Exotic birds and gibbons twirl through the old-growth jungle of Khao Yai, a major draw for nature lovers and granddaddy of Thai national parks. It’s part of the UNESCO-listed Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai forest complex, one of mainland Southeast Asia’s largest and best-preserved forests. The park’s name, meaning “Big Mountain,” is a fitting one.
Established in 1962, Khao Yai covers more than 2,100 square kilometres and reaches into four different provinces, making it the oldest and third largest Thai national park. In a single day you might sweat in tropical rainforest, watch wildlife saunter through grassland and shiver in the cooler climes of hill evergreen forest. The highest peak, Khao Rom, reaches above 1,350 metres. More than 40 waterfalls include the jaw-dropping Haew Narok and picturesque Haew Suwat, where Leonardo Dicaprio took a leap during the filming of The Beach.
Khao Yai and neighbouring parks, Thap Lan and Pang Sida, combine to host an incredible array of wildlife. Asian elephant sightings are relatively common, while elusive leopards and tigers strut deeper in the jungle. Other endangered species include Siamese crocodile and spot-billed pelican, one of 392 types of birds found in the complex. According to UNESCO, this is the only place on earth where white-headed and pileated gibbons interbreed in the wild.
Virtually all visitors see deer and macaques but you’ll need luck and patience -- and perhaps a good local guide -- to spot more of the 800 species of fauna along with myriad insects, fungi, orchids and other plants. If taking your own vehicle, always drive slowly enough to brake for wildlife and never flash lights or honk at elephants, which have been known to attack cars in Khao Yai. On the hiking trails, keep an eye out for cobras, pythons and leeches.
The name Khao Yai also covers a surrounding agricultural region producing fine fruits and wines. While the park provides campgrounds and cabins, many visitors choose to stay at a privately owned guesthouse or resort along the northern access road, in the nearby town of Pak Chong, or elsewhere in the greater Khao Yai region. Do check out the wine trail and perhaps venture down to scenic Wang Nam Khiao if you have the time and means.
Stacks of holiday homes and resorts catering to well-heeled Bangkokians continue to pop up to the north of the park; “Khao Yai is already part of Bangkok” lamented a German living in the area. The kitschy cowboy-themed restaurants, “Italian-style” shopping centres and condos with names like Primo Piazza and The English Garden don’t bleed into the park itself, but developments have been shut down for encroaching on the boundaries.
The Khao Yai region is quite spread out with minimal public transport; some advanced planning is essential. Many visitors arrange a tour of the park in advance (some tour companies also provide accommodation) while others go for a taxi, rental car or motorbike to hit the park and other attractions independently. Start with our piece on how to do Khao Yai National Park for details on your options and logistics.
Khao Yai National Park is located 170 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and accessed through two entrance gates. By far the most widely used is the northern gate, which is 25 kilometres south of Pak Chong, a small city that serves as the region’s transport hub. The remote southern gate, or the “back door,” can be accessed from Nakhon Nayok and Prachinburi, which join Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) and Saraburi as the four provinces that share the park.
Both gates are open daily from 06:00 to 18:00. Admission to the park is 400 baht for foreign adults and 40 baht for Thais, plus 50 baht per car and 20 baht per motorbike. You can stay for as long as you like on one ticket, but you’ll have to but a new ticket if exiting the park one day and coming back the next.
While the park is oval shaped with the east-to-west width stretching farther than the north-to-south height, the entire eastern half consists of untouched jungle and is off-limits to camping. All of the roads, facilities, trails and attractions are found in the western half.
Thanarat Road (Route 2090) begins just southwest of Pak Chong and shoots into the park from the north. About halfway down it becomes Route 3077 on the way into Prachinburi province. These roads combine to cover nearly 40 kilometres inside the park, with a handful of side roads leading to cabins, campgrounds and attractions, all clearly signposted in English.
The first thing you'll see after entering the park from the north is a hillside shrine dedicated to Chao Por Khao Yai (the sacred spirit of Khao Yai). Here you might light some incense and kneel alongside Thai visitors while compelling the spirit to keep you safe in the park.
The visitor centre is located 15 kilometres south of the northern gate; English-speaking officials offer maps along with info on accommodation and hiking guides, and you’ll also find bicycle rental, a food court, gift shop and museum -- check out the preserved body of a tiger that ravaged a nearby village in the mid 20th century. The small Kong Kiew Waterfall is a two-kilometre hike from the visitor centre.
National park accommodation includes park-maintained cabins in four different zones and two campgrounds.
A tourist police office is located just west of the Lam Takong campground inside the park, while the closest regular police station is found in the village of Moosri, around five kilometres northeast of the park’s northern gate near the Khao Yai Art Museum. There’s also a police station on Mittraphap Road (Route 2422) in Pak Chong, a few kilometres northeast of the train station.
Inside the park, a first-aid centre is located across from Sai Sorn Reservoir, about two kilometres south of the visitor centre. A serious injury will require a trip to the public Pak Chong Memorial Hospital or private Bangkok Hospital, both located along Mittraphap in Pak Chong.
Mobile phone service is limited inside the park; it worked for us at the visitor centre and Lam Takong campground but lapsed just about everywhere else. WiFi is available at many of the cafes and resorts along Thanarat to the north of the park’s northern gate.
While there are no ATMs inside the park, several are found along Thanarat on the way to the northern gate and there are full-service banks on Mittraphap in Pak Chong. Shops sell basic necessities at the visitor centre, both campgrounds and the Haew Narok Waterfall car park from 07:00 to 17:00.
Songthaews run direct from Pak Chong to the national park’s northern gate, but there is no public transport within the park. Visitors must come with a tour or private taxi, bring their own vehicle, or be prepared to hitchhike, walk or bicycle long distances over steep hills. See our travel section for more information.
Venturing beyond the park, around three kilometres north of the northern gate, Route 1016 shoots west off Thanarat and runs through some of the prettiest scenery in the area -- this is the way to Granmonte and several other vineyards. After 25 kilometres 1016 hits Route 2, a major trucking road that runs east past Pak Chong on the way to Khorat and beyond. North of Route 2 stretches Muak Lek, another scenic district featuring Chet Sao Noi Waterfall.
A second option for exploring further afield is Route 3052, which cuts east off Thanarat around two kilometres north of the park’s northern gate. It runs southeast down to Wang Nam Khiao.
In Pak Chong, the train station is located a short walk north of an abstract statue of three yellow giraffes (they’re supposed to be deer) that marks the centre of town alongside Mittraphap. Budget accommodation, the night market, the Khao Yai songthaew stop and bus stops for Bangkok, Khorat and other destinations are all located within walking distance of the giraffe statue.
Other resources worth checking out include the official Khao Yai National Park site and the Khao Yai section of the Thai National Parks site, run by a private party with no affiliation to the Thai Department of National Parks.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 7th September, 2016.