Kaeng Krachan National Park is Thailand’s largest national park. The reason it’s taken us this long to visit is because the information about the logistics for the park is pretty scarce and we weren’t sure exactly how we would navigate it. But, with for a long weekend, it was a perfect trip, so we decided to give it a go.
The national park is in Petchaburi, about a two hour drive from Bangkok. We’ve been to Petchaburi, and we’ve been to the nearby Hua Hin (a very popular/touristy beach area) but we’d never spent any time in Cha Am, another beach town that’s much more local than Hua Hin (and about 30 minutes closer to Bangkok). Hua Hin is full of tourists, western restaurants, and fancy hotels. Cha Am, on the other hand, is where lots of Thais head for weekend holidays from Bangkok.
Dave doesn’t have class on Friday and I get done at noon (tough schedule, I know), so we left school as soon as I was finished and were at the beach by 5pm. It only takes about 2 hours to get to the beach from Victory Monument (160 baht pp), where all of the mini vans leave from. Of course, it took us another 2 hours or so to get to VM from our school, but we’re used to that by now. The beach wasn’t very crowded when we got there, but we took a dip and walked up and down the main beach road. It seems like Cha Am beach is very crowded during the day and in the evening, but once the sun goes down, the main action moves away from the beach a few blocks back. We’d wanted seafood for dinner, but since there weren’t really any places we were interested in right on the main beach road and all of the Western places were more crowded and about the same price (or even cheaper), we opted for that.
We were up early the next morning and were ready to hit the road. We rented a motorbike from our guesthouse (200 baht/day) and headed out for the two hour ride to Kaeng Krachan. We’d been a little nervous when someone working at the guest house told us it was too far of a ride for a motorbike, but it wasn’t bad at all. I guess that guy didn’t know what an expert motor biker Dave has become! It was a nice drive and the morning weather was perfect for it. We picked up a few supplies en route to the park and finally made it to the Kaeng Krachan dam and the accompanying campsite, right at the entrance to the park.
In Kaeng Krachan, there are three main campsites to choose from. The first is the one by the damn and is not technically inside the park. This campsite is really nice though because you have a view of a huge lake right from your tent. The downside to this site though is that there’s not really any hiking trails nearby or any wildlife to see.
The second camp is Ban Krang campsite. This is the one we’d been planning to stay at. There’s supposed to be some great hiking trails and a lot of wildlife all around the site. The third campsite, Phanoen Thung, is supposed to have some excellent views, but we read it was only accessibly by 4-wheel vehicle and because the road is one-way, you can only go up or down at certain times (see below). Since we didn’t have a car, this campsite was out.
- Sam Yot checkpoint (main entrance) opening times are to 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Heading to Phanoen Thung from Ban Krang campsite; 5:30 a.m. – 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.
- Out from Phanoen Thung (to Ban Krang/checkpoint); 9 a.m. – 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. – 5 p.m.
There was some conflicting information about the park and the best way to navigate it, which is what made it a difficult trip for us to plan. Some websites said that in order to hike on any of the trails, you’d need to hire a guide (they also say this can be done for cheap at the Visitor Center’s at any of the campsites). Our Lonely Planet, however, said that there’s a lot of hiking right off the main road. Everything we read said that 1) you need a 4 wheel vehicle for the 3rd campsite, and 2) you can rent tents/camping equipment at any of the campsites. This was pretty much all the information we could gather.
Anyway, other than to take a few photos of the scenery, we didn’t stop at the Visitor Center at the first campsite, as we figured we’d stop at the one at Ban Krang. It’s a 30km drive from the 1st to the 2nd campsite and we wanted to get a good “spot” for the night, so we kept moving. Finally, after about 20 km or so we reached Sam Yot checkpoint, where they were collecting the fee for the park. When we were stopped here, we were not allowed to enter on our motorbike. We honestly never even thought about this as a potential problem since the website so clearly said that you needed a car to the 3rd campsite but didn’t make any mention about the 2nd. When they offered us a taxi ride the rest of the way for about $50, we realized that our dream of actually entering the park was over. So, again, for anyone who wants to visit the park and do any hiking around the 2nd or 3rd campsite, you CANNOT take a motorbike. We even waited around for a Thai person riding a bike to make sure they weren’t just turning the “farangs” away, but sure enough, they were turned around too.
Even though we knew we’d have to drastically change our plans, we still had hope for the day. The other thing that we’d really wanted to see in the park was the Pala-U waterfall, which is closer to Hua Hin (about another 2 hour drive from where we were – like I said, this park is huge). We had the whole day still, so we decided to drive over there, but agreed that if they wouldn’t give us the Thai price to enter the park, then we wouldn’t go in. We still thought it would be a nice drive, so it would be worth it, but we’ve seen so many waterfalls that we thought it was worth the Thai price but probably not the full price.
Well, we had our 2nd strike of the day. Not only did they not give us the Thai price (100 baht pp vs. 300), the drive wasn’t even that pretty. We were starting to get frustrated, and decided that at this point, we had two options. One, we could just head back to Hua Hin and stay at the beach for the night. Two, we could drive the two hours back to where we came from and still go camping near the dam, in the hopes that they wouldn’t charge us the National Park fee just to camp, or if they did, that we would be able to use our ticket to go back to the waterfall the following morning.
The National Park rule in Thailand is that if you buy any National Park ticket, you can go to multiple parks on the same day without having to pay again. If the second National Park you visit is more expensive than the first, however, you’ll have to pay the difference. But, the tickets are only good for one day. If you want to go to another park the following day, your ticket won’t be valid anymore and you’ll have to pay again. Since Pala-U is still in Kaeng Krachan National Park (though we had to drive outside of it to get from one to the other), we weren’t sure which rules would apply. See, this is all very confusing. We knew it was risky to go back to the campsite (I was sure we were about to have our 3rd strike of the day), but camping in the park was the one thing I had really been looking forward to, so we decided to take our chances and go back.
When we finally got back, they did charge us the foreigner national park price (300 baht pp) but they gave us tickets for Pala-U waterfall for the next day (stamped with the date for the following day). We (or I, at least) thought that was a pretty good compromise. We rented our camping equipment (120 baht for tent and about another 100-150 baht total for sleeping bags, mats and pillows) and setup our tent. The last time we went camping in Khao Yai National Park it took us about an hour to set up our tent. This time, miraculously, it only took us about 15 minutes. We had a prime spot overlooking the water, and finally, for the first time all day, things were looking ok for us. Besides the great view from our campsite, the other great thing about camping right at the dam was that the town was only about a 10-15 minute ride away, so we were able to go pick up a great dinner (grilled chicken and som tam – one of our favorite go-to’s). After we picked up food (and stored it in our motorbike seat so that no animals could get to it), we took a couple laps around the campsite. I swear, I don’t think anyone does camping (or maybe I should say “glamping” aka glamorous camping) quite like the Thais. They come with full spreads of food and alcohol, tables, chairs, the works. We felt like we were at Ravinia in Chicago for a summer concert. It ended up being a really fun night and we were glad we’d made the decision to come back.
We were up early the following morning (as soon as the sun came up) and we hit the road to go back to Pala-U Waterfall (again). We were probably the first people to arrive and start our hike. From what we’d read about the waterfall, there are 15 levels that you can climb. The first 5 are supposed to be easy and the hike is supposed to get more difficult after that. Well, we thought that when they said the hike got difficult after level 5 that they meant it would be steep or just challenging. What we didn’t know was that after level 5 there stopped being any clear signs to guide you in the right direction. So, we couldn’t find our way and didn’t really want to get too lost trying. As we were walking out, a lot more people were coming in and we figured that if we’d come later, we probably would have been able to make it further (team effort with everyone else trying to do the hike), but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. If you can’t tell, we hadn’t been having the best of luck on this trip. The 5 levels that we did see were ok but we probably wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for this.
We headed back to Cha Am by way of Hua Hin, which took about an hour and a half and by then we were ready to hit the road and get back to Bangkok. As usual with Thailand travel, there were some definite bumps along the way, and this trip maybe more so than usual, but we still really enjoyed checking out a little bit of Kaeng Krachan National Park and camping for the night near the dam.
Just to recap for anyone thinking of visiting, here are some important things to remember:
- In order to get in to Kaeng Krachan National Park you need a car. They do not allow motorbikes. They offer taxi rides from the checkpoint into the park, but this costs about 1600 baht for less than 30 km. and then you’ll also need a ride back.
- With just a motorbike, you can only camp at the 1st campsite, near the dam, which actually has one of the best camping views we’ve seen. If you camp here, you’ll still need to pay the park entrance fee.
- There are three campsites, all of which you’re supposed to be able to rent tents and other camping equipment at (for about 250 baht total).
- The entrance fee for the park is 300 baht pp for foreigners. Even with our school IDs and work permits, we were not given the Thai price.
- If you pay an entrance fee for any National Park, your ticket is good on that day for any other park as well. But, only for one day (though they made an exception for us to visit the Pala U Waterfall the following day). If the other park you visit has a higher price, you’ll have to pay the difference.
- Pala-U waterfall is hard to navigate after level5. If you go, make sure there are other people around so that you can all work together to find the way.