“Do you play golf?” asked the receptionist as we arrived at the Kiri Maya Golf Resort in Northern Thailand. We replied that we wanted to explore nearby Khao Yai National Park and we had no plans to test our prowess on the resort’s delightfully manicured 18-hole course.
She added: “I always tell our guests that the golf course is now much safer as fences have been erected to keep out the wild animals. Tigers sometimes used to stop play and elephant dung was a frequent ‘hazard’ on the fairways!”
Kiri Maya proved to be the perfect base for our wildlife viewing in one of Thailand’s best National Parks. In order to reach this beautiful place, we had taken a leisurely overnight cruise up the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok.
On route, we had visited the old Thai royal summer palace and the country’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya finally finished the journey by taxi.
The former royal summer palace, Bang Pa-in, is right on the Chao Phraya River and was originally built in the 17th century. It has a picturesque group of buildings set amidst luxurious gardens, the centrepiece of which is a Chinese style pavilion in the middle of a lagoon.
A long-tailed boat then ferried us further up the river to Ayutthaya itself. We were amazed at the beauty and grandeur of this enormous site, which for over 400 years was home to one of Asia’s richest cities.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade here, in the early 1500s. Late in the 18th century, however, the Burmese attacked, burned and looted Ayutthaya, and, within a year, it became a ghost town. Now the only remains are romantic ruins of temples, pagodas, palaces and a fabulous reclining Buddah, but it takes very little imagination to picture the city’s former splendour.
Khao Yai National Park covers around 2,000 square kilometers of mountains, evergreen jungle, scrub and grasslands. In order to safely explore the many hidden trails, a guide is essential, and ours was a cheerful and knowledgeable gentleman called ‘Bonsai’.
Before our trekking began, he insisted we donned ‘leech socks’, which were rather uncomfortable gaiters designed to keep the pesky bloodsuckers at bay. We immediately left the main tourist track behind and were soon trudging through deep jungle, amongst palms, lush ferns and tenacious vines, whilst almost deafened by birdsong.
Bonsai missed nothing. He pointed out the handsome Pig-Tailed Macaques and, way up in the treetops, magnificent Great Hornbills and chattering troops of Gibbons. We even saw an elephant and a Black Bear – but sadly only their backsides, as hearing us approach, they stalked haughtily off into the trees!
After a tasty picnic lunch sheltering under mosquito netting to keep the biting bugs at bay, we hiked to open grassland by a lake to watch herds of Barking and Simbar Deer grazing, overlooked by a Serpent Eagle soaring menacingly above.
During the afternoon, a Land Rover drove us high into the mountains and whilst admiring some of Khao Yai’s many orchid species, we were surprised as a King Cobra slithered across our path!
In the evening, we joined a large and very raucous group of Thai tourists for a jeep safari. In pitch darkness, we motored through the jungle whilst the guides, using large flashlights, searched for Porcupines, Civets (small nocturnal mammals) and foraging deer. Considering the noise of children shouting and screaming, we were amazed that the animals hadn’t already scattered far away into the bushes – this was not the finest eco-tourism experience!
Our second wild-watch day was less strenuous, and began with further frustration. Just as we arrived to look for elephants at one of the park’s watering holes, we heard a trumpeting noise and saw two large swaying rear ends disappear into the forest! However, a short stroll to the charming Haew Suwat waterfall soon cheered us up. The tumbling waters of this scenic spot were used as a backdrop in the film ‘The Beach’.
Bonsai then guided us along a peaceful trail by a river to enjoy a kaleidoscopic display of butterflies accompanied by more glorious birdsong. We were fascinated by the aerobatics of the Gliding Lizards and privileged to watch a large Water Monitor meandering slowly along the riverbank. However, the highlight was the Siamese Freshwater Crocodile fast asleep on a rock in the middle of the river.
Bonsai signalled us to remain silent as we crept closer. However, even he was startled when quite suddenly, and with a loud ‘slap’ of its tail, the indignant beast turned to give us a ferocious stare, before diving into the water to swim angrily away. This was a really fortunate encounter, as these crocodiles are critically endangered.
The Khao Luk Chang bat cave was our final excursion. The cave is half way up a limestone cliff and, at dusk each day, around three million bats leave the security of their home to feed on flying insects.
This spectacular event begins as a faint black trickle from the cave entrance, but the trickle soon becomes a flood, as hundreds of thousands of bats rapidly follow to weave and zigzag across the evening sky.
There are so many that it takes over an hour for them all to leave the cave. We noticed that a few moments before the bats left their roost, two birds of prey arrived and hovered above the cliff to wait for their dinner. These raptors fly in every evening for their ‘take-away’, each swooping down to carry off an unfortunate bat – often returning for a second helping!
A few days wildlife watching in Khao Yai can be a most pleasurable interlude on any tour of central or northern Thailand. The park is quite close to Bangkok and can be used as a stepping-stone on a longer journey north through some of the country’s finest historical sites, finishing at Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the magical Mekong River.
For keen golfers, there will be the added delight of a few rounds on the superb Kiri Maya Course, which these days is a much safer activity. There are no problems associated with circumnavigating hazards left behind by elephants or being mauled by an Asian Tiger!
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.