Khao Yai National Park: A Backpacker Safari
January 1, 1970
by Jack Nuttgens
A Safari A Bus Ride Away From Bangkok
I recently finished a teaching placement in Hanoi, and afterwards travelled to Thailand and Cambodia. The place that I was most excited to visit was Khao Yai National Park, but when I got there, everything was not as I expected.
I. Was. Stoked. Ecotourism was top of my list, and a quick search told me that Khao Yai National Park, only a three hour journey from Bangkok, was an ideal place to visit. It’s among the easiest places to spot wild elephants in Thailand, and also home to gibbons (graceful black and white apes) crocodiles and the great hornbill, a bird with a huge banana-like casque on its head. I didn’t (and still don’t) understand why none of my travelling friends from Hanoi wanted to go. What could be better than seeing a wild elephant?
Arriving In Khao Yai
I stayed at the Greenleaf Guesthouse, which offers 1½ day safaris for about 1,500 baht, far less than the private tours. I arrived in Pak Chong, the nearest town, at midday and rang the Guesthouse, and they assured me that someone would be on their way.
After half an hour, I called again. This time, they were less patient, and told me again to wait.
After almost an hour, I called again. It was getting dangerously close to time to leave for the safari, and I was itching to spot a monkey or a hornbill; if I didn’t miss the trip completely, surely I would be a pariah among the other wildlife-watchers for delaying them.
A few minutes later, the driver found me and beckoned me to a minivan, with the cheerful non-explanation “Well, we found everyone else!” At the hostel, I dropped my bag in the room, and jumped into the back of the van.
As I got in, confusion changed to disappointment; like most songthaew (Thai vans), it had benches along the sides and thin slits that acted as windows; we could barely see out of them. How on earth were we meant to spot the legions of wild animals and birds in the park? This was not how a safari was supposed to work. Nobody else complained, and I began to suspect that the others weren’t as puritanically hardcore about wildlife-watching as I was.
Snakes And Streams
The first stop was a swim in preternaturally blue pools, but I was painfully aware that we were wasting valuable elephant-spotting time. Afterwards, the Thai guide beckoned us back to the songthaew, where his assistant had found a delicate whip snake. He convinced one man to let him drape the snake over his head, where it hung off his ear like grey headphones.
“Is it venomous?”
“Only a little bit.”
After exploring a cave used by local monks (and full of bats and spiders) we drove across pineapple fields for the sunset. This was going to be a highlight; the sight of several million bats leaving their cave at dusk.
As I focussed on the far end of the hill, the guide pointed and we saw that above us, a steady stream of bats had emerged. More and more joined, flying out of sight, meandering one way then the other like the tide on a beach. They became louder, chittering from high above, and we could hear them after it became too dark to see.
The Jungle: Gibbons And Elephants
The next day, I was in better spirits. I had rested, and there would be the chance to see elephants. After a brief stop at the park entrance to see monkeys chasing each other, we set off into the forest. With 13 people in the group, it wasn’t ideal; when the guide found something, it might go before everyone could reach the telescope. We hiked through the forest, seeing red and yellow-headed trogons- before finding a family of gibbons in the trees above; . Gibbons are some of the most graceful, agile creatures in the world, and we were lucky enough to see them singing to each other, including a female with a baby on its back.
After stopping for a drink near the park centre, where I enjoyed getting to know travellers from Brittany, Switzerland and Vietnam, we headed into the forest on foot. After some minutes, the guide stopped, warning us not to move. He had found an elephant, yet somehow, I couldn’t see it.
It was standing still, twenty yards away, its grey skin camouflaging it in the jungle gloom. It was bizarre to be unable to see something so massive, but after following someone’s finger, it clicked, and I saw the elephant’s back through the trees.
We backed away, then drove on to a picnic area to eat and visit a beautiful waterfall. After lunch, we walked along the riverbank to look for crocodiles. On the way, we saw huge black and yellow spiders a handspan in diameter on their webs in the trees.
It didn’t take long to find a crocodile, a couple of meters long, lazing on the opposite bank, grey-scaled and uninterested. By this point, we were hot and tired, and the guide led us back to the road.
“I’ve just had a call” he said. “The plan was to go to another waterfall, but they’ve spotted an elephant at the clay lick. What would you rather do?”
One Last Elephant
Everyone wanted to see the elephant, so we hared back along roads with blind summits. Eating clay provides elephants with minerals, and the park had made places next to the road where they could do this in view of the visitors. The elephant looked very conscious of the twelve truckloads of people, and soon wandered into the trees, out of sight.
Afterwards, we headed to some hollow trees to look for hornbills, but although there were nests, we couldn’t see the birds. It was already late afternoon and time to go back; I was much happier, and enjoyed a beer with my new friends that evening.
Looking back, it was a strange trip. Perhaps it was the consequence of choosing the cheapest option, or the perennial backpacker paradox of wanting convenience somewhere remote and wild. I saw elephants, gibbons and a great stream of bats, which were beautiful and impressive, so to complain about it seems horribly entitled. Overall, though, the trip had a feeling of ticking off items on a list, and that made it less spectacular than it could have been.