Khao Yai National Park: weekend jungle luxury on a budget
July 23, 2019
For various reasons, I was extremely stressed about Khao Yai. A weekend in a Thai jungle in rainy season sounds appealing in some respects, but hideous in others. On one hand, lush green forests and untamed wildlife. On the other, rivers of mud, leeches sucking at your toes, and rampaging elephants.
We had actually planned to go to Chiang Mai the same weekend, but as the overnight train from Bangkok was full, Plan B swung into action. When that failed, I quickly ran through Plans C to H before alighting on Khao Yai.
There were a few reasons why Khao Yai wasn’t very high on our to do list. Speaking to Thai colleagues, they were mainly enthused by two aspects of Khao Yai:
A replica Italian village
A replica European farm
As somebody from Europe, the prospect of schlepping several hours to see a copy of an Italian village didn’t exactly blow my mind. Thankfully, Khao Yai is big and diverse enough that you can have a far more interesting experience.
Table of Contents
Getting to Khao Yai
Khao Yai National Park is about 120km north east of Bangkok. It’s predominantly frequented by Thai people, making transportation a little tricky to say the least. Most accommodation options expect that you’ll be driving in, so for those of us lacking a car it becomes difficult.
The nearest town to the north side of the park (far more accessible) is Pak Chong. Minivans and buses run from Mo Chit bus station apparently every hour, but take that with a pinch of salt (learned the hard way from a Koh Samet trip). These will definitely be cheap and cheerful options, taking around 3 hours, but the kicker is that Pak Chong is still a good 40km from the park. This means you’ll need a taxi or songthaew to get to your hotel generally.
Likewise, a train from Hua Lumphong takes 4 hours to Pak Chong. As none of these options sounded particularly appealing, we took a slight risk on a taxi firm we found online and which seemed well-reviewed. I am so glad we did, because it was an absolute breeze.
Thai National Parks provide private taxis for 2,200 THB (about 55 GBP) each way (per cab, so more people = cheaper). It sounds steep, but it was so convenient that it made the cost completely worthwhile. We got picked up from our office and dropped back off at home on the return leg (completely different areas of Bangkok). The cab went all the way to our hotel on the edge of the park, and everything was extremely timely and professional. If we’d taken the BTS to Mo Chit, bus to Pak Chong and then another taxi, we would likely be looking at 5-6hrs of travel time. With this transfer it took a shade over 2 hours door to door.
Whilst I often aim for the cheapest route to a given place, for convenience and time saving this is absolutely money well spent.
Staying in Khao Yai
This is a false heading. You basically can’t stay in Khao Yai itself, it being a UNESCO World Heritage site and all. There are 2 or 3 campsites within the park near the grasslands. We are very much people who prefer walls and a roof, and as such we reverted to the ever trusty Agoda for lodgings.
There seem to be a good number of really nice hotels between about 1500-5000 THB per night, depending on how fancy you want to go. We decided to splash out again (by Thai standards), and forked over 5000 THB per night to stay at the Series Khao Yai resort.
This turned out to be an inspired choice, and vindication of the law that if a hotel is rated over 9.5 off 100+ reviews on a booking site then you have to book it no matter the price.
Set just off the road towards Khao Yai, about 10km from the park. it’s a little island of tranquility and luxury. Excitingly, this is an actual 5 star hotel, something of a first for us, and oh boy does it show.
Side note: as you’ll see, I’m notoriously terrible with pictures, and this time was even worse as I had a film camera for all the fun shots, but am too lazy to have had the rolls developed yet. So use your imagination, or Google.
Staff could not be more helpful. Each room gets a complementary afternoon tea everyday of drinks, sandwiches, homemade cakes, and Haagen-Dazs. They gave us little lunch boxes to take when we left. They included a sumptuous breakfast overlooking a peaceful garden. They kept giving us extra things at dinner for reasons which were unclear but appreciated — classic freebies like wine and, erm, salmon. Somebody would come at 6pm to pull back the duvet slightly and leave a chocolate on the pillow, because pulling back your own duvet is just far too stressful, darling.
Each room is its own little jungle pad with balcony, the sort of bed dreams are made of (literally), and a slightly disturbingly phrased ‘romantic bathroom’ – surely two words that don’t belong together. But if you are after a romantic getaway/definitely not at all last minute spot to pop the question, it ticks all the boxes and more. Apparently. If you’re just after a bit of the high life, it ticks all those boxes too.
The food was at hotel prices but was tasty, especially the Isaan stuff which didn’t hold back on heat. There’s also an admirable range of homemade bakery at breakfast time alongside a bunch of other buffet and a la carte dishes, all included.
Basically, the Series is a 10/10 choice if you’re after some delightful treatment without breaking the bank completely.
Khao Yai National Park
It was tempting just to wander around the resort, sighing, lounging by the pool and smashing down homemade croissants for two days, but alas, it’s a jungle out there and we couldn’t miss it.
Thankfully, the weather was on our side and we were treated to wall to wall sunshine all weekend. Equally thankfully, our hotel booked us an incredible guide to show us round the park and beyond.
We had ummed and ahhed about getting a guide, but in hindsight it’s a necessity. A pleasingly smiley-but-also-jungle-hardened looking lady – whose name neither of us caught properly – from Mr Jay Khao Yai rocked up and directed us to into a private songthaew.
After a slow drive to the park, we basically went on a delightful nature hunt for about 5 hours. The park itself is very refreshing and surprisingly mixed. As well as the classic, dense tropical jungle, there are higher peaks and rolling grassland which resembles Jurassic Park but with all the dinosaurs taken out. If you can’t imagine what that looks like, Youtube has your back, and allows me to link to one of my all time favourite videos:
The benefit to having a guide became immediately apparent when she trundled down a rocky outcrop behind a building, stopped, chuckled for a bit as we cast our eyes around in vain, before pointing to a bright green object branch RIGHT NEXT TO US and casually saying “Pit viper”.
“Dangerous?” I ventured hesitantly. “Yes”, she laughed, “Haemotoxin”. Such fun.
The day continued in this vein. Guide laughs as she shows us massive spider dangling above our head, two feet away.
Guide laughs as she spots really quite large group of monkeys and we don’t. Guide laughs as she rams truck off side of road, at speed, before bundling us out and showing us a rare gibbon swinging away into the trees. Our guide was absolutely magnificent and clearly loved her job.
We spent a good hour trekking around the jungle, tracking a family of gibbons and listening to them call. That was pretty magic. We went in search of, and found, some giant hornbills, leaving our guide whooping with delight. Her ability to spot the tiniest detail and lead us to something cool was amazing and worth the price alone. When you consider that price included a full day of transport, guide, trekking, nature spotting, lunch, snacks, the bat cave, and park entry which is 400 THB for us foreigners, it was a steal.
We should talk about the bat cave.
The bat cave was a 200 THB addition to the trip, and to begin with I was a bit nonplussed. It’s a bumpy 20min drive from the park after a long day. This wasn’t especially helped when we turned up, alone, at a remote building staffed by a lone, elderly monk glued to Muay Thai on the TV. When the guide jangled a set of keys and beckoned us to follow her into a gated, pitch black cave, I was picturing horror films.
Inside was interesting but hardly better to start with. The initial cave is a shrine of sorts, with Buddha statues glinting in the gloom and the occasional bat shrieking its ire at our intrusion.
But then, after squeezing through an absurdly narrow gap in the walls, the reason for our subterranean visit became abundantly clear.
In this sprawling network of caves under the hill live about a million small, wrinkle-faced bats. Arriving just before sunset, we got to figuratively sneak into their bedroom just before wake up time, and watch as they began to flutter all around.
Needless to say, if you’re not cool with bats, this may not be for you. They do fly remarkably close to you, and there are, obviously, loads of them. But at the same time it’s amazing to see and experience, if pretty unsettling.
As we escaped the guano-strewn hell pit cave, our guide stopped, chuckled and stopped before waving her torch into a nearby hole and muttering “Tarantula”. Classic.
Backing the truck into a nearby field, we waited for sunset. As the sun goes down over this pretty arid stretch of land, something quite amazing happens.
Those million or so bats go out hunting, all at the same time. Streaming out of one entrance initially, they form an endless chain of bats in the sky, disappearing over the horizon to look for dinner. It’s indescribable to watch this occur but was a trip and possibly life highlight. The line of bats can be up to 10km long, whirling into beautiful patterns in the sky overhead. Birds of prey also gather and blast through the line hunting an easy meal.
It takes up to an hour for all the bats to leave the cave, leaving you plenty of time to sit, marvel and listen to papery rustle of a thousand wing beats and calls of a countless bats. Pictures do it no justice at all, but here is one anyway. It’s a remarkable way to end a great day, and a wonder that it’s not busier. When we were there, maybe 20 others (excluding bats) were around.
And that, as they say, was that for Khao Yai. After another evening of luxury and long, lazy breakfast it was back in the taxi and back to reality in Bangkok.
Khao Yai wasn’t high on my list of things to do in Thailand, but it absolutely would be now. Treat yourself to a luxurious couple of days or take time to explore this great area which is relatively little known outside Thailand.