For nature lovers, UNESCO-listed Khao Yai national park is one of Asia's best. Spanning some 2,168 square kilometres over three provinces, Thailand's grandest and oldest national park is home to thriving communities of plants and wildlife along with stunning jungle, mountains and waterfalls, all accessible from a sizable network of roads, hiking trails, cabins and campsites.
Still, many who make the trip have little idea how to approach the park from a logistical standpoint. Unlike Khao Sok national park down south, or the majority of Thailand's major destinations for that matter, tourist infrastructure near the park is almost exclusively aimed at local Thai travellers. The area lacks that strip of guesthouses and travel companies solely focusing on getting foreign travellers what they need.
The good news is that, while a bit of a challenge, Khao Yai is still very much doable for foreign, independent-minded travellers.
Approaching the park
The main entrance to Khao Yai is on the north side of the park in Nakhon Ratchasima province, some 20 kilometres south of the town of Pak Chong. The majority of hotels near the park are in this area, particularly along route 2090 (aka Thanarat Road), which shoots directly from Pak Chong down to the Khao Yai gates.
Khao Yai's southern entrance -- the "back door" -- lies some 60 kilometres northeast of the city of Nakhon Nayok. Although there are a few resorts just outside the southern gates, your best bet (assuming you don't have your own wheels) is to catch a bus or minibus to Pak Chong town and make your arrangements from there.
As there are no travel companies in Pak Chong to take your hand like they do in other places, it may take some effort to find your way. However, rest assured that the town has everything you need -- hotels and guesthouses, markets, restaurants, car and motorbike rental, taxis for hire, train, bus and minibus stations, and cheap public transport that can take you right to the Khao Yai gates.
Khao Yai option # 1: On foot
If wanting to do the park independently without hiring a vehicle, it is possible to see a good amount on foot. Large songthaews shuttle travellers from the centre of Pak Chong to the Khao Yai gates throughout the day, which is the cheapest way to get there. Keep in mind, however, that taking a songthaew would entail hitching or huffing the 10-plus kilometres from the front gates to the visitor centre, and another two kilometres to reach the campgrounds.
National park vehicles and private motorists are likely willing to let a few backpackers hop on board as they pass, but if wanting to avoid that whole situation, private pick-up truck taxis may be caught from the centre of Pak Chong. These can bring you all the way to the visitor centre or campground for around 300 baht, but be sure to arrange for pick up if wanting the same service on the way out.
Cabins are available for rent behind the visitor centre or a couple of kilometres further south in the quieter Thanarat zone, and there are also two picturesque campgrounds, Lam Takong and Pha Kluai Mai. A network of hiking trails, which include one leading to Heo Suwat waterfall (made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio flick, The Beach), are easily accessed from all of the above accommodation zones, but the campgrounds are especially central with major trails beginning at each of them. Both campgrounds are in idyllic settings, perfect for enjoying Khao Yai the slow and relaxed way.
Keep in mind that hiking the trails without a guide after 15:00 is not recommended; you don't want to get lost and end up stuck in the jungle overnight. Certified private guides can be arranged at the visitor centre for 500 baht per three hours.
As for food, restaurants run by the national park serve basic Thai fare at all accommodation zones, although hours are limited. A handful of convenience stores sell water and other necessities in several points throughout the park.
If you've got the time, patience and energy to do some serious hiking, setting up camp and relying only on your two feet to get around is a great way to see Khao Yai. However, one spot that would be beyond the reach for most hikers is the park's largest and most impressive waterfall, Haew Narok, which is situated far to the southern end of the park. If heading in and out by taxi, you might negotiate a side-trip to Haew Narok as it really should not be missed.
Khao Yai option # 2: On wheels
It may be expensive, but Khao Yai is particularly conducive to exploring by car. A main road snakes through the park from north to south along with a handful of rugged side roads, and virtually all of the trails, viewpoints, waterfalls and other sights can be accessed from these roads. Depending on your budget, you might have to miss the full day treks and camping experience, but a single full day with a car is enough to see all the highlights and leave you feeling like Khao Yai has been covered.
Cars may be rented for 1,500 baht per day at Rimtarninn Hotel, which is easy to find near the centre of Pak Chong (you'll need a passport and international driver's license). As already mentioned, pick-up truck taxis are also available in Pak Chong centre for those who would prefer someone else do the driving. For 1,500 baht, a taxi will spend a full day taking you anywhere you wish to go.
Going by motorbike is an adventurous option that's nowhere near as pricey as renting a car and doesn't limit you in terms of distance. Motorbikes can be rented at Petch Motors near the centre of Pak Chong town. There's no sign in English, but Petch is a motorbike sales shop occupying the bottom floor of a three-storey white building with tinted blue windows on the upper floors, right next to Memorial Hospital (on the right if heading east away from the centre of town where the night market sets up). They speak English and are happy to rent out bikes for 300 baht per day, but be sure to fuel up at a station just outside the park -- you might even consider bringing along some extra fuel and a funnel if wanting to spend more than a day exploring without leaving the park.
Khao Yai opion # 3: On tour
If all of the above sounds too tricky, several tour companies offer programmes to fit differing interests and budgets. We've received several positive first-hand accounts from customers of budget-minded Green Leaf Tour, which also run a quality budget guesthouse along the road from Pak Chong to Khao Yai. They run a particularly flexible operation that can pick you up at the bus stop or train station in Pak Chong and shuttle you straight to their guesthouse or onto one of their pick-up trucks for a guided tour.
It's also worth mentioning that it's not necessary to go exclusively independent or exclusively with a tour program. We talked to a handful of travellers who took the half-day Greenleaf tour, but asked to be dropped at one of the campgrounds instead of being shuttled back to the guesthouse outside the park. They enjoyed three days and nights of hiking the park on their own and sleeping to the sounds of the jungle, arranging for the tour company to pick them up when they were good and ready to move on. This seems like a good option, especially considering the tour company is willing to arrange transport for customers who took the tour days earlier.
Other points to consider
No matter which option you choose, don't forget to pop into the brand new visitor centre, which we must say is nothing short of a proper science and nature museum in the heart of the park. It would seem that handing out maps and information at the front gates would be a good idea, but for some reason these are only available at the visitor centre. Unless you can produce a Thai work permit, the entrance fee to Khao Yai for foreigners is 400 baht, good for one entrance only.
While bicycles are currently only rented for use by some resorts within their grounds outside the park, we learned of a group planning to open a bike rental and cycling tour operation in the Khao Yai area. If you're a cyclist reading this a little down the track, you may want to investigate whether it managed to get off the ground.
Finally, although Khao Yai is the main draw in this area, a great deal to see lies in the general vicinity outside the park. If you can manage it, the Khao Yai wine country and Chet Sao Noi waterfall in Muak Lek to the west, and mountainous Wang Nam Kiew to the east are each worth a side-trip.
And there you have it: whether you choose to see it independently, as part of a tour, or a little of each, majestic Khao Yai national park is beckoning. Don't forget your hiking shoes, and keep quiet -- an elephant may be lurking behind that tree!
Khao Yai National Park
T: (025) 620 760
Rimtarninn Hotel & Car Rental
430 Mittraphap Rd, Pak Chong
T: (044) 313 3656
361/3 Mittraphap Rd, Pak Chong
T: (044) 280 248 ; (081) 718 2400
Greenleaf Guesthouse & Tour
52 Moo 6, Thanarat Rd (km 7.5), Pak Chong
T: (044) 365 073 ; F: (089) 424 8809
By David Luekens
Last updated on 23rd May, 2015.