Covering 2168 sq km, Khao Yai is the third largest National Park in Thailand. It incorporates one of the largest primarily intact monsoon forests in South East Asia, which earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. In terms of wildlife spotting opportunities, Khao Yai is Thailand’s answer to the world-famous wildlife reserves of Malaysian Borneo. If you compare the costs of visiting Thailand and Malaysia, you’ll realize that travel in both countries is quite inexpensive. So if you have the time, visit them both.
My first trip to Khao Yak was very impromptu – I didn’t do any research and didn’t really know what to expect. I just caught a bus from Bangkok to Pak Chong and picked a guest house with the cutest name – Green Leaf. Little did I know, it was run by the best guide in Khao Yai National Park – Mr. Nine.
Best Khao Yai Tour
Over the five years that I lived in Thailand, I visited the park a number of times during both the dry and the wet seasons. And while I always tried to stay at Green Leaf and explore the park with Mr. Nine, sometimes my trips were too impromptu and Green Leaf was already booked out, so I had to stay at other guest houses and use their tours.
The tours are all quite similar, but it is the depth of knowledge of the park’s wildlife that sets Mr. Nine and his team apart. As well as their caring attitude that sets the group’s dynamic and makes for a much more enjoyable tour.
Green Leaf offers two tours: A Full Day Tour and a Half Day Tour. And I recommend that you take them both if you have the time.
The Full Day tour takes you to the park for the entire day and includes wildlife spotting as you drive along, jungle hikes and bird watching, visits to the waterfalls and watch towers as lunch. This tour starts at 8 am and costs 1,500 Baht per person (this includes 400 Baht park entrance fee).
The Half Day tour takes you to a nearby forest monastery to visit a cave inhabited by bats, pythons and other weird and wonderful cave creatures. But the main event of the Half Day tour is watching the spectacle of over 2 million bats emerge out of their roosting cave at sunset. This tour starts at 3 pm and costs 500 Baht. And if you book both tours, the combined price is 1,800 Baht per person.
So what is the Best time to visit Khao Yai?
It depends on what you would like to see and experience. It is easier to travel around in the dry season, the roads are better in the park, it is better weather for hiking the jungle trains and birds and mammals are easier to spot since the vegetation is thinner and dryer.
In the wet season, however, Khao Yai has more of a jungle feeling. The vegetation is lush and green, the waterfalls are in full flow and the forest floor is covered in multi-coloured fungi in all shapes and sizes.
Read on about the different experiences and animal sightings in Khao Yai during each of the seasons and decide which time is the best for you.
Khao Yai in the dry season (Nov-Apr)
In Khao Yai National Park, you start seeing wildlife as soon as you drive through the park’s gate. In the few kilometres from the gate to the park’s Headquarters, we saw Pig-tailed Macaques, a pair of Black Giant Squirrels, a Collared owlet, and a White-handed Gibbon.
Khao Yai is probably the best place in the country to see the endangered white-handed gibbons. The most surprising thing about the gibbons is that they are not monkeys, but apes! Just not the great apes, but the lesser ape. Their lack of tail is the main giveaway.
Gibbons are the most musical family of mammals. They produce the most complex and easily recognizable songs. So even if you are unlucky enough to not see gibbons in Khao Yai, you will certainly hear them.
Around the Headquarters, we watched a Sambar and a Barking deer browsing on the lawn. In the bushes surrounding the lawn, we spotted a group of pin-tailed parrot-finches, White-rump Chama, Puff-throated Bulbul and Black-necked Oreol.
Jungle Hike and bird watching
From the headquarters, we went on a bird watching hike starting at kilometre 33 marker. The hike followed a trail through the mountains and turned up some very cool birds. With help from Mr. Nine, we spotted a large group of Long-tailed broadbills, Banded kingfisher (male and female), Mustached barbet, Greater flame-backed woodpecker Red-headed Trogon, Green Magpie and Racket-tailed Drongo.
Hornbills in Khao Yai
Most importantly, we saw a pair of Great Hornbills up in the canopy. We stayed and watched these magnificent birds for a while and when they flew off we found another pair sharing a tree with a pair of White-handed gibbons.
Khao Yai National Park is home to four species of hornbills— Great, Oriental Pied, Wreathed and Brown. Great and Oriental Pied hornbills can be seen quite easily in the park, while Wreathed and Brown hornbill sightings are quite unpredictable unless a nest location becomes known. Kaeng Krachan National Park is a better place for spotting Brown hornbills.
After a quick lunch, we headed for Haew Suwat Waterfall, the one that Leonardo DiCaprio and his friends jumped off in the adventure drama “The Beach”. Although the lagoon where they landed is located halfway across the country on Kho Phi Phi island.
On the way to the waterfall, Mr. Nine spotted a true rarity – Colorbill Ground-Cuckoo. To his disappointment, none of us were proficient enough birders to appreciate the sighting the way he did.
The car park at the waterfall turned up a Gliding lizard, similar to those found in Borneo. It was happily camped up high up on a tree and had no desire to glide anywhere.
In the late afternoon, as we were driving on Tad Ta Kong Falls road, a young bull Asian Elephant emerged from the forest and proceeded to walk along the road behind our car. He walked with us for quite some time, and always kept to the right side of the road!
After a while, he was joined by an adult bull and they slowly made their way into the thick forest. It always amazes me how such large animals came to live in the thick tropical forest.
Khao Yai is the best place in Thailand to see wild elephants. But if you are dreaming of seeing these giants up close, check out this excellent post about how to find and enjoy an ethical encounter with elephants in captivity in Thailand.
As the sun began to set we stopped for quick supper in the grasslands, and for as long as we stayed, a lone Verditer Flycatcher remained perched on a dead tree waiting for its own meal.
The most unexpected and therefore exciting sighting of a mammal was a Golden Jackal running across the road in front of our car. It was in good view for only a few brief moments and it was too dark for photography, but we had a good look at the handsome creature. Such a great way to finish up a day of wildlife watching in Khao Yai.
Khao Yai in the rainy season (May-Oct)
The next time I visited Khao Yai was during the rainy season. This time I stayed in Green Leaf for a week and made a number of trips to the park and surrounding bat caves. I also met a wildlife biologist from Western Australia – Tony Start. Tony did his Ph.D. on bats in Malaysia, so we had a lot to talk about and have made some exploratory bat trips together.
Khao Yai was unusually quiet this time around, in terms of wildlife sightings. During the three trips to the park we saw the usual – White-Handed Gibbons, plenty of Variable Squirrels, Barking and Sambar Deer and Pig-tailed Macaques.
Birds were also quiet this time. I did see plenty of Great Hornbills though and a flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills. These birds can be heard most of the time, but actually spotting them is quite a challenge. The only other species I spotted in the forest was a Thick-billed Pigeon and a large colony of Hill Myna feeding on the fruiting tree.
The small grassland area around Nong Pack Chee wildlife viewing tower was a little bit more productive in terms of birds. There were Bright-capped Cicticola, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Barn Swallow and Hill Myna.
One afternoon we heard the heavy hoof sounds as we were coming out onto the grassland. Gaurs. They must have been sleeping in the tall grass no more than a couple of meters away from us and quickly retreated into the forest, disturbed by our appearance. As hard as we looked we could not spot them.
Reptiles of Khao Yai
The rainy season is a good time to see some of Thailand’s reptiles if Khao Yai. We have spotted two different White-lipped Vipers, juvenile King Cobra, Oriental Whip Snake, male and female Scaly Bellied Lizards, Indo-Chinese Water Dragon, Reticulated Python at the bat cave, and two species of frogs.
Bat caves of Khao Yai
Most of my mammalian sightings on this trip consisted of bats of Khao Yai. One afternoon I joined the half day tour to see the local bat spectacle. The first cave we visited was as usual located at a temple. It was quite big and housed a few species of bats. The first one we spotted was a Horseshoe “Peter” that had a favourite place to roost in the cave and therefore was easily located. Further into the cave, I spotted at least two different species of Roundleaf bats in the roosting colony.
Khao Luk Chang Bat Cave
Our next stop – the main spectacle of bats of Khao Yai National Park, was a few kilometres from the temple. Here each day at dusk two million Wrinkle-lipped Bats emerge from their cave to hunt insects at night. Two million bats spilling out of a cave is indeed a wildlife spectacle. It seemed that the stream of bats would never end. Even in Gomatong cave in Borneo, I have not seen anything like it.
Such a high concentration of biomass is bound to attach a suite of predators. We watched Shikras launch into the stream of bats and pick an easy dinner. It took the bats about an hour to exit the cave and dissipate in the surrounding landscape.
Fruit Bat Cave
Another day we arranged a visit to a different cave. This cave is not on the tourist itineraries as the climb up to it is very steep over the uneven rocky ground. The track we were following was practically non-existent which made us feel like real explorers. A group of Long-tailed Broadbills provided a much-needed reason for a rest stop during the climb.
Inside the cave itself, the bats were wide awake. As a result of them being awake, we became covered in their droppings within minutes of entering the cave. Tony managed to catch one of the roosting young and we were able to have a good look at him. The bats turned out to be the Cave Fruit Bats – the species that Tony studied for his Ph.D. in Malaysia.
He told us that these guys fly for over 50 km a night in search of food. During their roosting time, they congregate in large colonies and take advantage of each individual’s knowledge about the flowering trees.
Naturally, some individuals in the colony will be luckier than others at searching for food. These lucky few would have had a very good feed at night and their chests would still be covered in pollen. As they come in contact with other members of the colony, that pollen lets the others know which trees are currently in flower.
The bats know where all the trees in their territory are and once they know which species are in flower, they head right to them the following night.
Butterflies of Khao Yai
Insects were also abundant particularly the butterflies. Emerald peacocks brightened up the forest with splashes of iridescent blue and green, while Intermediate maplets surprised with splashes of bright orange. Common Helen was also abundant as well as Orange Emigrant, Streaked Magpie Moth and Sumatran Butterfly Moth.
Another feature of the monsoonal forest during the rainy season is the multitude of fungi. They come in all shapes and sizes and literally cover the forest floor. While not as sinister as the hallucinogenic Amanita mushrooms I used to see in Moscow, their sheer diversity is fascinating.
And of course, the waterfalls are much more impressive in Khao Yai in the rainy season, then in the dryer months.
All in all, while the rainy season in Khao Yai is great for reptiles and insects (and waterfalls), the dry months are much better for spotting mammals and birds.
Visiting Khao Yai National Park
Hiking in Khao Yai
There are almost 40km of hiking trails in Khao Yai ranging in size from 500-meter strolls to multi-day tracks. Most of the trails require certified guides. Many tourists have gotten lost in the park over the years, so guides became mandatory for longer tracks. You can walk the trail at the visitor centre independently, as well as some of the shorter trails near the campsites. But if you are planning a longer hike, inquire at the visitor centre about guides availability.
Main attractions in Khao Yai
Apart from exceptional wildlife watching opportunities, Khao Yai’s main attractions are viewpoints and waterfalls. Here are the main spots not to miss on your visit:
Haew Narok Waterfall
The biggest waterfall in the park, Haew Narok is 80 meters tall and in the rainy season, it is quite a spectacular site. It is located about 10km from the south gate and can be reached by a 600-meter trail from the road.
Haew Suwat Waterfall
Made famous by The Beach movie – one of the best travel movies of all time, Haew Suwat waterfall is only 20 meters tall and is not quite as impressive as the movie made it out to be. As mentioned above, the lagoon where the characters of the movie landed after jumping off the top of the waterfall is located halfway across the country. Haew Suwat lies 13 km from the visitor centre and can be reached by an easy 100-meter walk from the road.
Haew Sai Fai Waterfall
Just 700 meters north from Haew Suwat there is Haew Sai Fai waterfall. It is smaller than Haew Narok and Haew Suwat, but it’s main appeal lies in its quiet setting. It is slightly off the beaten track and doesn’t get many visitors.
Haew Pratoon Waterfall
Another kilometre north is another hidden gem – the lesser-known Haew Pratoon Waterfall.
Nong Phak Chi Watchtower
Located 2.5 km north from the visitor centre, this watchtower lies at the end of the popular hiking trail from the main road. It offers 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape and good opportunities for spotting wildlife.
Yod Khao Khieo, Mountain
This is the highest point in the park and in the entire Nakhon Nayok Province. It is located about 11 km from the visitor center and has three different viewpoints as well as some short walking trails.
- Viewpoint #1. This viewpoint is located at the top of the mountain and can be reached by road. It has good views over the northern part of the park.
- Pha Deaw Dad Cliff. As the name suggests, this viewpoint offers dramatic views of a vertical cliff face. Easily reached by a 600-meter trail, it is a good spot for seeing some of the rarer animals of Khao Yai, like the serow and the silver pheasant. To preserve the wildlife habitat, this viewpoint is closed between Jun and September.
- Viewpoint #3. Similar to Viewpoint #1, this lookout offers good views over the northern part of the park.
How to get to Khao Yai
You can join an organized tour from Bangkok, but for the best experience, make your way to Pak Chong, the closest town to the park and stay in one of the guest houses near the park.
There are a number of ways of getting to Pak Chong. You can catch a bus from Mo Chit Bus Station in Bangkok for about 200 Baht. The journey takes about 3.5hrs.
You can also take a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Train Station for 400 Baht.
Alternatively, if you are travelling in a group, you can opt for a private taxi (either MPV or a Minivan). This service will pick you up from the hotel or the airport and will get you to the park in about 2.5hrs. The MPV seats up to 6 people and costs 2,300 Baht each way (for the whole vehicle). The minivan seats up to 10 people and costs 3,500 Baht per vehicle.
Most guesthouses, including the Green Leaf, will arrange a pick up from the station if you let them know your arrival details in advance.
How to explore Khao Yai
Organized tours in Khao Yai
Most of the guest houses in Pak Chong offer full day and half day tours to the park, similar to those offered by Green Leaf guest house (see above).
The National Park offers a range of tours as well, including 1-day, 2-day and 3-day tours. Most of these tours include a night drive, which is a must-do if you would like to see more wildlife.
Exploring Khao Yai independently
You can also explore the park independently by renting a scooter or a car in Pak Chong and camping in the park. There are two campsites in Khao Yai that have showers, toilets and parking spaces. Tents and sleeping bags are available for rent. Lam Takong Campsite is located in a central location, about 6km from the visitor center.
Pha Kluaymai Campsite is located 3km east from Lam Takong and has slightly better facilities. The restaurant at the visitor center serves meals, so you don’t even have to bring your cooking gear with you.
If you fancy a little bit more comfort, you can rent a bungalow in the park. Booking these will take some organization. You can place the booking through the Department of National Parks website (800 Baht for 2 ppl; 2,400 Baht for 8ppl and 9,000 Baht for a group of 20 ppl). To pay for your booking you will need to arrange a funds transfer that can be done at any bank or at 7-Eleven convenience stores. The fund transfers can only be sent from within Thailand.
Have you visited Khao Yai National Park? Share your tips and animal sightings in the comments below