Exploring Thai National Parks: Khao Yai

The Long Journey to Khao Yai

After catching a ride in the back of a pickup from Kaeng Krachan back to Bangkok, the wonderful man that offered us a ride went out of his way to take us directly to Mo Chit bus station. This was not unusual; when we hitchhiked to Doi Inthanon National Park, the two men that gave us a ride were not going to the park, but took us out of their way to the ranger station, so we had a better chance of finding a car going into the park. From there a great couple on a day trip from Chiang Mai, picked us up and insisted on paying our park entrance fee and dropping us off at a campsite further down the road than they were originally going. Although hitchhiking tends to be the slowest option, I was consistently amazed by how sweet and genuinely helpful the people that picked me up were.

We got to the bus station in Bangkok in time to catch a bus to Pak Chong (for 180 Bhat, ~$5 each), near the entrance of Khao Yai. The bus is supposed to take about 3 hours, we were told, but that proved to be a very optimistic estimate. A little over four hours later we got off the bus as the sun was setting in Pak Chong.

Hotel-hunting in Pak Chong

We had no clue where to stay, and neither of us had a phone, computer, or guidebook to look something up (my phone had been destroyed months earlier in a motorbike accident, and ben had lost two to the ocean since his arrival in Thailand), so we walked around a main road until we saw a sign for a hotel. We walked in the door and immediately knew by the air-conditioning and the clean smell that this place was way out of our budget, and the woman behind the desk had clearly looked at our filthy clothes and backpacks and come to the same conclusion, but the benefit of going to a nice hotel near a pretty touristy national park is that the staff speak English.

I asked how much a room was, really just to be polite, and after she confirmed what we all already knew, I asked her if she knew of a cheaper hotel around. I’m sure that broke some hotel etiquette, but she gave me directions to another hotel, and apologetically told me she wasn’t sure if it would be cheap enough. It wasn’t, but they gave me directions to a cheaper one, and eventually we got to a dark, leaky, nameless hotel that had rooms for 200 Bhat (about $6), which was still more than we wanted, but tourism to the park drives up hotel prices in Pak Chong. It was right across from a surprisingly lively night market where I binged on sweets and Ben got some fried vegetables, and we stocked up on snacks to take with us. In the morning we rented a motorbike– 300 Bhat per day is pretty much the standard everywhere in Pak Chong, so there’s not much point in shopping around– and drove a little over an hour to the park entrance.

Pha Kluaymai Campsite

Khao Yai is the oldest and most popular park in Thailand, so they get away with charging more for everything, including a 400 Bhat (~$12) entrance fee, as opposed to 200-300 at most parks. Like almost all national parks, you can rent a tent and everything else you need, and there actually are two guesthouses inside the park, but Ben and I set up our hammocks beneath a little open-sided hut at the farther of the two campsites, Pha Kluaymai.

A hornbill at Pha Kluaymai

The campsite was incredible. It was full of hornbills and giant squirrels that would hop from tree to tree above our hut. And it was empty except for ourselves and a Thai couple who we had met in Kaeng Krachan, and who spent all of dinner that night showing us pictures of rare birds they had spotted that day.

Wildlife Watching near Pha Kluaymai

The only crocodile in Khao Yai

There’s a short trail that leaves from the campsite that we walked early the next morning, and saw the only crocodile in the park, which was released by rangers years ago, some otters, snakes, lizards, birds, and a male elephant happily eating in the forest, who didn’t seem to mind us watching him for close to an hour. Khao Yai is also the only place where you can find a unique type of gibbon: a hybrid between Pileated and White Handed gibbons, and this trail is one of two places in the park where they are consistently spotted, which was very exciting to a wildlife nerd like me.

After three mornings of getting up at 5am to hike to where we heard the gibbons singing, and sitting under hidden under vegetation squinting up at the canopy, and unfortunately the morning after Ben left to catch his flight, I finally saw two hybrid gibbons.

Lam Takong Campsite

After my gibbon mission was accomplished, I packed up and hitchhiked (Ben had taken the motorbike when he left) down to the other campsite, Lam Takong. This was a more popular campsite, and it was Friday so the park was filling up.

A Sambar Deer leaving the campsite bathroom

This campsite was full of Sambar Deer and macaques that are frequently fed by campers, and so have lost any personal boundaries, and I frequently came back to find monkeys poking through my backpack and tugging at my hammock straps. It is also much easier to hitchhike in and out of this campsite to trails and visitor centers.

  A macaque enjoying the campsite   

Where to Find Wildlife

The view from Nong Pak Chi watchtower

Khao Yai is full of trails and has two watch towers, plus numerous salt licks, and all of them are worth exploring. From my experience the trails and the roads were the best places to see wildlife in the mornings, although sadly it’s also not uncommon to see roadkill along the roads, and the watchtowers and open areas were great during the evenings. The salt licks, washes, and watering holes are supposedly great for wildlife spotting in dry season, but were not spectacular when we were there in late May—the beginning of the wet season. Mornings and evenings are prime wildlife watching hours, and I rarely encountered anyone else on the trails. The organized day tours out of Bangkok or Pak Chong generally arrive at the park in the late morning, stay for the heat of the day, when animals are the least active, and leave in the late afternoon to return to town by dinner. Almost everyone I met who came on a day tour saw very limited wildlife, and this park is so huge I was glad I gave it as much time as possible.

Otters playing in Khao Yai

On the trails and open areas I saw gibbons, macaques, snakes, more birds than I could name, muntjacs, elephants, and tons of lizards. Exploring up an unmarked wash that led off of a salt lick one evening I stumbled upon a group of about 15 otters playing in a shallow pool, and watched them play and cuddle for half an hour.

On my way back, every few minutes I would startle a hornbill out of a tree. It must have been mating season or some other exciting time of year for them, because the park was overflowing with Wreathed and Great Hornbills.

A Day Full of Elephants

On my last night in the park I decided to sleep in the Nong Pak Chi watchtower, which is not entirely allowed, but definitely worth doing. I was woken up in the middle of the night, and again in the morning by a herd of loud, trumpeting elephants, and had great views of them from the watchtower.

A herd of elephants grazing
An elephant blocking the trail

In the mid-morning I walked up a trail across the salt lick by the watchtower, and within minutes I startled a lone elephant eating directly in the middle of the trail. He started coming towards me, so I turned and ran the other direction. After following me about 15 meters, he stopped, trumpeted, and turned around and walked away. I waited about ten minutes, figuring he would go away from the trail, and then I started walking again. In no time I had surprised him again, still on the trail, and he was much more annoyed this time. He started running at me and I’ve never run away so fast in my life.

Hiking that trail was not going to happen that day, so I went back to the watchtower, grabbed my stuff, and caught a ride back to Bangkok with four young, punk-looking Thai guys eager to practice their English and take selfies with me.

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