Khao Yai National Park is full of animals. Despite being only three hours or so from Bangkok (or almost a full day if you go the way we did), the park is still a relatively pristine wilderness. It’s home to an astounding variety of wildlife; monkeys, lizards, snakes, hornbills, gibbons, and one of the last remaining populations of wild Asian elephants.
Do I like cool wild animals and jungles? Yes. Yes, I do very much. Sure, I could go to the zoo, (or an elephant sanctuary, which I did) but the zoo’s got nothing on seeing an animal in its natural habitat.
The road to Khao Yai National Park
On our first day, we woke up early and spent the morning walking up and down the streets of Pak Chong (the closest town to Khao Yai), looking for a mythical deer statue that supposedly marked the location where buses left for the park. We found it, but it wasn’t easy.
Instead of buses, there was an army of songthaews, which are basically pick-up trucks with benches in the back, and are pretty common in Thailand. We nestled in between a teenager in dark sunglasses and an old lady with ten plastic bags full of food. We drove past roadside villages, big resorts styled like Italian villas and cowboy steak restaurants. The area around Pak Chong is pretty weird.
We got to the entrance, ate some breakfast, and waited for another taxi to come take us from the gate to the inside of the park. As we were waiting, we saw a cool, blue-headed lizard resting on the park entrance sign. The animal watching in Khao Yai was off to a great start.
Is this a trail?
Inside the park, there was a deer napping next to the visitor center. I didn’t have much hope of spotting an elephant, but I did really want to see a gibbon. We got a trail map and headed off into the jungle, hoping to spot whatever we could.
Now, typically, I’m not one for heading off into the jungle on my own. However, I figured the trails near the visitor center would be reasonably well maintained. Most of them were, but we somehow got on the wrong path.
The trail became muddy and narrow. The jungle and trees closed around us, and the vegetation was so thick it felt like twilight in the middle of the day. We stepped carefully around the fallen logs and plants with strange spiky growths. We had to jump from rock to rock to cross a stream, and climb over a fallen tree trunk.
There was no wildlife to be seen. But, around every turn there was rustling in the undergrowth. Some animals were near the trail and they were doing something. Were they just small birds or mice? Or were they snakes? Tarantulas? Or maybe even tigers? Khao Yai National Park does have a small tiger population. Or maybe… was the rustling in the bushes the movement of tiny elephants?
For some reason, we’d spent the evening before reading about elephant attacks. Generally, elephants are pretty peaceful creatures, but like most other animals, they will fight back if threatened or to protect their babies. Males are very territorial, and dangerous when mating season comes along. And sometimes they snap for reasons known only to the elephant.
We saw signs of them everywhere. Big areas where the vegetation had been trampled by something massive alongside the trail. Huge footprints in the mud. Giant balls of shit. I regretted wearing sandals.
And then the trail just ended. Five trees lay tumbled over, blocking the way. It was time to go back to the visitor center.
Gibbon grasping at the reflection of the moon in the water
Back at the visitor center, we found another trail. This one was a little more well maintained, a wide paved path that led across a bridge and into the nearby forest. It was a little busier, but far less terrifying.
Just a few yards away from the bridge, we walked down to go look at the water. A little jungle river ran over some rocks. It was very pretty and very peaceful. Suddenly, something large rustled in the treetops overhead.
I looked up and saw we were sitting directly under a large, dead tree. A giant hornbill was sitting on top of it.
We sat and watched the hornbill for a while. Soon, another one joined it. There must have been a nest in the dead tree. The hornbills looked at us for a bit, then continued about their business. They looked like weird, giant toucans.
Feeling like we’d gotten our money’s worth that day, we went back to the visitor center, looking for some kind of snack. The food shops were all closing down, but there was a crowd of people on the wooden deck behind the building. They were all pointing at something in the trees on the other side of the river.
We ran back to look. A troop of gibbons swung happily through the treetops.
The gibbons stopped for a moment, ate some food, then swung to another branch. They moved like acrobats, infinitely graceful acrobats with long arms. Gibbons were once revered by the ancient Chinese, and it’s easy to see why. They’re fascinating, elegant tree-dwellers. Truly the noble gentlemen of the forest.
We hitchhiked back to our hostel with a Thai family. There’s nothing like riding in the back of someone’s truck, with the wind in your hair, after a full day of jungle hiking and animal watching. We tried to give the family money, but they refused. In fact, they even asked if we wanted a ride all the way back to Bangkok.
The next day, we booked a tour through our hostel. It ended up being with the widely well-regarded Green Leaf tour company, although due to the language barrier, we didn’t know that at the time. We crowded in the back of the company songthaew with a group of European couples, including a woman who, for some reason, had decided to wear a bunch of makeup. Who wears makeup to the jungle?
The first part of the tour was fine. There was a lot of bird watching. The birds were all great, but honestly, not that exciting compared with the Giant hornbills and gibbons we’d seen the day before. An older British man, with a handlebar mustache and khaki shorts that looked straight out of a 19th-century safari, seemed intent on trying to one-up our guide with his bird knowledge.
We saw numerous monkeys all along the roadside and anther troop of gibbons, although they were more hidden by the trees than the ones the night before. There was also a snake and some lizards. It was fine.
We had lunch and did a small hike through the jungle, where our guide pointed out some wild cinnamon, some tiger balm, and a few different jungle insects. There were a few more birds as well. Our guide told us about a time she was doing a hike and a leopard jumped down from the trees in the middle of the group. Everyone started screaming and running in different directions. Nobody was hurt.
We didn’t see any leopards or much else. The jungle isn’t the zoo. Sometimes you get lucky and see things and sometimes you don’t.
The elephants cometh
As we stood by the river, looking at some snakes that were sleeping in the trees, our guide picked up our phone. She started speaking excitedly.
“Quick, everyone back in the truck” she said.
Another guide had spotted some elephants. We were going to chase after them. Our whole tour ran back to the truck and zipped down the road to the spot where they’d been seen. We got out and stood by the side of the road, peering into a large clearing nearby a small watering hole.
We scanned the tree line. Everyone was tense, searching for any sign of movement. Any tiny shaking of a branch or flash of a trunk. There was nothing but the wind and some more birds.
We piled back into the truck. Everyone was disappointed, but trying to make the best of it. It was getting late, and coming close to the scheduled end of the tour. The truck headed on the road back to the visitor center, and we started talking about our plans for dinner.
Suddenly, the driver slammed on the breaks and the truck screeched to a stop. A large grey shape emerged from the trees. An elephant.
We all held our breath. The elephant looked at the truck for a moment, then reached out its trunk and stripped some leaves from a branch. It came a little closer, eating as it walked. Then, another elephant stepped out next to the road and started following it.
Two elephants would have been plenty impressive. But, a few moments later, the trees parted one more time. Two smaller grey shapes stepped out next to the road. We were suddenly looking at four elephants. Two adults, and two babies.
With the babies out of the trees, the mothers started shaking their heads and making aggressive motions towards are truck. The driver reversed and we moved back as much as we could. This gesture seemed to satisfy the elephants. They went back to the important business of eating leaves.
We’d already seen some elephants up close at the elephant sanctuary, but it’s one thing to see captive elephants. It’s entirely different to see them running free in the wild. Especially knowing these are some of the last remaining wild elephants in the world.
Those few minutes watching a family of elephants do their thing is why I think Khao Yai National Park might be one of the best national parks I’ve ever been to.