Lying just 137 km east of Bangkok, in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Khao Yai National Park is one of the best places in Southeast Asia to see the region’s wildlife, which makes it one of the best places to visit in Thailand for nature lovers. It is a particularly good spot for seeing wild Asiatic elephants, as well as the endangered White-handed gibbons, several species of Hornbills and plenty more of Thailand’s animals.
At 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.
Beyond wildlife spotting, Khao Yai is home to four waterfalls, including Haew Suwat waterfall, made famous by The Beach movie. Waterfalls are at their best during the rainy season when they turn into thundering torrents framed by lush green forest shrouded in mist.
Visiting Khao Yai National Park
Being so close to Bangkok, Khao Yai National Park is easy to visit either independently or on an organized tour. It is a popular day tour destination from Bangkok. There are a few different tours available, depending on what you want to do and how much time you have.
Khao Yai National Park Tours from Bangkok
The classic 11-hour Day Tour from Bangkok to see the highlights of the park
Jungle trekking Day Tour that includes a 2-hour hike to Nong Park Chi observation tower.
Trekking & Waterfalls Tour includes visits to Khao Yai’s two biggest waterfalls: Haew Narok and Haew Suwat
A Two-Day Tour that includes a visit to Khao Luk Chang Bat Cave to see over two million Wrinkle-lipped bats emerge from their roosting cave at dusk.
And for serious adventurers and wildlife watchers, there is a Three-Day Tour that includes all of the above and keeps the group size to no more than 7 people.
How to get to Khao Yai National Park independently
If you prefer independent travel, there are a few ways of getting to Khao Yai. Keep in mind, that you’ll still need to book a tour from Pak Chong or from your accommodation – Khao Yai is not a walkable National Park. It is enormous. And you need a vehicle to explore it.
You can catch a bus from Mo Chit Bus Station in Bangkok to Pak Chong. The journey takes about 3.5 hours. From Pak Chong, you can catch a taxi to your accommodation.
You can also take a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Train Station to Pak Chong. The train takes as long as the bus – about 3.5 hours.
Alternatively, you can book a private minivan shuttle from Bangkok.
Khao Yai Accommodation
There are plenty of accommodation options between Pak Chong and the park’s entrance. The options range from affordable guest houses to upmarket lodges. Check the options available for your dates, on booking.com which has all the latest deals and discounts. Some of the best places to check out are:
Mata Glamping is a touch of luxury in the jungle. It’s not really glamping as you will be staying in gorgeous air-conditioned villas with room service, a concierge service and luggage storage. The villas have patios, and some rooms feature a balcony and even a private swimming pool.
Thames Valley Khao Yai offers elegant air-conditioned units with private balconies looking out onto a lovely garden. There is a beautiful swimming pool and a wellness centre for a touch of pampering after an adventurous day in the park.
Sleep Private Khao Yai is your private Villa on the park’s doorstep. The hot tub is a particularly nice touch, as is the swimming pool. The Villa has two bedrooms which makes it the perfect option for a family stay.
Vivace Khao Yai is a lovely resort in a gorgeous setting. All rooms have a balcony, and some of them look out onto the mountains.
Camping in Khao Yai
If you have your own transport, you can camp in Khao Yai. There are two campsites in the park 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 centre.
Pha Kluaymai Campsite is located 3km east of Lam Takong and has slightly better facilities. The restaurant at the visitor centre serves meals, so you don’t even have to bring your cooking gear.
Best time to visit Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai is a year-round destination that can be added to your Thailand itinerary, whatever your travel dates are. The best time for a visit 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, 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.
I visited Khao Yai several times during both seasons, and you can read about my experiences below to 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 National Park 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 not to 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 the 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 kingfishers (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, our guide, 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 a 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.
To maximize your wildlife spotting opportunities, consider booking a night drive through the Khao Yai National Park website. The tour departs from the park’s visitor center, takes one hour and costs 600 Baht. There are two departure times: 7 pm and 8 pm.
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 Greenleaf guest house for a week and made a number of trips to the park and surrounding bat caves. I also met Tony – a wildlife biologist from Western Australia. Tony did his PhD 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 were 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 Cisticola, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Barn Swallow and Hill Myna.
One afternoon we heard 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 in Khao Yai. We have spotted two different White-lipped Vipers, a 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.
Butterflies of Khao Yai
The rainy season is also a good time for seeing insects, particularly the butterflies. Emerald peacocks brightened 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 than 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.
Bat caves of Khao Yai
Khao Yai is a great place to see a variety of bat species. Some can be found in caves, others flying out of their roosting caves in the millions and putting on an incredible spectacle.
One afternoon I joined the half-day tour with Greenleaf 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” who 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 Mr Nice and the guides at Greenleaf arranged a visit to a different cave for us. 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 PhD 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.
Khao Yai Waterfalls
Apart from exceptional wildlife watching opportunities, Khao Yai is home to four waterfalls. The best time to see them is when they are in full flow during the rainy season, but you’ll enjoy them even during the drier months.
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 of Haew Suwat, there is Haew Sai Fai waterfall. It is smaller than Haew Narok and Haew Suwat, but its 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. It is a picture 30-meter-tall waterfall that cascades over a wide cliff toward the large boulders at the bottom of the falls.
Khao Yai Viewpoints
For great views of the wild expanse of Khao Yai, visit one of the viewpoints in the park. The views are best in the early morning and late afternoon, but even if you only have the chance to see them in the middle of the day, don’t miss the opportunity.
Nong Phak Chi Watchtower
Located 2.5 km north of 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 centre 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.
Have you visited Khao Yai National Park? Share your tips and animal sightings in the comments below.
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