a fraction of the price.

Heaw Suwat waterfall in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand

Heaw Suwat waterfall in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand

Travel Tips:

Khao Yai is accessible via train from Bangkok 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 park headquarters manages several campgrounds, which rent tents and bedding, plus has maps, and can assist with guides for going trekking. 044 297 406, 044 297 297

For guided trips, Greenleaf Tours and Guesthouse is at km 7.5 of the park road. 044-365 073, 044-365 024

Foreigners pay 400 baht to enter Khao Yai, however if you have a Thai driver’s license or work permit, you pay the Thai price of 40 baht.

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Dave Stamboulis is a travel writer and photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His photos, represented by Alamy and Getty Images, have appeared in publications around the world. He is the author of Odysseus’ Last Stand, which received the Silver Medal for Travel Book of the Year in 2006 from the Society of American Travel Writers. In addition to working as the updating writer for Fodor’s Guidebook to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, he is the “Bangkok expert” for USA Today’s 10Best website, and a regular contributor for publications throughout Southeast Asia such as Silver Kris (Singapore Airlines), Asian Geographic, International Traveller (Australia), Virgin Voyeur, Tiger Tales (Tiger Air), Bangkok 101, Look East, Tropical Magazine, Get Lost (Australia), Sawasdee Thai Air, and Bangkok Post among others.

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