When approaching from afar, Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park appears as an enormous, twisted knot of limestone plunked curiously beside the sea. The distinctive landscape reveals spectacular caves and viewpoints, hidden coves and islands, long-standing sandalwood trees and wetlands teeming with wildlife. You might even spot a rare antelope clambering high amid the crags.
According to local legend, the sea once extended further inland to create many small limestone islands. A Chinese trading junk is said to have sunk at some stage, its 300 survivors each taking refuge on one island (we guess they didn't get along so well). They called the area Ko Sam Roi Yot, or "Island of Three Hundred Peaks", which naturally became "Mountain (Khao) of Three Hundred Peaks" when the sea subsided.
Whether you think of Sam Roi Yot as one single mountain, a cluster of individual peaks or the remnants of 300 islands, there's little room for debating its beauty. The dark-grey, white, tan and mossy stone stretches straight up in many places, with the highest point reaching above 600 metres. Deciduous trees cling to countless nooks and perches where birds of prey make their nests.
The park's highlight -- Phraya Nakhon Cave -- is on a short list of the most magnificent caves in Southeast Asia, while a handful of smaller caverns await those who aren't afraid of the dark. Quiet beaches, mangroves and a handful of small islands inhabited only by monkeys can also be explored, perhaps with the help of a kayak or longtail boat. Just west of the mountains sprawls Thung Sam Roi Yot, a majestic freshwater wetland where dozens of species of birds go fishing amid the lotuses.
While the park lacks the dense jungle of places like Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan (so no elephants or tigers), it does have its share of wildlife. Most notable is the Serow, a rare antelope that's reminiscent of a mountain goat and lives in the higher altitudes. You'll also want a pair of binoculars for the purple heron and many migratory birds that dip into the wetlands. More common are the dusky langurs often seen swinging in the treetops.
A vast area once blanketed in mangrove forest at the centre of the park has sadly been encroached on by countless prawn farms, resulting in a scorched earth landscape on either side of the main road. The practice has long created conflict between conservation groups and local industry -- remember that when you tuck into a plate of prawns back in Hua Hin!
A picturesque fishing village known as Bang Pu sits at the mouth of a series of mangrove-lined canals that can also be explored. A nearby bay, Laem Sala, is where you'll find the trail (or boats) that can take you to Phraya Nakhon Cave and its eponymous beach, also home to a restaurant and bungalows set in an idyllic spot under the tonsai trees.
Stretching for a couple of km just north of the national park border is Phu Noi beach (aka Dolphin Bay), home to wild pink and grey-nosed dolphins. Many travellers choose to stay at one of the resorts or guesthouses found in this quiet, family-friendly area. You'll find a handful of restaurants, stores, ATMs and bicycle/motorbike rental to go with a charming night market, making this a convenient area to drop anchor for a few days.
And while we strongly feel that Sam Roi Yot is worth at least an overnight, many choose to visit as a daytrip from Hua Hin (40 km north) or Prachuap Khiri Khan (50 km south). In Hua Hin, you'll find no shortage of travel agents pushing boat tours to Sam Roi Yot, but keep in mind that these focus mainly on the islands and some don't even stop at Phraya Nakhon Cave.
By David Luekens.