One of the hardest things about living in Bangkok is the dearth of green space. While we live within 20 minutes of some great and interesting city parks, they aren’t as wooded or spacious as the parks we grew up with, and you can’t ever really get away from the sound of cars. Enter our new favorite Bangkok Getaway, Khao Yai National Park, which is about a two hour car drive away. For being so close to Bangkok, this is a pretty legitimate jungle. It is the third largest National Park in Thailand, covering an area of about 840 square miles, including evergreen forests and grasslands. Its altitude mostly ranges from 1300 to 3300 feet above sea level. There is a wealth of natural diversity, including 3,000 species of plants, 320 species of birds including a species of hornbill with a 6 foot wingspan, 66 species of mammals, including the sun bear, Asiatic black bear, Asian elephant, gaur, gibbon, Indian sambar deer, pig-tailed macaque, wild pig, and a particularly attractive species of snow white squirrel, notable for it’s graceful, almost serpentine movements along tree limbs. We were originally psyched to hear that this is tiger territory, and our guide said that he estimates 15-20 tigers live here. We learned later that evidence of tigers has not been “officially” recorded recently, and that human activity near the park adversely affected the tiger population…However, a wildlife organization has noted tiger presence in other nearby parts of Eastern Thailand where they were previously thought to have been completely extirpated, so there is some hope that a few tigers still live in the park. The waterfalls at Khao Yai include the waterfall made famous by the 2000 movie “The Beach,” starring Leonardo diCaprio.
Once in the park, it is hard to imagine the bustling metropolis of Bangkok only two hours away. It is currently the dry season, so leaves on the ground were reminiscent of autumn in the American Midwest, even if the 95* temperatures made it obviously tropical. The fresh smell of woods and dirt were divine, and the sound of cicadas were music to our city-weary ears. Leeches are a problem for hikers going into the woods, so we all sported leech socks, which fit inside your shoe, over your pants and tie just below the knee. This added another cool aspect of adventure to it all.
Our tour lasted from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., and we were glad we sprung for the guided tour, as our guide was a wizard at picking animals out of the woods, and brought a handy telescope with tripod so we could watch the animals close up. He also sported an impressive amount of hair product, even for a Thai, who shape their follicular assets into all manner of fabulous forms, often inspired by Japanese anime. We began the day by watching the largest species of hornbills, who take lifetime mates, always flying in pairs. You might be interested to know that this is the Fruit Loop bird, so next time you buy a fabulously nutritious box of Fruit Loops, know that we were watching him and his life mate flying around Khao Yai last weekend. We heard gibbons in the distance, so with our stiffly coiffed guide leading the way, trekked quickly but as quietly as possible through the jungle to see them before they moved. We got a great look at them through the telescope and the fearless acrobats of a baby at the top of 100 foot trees were thrilling to watch.
We saw some great stuff, but the highlight came at the end of the day when we saw two wild elephants, a mother with her two year old son, at a mineral salt lick just before sunset. While fairly close already, the telescope allowed us to see their interactions. Baby stayed close to his Mom, and they would periodically put their foreheads together, sharing affection, between foraging for mineral salts and tossing red dirt on their backs. He didn’t stray too far from her, and she caressed around his head and sides with her trunk, stained reddish orange from the mineral dirt. We oohed and ahhed over them for about an hour before they wandered back toward the jungle. It was so great to see wild elephants.
Needless to say, we will be back to Khao Yai whenever we need a break from the non-stop bustling energy of Bangkok, and are already making plans to visit again.