Thailand's Other Getaway
Her eyes stare at me from the side of the road where she squats peeling a fruit. As my car approaches, she cranes her neck to get a closer look. She stops toying with her fruit and studies me while her little one plays nearby. I examine her face, but she turns away. This macaque has things to do. I drive on. Dense forest lines the road. It is morning at Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest national park.
Bangkok, ninety miles from Khao Yai, pulsates with a rhythm that can quickly exhaust you. To rejuvenate, a tourist or a city dweller will most likely take off for one of the beach resorts that dot this tropical country’s coasts, but Pattaya, a resort town to the south of Bangkok, has overdosed on neon lights and highrises. Phuket and other areas of the south facing the Andaman Sea can be overrun with visitors, especially during December-January when the sands populate with Thais on holiday or with Europeans escaping the winter cold of their homelands. In contrast, Thailand’s national parks can offer a more idyllic escape. Development around Khao Yai is putting pressure on the park’s resources, but drive, walk, or bicycle into this green refuge and slip into a primeval world, a home for an array of wildlife including the Asian jackal, the Malayan sun bear, the Javan mongoose, the tiger, the leopard, the mouse deer, and the serow – to name a few. But of all the creatures at this park, one stands out above the others – the elephant.
The elephants at the park are shy. Their markings, however, are everywhere. Crushed foliage; massive footprints. Roads that cut through the forests are littered with elephant dung. These wild creatures can walk across hiking paths, and travelers are warned that should you come across one of these mighty but gentle beasts, keep your distance (at least fifty feet). To get close to the wildlife, hike on one of the paths that run far into the park. There are thirteen hiking trails in Khao Yai, and treks can take from one to five hours. If you are into one of the longer hikes, hire a guide at the visitor center. Guides know these trails that can become covered with vegetation and almost erased, especially during the rainy season (August - November).
My hiking buddy Tom and I started our exploration of Khao Yai with the one-hour trek on the trail that begins at Pha Kluai Mai Campsite. (‘Kluai Mai’ means orchid of which a variety exist at the park.) The path takes you past Pha Kluai Mai Falls, and throughout a stretch of this hike, you are accompanied by the burbling of the stream that runs alongside the trail. A rest area where you can fill your empty stomach stands at the end of the route. Try the phat thai (a stir fry contain noddles, shrimp, eggs, and bean sprouts), or, if you like to live on the wild side, a tom yam kung (a fiery shrimp soup). Afterwards, proceed to nearby Haew Suwat Falls. From there, you can continue on a deep trek north towards Haew Sai and Haew Prathum, falls fed by the Lam Takhong river. Tom and I wavered, but, in the end, we walked back along Thanarat Road to our car at Pha Kluai Mai. Haew Narok Falls with its 500-foot drop was our chief destination for the day. However, various sights along the way would keep sidetracking us. As we drove south, Tom pointed to a sign that alerted us to Pha Deaw Dai, a viewpoint along a dead-end road that runs into mountainous territory in the southeast of the park. The car’s engine was grumpy and running a fever, but on we went towards this site legendary for its vistas.
It is a steep climb to Pha Deaw Dai. Bicycle enthusiasts, brace yourselves. The ascent begins inconspicuously enough, but these mountains like to flex their muscles. Boulders had rained down along a winding stretch of road. The car danced around the potholes. Above, clouds roiled. Just beyond the moon-cratered part of the road, a sign pointed towards a path nearly hidden by foliage. A ten-minute walk, and we had arrived. Before us lay mountains that gave way to valleys that locked hands with the horizon. The sky was a patchwork of white, gray, and blue. We sat on a rock. A bird, a white fleck against the craggy mountainous backdrop, emerged from the distant forest canopy and dissolved into the sky. The sight kept us enthralled until thunderous rumblings in the distance reminded us to move on.
Thirty minutes later we were at the car park at Haew Narok. From there, you wend your way along a trail to the falls. The forest presses in from all sides. You hear the cascade’s rumbling before you catch sight of it. A fence of concrete pillars and barbed wire stands near the stairs that take you down to a viewing platform. The next day a guide at the visitor center informed us that the barrier had been constructed to keep elephants from crossing too near to the waterfall. The rapids can sweep an elephant down the currents and over the precipice; mother elephants have been known to die as they go after their young ones caught in the water’s turbulence.
We awoke the next morning eager to make the most of our last full day at Khao Yai. Tom and I wolfed down a bowl of rice porridge with vegetables and pork along with naam chaa (Thai milk tea). The clouds that had been threatening to unleash rain the previous day were subdued. The air was heavy with the jungle’s verdant scent. The sun had barely risen when we arrived at Nong Pak Chi, an area with an observation tower. A breeze rustled the tall grass on either side of the path that leads to the tower. Far away, gibbons called to one another. The riot of color that is Khao Yai washes over you as you take in the sights from the observation post. Gold, orange, and green vegetation sweeps up mountain sides; a pond near the tower draws in the local animal life; a herd of sambar deer may skitter across an open field. Khao Yai is stunning in the morning, but nights can also be special. The park’s creatures emerge to hunt or forage as the sun and temperature drop. You can arrange a night safari through the Parks Service and Welfare Unit. However, you are not permitted to go trekking alone after dark.
Khao Yai has a colorful history. In the middle of the twentieth century, the park, with its thick forests and abundance of animal life, became an enclave for bandits. As the area became more settled, land was cleared for farming. These swaths of land are now the grasslands seen at the park. Aware of the importance of this earthly gem, Khao Yai became Thailand’s first national park in 1962. Since then, it has had a spotty history. Resorts, including a golf course, have come and gone. Visitor numbers have fluctuated, depending on accommodations and access to the park. However, in recent years, the government has taken more decisive steps to preserve this wildlife sanctuary. At present, the park is up for nomination as a World Heritage Site. By any account, Khao Yai is a park of undisputed beauty.
Published on 6/17/11