When Dave and I first moved to Thailand, we made a list of all the places close(ish) to Bangkok that we wanted to take weekend trips to. Khao Yai National Park, the biggest national park in Thailand, was one of the last of those places that we needed to cross off. We had wanted to go a few times but for some reason or another, never ended up making the trip, so finally we decided to go as a little “Valentine’s Day getaway” (even though it was the week before Vday). Our plan was to camp at one of the camping facilities in the park (you can rent all the necessary equipment there) and then spend a day exploring the park.
Originally, we were going to leave first thing Saturday morning but after thinking about it more and talking to some other teachers who had recently visited, we decided it would be much better if we could get there on Friday night. There’s a little town outside the national park called Pak Chong. We could stay there for a night and then head into the park first thing in the morning.
For the first time ever, Dave and I split up for the ride there. Dave doesn’t have class on Fridays but I don’t finish until three, so we decided that he’d go and get everything ready for us and then once I arrived, we’d be all set. We needed to rent a motorbike for our trip to the National Park and we figured that if he waited for me, all the motorbike shops would be closed. We wanted to be on the road first thing the next morning, most likely before all the shops opened, so he was really our only hope.
He got to Pak Chong around 3, just as I was leaving Bangkok. He was able to find our hotel, rent a motorbike, and get everything ready for us to head into the park the next morning for our overnight camping trip. It was pretty nice showing up and having everything all set up and ready to go for me. Thanks, Dave!
After an hour-long journey to Victory Monument (where all of vans traveling throughout Thailand leave from) and then a three hour van ride (for 160 baht or about $6), I made it to Pak Chong at around 8pm. Dave had waited for me for dinner and after giving me a tour of the cute little town, we headed over to the Pak Chong Night Bazaar for a good market dinner. Then, we called it an early night, as we’d set our alarm for 5am the next morning.
We woke up early but had to wait for the sun to come up to start our 40km journey into the park. The road to the park was filled with fancy hotels, great looking restaurants, golf courses and more. We’d read that the area around Khao Yai is where many of the wealthy Thais have their “mountain homes.” We could definitely see that this area catered to the more wealthy crowd. Before we’d even gotten into the park, we were already planning a trip back to experience the “fancy” side of Khao Yai. We’d come and stay at one of the cute hotels we’d seen, eat at nice restaurants (there were tons of Italian and steak choices), spend a day at one of the golf courses and then another day checking out one of the wineries that Khao Yai is known for.
But ok, back to our current trip… After about an hour of driving, we got into the park. We paid the 40 baht entrance fee (it’s 400 for foreigners but we flashed our ABAC cards and the guard gave us the local price) and made our way to the Visitor’s Center (about 15km from the entrance) to get all our info for the day and find out about the campsites. On our way there, we stopped at a really nice view point, where we had our first animal sighting of the day. A few hornbills (very large black and white birds with a bright yellow beak), which the park is known to have one of the largest populations of in Thailand. Next, we stopped at Nong Pak Chai watch tower, which is known to be a good place to see some of the larger animals the park is famous for, namely wild elephants. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anything at the watch tower, but it was still a nice little hike to start our day with beautiful views.
From there, we made a pit-stop at the Visitor’s Center and then went to find our campsite. There are two campsites in the park, but we chose the far one (Phakluai Mai) because it’s also the starting point for a hike to Haew Suwat waterfall, made famous by the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio. For those who have seen it, this is the huge waterfall that he jumps from with his friends when they are running from the pot growers. We were planning to hike to the falls in the morning.
Once we got to the campsite, we rented all of our equipment (tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, pillows, blankets, canvas, etc. – all for about 600B or $20). Dave and I have never pitched our own tents before – or at least not for a very long time – but after about an hour and a little bit of help from some nice Thai guys, our tent was ready to go. Just as we were finishing up, we had our second animal sighting of the day. A huge deer (more like a moose or reindeer) with enormous antlers that came strolling through the campsite. Dave asked me if I was sure I still wanted to camp for the night, to which I replied I definitely was. I was just hoping we could get through the night without any monkeys breaking into our tent, which we read could happen if you keep any food in there (which of course, we didn’t).
After our tent was all set up, we set out on our motorbike to explore the park. We started by heading back to the Visitor’s Center to eat lunch at a little market that was set up there. After a nice Thai lunch, we headed toward the South entrance of the park to see the park’s biggest waterfall, Haew Narok. It was a 26km drive there and then a short hike to the falls. The falls were definitely huge but since it hadn’t been raining much, they weren’t very strong. Still nice to see though. Then, we made our way back toward our campsite. We were going to stop at another viewpoint, but it was 11km out of the way and after examining our gas situation, we decided we probably wouldn’t make it (they don’t sell gas anywhere in the park. We’d come with a little extra, but not quite enough to go 20km out of our way). Instead, we did another short hike by the Visitor’s Center.
We had thought about doing a night safari that the park offers (for about 100b pp), but again considering our gas situation and the fact that we’d have to drive home afterwards in the dark (about 10km), we decided against it. Instead, we went back to the market where we’d had lunch and bought a variety of meat skewers (pork, chicken, beef) and a couple ears of corn. All the food was already cooked, but we were able to rent a small grill at our campsite and we figured we could heat them all up later for dinner.
We got back, got all set up, made a few drinks, played a game of chess (which Dave beat me badly in) and then a Thai man came over and started talking to us. His name was Nissan (like the car) and he ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the night – he helped us set up our grill (it was charcoal and we had no idea how to light it), he gave us some beers, and all night we tried our best to communicate using the little Thai we know and the little English he knew. Here’s what we were able to figure out: He is a lawyer in Thailand. His wife was camping with him but she was already sleeping. He likes to cook but does not know how to play chess. He likes beer. At one point, I brought out my Thai note cards to show him and he ended up quizzing me on them. Unfortunately, these were the ones I hadn’t studied yet so I didn’t do too well, but I think he understood. I was able to show him to to write my name and his in Thai, which I think impressed him. Either way, we had a great dinner (thanks to Nissan lending us his grill top and showing us how to light our grill) and a great night hanging with our new friend.
Very surprisingly, Dave and I slept great. We got up once in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, but other than that, we slept soundly for about 9 hours. We woke up to Nissan calling us from outside our tent to say he was picking up the grill top he’d loaned us the night before.
By 7am, we were on our way to Haew Suwat waterfall. Our book said the hike should take around two hours, but we made it in about an hour and ten minutes. It was a really nice hike, though we were a little bummed that we didn’t see the park’s one crocodile on the way. I guess it was too early for him.
We got to the waterfall and were able to walk both down to the bottom and then up to the very top of it. It was really pretty but I have no idea how Leo jumped off of it (though it was probably a body double:).
We were planning to walk back to our campsite but at the last minute we decided to hitch a ride with a Thai couple headed back that way. We’d read that it’s very common to hitch rides around the park, so we thought we’d save ourselves some time and give it a try (it was only a 10 minute ride and the only way out was past our campsite).
Once we were back, we took our tent down and then hit the road, stopping at the watch tower one more time on our way out to try our luck with the animals again (no luck, but we decided this was our favorite spot in the park).
We biked back to Pak Chong, stopping on the way for an amazing lunch of roasted pig. On our way into the park the day before, we’d seen tons of places BBQing whole pigs. It seemed to be their thing there, so we knew we had to try it. It was delicious! We were back in Pak Chong by 12:45 and on a minivan back to Bangkok at 1. It’s pretty amazing that anytime you want to go anywhere in Thailand, you can find a way to do that in minutes.
Overall, we had such a great time in the park. The park itself was beautiful (though we wished we’d seen some more animals; we saw a bunch of deer, monkeys and hornbills but no elephants, lizards, porcupines or the crocodile) and our camping experience was a great one. We’re already so excited to go back for our “fancy Khao Yai” trip!