We saw a bear! Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Khao Yai NP | Thailand-3016Khao Yai National Park is Thailand’s oldest.

Just a few hours north-east from Bangkok lies a precious area of primary rainforest that is incorporated into the Khao Yai National Park.

So precious in fact that UNESCO declared the forest a World Heritage Site in 2005.

The large park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, in a shrinking world this is a vitally important habitat for many of South East Asia’s endangered primates, bears, cats and birds. 

From the visitor centre hiking trails fan out through the forest and surrounding grasslands, and there are many guided tours available from outside the park.

With so many tempting wildlife-spotting opportunities we hopped on a train from Bangkok to go exploring.

Could we track down the park’s elusive wild elephants?

We booked into Greenleaf Guesthouse before we left, arranging a pick-up from the railway station at Pak Chong, as the guesthouse is a few kilometres along the road, around half way between the town and the park entrance.

The train was running an hour late by the time we arrived so we had to call for the pick up.

It was late at night and I just wanted to go to bed, neither of us was prepared for aggravation.

We were shown our room and the guy inquired what tour we’d be doing the next day, Chris explained that we’d like to go into the park by ourselves on the first day, to scout it out before we decided which tour we wanted to take as there were a few options and he really wanted to see a particular bird.

We were definitely going to take a tour.

The guy got really angry and told us we had to leave, Chris tried to explain our plan but he didn’t get it.

Eventually Chris demanded to speak to someone else, he disappeared, returning a few minutes later having sorted it, luckily someone else understood. The first guy was totally off with us for the rest of our stay though, which marred it somewhat.

We’d booked the place because their tours got great reviews, his attitude was rude and unnecessary.

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Nong Phak Chi Watchtower

The next morning we paid for a lift to the visitor centre, there is some public transport {Songtaews} but they only drop you at the park entrance {entrance fee 400 Baht} and it’s another 10 km along a steep and winding road to the visitor centre.

We discovered later that we could have hired motorbikes in Pak Chong, that would have been another option.

The Khao Yai National Park visitor centre is really smart, we were advised to buy leech socks, to complement our outdoor look, obviously!

It wasn’t until we did a tour the following day that we learned they were for the abundant ticks, not leeches.

We got a trail map and set off into the forest along a trail to the Nong Phak Chi Watchtower, the map wasn’t too clear but the trail was marked with arrows and painted spots.

The trees were tall and majestic, we saw no large wildlife but there was plenty of small stuff from pretty butterflies to cicada exoskeletons and a shedded snake-skin.

The cicada exoskeleton was the strangest thing, a perfect empty shell clinging to a tree.

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The trail opened out from the forest onto rolling grassland and blazing sunshine to the Nong Phak Chi Watchtower before rejoining the road back to the visitor centre.

We had no transport to get back so we hitched from the roadside leading out from the visitor centre car park, it wasn’t too long before a young Thai couple in a smart pickup pulled over.

We hopped into the back of the truck and we flew down the road, my hair whipping my face, it was way more uncomfortable than it looked!

We’d asked to be dropped off at the park entrance but they very kindly took us all the way back to the guest house.

Returning to the guest house we booked their Full Day Tour for the next morning.

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The guest house was busy with backpackers and the tour was split into two groups, we hit the jackpot with the tour guide we had hoped for, Mr Nine.

The two of us were joined by two couples from another, fancy resort. Two middle-aged Italian men and their glamorous Thai wives. What an odd group we looked!

The men spoke little English so we chatted with the Thai women who could speak both Italian and English, they were good fun.

Mr Nine, our tour guide, was amazing, although he specialises in birds, his massive enthusiasm for wildlife is so contagious.

Chris drilled him on all the incredible wildlife he’d seen in the park, it whet our appetites for what we might see! 

Our first awesome sighting was a gorgeous pit viper curled up in a tree in the car park! What a beauty!

We hiked into the forest, on the same trail we’d followed the day before. Mr Nine knew what he was looking for though, he was hot on the trail of Gibbons.

We drifted away from the trail, there was movement in the trees above.

There, a gibbon!

And another.

It was fleeting but there they were, spectacularly swinging through the canopy.

A little further on he thought he spotted another high up in a large tree across a clearing so he set up his scope.

You'll have to take my word for it, but that dark blob in the middle of the photo is a Sun Bear!

You’ll have to take my word for it, but that dark blob in the middle of the photo is a Sun Bear!

He found the movement, focussed, then quietly squealed with delight!

“It’s a bear! A bear!”

“Look, look! It’s a bear, up there in the tree!”

We took turns peering into the scope, there in the high branches of a great old tree was a Sun Bear, happily chowing on some tree-borne foodstuff.

Mr Nine was beside himself, excitedly high-fiving us. Apparently he rarely saw Sun Bears, only a couple of times while being a guide in the park.

Sun Bears are the smallest species of bear in the world, and are elusive, solitary animals.

It was an awesome sighting!

Elated by the bear we carried on through the trees, Mr Nine was wired now and we soon found more gibbons.

They put on quite a show for us, demonstrating their extraordinary acrobatic skills, this was turning out to be a great day!

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An acrobatic Lar Gibbon

Mr Nine produced a snack, we’d been on the go since 8am so these banana leaf parcels of smokey sticky rice were perfect. We perched on the roots of a vast banyan tree to rest for a moment.

Khao Yai NP | Thailand-3194We continued the trail out to the Nong Phak Chi Watchtower where we found the other tour group and lunch waiting for us.

The truck was parked back on the road, we strode ahead only to miss two cobras that appeared for the slower walkers! Darn it! 

Next stop was a waterfall 13kms east of the visitor centre along the road which took us past two campsites. I would definitely consider this option if we ever returned. You can hire camping equipment and the campsites are apparently abundant with amazing wildlife.

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Leonardo Di Caprio famously leapt off Haew Suwat waterfall in the film The Beach, although it must have been after the wet season.

As you can see in the photo above, this is more a trickle than a torrent, a little less dramatic but still rather photogenic.

It used to be a popular swimming hole but you can no longer swim here, I’m assuming its fame challenged the natural balance of nature, either that or too many people were hurt trying to reenact Leo’s leap.

We walked up to the top of the waterfall where the shallow river was teeming with small fish.

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We then went looking for elephants.

We drove up and up along the road through the park, passing the occasional oddity such as this strange retail venture.

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The road finally ran out at some kind of military checkpoint high up on a hill, we all admired the view over the tree tops then Mr Nine went to chat to the military men.

From within their little hut they produced a spectacular Malaysia Moon moth which Mr Nine brought over to show us, along with an equally spectacular Lesser Green and Pink Hawk moth.

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The hawk moth was perched on his hand when it suddenly flitted off, then out of nowhere a bird swooped in for the kill!

We gasped!

The moth darted to avoid it and, thank goodness, got away!

Off across the canopy, it vanished from sight.

The military guys seemed a little unimpressed we’d lost their prize moth.

Back down the road we spotted footprints. Large dusty footprints crossing the tarmac.

Elephants!

Elephant footsteps!

Elephant footsteps!

My excitement was soon extinguished, we’d missed them, they had melted into the forest.

I wonder if I will ever see a wild Asian elephant.

We drove around for quite some time in the hope that they’d appear but even Mr Nine had to give up when the rains came.

It poured, rain lashing at our less-than-suitable truck.

It was past 6pm and the temperature had plummeted with the rain. We switched places with the Italian/Thai couples as they were clearly less used to this kind of inclement weather.

They sat swaddled in the towels they had bought along expecting to swim in the Haew Suwat waterfall, shivering, while we braved it at the back where it was considerably wetter.

By god, we’re British. This is perfectly normal!

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We left Khao Yai National Park behind us as night fell along with the rain.

It had been a long, incredible day. Mr Nine had brought the jungle to life and I wish we could have stayed another night and camped but we needed to get back to Bangkok as we had a flight booked.

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I would certainly recommend Khao Yai National Park to anyone visiting Thailand with a love of nature.

If I was to go again I’d hire a motorbike and camp inside the park.

I would definitely recommend a tour with Mr Nine through Greenleaf Guest House and Tours, it appeared that you didn’t have to stay with them to do the tour. I can’t vouch for the other tour guides though.

The park gets very busy at the weekend, making hitch-hiking easier but if you’d prefer it quiet, go during the week.

Thai National Park website: Khao Yai 

Keep travelling:

The Bangkok to Butterworth Train Overland on the sleeper train to Malaysia

How To Do The Temples Of Angkor a perfect 3 day itinerary to see the temples with tips!

The Golden Land: Travels Through Burma 

5 Amazing Wildlife Experiences Bears in Canada, Tigers in India…..

Is Khao Yai NP somewhere you’re considering? What would you like to see?

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By Rachel Davis

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