Khao Yai National Park is, at c.300sqkm, one of the largest monsoon forests in mainland Asia. It is also a World UNESCO heritage site since 2005. With over 50km of hiking trails that demand leech protection and an abundance of wild animals including elephants, gibbons, sambar deer, gaur, and the odd cobra, it seemed an ideal place to take two kids under three and four adults on a three night excursion.
Now, this is where I may draw the ire of people who frequent the place and sing (rightly so) paeans to the heavens, exulting the bio-diversity, the pristine state, the natural beauty etc..
And…totally not for kids under 5 years old.
We didn’t know that till about 6 hours after we got there.
The drive up from Bangkok is uneventful; fitful bouts of sleep from all bar the driver who hums along tunefully on firstly Highway 1, then Highway 2 towards Pak Chong in order to enter the Park from the NE corner. Along the way the vast flood plain of Bangkok gives way from tightly packed skyscrapers to three storey suburban sprawl, the latter then punctured by some fields; yet the 160km route to the Park never lets go of its concrete urban forest as we start the 1300m climb into the hills. All the way along the route the steam of Thai life is belching into azure skies under a forbidding sun. The rainy season is over, “winter” is coming. Or not, as the blistering 38C thermometer glares at us.
As we approach the sharp acclivity of the hills, we see to our left gleaming industrial complexes thrusting proudly into the sky; to our right equally vast statues of Buddhist life sit, arms folded, protecting the Park from the hungry gleam of Industrial Thailand. These guardians, these denizens of the forest are easily over a hundred feet high.
We turn off Highway 2 and travel 20km into the hills; the road follows the natural valleys of the landscape, vast limestone cliffs rearing up overhead, blanketed in trees, those tightly bound together with sinewy, leg-thick cords of vines. There is a lot of construction going on. Thailand has woken to the possibility of the “trekking tourist”. No longer is Khao Yai the preserve of the holiday cyclist – though there are plenty of fat, sweating, lycra-clad men who, grim-faced, strain heroically to move their expensive cycles up the hills.
I applaud them silently whilst driving by.
Eventually we arrive at our destination – the Romantic Resort and Spa: english not well spoken, a mid-range 3 star hotel that is old, but well kept. Unfortunately, we seem to have arrived with a corporate trip of giggling young Thais. There is a lot of shouting, laughing, selfie-posing photos with the bent back Thai “V” finger salute so endemic in this society. Bit like this…
After unpacking we drive into the park. You can, of course, get here under the power of other devices: train, taxis, tour guides…but that means you are dependant on purchasing a guide jeep to take you through the park. Unnecessary really as it is split into several well marked zones you can park at to start trails. The Visitor Centre has clearly had a major face lift. Shiny black tarmac carpark, manicured lawns, very clean museum and cafes. More is being carefully built around it. The main route through the park is smooth, no potholes. There are cycle lanes (except on some of the switchback hill climbs which let you peer over dizzying drops into the valley below).
Occasionally we stop by signs warning of wild elephant crossings or we slowly drive around the family of gibbons sitting curiously by the roadside in hope of food. At the Visitor Centre we ask about trails to waterfalls that we can carry kids to. There is a single trail there at 1.2km (no waterfall), and eight trails are listed the longest being 8km. Problem is most have steep parts, certainly cannot be done with any kind of pushchair, and during the rainy season would be a muddy and treacherous underfoot. Plus the leeches I mentioned.
How many leeches on this one? we politely inquire of the smiling Thai lady.
Only a few. Really? Everyone seems to be buying white sock leech safety devices. Not suitable for kids then?
But…I am giving a false impression. The Park is simply quite stunning. Take a look:
Eventually we find a waterfall that we can drive to and walk 200m down a sheer cliff via (112 – we counted) stone cut steps. These are the Haew Suwat Waterfalls – this waterfall runs over a 20-metre cliff into a large pool below. It is located about 8 km to the east of the Visitor Center. You can see it is stunning and, with the peculiarly Thai lack of regard for Health & Safety, utterly accessible to both the careful and the foolhardy – something I especially like about this country. I’ve always lamented the fact you have to be a fake witch or warlord to gain a summer solstice dawn access to Stonehenge. Far too much of historic England is under the “watch but never touch” angry Big Brother Brigade of historical snobs. I get it, but also want people to be able to feel history. That means wandering among it, touching it, smelling it, hearing it…yes, even tasting the history. The quickest way to emotional memories is through touch, not sight.
Anyway….here in Thailand you can create as many memories as you want through the lack of “policing” in these places. Be respectful, certainly. Neither damage, nor degrade, nor destroy. But…touch all you want.
We had planned on three nights, we spent one only because we achieved all we could in one afternoon. The problem is, for all its amazing beauty, the place cannot handle pushchairs/wheelchairs. You have to carry kids in the blistering humidity. And, if they need a nap after two hours and weigh 18kg, then it’s not much fun for the adult. If you’re fit, able, unencumbered – then, yeah, this is a great trekking/cycling place to see wild Thailand. But kids…forget it till they are able to walk 10km without whining.
Here are a few last shots…if I am ever able, this is a place I’d like to visit again…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?
Categories: Khao Yai