Thailand wildlife in Khao Yai National Park - white-lipped viper
White-lipped viper

Spotting Thailand’s wildlife in Khao Yai National Park

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. Wildlife watching in Khao Yai offers a taste of what South East Asia has to offer in terms of biodiversity.

My first trip to the park 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 – Mr. Nine.

White-handed gibbon in Khao Yai National Park
White-handed gibbon

Thailand wildlife in Khao Yai in the dry season

In Khao Yai, 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.

Black giant squirrel in Khao Yai National Park
Black giant squirrel

Gibbons of Khao Yai

Khao Yai is probably the best places 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.

Barking deer in Khao Yai National Park
Barking deer

Jungle Hike

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. 

Banded kingfisher, Khao Yai, Thailand
Banded kingfisher

Hornbills of 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.

Great hornbill preeining in Khao Yai National Park
Great hornbill

Khao Yai 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.

Oriental pied hornbill
Pied hornbill

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.

Haew Suwat waterfall in Khao Yai National Park
Haew Suwat waterfall

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 that was happily camped up high up on a tree and had no desire to glide anywhere.   

Elephants in the forest

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.

In general, elephants are not easy to spot in the wild in Thailand. 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. 

Asian elephant in Khao Yai National Park
Young Asian elephant

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.

Surprise Encounter

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.

Thailand Wildlife in Khao Yai in the rainy season

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.

White-lipped viper, curled up in Khao Yai
White-lipped viper curled up by the trail

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 the reptiles of 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. 

Oriental whip snake, Khao Yai, Thailnand
Oriental whip snake
White-lipped viper, Khao Yai, Thaniland
White-lipped viper
Juvenile King cobra in Khao Yai National Park
Juvenile King cobra

Bats of Khao Yai

Mos 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.

horseshoe bat in Khao Yai
Pete – the Horseshoe bat
roundleaf bat, Khao Yai
Roundleaf-nose bat
reticulated python, Khao Yai
Reticulated python waiting for a bat to get close

Next stop – the main spectacle of bats of Khao Yai,  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 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.

Wrinkle-lipped bats emerging from the cave in Khao Yai, Thailnand
Wrinkle-lipped bats emerging from the cave
wrinkle-lipped bats in Khao Yai
Wrinkle-lipped bats

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 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.

cave fruit bat in Khao Yai
Cave fruit bat

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 a monsoonal forest during the rainy season is the multitude of fungi. They come in all shapes and sizes and literally cover the forest floor.

Champagne glass fungi in Khao Yai National Park
Champagne glass fungi

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

Haew Narok Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park
Haew Narok Waterfall

Visiting Khao Yai

Located 137 km east of Bangkok, Khao Yai National Park is the most-easily accessible National Park in Thailand.

You can join an organized tour from Bangkok, but for the best experience, catch a minivan taxi to the park and stay at the Green Leaf guesthouse. Mr 9 at Green Leaf is considered the best nature guide in Khao Yai. The tours in Khao Yai consist of safari drives and short walks in the jungle.

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14 Comments

  • Khao Yai National Park looks amazing. I am a big fan of gibbons. So excited to see that they are in abundance in the park. Also, I have enjoyed watching great hornbills. They are such messy eaters. What a fantastic park to visit to see so many animal and bird species.

    • It absolutely is. And it is so easy to visit from Bangkok. It is such a different world compared to the hectic, always ‘on’ city. A perfect getaway :)

  • Gorgeous photos! I’ve been to Thailand so many times, but somehow never thought of it as a wildlife viewing destination, just more of a beach destination. Will definitely rethink this on our next visit!

    • Thank you, Shelley! I have a feeling that if you like beaches, you would love the jungle. SE Asia is amazing for wildlife watching. Even just for a day trip from Bangkok, it is absolutely worth it.

  • We were in Thailand for a month recently but sadly we didn’t make it to this part of the country. I really wish we had! We loved experiencing the countryside and wildlife in the north, but we didn’t know about some of the national parks elsewhere.

    I love your pictures – the barking deer looks so cute! Will be putting this in itinerary for our next visit for sure.

    • Thank you Alex. I hope you do get the chance to visit Khao Yai on your next trip. It is a fantastic spot and you see a lot of wildlife, much more than in the parks up north. You get to experience a totally different side of Thailand in Khao Yai.

  • Wow! you have so much talent on your photos, they are so beautiful! I love nature and animals. I would surely come here to visit in Thailand.

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