After all these years living and working in Thailand I can't believe that I only just got around to visiting Khao Yai National Park. Just a 2.5 hour drive from Bangkok, Khao Yai offers a great escape from the concrete jungle and city life. Everyone needs some nature after a stint in Bangkok and I believe this is the best and easiest nature destination close to Bangkok without needing to get on a plane.
Established in 1962 as Thailand's first national park, it is the third largest national park in Thailand. The park covers an area of 2,168 square kilometres, including beautiful rain/evergreen forests and grasslands. 1,351 m high Khao Rom is the highest mountain within the park. Perhaps the biggest highlight of the park is its wonderful wildlife. We were fortunate enough to see elephants, great hornbill, gibbons and plenty of interesting insects. There are even reports of tigers still roaming the forests but our guide said he hasn't seen one.
The park can get quite busy at weekends with both foreign and domestic tourists so if you have the opportunity to visit on a weekday, I highly recommend it. The main entrance is the northern entrance with the nearest city being Pak Chong in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. There is also a second entrance in the south of the park in Nakhon Nayok province. The entrance fee is 400 THB for adults and 200 THB for children. As of March 2015, Thai driving licence, work permit or student card holders can't get in for Thai price...we tried!
We couldn't find much information about travelling around Khao Yai and saw mixed reports on blogs. The cheapest way to visit Khao Yai is to get a minibus from Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok to Pak Chong. You'll be able to rent a motorbike in Pak Chong and ride to the park and explore by yourself. For those who have booked one of the many nice hotels surrounding the park, you can also rent a motorbike at the park entrance at Sankhao Guest house (click here). It's entirely feasible to explore the park on your own terms if you have a rental scooter and use one of the maps available at the Visitor Centre.
Should I take a tour or not?
My first instinct was to rent a motorbike and explore the park ourselves. Our hotel was a little far out with no motorbike rental close by so our only option was motorbike rental at the park entrance. We'd still need a taxi from the hotel to the park entrance however. On top of this, we didn't really know if there really was a motorbike rental at the park entrance or not (there is).
Anyway, in the end we ended up booking a tour at 2500 Baht each for a full day of exploring including pick up and drop off from our hotel. It felt a bit expensive at first but I can honestly say that I'm very happy we went with a tour. We saw so much more and learnt more about the forest than we ever could have done alone. It was one of the best tours I've done in Thailand and it was fantastic to have a guide who seemed more excited than we were about the wildlife (and we were pretty excited too)!
I've been on tours before in the South of Thailand that are terrible; shove the tourists on a boat and no need to care about customer service because more will come tomorrow. This tour however, was a real pleasure and a great way to see the park.
The first highlight of our tour was on the way to the Khao Yai visitor centre where our guide spotted some great hornbill from the side of the road. He had an awesome Nikon telescope and quickly locked onto the colourful birds so we could see them in all their glory. I wish I had brought a telephoto lens with me! It was after this first sighting that I knew we were in for a pretty great day of exploration and adventure.
After a brief stop at the Khao Yai Visitor Centre to sign into the park, our guide took us onto a nature trail in search of local wildlife. This had to be the highlight of the tour for me as it gave me a real sense of discovery and adventure. We learnt about different foods that we could eat, found the plant that makes tiger balm and made friends with a Scorpion.
I didn't know that Scorpions were so easy to handle. Our guide tricked the scorpion out of its hole by tapping on the ground with a stick to mimic the movement of its prey and simply picked it up in a very calm manner by shaping his hand into the shape of the scorpion. "They can sense the vibrations, do you want to hold it." Oh, go on then!
As long as you keep still and don't shake, the Scorpion doesn't really react much at all. It's only if they feel threatened that they will attack, much like most wildlife out there. It was a very interesting experience and a nice memory. Shortly before this however, our guide wasn't so lucky with the local wildlife and got stung by the caterpillar pictured earlier on in this blog. We were just walking through the forest when our guide said "Stop, can you see it, my hand is burning now." After scanning the foliage we eventually saw the bright green caterpillar sitting on a leaf looking quite unfriendly! The burning went on for another hour or two, ouch.
Next up was the search for Gibbons. Luck was certainly on our side that day and our guide managed to find a family of Gibbons after a short hike through the forest scenery. Again, this is why I really think it is worth paying for a tour guide so you can have moments like these. Our guide was so excited once he caught a glimpse of the gibbons and quickly placed his telescope down for us to take a look. "Come on you beautiful baby you...yes!" Such a joy to have a tour guide that enjoys his job and sharing his knowledge. We managed to take a couple of shots by putting my Iphone up against the telescope!
After a wonderful ten minutes watching the Gibbons getting on with forest life, we headed back to the road and set off for a late lunch located close to the beautiful Haew Suwat waterfall. The rainy season made it quite unrecognisable from it's idyllic appearance in 'The Beach.'
The last section of the tour took us to the Pha Diao Dai viewpoint which provided some stunning views over Khao Yai National Park. We were also fortunate to have a small clearing in the weather as the mountain was covered in myst and cloud for a large part of the day. It's a great spot to just sit and take it all in for a while. I love moments like these, just sitting still, listening to the sounds and watching life unfold in nature. Bliss.
As we came down from the mountain we thought that was pretty much it for the day and were already more than satisfied with the tour. However, luck was on our side yet again and as we came down from the mountain passing through a grassland area we were lucky enough to spot a wild elephant. A perfect way to round off an excellent day trip to Khao Yai National Park. The local photographers were going crazy in a good way!
Photography Tips for Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai is an excellent location for landscape and wildlife photography. There are lots of Thai photographers roaming the park of a weekend in search of the perfect shot. Here are a few photography tips for making the most out of a day trip to Khao Yai National Park -
- Hire a guide and pay for a tour. They'll provide you with the best chance of spotting Wildlife.
- Bring a telephoto lens for the wildlife. This was my biggest regret, I went to Khao Yai with a landscape mindset bringing my wide angle lens only.
- Bring a wide angle for beautiful landscapes and forest scenery.
- Bring a tripod for photographs beneath the Jungle canopy.
- Use a high aperture such as F8-F11 to capture a good depth of field for landscapes.
- Consider using a higher ISO when under the Jungle canopy whilst on the move. A noisy shot is better than a blurred shot.
- Use a tripod and slow shutter speed to create beautiful motion in waterfall scenes.
- Wait for sunset. We were there in rainy season and still got some beautiful light but I imagine in the dry season there will be some beautiful golden sunsets to be captured.
I will definitely head back to Khao Yai again some down and definitely bring a telephoto lens with me! I wish I could have got a nice shot of the Great Hornbill pair we saw at the start of the day!
Khao Yai National Park Trip
Overall, we had an excellent trip with excellent accommodation surrounded by nature and a tour that exceeded our expectations (name card in the gallery above). You can certainly visit Khao Yai on a budget, but you'll get a better experience if you can afford to pay for a tour and guide. It's also worth going on a weekday to avoid the crowds and further increase your chances of spotting some local wildlife. I hope you have as much luck as we did in spotting some wonderful wildlife. We'll be back for sure!
Images taken on Sony A7ii and FE16-34 F4 lens.
sam spicer is a travel, landscape and outdoor adventure photographer providing photography services for the tourism industry and much more.
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