Kaeng Krachan National Park – Thailand's Stunning Countryside
Only a 3-hour drive from Bangkok, Kaeng Krachan is the largest national park in Thailand and home to the Kaeng Krachan Dam. This massive 58-meter tall earth dam provides hydroelectric power to the area of Phetchaburi and has been standing since 1966. The reservoir covers around 50 square kilometres and as it fills up each day from the tributaries running down the surrounding mountains, the reservoir needs to be carefully controlled to prevent floods, especially during Thailand’s monsoon season. Each day between 8 am and 5 pm authorities open the dam and allow the Petchaburi river to flow at maximum tumescence.
Riding the Wild River
Along the top of the Petchaburi River, closest to the dam opening, is a tiny town, comprised of a series of guest houses and restaurants. These little hotels all have some kind of shaky, wooden deck, hastily built over the swelling river. You can sit, order up some tasty Thai dishes, enjoy a beer and then strap on a lifejacket and heave yourself into the swirling river.
Unlike it would be in the west, this exciting and ridiculously silly activity is not slowed down by any kinds of safety regulations or rules. It goes against everything one was taught as a kid about staying away from swollen, rushing rivers, and you might (reasonably) ask yourself how many people die whilst riding the waves of the Petchaburi river. Despite potential risks to your livelihood, you should definitely give this activity a go. It is unforgettable and very addictive. The river is at its most rapid during the rainy season in Thailand between the months of June and October. You can rent lifejackets at all of the hotels and restaurants along the river. Check out this video on youtube of the river craziness.
Camping and Swimming Monkeys
If you are a fan of mother nature, there are many camping grounds in the national park. You can take your own equipment or rent tents from vendors scattered around the park. A good place to begin if you wish to camp is by the Tourist Service Center where you can also get a 40 minute, guided boat ride around the reservoir for a couple of hundred baht. This boat ride is nothing really special except for when you pull up next to a particular island in the middle of the lake and about 100 monkeys approach you to see if you have peanuts. Definitely buy a bag of peanuts from a stall near the visitor’s centre because when you begin to throw them into the water near the monkey island, the little guys will swim out to your boat. It is quite a scene to be a part of, dozens of swimming monkeys plucking floating peanuts from the water all around you.
The Challenges and Pitfalls
The tricky thing about visiting Kaeng Krachan is getting around as a foreigner. This place is pretty much off the foreign tourist trail. You will see few or even no other non-Thai people while you are there and although this is a great thing for someone who wants to see more of the “real Thailand” it also makes the place a unique challenge. There are no taxis out there, no Uber or Grab. You might find yourself hitchhiking or offering cash for rides in the backs of trucks. If you do not have a car in Thailand, you will be limited in your ability to get about. You will also find yourself doing a lot of miming and charades as very few people in the area speak much English. This town is really a huge tourism spot for locals, and a fantastic place to see for yourself, but do be prepared to challenge yourself a bit more than if you went to Chiang Mai or Phuket. The other thing you will find is that hotels and restaurants definitely cater to local guests. The beds are rock hard, the food is all local, Thai cuisine. There are no 7 Elevens anywhere nearby. After a week, you might really be craving a plate of spaghetti or a good sandwich.
Ethical Travel – Meeting Elephants, Not Riding Them
Elephant riding is a terrible thing to do to these wonderful creatures. They cannot stand the weight of the huge metal seat and two or more people sitting on their backs. They end up with horrible medical problems very quickly. Training elephants to behave for tourists is also horrendously cruel, they are beaten, abused and broken in order to make them afraid. When you visit Asia, it is best to never pay for any kind of tourist activity involving animals.
The Ethical Option
Be warned that there are many new “elephant sanctuaries” popping up all over Thailand and some of them are not legitimate. Do your research well before you choose who to give your tourist dollars to. Here is a really good list of people who are doing the right thing and saving elephants from the tourism industry.
When in the area of Kaeng Krachan, one elephant refuge centre is really worth a visit. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) is doing amazing things to save and rehabilitate elephants and all other animals that need help. A full day tour at their park costs 1600 baht per person and includes a wonderful buffet lunch. The day begins at 10 am with a guided tour of the animal rescue area. You will find adorable baby gibbons which have been saved from the tourism industry where they were used as photo props for money. They are used until they become aggressive at the age of about 2 years and then they are either killed, abandoned with no gibbon skills to survive in the wild or they have their teeth ripped out so they cannot attack people.
There are sun bears saved from bear bile farms, three-legged cows, and one-armed monkeys who had their other arm cut off by humans and served as food which is said to promote immortality. The people at WFFT will save any creature which comes their way with the ultimate goal of returning them to the wild if possible.
The elephants are the stars of the show, of course. They are magnificent, majestic and most importantly, happy and safe. They wander on acres and acres of land and enjoy a healthy diverse diet. They are free to meander over to fences occasionally for some fruit, they swim in lakes when they want to, and they are never ridden or hit with bull-hooks. These elephants are living their best lives.