Published/Last edited or updated: 21st July, 2020
Asian elephants roam several protected natural areas in Thailand, but only one offers visitors an almost certain chance of seeing these glorious animals in the wild. That would be Kui Buri National Park, where hundreds of wild elephants and gaur thrive amid grassland and evergreen forest.
Covering 969 square km of the Tenassarim mountains and their foothills along the Burma border, Kui Buri is unlike any other national park in Thailand. Instead of exploring on your own or with a hiking guide, all visitors are required to hop in a pick-up truck for a slow-going ride on a 15-km dirt road that pierces the wilderness. This is a genuine Thai-style safari.
The park’s backstory begins in the late 1970s when some 150 families were allocated land for growing pineapple, rubber and other crops in a previously undeveloped part of Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Herds of wild elephants and gaur—present before the humans arrived—devoured crops, prompting farmers to kill many of the animals by gun, poison and electrocution. In response, the national park was established in 1999 to protect the animals and enable experts to better manage the wildlife in relation to the settlers.
What blossomed was a mutually beneficial arrangement between people and wildlife. Locals benefit from the park by working as drivers and guides while offering craft and homestay programmes in the nearby village of Baan Ruam Thai. Meanwhile, the animals can live amid wide open spaces, parts of which used to be farmland, without being threatened by humans.
While the animals still stray into the remaining farms on occasion, the clear divisions between agricultural land and wildlife land have worked out well for the most part. Today the park is home to at least 300 wild elephants and around 400 wild gaur, numbers that are thought to be higher than any other national park or wildlife sanctuary in Thailand.
The safari begins at the Huai Luek ranger station, where we paid the fees (see below) and were joined by a local guide on the bed of a non-roofed pick-up fitted with benches. She only spoke Thai, but her main role was to look around and point. The forest captivated us from the start, and within 15 minutes we’d already spotted adult elephants and a calf rustling in the woods.
Further up the road, our guide tapped on the roof of the pick-up to signal for the driver to stop when several gaur appeared through the trees. The world’s largest wild bovid, these heavily horned “Indian buffalos” can weigh more than 1,000 kg. We found them almost as impressive as the elephants.
The park’s gaur population recovered well after 24 of them mysteriously died in 2014, prompting the park to close for almost a full year. Poisoning was suspected at first, but officials later concluded that a bacterial disease outbreak was the likeliest cause. Gaur numbers in the park have spiked considerably since those deaths provoked worries that the herd was in decline.
The first of our two opportunities to jump out of the pick-up came at Pong Saladdai, a rolling expanse of grassland dotted with trees. We were told that dozens of elephants and gaur often appear simultaneously here, but we had to settle for an attractive landscape devoid of big, gentle beasts.
That miss made our final stop, at the Payang ranger outpost, all the more thrilling. We’ll never forget watching a bull elephant saunter out of the forest and plunge into a muddy pond for a long and leisurely dip as fog settled over the treetops at dusk. Afterwards, our guide pointed at a jungle-draped mountain beyond the road’s end and said, “Burma is over there”.
While they play second fiddle to the jumbos, the park also contains hundreds of bird species including grey peacock pheasant, blue-rumped parrot and brown fish owl. More common are the hornbills and Indian rollers. Binoculars for viewing birds and other wildlife can be rented at the Huai Luek station.
You might spot other mammals during the safari as well, such as wild boar and Burmese hare. Gibbons, tapirs, leopards and possibly a few tigers are also found within the park’s boundaries, but they typically roam deeper in the forest in areas that are off limits to visitors. Head up to Kaeng Krachan National Park for a much better chance of spotting jungle creatures like these.
In addition to Kaeng Krachan, a trip to Kui Buri National Park goes hand in hand with Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park and its seaside karst mountains towering only 40 km east of Huai Luek. Staying on Khao Sam Roi Yot Beach and taking a side trip to Kui Buri National Park is a good plan. Also throw in Huay Yang Waterfall to complete a natural tour of Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
Kui Buri National Park’s headquarters stand around 15 km south of the Huai Luek wildlife viewing area, so typing the park’s name into a GPS app will most likely not direct you to the right place. You’ll find no attractions close to headquarters apart from a campground that does not get much use.
Four waterfalls—including the 15-tier Dong Ma Fai—are supposedly accessible from park headquarters, but only via demanding treks that take you eight to 12 km into the wilderness. These treks require pre-booking a ranger to guide hikers through the remote terrain. For the vast majority of visitors, the safari at Huai Luek accounts for the entire Kui Buri National Park experience.
Logistics and getting there
The Huai Luek wildlife viewing area is open only from 14:00 to 17:00 because the elephants and gaur tend to come out during the late afternoon. 15:00 is a good time to arrive. Those who get there later are allowed to be on the safari ride well past the park’s 17:00 closure time. At the Huai Luek station you’ll find a park-run restaurant, but no campground or lodgings and minimal info.
Tickets to the park cost 200 baht per foreign adult and 100 baht per foreign child. Private vehicles are not allowed into the wildlife viewing area. A pick-up truck with driver and mandatory guide costs an additional 850 baht total for up to eight passengers. Following the Covid-19 lockdown in mid 2020, the park is imposing a daily quota of 200 visitors per day and reservations can be made through the QueQ app. Visitors without reservations are only allowed into the park if it has not reached the quota.
There is no public transport to the Huai Luek wildlife viewing area. Expect to pay around 3,000 baht for a return trip by private car (with driver) from Hua Hin, located 80 km to the northeast; or 2,000 to 2,500 baht from Prachuap Khiri Khan, located 60 km to the southeast. You could also arrange a trip from Pranburi or the beaches north of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park.
If travelling with a vehicle, follow signs pointing west off Phetkasem Rd (Route 4) on to Highway 3217, then take a signposted right on to rural road 4024, which runs straight to Huai Luek. The Baan Ruam Thai craft and farming village is six km south of Huai Luek ranger station, near the lake known as Yang Chum.
Kui Buri National Park: T: (085) 266 1601 ; (065) 994 2680 ; (032) 510 453 ; (081) 776 2410 ; http://nps.dnp.go.th//parksdetail.php?id=131&name=KuiBuriNationalPark
Baan Ruam Thai craft and homestay village: 6 km south of Huai Luek ranger station ; T: (089) 379 9368 ; https://www.facebook.com/baanruamthai
Address: 40 km west of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
T: (085) 266 1601;
Coordinates (for GPS): 99º38'46.9" E, 12º8'20.63" N
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Admission: 200 baht for foreign adults, 100 baht for foreign kids
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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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