Khao Yai is Thailand's most popular nature reserve, and it is easy to see why. With 2168 square kilometres of lush forest, the park is a real Eden for the 300 bird species and 20 species of big mammals which shelter within its boundaries. Khao Yai means Big Mountain and the name refers to the Phanom Dongrek Mountains that make the park so special.
I had left the neighbouring town of Pak Chong early that morning, expecting to explore Khao Yai on foot. Catching a songthaew from the center of town, I arrive at the park just before 8 am. I am dropped at the park checkpoint, where I pay my 200 baht entrance fee and wait for a lift to the visitor's centre.
After a couple of minutes, a jeep rolls down the road towards me. The driver greets me warmly and agrees to take me to the visitor's centre. The two passengers, Fiona and Henry, also greet me warmly.
Along the way, the driver stops several times to point out macaques, kingfishers and other interesting wildlife. He introduces himself as Mr C, but it is not long before I have dubbed him 'Mr Crazy'. Mr C is like the Thai version of Steve Irwin; he is incredibly passionate about wildlife and sometimes his enthusiasm seems a little goofy. Still, you couldn't hope for a more knowledgeable guide.
It takes nearly an hour to reach the visitor's centre. Once there, Mr C offers to take me along on the tour for just 400 bhat for the entire day. He explains that many of the park's features are as much as 20 kilmetres apart, making it impossible to cover them on foot. As I am already captivated with Mr C and Fiona and Henry seem happy to have company, I gratefully agree.
After a short break, Mr C Provides long, white canvass socks, which we put on over our trousers, feeling rather silly. They are to protect against leeches, and I notice most of the other visitors are also wearing these latest fashion accessories.
Back in the jeep, Mr C takes us on a short ride along beautifully forested roads. Suddenly, he pulls to a halt. "Did you see that?" he asks, before plunging into the undergrowth once more. This time he has spotted a hornbill. "Khao Yai is one of the best places in South East Asia to observe these golden-beaked beauties," Mr C tells us proudly, before demonstrating their call.
There are four species of hornbill at Khao Yai. On a neighbouring tree we spot a pied hornbill. Fiona suddenly notices we are standing near a 'Tiger Zone' sign and expresses her concern. Mr C simply laughs; "I have been visiting the park for seven years and I have never seen a tiger," he confesses.
After a few minutes, Mr C drops us at the edge of the forest where we are to begin our trek. We walk for three hours, but the pace is fairly gentle. Mr C stops every few minutes to point out woodpeckers, yellow-browed warblers and an extremely beautiful red-breasted flycatcher.
Just as my energy is beginning to fade, we reach the edge of the forest. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight as we walk across a grassy plain. After a few minutes, we pass a small lake, which is a watering hole for many of Khao Yai's birds and animals.
A short distance away is Nong Pak Chee observation tower, and we are all quite relieved when Mr C announces we will stop here for lunch. We climb a wooden ladder up into the observation tower. Already inside are two Thai men who are camping out, hoping that their patience will be rewarded with some animal sightings.
After lunch, Mr C directs us along a neat path leading away from the observation tower. Suddenly, he orders us to crouch down to the ground. Just in time; a swarm or big black bees cross our path, hovering above our heads for a moment before passing on.
Once we reach the waiting jeep, Mr C drives us to a caf?, where he buys us drinks to cool off. The four of us sit relaxing and talking for awhile. When we have rested, Mr C leads us down a short path, at the end of which lies the Haew Suwat Falls. This 25 metres high waterfall starred in the film The Beach. There is currently not much water flowing down the vast rock face as it is the dry season, but during the wet season many travelers take the plunge, fancying themselves, perhaps, as the next Lionardo Di Caprio.
When we have admired the waterfall from all angles, Mr C drives us to Khao Lem hill, where there are spectacular views over the park. Another short drive and a wander through the jungle, and we find ourselves perched at the very top of Khao Luuk Chang (Baby Elephant Mountain). As we sit on a rocky perch, we are actually above the highest treetops of the surrounding jungle, and the view is breathtaking.
Finally, it is time to leave Khao Yai, although I find that I am very reluctant. Mr C has one more surprise for us. On the drive back, he suddenly pulls to a halt. His sharp eyes have spotted a large scorpion sunbathing at the edge of the road; another trophy for our photo albums.
Khao Yai is 120 kilometres north east of Bangkok. It is best to make the journey to nearby Pak Chong first as the town can be reached by bus or train.
About the author:
Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!