The second-largest national park in Thailand, Khao Yai, is quite likely to be the best place to visit for nature enthusiasts. It's easily accessible, with many accommodation options; but most importantly, it’s absolutely full of wildlife. There’s a high chance to encounter wild elephants, the highlight of Khao Yai. Gibbons, another “specialty” of this national park, can be tracked down by their calls. Wild pigs and even barking deer are often seen close to the headquarters, behind the canteen, scavenging for edible waste. Ordinary pig-tailed macaques are everywhere but, as obnoxious as always, they are hardly considered an attraction. Siamese crocodiles, once regarded as extinct in the park, have recently been observed again. Other reptiles, birds and invertebrates are plentiful, including a large number of rare species. The jungle itself makes for an impressive hike. Marked trails lead to the numerous viewing towers and waterfalls. All in all, the only other two national parks in the country comparable in terms of size and biodiversity are Khao Sok in the south and Kaeng Krachan in the west.
Most visitors come to Khao Yai National Park hoping to see wild elephants and gibbons. Of the latter, the park hosts two different species: white-handed gibbon and pileated gibbon. Those arboreal apes usually communicate in the morning by hooting and yowling, and if you’re fit enough to traverse the jungle without a trail, you can simply follow the sound. Like most animals spending their entire lives in the canopies, they tend to ignore anybody standing on the ground, and can be seen reasonably close – vertically up. Sighting the elephants is rather a matter of luck. You can increase your chances by spending a full day by one of the salt licks, and will likely see a lot of other wildlife even if the pachyderms fail to show up. Hideaways and viewing towers are strategically placed next to the salt licks and grazing grounds.
Overall, Khao Yai National Park is home to 66 mammal species, including Asian black bear, clouded leopards, and golden cats, but alas, not tigers – not anymore. There are over 300 species of birds, enough to keep a twitcher happy for a couple of weeks. For those who would rather enjoy the landscape than chase wild animals, there are quite a few waterfalls and several jungle trails to hike.
To get to Khao Yai National Park, take a train or a bus from Bangkok (or anywhere else) to Pak Chong – a nondescript little town in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. Regular songthaews (passenger pickup trucks) run from there to the park gate. It’s another ~10 km from the gate to the park headquarters, where the hostels and the main canteen are located. No public transport is available for this final leg of the journey, but hitchhiking is very easy. Or you can walk and enjoy the jungle on both sides of the road. There’s an entrance fee: 400 THB (~13$) at the time of research.
The most comfortable season to hike and enjoy nature is from November through February. The best period to look for wildlife, however, is the dry season, from March to May. This is when water becomes scarce in the jungle, and large groups of animals congregate near waterholes and the remaining rivers. The rainy season (June through October) is when the waterfalls are the most impressive, but hiking gets difficult. There are no real dangers in Khao Yai National Park, but it does have a large area, big enough to get lost. Siamese crocodiles don’t normally attack humans, but choosing your swimming spot with care won’t harm. In the winter months, it may get a bit chilly, so take a jacket and a 3-season sleeping bag if camping.
Accommodation is in cabins or a dormitory. Both can only be booked through the national park office, and are often occupied by local tour groups. A few designated campsites are renting out tents in the park. If you have your own gear, it’s best to camp near one of the salt licks. This is your best chance to encounter wild elephants, and it pretty much guarantees sightings of muntjak and sambar deer. There’s a restaurant next to the headquarters and a few smaller canteens near the campsites. All of those close early, just after the sunset, so consider that there will be no late dinners.
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