Explore The ‘Big Mountain’ of Bangkok: The Khao Yai National Park
In terms of tourism, Thailand is still growing at a rapid pace. In 2017, more than 35 Million tourists visited the ‘Land of A Thousand Smiles’. There are without a doubt people who smile about this constant stream of income. But the economic boost comes with a price that oftentimes nature has to pay. That’s why sustainable travel in Thailand is so important. That’s why it is so important to have National Parks. They protect their ancient heritages while still opening their gates to outdoor-loving visitors.
The Khao Yai National Park close to Bangkok belongs to the group of 127 parks in Thailand. It is even the third largest. With such a sheer size it seems like a foolish undertaking to try and write about all, or even most, of the highlights this park has to offer. We will do our best to do just that, especially since I am, indeed, a fool.
Let’s go exploring, shall we?
What You Need To Know About The Khao Yai National Park
Thailand established its first national park with Khao Yai in 1962. As we mentioned in the introduction, it is the third largest in Thailand with an impressive size of 2,168 km² (837 mi²). In contrast, Singapore covers an area of 721 km² (279 mi²). This makes the national park three times the size of the Southeast Asian republic. The majority of the park is in the Nakhon Ratchasima province, but due to its size, it stretches out to Prachinburi (east), Saraburi (west) and Nakhon Nayok (east) provinces. In 2005, it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with four other adjacent parks. Under the name “Dong Phaya Yen–Khao Yai Forest Complex” it extends all the way to the Cambodian border.
In Thai, “Khao Yai” means “Big Mountain”, hence our title. It refers to the mountain range of Sankamphaeng, which is to some extent a part of the national park. The highest one is Khao Rom with 1,351 meters (4432 feet). Besides the mountain range, rainforests and grasslands cover most of Khao Yai. These, in turn, are the home of around 300 bird species, 70 species of mammals and 74 species of reptiles and amphibians. In fact, this national park has one of the largest wild populations in Thailand. If you plan to visit Khao Yai, then look forward to seeing all kinds of exotic animals.
When To Visit Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai National Park is one of the most popular parks in Thailand and thus you can expect a constant stream of visitors year-round. It depends on how you prefer to travel and explore. June to October is the rainy season and thus not as many people will be there. It’s also the time where the waterfalls are at their most ferocious, the trees are as lush as they can get and the wildlife roams around more freely than ever. You might have to deal with rain showers, but that is the price you would have to pay. Or you get lucky and catch that one day where the sun shines throughout the whole day.
November to February is the right time to go if you are an avid hiker. During these months the weather is not yet as hot and unbearable as it will be later on. You will still break a good sweat, but the conditions for hiking won’t get any better.
Last, but not least, March and April are always the scorching hot months. For you ornithologists out there, this might be your price to pay, because ‘tis the season to watch plenty of birds. The flip side of this coin is the fact that the waterfalls dry up.
Again, it really depends on the type of traveler you are, but personally, I prefer November. I still get to see a beautiful national park without a lot of other tourists around. I enjoy my hiking in tranquility.
How to Get to Khao Yai
By train, bus, and songthaew
Although people advertise Khao Yai National Park as a place to visit when you are in Bangkok, it still is a good 2 ½ hour drive away from the capital. The closest city is Pak Chong and you can get there via train or bus. The park is still around 27 km (17 miles) away from the main gate in the North, but you can easily reach it with a Songthaew for 40 Baht.
Another popular backpacker option is to rent a scooter and visit the park independently. This might be the best option, because not only is it the most exciting one, it also allows you to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. You could also just drive to the visitor center, where all the trails begin. Here you can grab a bite in the restaurant or from one of the food stalls. Stock up on valuable resources like water if you need to as well.
This center is another 14 km (9 miles) away from the North gate. From there on you can go hiking to your heart’s content. Keep in mind, that you are only allowed to hike the short circular trail alone, which is around 800 meters long. For all the other longer trails, you are required to have a guide with you. This is because many people in the past got lost in the vastness of the park. A guide or park ranger costs around 500 Baht for three hours.
As a tour
You want to eliminate all the planning and guesswork? Then book a tour and leave everything to the professionals, while you enjoy the park’s highlights in a content state. They come in all shapes and sizes with different itineraries tailored to your specific interests. There are single-day budget hiking trips, wildlife photography tours and multi-day private excursions that take you deep into the wilderness, just to name a few.
Of course, your limited budget plays a role in this decision as well. In our opinion, a few bucks more can make quite the difference. Especially when it comes to having an expert guide with you who grew up in the area. He/she can, therefore, take you to places you never would’ve found on your own. He/she can also tell you everything you want to know from different animal species to little-known historical aspects. The prices start around 1,300 Baht and go as high as 2,000+ Baht (national park fees not included). The more expensive ones will also bring you to Khao Luk Chang cave, which on its own is worth a visit. We will talk about this one later in greater detail.
A tour is a great way to tick off all the park’s highlights in a single day. On the other hand, you will miss out on the exciting experience of venturing out on your own (plus guide). Khao Yai is such a vast place where you could easily spend a few days, if not a whole week. There are still plenty of natural wonders to enthrall you. A guided tour can offer you a good overview of the park, but the real adventure starts with your own independent spirit.
The Highlights of Khao Yai National Park
Haew Narok Waterfall
Many travelers claim that Haew Narok is the most spectacular waterfall they have seen in Thailand. This is no surprise since the water comes crashing down from a height of 150 meters (492 feet). During the rainy months, the force of this waterfall is so strong, that you would get soaking wet by standing on one of the remote platforms. That’s why we would recommend on avoiding the months of March and April. As we mentioned above, the waterfall might be completely dried up. During the months of May and June, Haew Narok is more of a calm force, but still an impressive sight you don’t want to miss out on. #fomo
The first challenge, though, is getting there. Haew Narok Waterfall is 30 km (18.6 miles) away from the main entrance and 22 km (13.7 miles) from the visitor center. This distance is the reason why the cheaper tours don’t go there. A vehicle of your own is therefore required unless you really like walking. Once you have made it to the entrance of the waterfall, you still have to hike around 1 km to the top. The trail leads through a dense jungle with some bamboo trees, across a bridge and finally up some steep steps.
Don’t be scared or shy by the company of monkeys, butterflies, snakes, and spiders. We are all friends, aren’t we? Okay, maybe try to keep a safe distance from the snakes and spiders. Don’t channel your inner Steve Irwin. A pair of observation platforms on the top allows you to rest and take some incredible pictures to expand your Instagram portfolio. Don’t be upset with yourself if you forgot your swimsuit. You are not allowed to swim underneath the cascading water anyway.
Other Waterfalls to “Fall” In Love With (I’m Horrible)
It shouldn’t come to you as a surprise that Khao Yai encompasses way more waterfalls than you could possibly visit in one day. Presumably, there are around 44, of which Haew Sai Fa, Haew Pratoon, Pha Kluaymai, Nang Rong and Sarika Waterfalls are some of the more noteworthy ones.
But one, in particular, has gained some fame through the help of a movie. When people in Thailand talk about the movie ‘The Beach’ with Leonardo “I-eat-raw-bison-livers” DiCaprio, they usually associate it with Koh Phi Phi. Major parts of the movie were filmed there, but the scene where Leo’s character jumps down a waterfall was not shot on Koh PhiPhi.
It was shot in Khao Yai National Park and the waterfall is Haew Suwat located around 8 km (5 miles) east of the visitor center. It is only around 15 meters (49 feet) high, but nonetheless a picturesque one. Don’t think about following Leo’s lead and leap from the cliff like he did. Just like Haew Narok, it is prohibited to jump down or even swim in the pool below. Boo!
Yod Khao Khiao Mountain
You can’t beat a great vista from the peak of a mountain, but it’s something you have to earn. Case in point: Yod Khao Kiao. This juggernaut has an imposing height of 1,292 meters (4,239 feet) and you can scale it up to 1,247 meters (4,091 feet). This is where you will find the highest of the three viewpoints. Despite being higher up, the more popular viewpoint is the second one called Pha Diao Dai, which means “Solitude Point”. It has an elevation of 1,142 meters (3,747 feet) and the word “breathtaking” doesn’t do this view justice.
The third and final observation platform is just 100 meters below. The scenery here is still nice to see, but you might as well hike for a few more minutes and power your way up to Phao Diao Dai. It’s well worth it. Especially since it’s not too difficult to get around with sturdy wooden paths guiding you through the thicket of the jungle. You only need to be careful on the platforms themselves, because there are no rails to keep your balance. During the rainy months, you really need to be cautious.
Yod Khao Khieo is not only popular because of its viewpoints. Elephants frequent the area around the mountain regularly as well. Plenty of wild animals, in general, roam freely around here and it’s a great place for birdwatching. As we mentioned in our section “When To Visit” the months of March and April are the best for this kind of activity. Although, the combination of strenuous hiking and the unrelenting heat turns this excursion into one suitable only for the hardened adventurer. Carrying a lot of water and electrolytes with you should be your main priority. You also need a car or a scooter to bring you the foot of the mountain. It is 11 km (6.8 miles) away from the visitor center.
Khao Luk Chang Bat Cave
Na na na na na na BATMAN! As much as we’d love to say it, but this bat cave does not contain any fancy Bruce Wayne gadgets and loyal butlers. Instead, there are millions of wrinkled-lipped bats and you can see them up close during the sunset. This is when they swarm out of a cave like a dark cloud over the tree canopies. It’s something you would usually only see in documentaries like ‘Planet Earth’. Make sure to have your camera ready once it’s bat time! Before those nocturnal animals took over the cave, it was actually a Buddhist monastery until the local community built them a proper temple. Nonetheless, some monks still meditate inside the cave during the night time to this day.
It is important to note that this cave is not actually within the confines of the National Park. Khao Luk Chang is 6 km (3.7 miles) away from the Northern gate. So, unless you booked a tour which includes the bat cave, you would have to stay the night in the nearest city of Pak Chong. But how many chances do you get in a lifetime to see millions of bats flying out of a cave in a snake-like formation with a gorgeous sunset as the backdrop? Exactly.
Staying At Khao Yai National Park
There are a few options on how to spend the night (or multiple ones) in the park or in Pak Chong.
In Pak Chong
In the downtown area of the city, there are plenty of hostels, guesthouses, and hotels. Most of the places are also able to either arrange pickups to the park, book tours or rent scooters and cars. It is probably the most convenient option if you prefer a cozy bed after a long day of hiking and exploring.
The true adventurer, though, doesn’t leave the wild nature and instead stays at one of the two campsites. If you don’t have the necessary camping gear with you, you can rent tents, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets and the like for a small fee. You really want to have a blanket or at least some warm clothes for the night time, because it can get quite cool. Maybe not as much in March or April, but in September or October, you want to have something to keep you warm. Oh, and don’t get scared if you spot malayan porcupines somewhere in the darkness. They are harmless and with a careful approach, you can see them up close.
Both camping sites have toilets and showers, so it’s not like you have to live the life of Christopher McCandless. The first one is Lam Takong Campsite and is only 6 km (3.7 miles) away from the Visitor Center. The location of this site is perfect because it’s close to most of the highlights mentioned in this post. The second site, called Pha Kluaymai, is another 3 km (1.8 miles) away from Lam Takong.
You can’t decide whether to stay in a comfortable bed in Pak Chong or in the wilderness of Khao Yai? In that case, you might want to rent one of the small cabins located in four different zones within the park area. However, they are frequently rented out by tour and school groups, therefore you need to book way in advance.
- Park: 6am – 6pm
- Haew Narok and Haew Suwat Waterfalls: 6 am – 5 pm
- Visitor Center: 8am – 9pm
- Entry fee: 400 Baht
- Vehicle you arrive on: Bicycle (20 Baht); Motorcycle/Scooter (30 Baht); Car (50 Baht); Minivan (100 Baht)
Address: Hin Tung, Mueang Nakhon Nayok District, Nakhon Nayok 26000, Thailand
Ufff, that is way longer than I expected #thatswhatshesaid. Despite the length of this post, can you believe that we had to leave out plenty of other attractions? But for our purposes, we have covered all the major sights you have to visit. Every inch of the 2,168 km² area is covered with something wondrous, exciting and beautiful. Take your time and don’t rush it.
If you have been to Khao Yai National Park already, please let us know your impressions, experiences, and adventures in the comment section and on Facebook. We are always eager to hear your stories. If you haven’t visited Khao Yai yet, well, then we just gave you ample reasons to do so. There are only a few places on Earth where you are able to visit waterfalls, hike up mountains, observe a seemingly endless swarm of bats and camp under a pristine starry sky. Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.