When seeking mountains in Thailand, most automatically head for distant northern destinations like Chiang Rai and Pai, but many are unaware of just how stunning the Khao Yai mountains northeast of Bangkok actually are. Not limited within the borders of Khao Yai national park alone, this vast region boasts some jaw-dropping scenery, which we enjoyed on a drive from the national park’s northern gate to the eastern Wang Nam Kiew area.
Setting off from the tiny village of Mu Si, we headed east on the two-lane highway known by locals as the “back way” to the Wang Nam Kiew region. Wang Nam Kiew is well known as a pretty, mountainous getaway among locals but is virtually unknown to foreign travellers. Keeping an eye out for the area’s abundant wildlife, we sped past a cluster of gaudy resorts and into rolling green hills. Steep and rocky in parts, lush and soft in others, the Khao Yai mountains loomed over the southern horizon.
Although Thailand’s northern region is the country’s undeniable coffee production centre, quality beans are grown here as well, and a plethora of countryside cafes offer strong brew along the road. Like the quiet one we stopped at, cafes in this neck of the woods often double as charming antique shops.
Rejuvenated from the local brew, we rolled passed a scenic reservoir and hillside farms. I’ve never been to Italy’s Tuscan region, but I imagine it to look and feel something like this — cool but comfortable air, rolling fields of golden flowers, endless shades of green.
Before long, we emerged into nondescript Wang Nam Kiew town, where we briefly hopped on the busy truck road (route 304) to Nakhon Ratchasima. Desiring a swift return to the countryside, we followed signs for Pha Ket Tawan viewpoint, and were soon snaking through the hills once more.
The road gradually grew narrower — the air almost cool enough for a sweater as our altitude heightened — and soon we emerged into the tiny viewpoint park of Pha Ket Tawan. Don’t ask me why, but the thing to do here is rent sling-shots from a little park office and fire acorns into the mountain vastness beyond the look-out — or artillery — platforms.
White storm clouds moved in quick, but after a couple of minutes of drizzle (we hardly noticed thanks to the deviously fun sling-shooting), rays of sun began piercing through patches of clear sky. Everything we’d seen up to this point had been nice, but it was here that we were first blown away by Wang Nam Kiew’s grandeur.
On the way back towards Wang Nam Kiew town, we stopped off at Mr Mushroom farm for a snack of mushroom ice cream and mushroom french fries (both delicious, and totally normal in these parts).
With a cool dusk rolling in and plenty of mushrooms in our stomachs, we wove our way back towards Khao Yai as waning sunlight mixed with patchy mist. Seeking one last adventure, we made our way up to Mongkut Kiriwan Chedi at the top of a small mountain considered sacred by locals, where we were treated to 360-degree scenes of angelic sun and clouds, hilltop farmhouses and dramatic mountains.
As if we weren’t already singing the region’s praises, a wide rainbow touched down on an eastern mountaintop.
Although we cruised this route by car, it would also make for a great motorbiking or cycling adventure. The back road from Khao Yai to Wang Nam Kiew town doesn’t have an official name, but it’s the last possible left-hand turn before hitting the Khao Yai national park gates if coming from the north on route 2090 from Pak Chong (follow signs for “Toscana Valley”).
For the most part, it’s a straightforward route for the 70 kilometres to Wang Nam Kiew, although when you hit the giant statue of a bull in the middle of a roundabout, take the soft right, not the sharp one directly after the roundabout. If wanting to hit Pha Ket Tawan, take a left in Wang Nam Kiew town onto route 304 and U-turn to the southbound lanes immediately, then hang another left after a couple of kilometres, following the blue sign for “Pha Ket Tawan viewpoint”. If wanting more specifics, check out the complete route we mapped on the way back.
Although not frequented by foreigners, there are dozens of small resorts and B&B’s in the Wang Nam Kiew area, and if you’ve got the time it’s a pleasant place to kick back in the fresh and cool mountain air. Other sights in the area include a worthwhile waterfall and extensive flower gardens.
So, don’t sweat it if you can’t make it all the way up north for some mountain time — the Khao Yai region doesn’t disappoint, and it’s only a three-hour drive from Bangkok. Open the windows, take out the camera, turn up the music, and enjoy the ride.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 3rd December, 2014.