Exploring Hidden Thailand
Thailand's heartland is the area in the northeast, bordered by the Maekhong River and Cambodia. The area is a treasure trove of natural, historical, and archaeological sites many of them well restored. Off the traditional travel corridor, there is little of the typical high pressure, hard-sell tourism found in some other parts of the country.
Nakhon Ratchasima is Thailand's largest province. Its central city of Khorat (Thailand's second largest) is just 250 kilometers from Bangkok. Nakhon Ratchasima is most famous as a center for traditional Thai silk weaving and Angkor-period Khmer ruins. I headed in the direction of the restored shrine at Phimai, which I has heard is one of the most impressive.
With a little time on my hands, I had wanted to turn a few days over to nature, so on the way to Phimai I stopped at Khao Yai National Park, Thailand's oldest and one of its most impressive parks. Khao Yai holds 2,172 square kilometers in reserve for its flourishing flora and fauna.
Khao Yai National Park
The air was redolent with the stink of guano, the high-pitched symphony amazing. I felt like living, squeaking muslin was being pulled across my face faster than I could see. Skein by skein it rolled out of the mouth of the cave, swished by my flushing cheeks, and then disappeared into the sky behind me.
Thousands upon thousands of bats hole up in caves in Khao Yai National Park. Every day at sunset, these thousands upon thousands come pouring forth in an endless stream and get busy munching on the dusk bugs and vegetation.
Fortunately, these thousands upon thousands of blind, winged mice are not of the blood-sucking variety and take no more notice of a human head than a pumpkin does. Thus, sticking my face into the full force of the exit stream brought about no real harm. A few collisions perhaps as the rebounding radar squeaks didn't register in time for a few sleepy beasties to effect evasive maneuvers, but nothing serious.
It was the first evening of a one-and-half-day jungle adventure in the national park. First there was the bat cave at dusk. The next day we spent a few hours hiking through limitless bamboo, fields of head-high greenery, and the magical honking, hooting. and tweeting cacophony of the forest. Then, after dark, we cruised into the park in open-back safari trucks for some nighttime animal viewing. I was hoping for my first ever wild elephant sighting. This time I was again foiled (although I did see sambar and barking deer, civets, and porcupines), but I didn't leave Thailand disappointed.
After years of being considered one of the world's best national parks, Khao Yai now carries a designation as an ASEAN National Heritage Site. Containing a huge tract of intact monsoon forest (the largest in mainland Asia), crossing five vegetation zones, and home to 200-300 wild elephants as well as numerous other animals, birds (particularly a wide variety of hornbills), and bats, Khao Yai truly is spectacular.
More than 50 kilometers of animal trails allow foot-traffic access to parts of the park, but more than 80 percent of the territory is closed to and uninhabited by humans. The maps that are available are bad, so if you will not be joining an organized trip into park, take a local guide. And be prepared for leeches. Tobacco rubbed on the ankles and stuffed into the socks seems to be the locally preferred leach repellent.
Getting There: Park access is best made from the nearby town of Pak Chong (which is also where you will find the best accommodations and food services). Pak Chong is a four-hour bus or train trip from Bangkok or a short hop from Khorat.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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