Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai National Park is located about 2.5 hours north of Bangkok and is one of Thailand’s best national parks. Established in 1962, it was Thailand’s first national park, and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I’d always heard great things about the park, but despite living in Thailand for several years, had never managed to get there. When I played tour guide a few weeks ago to a friend from Boston, I used that as my excuse to finally make it there.

I can’t believe it took me so long.

The park is truly amazing—beautiful, empty of tourists, and filled with lush flora, fauna, and even a few wild elephants.

Arriving at the guesthouse in the afternoon, we were just in time to make a half-day tour. This tour brought you to a few caves and a natural spring. The first cave was home to over 2,000 bats and used to be a Buddhist monastery before the local community helped to build the monks a proper temple. However, the monks still come down here at night to meditate. I suspect the darkness and tranquility is good for meditation.

Our guide seemed to be an expert in everything, showing us all the insects, talking about the life cycle of bats, and even giving us a soil lesson on the composition of the dirt and how bat guano can be used to make explosives. It was all fascinating. He knew quite a bit and spoke excellent English, something very rare on tours in Thailand. Usually, tour guides in Thailand are just ushers, walking you from place to place, discussing very little, letting you take your photos, and then moving on. But this guide knew it all and was able to explain the history and zoology of not only this cave but the whole region.

The second cave featured over two million bats, and we arrived just in time to see them head out for their nightly feed. Watching it was like watching something on the Discovery Channel—a seemingly endless stream of bats flying out in pursuit of their evening meal as the sun set below the horizon. Our guide, who seemed to know our cameras better than any of us, was able to catch some of it on tape for us through the telescope:

It was a spectacular scene to watch.

We spent the following day back in the park for a full day of hiking through the jungle and trying to spot wildlife. Our day began with bird watching, followed by a five-hour trek through the jungle. We spotted a lot of birds throughout the day, including the Great Hornbill, which has a wing span over two meters wide. Monkeys hovered on the side of the road, and gibbons swung through the trees. As we made our way through the jungle, it became clear to me we were the only group on this trail, allowing us extra personal time with the animals. Usually in northern Thailand you see a lot of tour groups, so it was nice to finally get somewhere where we could be alone with nature.

The monsoon season kicked in about halfway through our trek, pouring down an ocean of water on us as we made our way back to the car. As a souvenir, a leech attached itself to my hand, though I quickly burnt it off. They don’t hurt, but it takes a long time for the wound to heal. I was bleeding for quite a long time. The rain abated just as we hit the last few waterfalls, including the one Leonardo Di Caprio jumped off in the movie The Beach.

Now, normally I never use Lonely Planet for accommodation recommendations. However, this time, I did (as did everyone else at the guest house). I must say that for once, Lonely Planet didn’t disappoint. Despite being in LP for years, the Greenhouse Guesthouse had not suffered in quality. Usually, press in a Lonely Planet book means higher prices and poorer quality. However, this place offered cheap accommodation, excellent food, reasonably priced tours, and very knowledgeable tour guides. If you ever go to Khao Yai, this place comes with my highest recommendation. I’d go back in a second.

Khao Yai National Park is everything people say it is. Despite being one of the biggest and most well-known parks in Thailand, there were few tourists there, making for an enjoyable and peaceful experience. With it being only half a day from Bangkok, it’s a park you should really consider visiting before you head off to the tropical islands that make Thailand so famous.