Getting off the Tourist Track in Thailand
Thailand gets more tourists than any other Southeast Asian country, and it’s very apparent most places you go. If you go to places like Phuket, Kho Tao and Kho Samui, Chiang Mai, or Pai, you’ll find more Europeans and Americans than Thai people, and sometimes I found myself forgetting I was even in Asia. So after a brief stay in Chiang Mai, and a poorly planned trip to Doi Inthanon National Park– a beautiful, mountainous, but heavily populated park where most tourists don’t make it past the first couple waterfall turn-offs along the main road—my friend Ben and I decided to go back down south, where the parks and preserves generally have more wildlife and fewer people. Over the next three and a half weeks I spent a total of two nights in hotels or hostels and paid for buses or trains only a handful of times, in what started as incredibly frugal budgeting but became more of a fun, but often uncomfortable personal challenge.
Before leaving Chiang Mai for Doi Inthanon, I found a lightweight, clean-ish sleeping bag in the trashcan in the hostel I was staying at, Kozy House Hostel (a cute hostel just outside the old city walls with air-con and wifi, for 100 Bhat), which saved me a lot of money, by my standards, over the next few weeks. This sleeping bag, plus a 200 Bhat (about $6) hammock I picked up in Bangkok at a tiny store close to the bus station, became my bed for the next month.
Hitchhiking: my favorite way to get around
We hitchhiked out of the park and back to Chiang Mai, which, unless you rent a motorbike in town and drive out yourself, is the easiest although not the fastest way to and from Doi Inthanon. This strategy-hitchhiking- proved the cheapest and most fun way of traveling around Thailand, and I stuck to it pretty much the entire next month. I am generally skeptical and cautious of hitchhiking in a foreign country, especially as a young woman traveling alone, but Thailand is pretty safe and especially leaving national parks, most of the people that I came across were young Thai couples or families on their way home from a weekend trip. Most parks and preserves that are worth going to are pretty remote, and it is hard if not impossible to find public transport to the park entrance, at best you can get to a town a little outside the parks, and renting a motorbike in every place adds up quick. I started out hitchhiking with a male friend for about ten days, and then continued alone, and never ran into any creepy people or questionable situations, and since I wasn’t in a rush and wasn’t afraid to embarrass myself trying to pronounce names of obscure towns and national parks to drivers, it ended up being a great way to get around.
Getting to Kaeng Krachan
When we got back to Chiang Mai we went straight to the train station and caught an overnight train to Bangkok. While at the Bangkok bus station, we decided to go to Kaeng Krachan National Park, a beautiful park southwest of Bangkok known for its incredible birding, but also home to tons of other cool wildlife. I used one website for pretty much everything (https://www.thainationalparks.com/), to choose where we wanted to go and figure out how to get there, this website is incredible for traveling to Thai National Parks. From there we caught a minibus to Petchaburi (hitchhiking out of Bangkok is pretty much impossible unless you want to spend hours standing on a busy freeway choking on exhaust fumes), and then another one to Kaeng Krachan Town. On most minibuses you have to pay for an extra seat if you have luggage that takes up any room at all, so we sat on our backpacks with our heads hitting the roof for the whole ride, but the driver actually took us all the way to the park entrance (about 10 minutes past the town), so it was worth it.
Exploring the Park
We got to the first of three campsites in Kaeng Krachan in the evening and stayed there for the night. The campsite was giant and right on a reservoir so we explored a little and saw lots of kingfishers and herons, watched the sunset over the water, and then got dinner from the camp restaurant. It was a Saturday night so the campsite was pretty crowded and not forested, so no great wildlife, but it was a nice place to sleep before getting up early and hitching a ride all the way to the third and furthest campsite, Phanoen Thung, set high up in the mountains.
Phanoen Thung Campsite and Around
We explored a couple beautiful overlooks right next to the campsite, and found a gazebo-like shelter where we hung our hammocks in case it rained, which it did both nights we slept there. Most campsites in Thailand have tents available to rent, but they almost all have little permanent structures that are free and perfect for a hammock or two. The next morning we walked to an incredible viewpoint that overlooks what people call the Sea of Fog, a valley where clouds gather in the morning and swirl around for an hour or two, making you feel like you’re on top of the world. Then we hiked to a beautiful waterfall, passing under a ridiculous amount of gibbons and langur monkeys singing and jumping from tree to tree. By the time we swam and then walked back to camp, we were starving and exhausted. After two serving of fried rice each from the campsite restaurant, we passed out. I didn’t even wake up for what was apparently a really loud thunderstorm.
Ban Krang Campsite
The next day we caught a ride down the mountain to Ban Krang campsite, which ended up being the most beautiful place I stayed in all of Thailand. The roads around the campsite are dotted with salt licks which attract all sorts of animals, but when we were there (in May), they were covered with butterflies. Every inch of these salt licks was covered with a colorful, fluttering blanket of butterflies and I spent hours running through them and watching them all fly up around me. My friend Ben and I layed down next to one of the salt licks after a particularly sweaty hike one day and within minutes both of us were covered in butterflies. Every morning we would have to shake butterflies off of our smelly shoes and socks.
Wildlife-spotting in Kaeng Krachan
Most of the mornings were spent walking the roads and side trails taking pictures of gibbons and langurs, it must have been baby season because almost every group of langurs had at least one bright orange baby holding on to its mother’s belly.
In the afternoons we would walk around our campsite following avid birders with foot-long camera lenses trying to get the perfect shot of rare woodpeckers and kingfishers. The other people at this campsite were all incredibly nice and really into finding wildlife. One couple took us on hikes at night to find and photograph snakes. The rangers that ran the restaurant offered to let us do dishes in exchange for free meals, and gave us recommendations of good spots to see leopards (apparently kind of common at Kaeng Krachan although we didn’t see any) and other parks to go to.
It was really hard to leave, I could have happily stayed at least a few days longer, but Ben had a flight in a week and we wanted to explore at least one other park together, so after a week we caught a ride to Bangkok, and then on to one of the most famous parks in Thailand: Khao Yai!