Head northeast from Bangkok in a taxi for about 3 hours and you’ll start seeing mountains. They spring up innocuously by the side of the road like mushrooms, and then they get bigger and then they’re all around you, decked out in rotund, wiry trees.
Occasionally you’ll see a giant golden Buddha perched among them, silently watching the road like a wise old (but admittedly ineffective) lollipop lady.
You’re getting closer to Thailand’s ultimate wildlife wonderland: Khao Yai. It’s one of the largest national parks in the country, and one of the few where wild elephants still roam. You’re going to find waterfalls, hiking trails, gibbons, macaques and even a rogue, rather lonely looking Siamese crocodile.
Our first trip to Khao Yai takes place on a Friday evening. Three of us are in the back of a taxi heading to one of the few resorts I could find that was close to the park entrance, had an onsite restaurant and pool (we don’t have use of a car during our stay), and good reviews. But there’s also something about the pictures that seems odd. Ah well, it’s a couple of nights, right?
From the back seat, we marvel at the views of the national park. The sun is setting, and the giant hummocks of the mountains are silhouetted against layers of iridescent silver and peach in the sky. We pass fields where the reflections of water buffalo can be glimpsed in glassy pools, not quite obliterated yet by the gathering darkness.
A last resort
We rumble down a dirt track past traditional Thai houses with frangipani trees in their yards and pull into the resort which covers a couple of acres enclosed in garish terracotta coloured walls. There are two things that strike us. One: there’s a lot of space. Two: that space is mainly filled with statues. Freaky statues. There’s the statues-you’d-never-get-away-with-in-England, two caricaturish black ladies with large bottoms and buckets on their heads that flank either side of the entrance to reception. And then there’s just a wasteland of grounds littered with animal statues: giraffes, gorillas, rotweillers, peacocks, disconcerting gaggles of sheep with the faces of lewd men. There’s a couple of blocks of accommodation, a pool and a dining area in there, but it’s mainly statues.
Whilst booking.com urged me forwards with dire warnings there were only two rooms left, this vast resort appears to be empty other than us. Us and the statues. We go for an evening swim and the staff gather by the pool and pretend not to watch. The sheep statues, however, openly ogle us with lolling tongues.
At breakfast we’re marooned in the vast dining area. A ladyboy with hair the colour of Lucozade and lipstick the colour of bubblegum follows us around the breakfast buffet, remarking on each of our choices. ‘You vegetarian? We have chicken sausage. We have American sausage.’ I approach some white baguettes laid out on the chopping board and give them a tap. They are so hard the tap echoes back off the corrugated iron roof. I try to move on but the waitress has seen me and swoops – ‘You want bread?’ she hacks me three slices, sweat beading at her forehead from the effort, and stands over me as I put them in the toaster. It’s on too high a setting and they burn. She watches me walk back to the table, and then watches me to check I’m eating them, which I do with murmurs of approval because I’m British.
Escape from the last resort
We meet our guide at reception, catching him as he casts a concerned eye over the statues. ‘Nice resort!’ he says, incredulously. Deaw is a wiry little chap with chin length hair. He wears jeans and a shirt over a t-shirt. He has the air of a Thai Crocodile Dundee. He tells us he spends just about all his time camping out in the jungles of Khao Yai.
Deaw drives us through the park gates into an environment totally different to anywhere I’ve been in Thailand. It’s the trees and the altitude. Less of the palms, more of the mixed forest. I’m unsure why the shape of leaves and branches should so influence my impressions of a place, but they do.
We head to a viewpoint where the valley is spread out beneath us like a resplendent green velvet gown. It’s a beautiful day. The sky is like a hyper-realised version of itself, a piercing, penetrating blue. The air is clean. Macaques frolick in the viewpoint car park behind us, reclining like It Girls on the bonnets of eagerly snapping tourists.
Furry, feathery, fabulous
Our truck coasts slowly along the road, which is paved but quiet, and then we’re pulling over – Deaw has been tipped off about something. He trains his scope on a clutch of branches 20 metres away. They’re sagging beneath some sort of weight. I squint into the scope to see a black giant squirrel clinging to a tree branch. I can see its coal black fur and an even blacker eye shining, along with a custard-yellow underside. This is Thailand’s largest squirrel, and it’s listed on the IUCN red list having lost 30% of its habitat in the past 10 years.
Further along we stop to ogle a pair of great hornbills. They’re perched at the top of a tree right by the road, and they’re so large they seem out of place there, as if they climbed the tree and couldn’t work out how to get down again. I’ve never seen a bird quite like them. They’re like a carnival act – large show offy beaks, ruby red eyes, dramatic yellows and whites in their plumage.
Enter the jungle
Deaw parks the truck abruptly in a layby and indicates that this is where are to enter the forest. There’s no discernible path through the trees and we just have to follow his criss crossing footsteps. I’m still not quite sure whether he was making it up as he went along or not. We gradually become aware of a howling noise echoing through the forest. Gibbons. We follow their trail until we can see them in the treetops. They look like those monkey soft toys you can buy with really long skinny arms and legs.
Things seem to go really off road after this. We plunge deeper into the woods, regularly passing large piles of elephant dung. This both alarms and excites me. We see scratches on tree trunks where bears have climbed up. This also both alarms and excites me. We see an Asian pied hornbill, we see a flameback woodpecker and lots of interesting plants.
We emerge from the forest some 90 minutes later, onto a grassy plain looking out onto a water filled quarry. The slope leading down to it is full of minerals, and the elephants regularly gather there to salt lick. We have a rest in the watchtower overlooking it, eyes strained for the sway of a trunk, but none appear.
When bad selfies go badder
We visit a nearby waterfall, following a trail down to the riverbed, and there, still as a statue on a flat rock, is a lone crocodile. Apparently someone released it here a few years ago and it’s the only one in the whole national park. They’ve tried to catch it numerous times but it always gives them the slip, sly beast. Recently a French woman got a bit too close for a selfie – she tripped and it took off the back of her leg. So today we’re observing old snappy from a safe distance, hence the crappy photo.
We’re cruising along the road to the next waterfall when suddenly there are brake lights in front of us. And then there is a large female elephant with a male calf at her side, just strolling down the road towards us. It happens so quickly we barely have time to process it. I’m trying to film but when the male comes past my window we both spring back a bit in fright. Deaw is ecstatic – this is not a regular occurrence and we’re very lucky to have had such good views of them. So imagine his surprise when we’re on our way back from the waterfall and we see another troupe of elephants, this time around five of them, that cross the road and disappear into the trees beside us.
Rare two-wheeled species spotted
It’s enough excitement to be calling it a day, but we’re off out on the night safari, run by the national park rangers. Deaw is not allowed to drive us out at night, we can only go on the roads in the official national park open back trucks. They leave in a convoy, each with a ranger sat on top brandishing a gigantic searchlight to scan the surroundings. It’s a reasonably farcical experience – any animal with a brain cell to its name hears the cacophony of engines and fucks off, and the man with the searchlight ends up turning it onto nearby objects and reporting back to us: ‘motorbike! Hahaha! House! Hahahaha’. Thus passes an hour.
Deaw delivers us home and melts off into the darkness, probably to string a hammock between two trees after butchering a snake for his dinner. I’m not even joking.
And back at our resort, where the previous night there was nothing but us and a few statues, is what feels like the entire Thai police force having a massive party. Their wives are dancing on stage and they’re judging them, shouting into microphones, drinking and singing and it’s all too surreal so we go to bed and dream about elephants.
We travelled to Khao Yai with a driver I’ve used before. It’s a three hour drive from the city if the traffic is ok. To get there you will either need to take a taxi, minivan or bus. There’s some helpful instructions here.
I booked our tour of the national park with Khao Yai and Beyond. I requested a one day trip with a night safari. It was 4,500 baht per person including transfers to and from accommodation, food and water. What we realised on the day is that the night safari isn’t run by Khao Yai and Beyond as they’re not allowed to operate in the park after dark. They buy your ticket from the national park office and then wait for you to finish so they can drop you at your resort.
I’ve deliberately left the name of our resort out of this because I know they are simply running a business for an audience which is not typically myself and my friends, and I don’t think they deserve a bad review. The room was clean and comfortable, the staff attentive and polite. However I couldn’t leave the whole bizarre experience out of this account and I don’t want to cause anyone offence.