Opening hours for national park restaurants are inconsistent, especially at slow times of year, so it’s a good idea to bring some food from outside if you’ll be staying in the park. Most park restaurants close by 16:00 and you almost certainly won’t see one open later than 18:00. Plenty of eateries and some good markets are found in Pak Chong, along Thanarat Road to the north of the park, and elsewhere in the Khao Yai region.
Inside the park, the largest eating area is found across the road from the visitor centre. Locals who aren’t employed by the park pay a fee to set up stalls, creating a bit of competition that results in some decent street-style Thai food. Red curry with bamboo shoots, khao ka muu (rice with roasted pork) and stir-fried kale are all authentic and flavourful for 50 baht a plate. Much of the food is displayed so visitors can take a look around and see what looks appealing. The vendors also sell drinks, fresh fruit and sweets, but alcohol is prohibited in the park. One stand sells strong Thai coffee. You can also score a decent espresso at a riverside coffee shop next to Lam Takong campground.
Serving Thai staples like pad Thai, krapao, cashew nut, fried rice and som tam for less than 50 baht, national park restaurants are located at both campgrounds and next to the car parks of both major waterfalls. While the posted hours are 08:00 to 16:00, these do not always open on weekdays during low season, when you may be forced to huff it up to the visitor centre or settle for instant noodles from the shops located at all of these places, which are more reliably open from 07:00 to 17:00.
Dozens of restaurants and a small late-afternoon market are found along Thanarat Road to the north of the park; do stop to pick up fresh dragonfruit, rambutan, avocado and other local produce from the roadside vendors. Seven kilometres north of the northern gate, the Palio shopping complex hosts a bunch of trendy cafes, ice cream parlours and restaurants, including some that serve Italian and American fare. On Thanarat you’ll also find a bunch of cheap local restaurants serving Isaan food and noodle soup, including a few near the 7-eleven within walking distance of Greenleaf Guesthouse and Khao Yai Garden Lodge, both of which have their own restaurants as well.
A few kilometres west of Thanarat along Route 1016, Pen Lao is a great choice for down-home Isaan food like laap muu (spicy minced pork salad), som tam Lao (papaya salad with fermented fish sauce) and gaeng om (dark soup with a mix of herbs and veggies). It’s open for lunch and dinner -- look for a small English sign beneath the larger Thai sign on the left. For something more refined, head further west on 1016 to Vincotto Restaurant at Granmonte Vineyard, serving fare inspired by Italy and California, including slow-cooked lamb shank in red wine and pan-seared scallops on baked spinach, pared with Granmonte’s excellent wines. Expect a white tablecloth setup and prices from 200 to 600 baht; reservations are a good idea.
Khao Yai was the first region in Thailand to form a dairy industry when King Bhumibol returned from a 1960s trip to Denmark with several cows. Major Thai dairy producers like Thai-Danish, Dairy Home and Chokchai are based along Mittraphap Road to the north of the park, and Thais enjoy hitting these for farm tours to learn about this “exotic” industry. Chokchai is known for its Umm Milk ice cream and on-site steakhouse, though you’ll find countless other places serving local ribeye and T-bone closer to the park along Thanarat and many other places in the region.
In our view the region’s food highlight is the Pak Chong Night Market, which sets up every night around 17:00 along the north side of Mittraphap near the train station and giraffe statue in the heart of town. While some stalls serve khao man gai (chicken rice), noodle soup and other street standards to a few tables, most serve food for takeaway or munching while you stroll. Choose from piles of tropical fruit; Thai sweets like khanom morgaen (Thai custard); local corn and milky corn juice; deep-fried bugs and larva; fiery chilli pastes; grilled whole fish; deep-fried chicken with sticky rice; and all sorts of grilled skewered meats, frogs and sausages. Walk a couple of hundred metres to the west to hit a streetside stall where a husband and wife sizzle up juicy steaks served with French fries to a handful of tables along the curb.
A few kilometres further northeast in Pak Chong, along the north side of the main road, sprawls Talad Sod Mittraphap, a huge roofed market that’s a great place to stock up on fresh fruit and other local products along with coconut sticky rice and curries for takeaway. You could also pick up groceries or even buy a cooler or small grill at the Tesco Lotus shopping centre found near the junction of Mittraphap and Thanarat roads just southwest of Pak Chong.
If you’re waiting for a train or are starving after arriving in Pak Chong by rail, head just south of the train station to an air-con cafe called Well Wich across from the entrance to Phubade Hotel. Serving burgers, sandwiches, spaghetti and simple Thai dishes along with real coffee and WiFi, it’s a good place for a quick and affordable meal or an hour of online research.
Those sticking around overnight in Pak Chong might head a couple of kilometres southwest of the giraffe statue to Star Gio’s, an Italian spot open for lunch and dinner on the north side of Mittraphap, directly across from the Rimtarninn Hotel (you can’t miss the green English sign). The English menu includes passable pizza, pasta, steaks and salads for 80 to 200 baht along with German beers and a few wines served in an inviting air-con space with pictures of Elvis and John Lennon on the walls and classic rock playing over the sound system.
More adventurous eaters should head to Mae Fai, located on the left side of Route 2243 if heading north for a kilometre from Mittraphap in Pak Chong (the turnoff is near the Rimtarninn Hotel). There’s no English sign but you’ll know it by the big multi-coloured blocks each with a different letter forming the word, "WELCOME", in front of the car park. The two-deck open-air restaurant does a great grilled snakehead fish served with half a dozen spicy and savoury dipping sauces. We also enjoyed a plate of pad prik talay (seafood stir-fry with chillies) and yum saeb moo (spicy and dark red pork soup), best enjoyed with cold beers. With Thai, English and Roman transliterations of the Thai names, the menu also includes “jungle food” like wild boar and crocodile. Portions are huge and prices range from around 120 to 250 baht, making Mae Fai a popular spot for dinner.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.