Khao Yai National Park rewards travellers who come prepared. On the flip side, it can be extremely frustrating for those who show up expecting easy public transport and a go-to strip of guesthouses and tour offices like you’ll find down in Khao Sok. Read on to get a logistical leg up on “Big Mountain” before you arrive.
When and how long to visit
Khao Yai vies with Erawan as Thailand’s most heavily visited national park and the crowds get larger every year. Go for a weekday visit if possible and avoid Thai holidays at all cost, especially in the December-January peak season.
The best time to visit might just be the June to October rainy season, when the forests thrive, crowds are thin, waterfalls are most impressive and wildlife most active. If you get a sunny day during rainy season (not as unusual as you may think), you’ll see Khao Yai at its best. The cool season from November to February is best if you plan to do extensive hiking. Waterfalls dry up and the jungle wilts during the hot months of March and April, but this time is great for bird watching.
All of the park’s highlights can be hit in a single day and some visitors make it a day trip from Bangkok, which we do not recommend. Plan on a solid three-day stay if you want to camp, hike and hopefully spot some wildlife. With your own vehicle you could easily lose a week exploring the park and surrounding region.
Approaching the park
The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no public transport operating inside Khao Yai National Park.
Unless you have a private vehicle and want to enter through the little-used southern gate, you’ll want to approach the park via the northern gateway of Pak Chong with its train, bus and minibus connections to Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Khorat and several other places. Just don’t expect to show up and find English-speaking travel agents ready to take your hand.
If you want to make things as easy as possible, arrange for an all-in company like Greenleaf, Garden Lodge or Bobby’s to pick you up in Pak Chong and whisk you straight to their own accommodation and tours.
Option 1: On foot
If you’re set on hitting the park independently without a vehicle, it’s possible to cover a fair amount on foot and/or bicycle. Cheap public songthaews shuttle travellers from downtown Pak Chong to the park’s northern gate, from where you’d have to hitch or walk some 15 kilometres to the visitor centre, and another few kilometres to the campgrounds. Park vehicles and private motorists often stop to let a few backpackers on as they pass.
Coming without any sort of transport means that you’ll probably have to miss Haew Narok Waterfall, the park’s top highlight in our opinion. Even so, hardy travellers do have good experiences setting up base at either of the centrally located campgrounds, where it’s easy to venture into a network of hiking trails. Be sure to allot plenty of time for your stay if going the hitch-and-hike route.
Option 2: On wheels
Khao Yai is particularly conducive to exploring by car or motorbike: virtually all of the trails, viewpoints, waterfalls and other attractions can be accessed from the park’s well-maintained roads. You might have to miss the full-day treks and camping experience, depending on your budget and timeframe, but one full day with a vehicle is enough to see all of the highlights and leave you feeling like you’ve “done” Khao Yai.
Staying in downtown Pak Chong at helpful places like At Home Hostel or The Goodville Cottage, and arranging a pick-up truck taxi or renting a car or motorbike to hit the park as a day trip, isn’t a bad idea if you want to return to the comforts of a town at night. Another option is Sankhao Yai, a budget guesthouse offering motorbike rental and taxi services just outside the park’s northern gate.
If you have a few days and cash to spare, setting off in a car with a grill, groceries and supplies is the ideal way to hit Khao Yai independently -- just be sure to fill up the tank before entering the park. (See Travel for full details on renting a car or motorbike.)
Option 3: On tour
Several local companies offer Khao Yai tours to fit different interests and budgets. We reckon that a majority of foreign travellers opt for some sort of tour and indeed Khao Yai is a worthy place to splash out for one. A good company will save you stress while a good trail guide will point out critters and plants that most visitors won’t notice on their own.
Another good reason to book a tour is to visit the Khao Luk Chang cave, where millions of wrinkle-lipped bats flutter out to hunt in an amazing twirling formation on most evenings at dusk. A few kilometres north of the park’s northern gate off Highway 1016, the cave is located at the end of a dirt trail with no sign and is -- believe us -- difficult to find on your own.
Tour companies can also arrange camping in the park as part of the tours, or simply drop visitors off at a campground and pick them up on a specified date. (See Khao Yai tours for more info.)
By David Luekens
Last updated on 18th September, 2016.