Khao Yai National Park (Pak Chong, 08/1877-3127, 08/6092-6531, or 08/1063-9241, www.dnp.go.th , 400B adult, 100B child) was the country’s first national park and covers over 2,000 square kilometers over parts of the four provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Sara Buri, Nakhon Nayok, and Prachin Buri.
Inside you’ll find waterfalls, mountains, evergreen forest, tropical forest, grasslands, and rivers populated by over 300 species of birds, gibbons, macaques, deer, and even elephants and tigers. You can hike, go white-water rafting, swim in the waterfalls, observe animals, and even do a night safari.
Though it’s easy to enjoy a day trip here, it’s possible to spend a week at Khao Yai and not feel like you’ve seen and done everything available.
There are 20 major waterfalls in the park, including Haew Narok, the largest, and Haew Suwat, the most famous (as it was used in the filming of The Beach). At Haew Suwat, the waterfall ends with an 18-meter drop into a small reservoir, and visitors can swim under the falls.
The main visitors center (or your hotel or guesthouse if you’re staying outside of the park) can also arrange wildlife tours.
The park is vast, and either unfortunately or conveniently, depending on how you look at it, there is a main road that cuts through the park, providing well-paved and well-maintained access to all of the larger sights. The main visitors center, right in the center of the park and on the main road, has some ecology and wildlife exhibits as well as park rangers available to answer questions.
Be aware that the rangers have occasionally tried to dissuade visitors from hiking the trails, warning them about the difficulty and length of trails. But if you are even a novice hiker and in good physical condition, do not worry. Most of the trails are fairly well marked and none are very long (in fact you won’t be able to find a trail longer than about 9.5 kilometers). If you’re starting from the main visitors center, the trail to the Haew Suwat waterfall, at about eight kilometers, is a nice intermediate hike. There are a total of about 48 kilometers of hiking trails in the park, most of which begin at the main headquarters.
The area surrounding Khao Yai is home to some small wineries that are very convenient if you’re visiting from Bangkok  for the day. In addition to selling wine, some offer tours and tastings, as well as wonderful restaurants. These are family-run operations, so it’s best to call and confirm a tour instead of just showing up.
PB Valley Vineyard (102 Mu 5, Phaya Yen, Pak Chong, 02/262-0030 or 03/622 6415, www.khaoyaiwinery.com , daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., free) produces nearly one million bottles of shiraz, tempranillo, and chenin blanc per year and offers tours of the property. The Great Hornbill Grill (Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., 1,000B), set on the winery’s lovely grounds, has Thai and European offerings, including pizza to go with your tempranillo. Stop by for a tour and for 700 baht (350 baht for kids) you’ll get a set meal at the restaurant. If you are traveling by car from Khorat, take Highway 2 heading west (toward Bangkok, or east if you are coming from Bangkok), and turn off heading south at kilometer marker 144 and follow signs (about 16 kilometers) to the vineyard. If you are without a car, the vineyard will arrange driver service for you from either Khorat or Bangkok.
Granmonte Asoke Valley (52 Mu 9, Phaya Yen, Pak Chong, 03/622-7334, www.granmonte.com , daily 8 a.m.-4 p.m., free) also offers tastings and tours of their small family vineyards, which produce syrah and chenin blanc. The property is set in a scenic valley and is also home to Vincotto (Thurs.-Tues. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., 1,200B), an intimate, personal restaurant serving indulgent dishes such as foie gras and duck filet salad. Make sure to visit the gift shop, stocked with not only wine but also lots of yummy homemade jams, sauces, and snacks. If you are traveling by car from Bangkok, take Highway 2 heading east, and turn off heading south at kilometer marker 144 and follow signs (about 16 kilometers) to the vineyard. If you are without a car, the vineyard will arrange driver service for you from either Khorat or Bangkok.
If you are planning on camping in Khao Yai, you must register at the campground before 6 p.m. Especially over a weekend, be prepared for crowds of fellow campers and tents lined up just a few feet from each other. The campsites (50B per night) all rent tents and sleeping bags (they can run out of these on very busy weekends), and have small food shops; canteens serving homey, inexpensive Thai meals; and clean cold-water showers and bathroom facilities. One even has a small espresso café, but no alcohol is sold in the park, so if you want a beer make sure to bring it in with you.
There are also accommodations available for rent, and they run the gamut from dormitory rooms with bunk beds to spacious bungalows with hot water, modern tiled bathrooms, and wicker furniture from which you can sip the espresso being sold at the café. These tend to book up quickly, as the park is a popular destination for students and other groups. Bungalows start at 800 baht per night, and bungalows and houses that can comfortably sleep as many as eight people cost 2,400 baht per night. As with all of the national parks in the country, you must reserve your spot by emailing reserve [at] dnp [dot] go [dot] th and dnp_tourist [at] yahoo [dot] com and then transferring payment to the parks department before arrival.
If you’re visiting Khao Yai but don’t want to camp, the area is filled with some medium-size properties and a lot of small resorts taking advantage of the beautiful landscapes in the area (you’ll see signs literally lining the road on the drive up to the park). They range from basic to high end and there are even some wineries that rent out bungalows or cabins on their grounds. If you’re comparing what you’ll get for the money here versus at a very touristy and popular spot such as Phuket, Khao Yai is an unbelievable bargain. Wherever you stay, hotel staff can arrange day tours of the park.
Eco Valley Lodge Khao Yai (199/16 Mu 8, Nongnamdaeng, Pak Chong, 04/424-9661, www.ecovalleylodge.com , 1,400B) has small bungalows and villas for rent and is located a few kilometers off the main road to the park if you’re coming from Khorat. The furnishings aren’t very chic but the bungalows are large and well maintained and even have televisions and Internet access. The grounds are also large and very green, and there are two swimming pools and a restaurant on the premises. Look past the mismatched bedspreads and wicker furniture, as this is a great-value resort.
If you consider yourself a rustic, outdoorsy type but enjoy a little pampering too, try the Village Farm and Winery (103 Mu 7, Thaisamakkee, Wang Nam Keow, 04/422-8407, www.villagefarm.co.th , 2,200B). The least expensive lodgings are in an old converted barn, though you’ll still enjoy good beds and hot water. The nicest rooms have minibars, music players, and satellite television. All are decorated with lots of exposed wood and surrounded by farmland. The property is also a working winery, and you can tour the vineyard or, if you feel like relaxing instead, just drink a glass of wine or visit the spa. The restaurant, Village Cuisine (Sun.-Fri. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-10 p.m., 1,000 B) serves European and Thai dishes and is worth a visit even if you’re not staying here.
Though the Juldis Khao Yai (54 Mu 4, Thanarat Rd., Pak Chong, 04/429-7297, www.juldiskhaoyai.com , 1,900B) is a little too close to the main road to be considered in the woods, and a little too large to be considered a resort, it is a good choice if you want hotel-style amenities and proximity to the park. There is a main hotel whose rooms have airy balconies; clean, comfortable beds; and modern bathrooms. The suites in the smaller satellite buildings are more spacious and have more modern decor. All enjoy the property’s surrounding gardens and swimming pool, tennis courts, and spa. The hotel is not really a luxury property but it is much nicer than a guesthouse.
The Greenery Resort (188/1 Thanarat Rd., Pak Chong, 04/429-7224, 2,200B) is a nice blend of rustic and polished—the grounds of the hotel are lush and green. Some of the rooms have a little modern flair to them, and not just because of the minibars, coffee makers, and televisions, but because of the Thai decor. On the grounds you’ll find swimming pools, a spa, and a restaurant.
Perhaps the nicest property in the area is the Kirimaya Resort (1/3 Mu 6, Thanarat Rd., Pak Chong, 04/442-6099, www.kirimaya.com , 9,000B). Set in the plains and surrounded by mountains, the resort has amazing scenery. The rooms have modern lines and modular furniture, subdued by neutral colors. If you’re willing to spend some extra cash, the tented villas are designed as standalone camping tents, except that they are the size of small homes and include luxuries such as soaking tubs.
The best way to see the park is with your own transport or on a guided tour. It’s not really feasible to tour Khao Yai without a car, as the park is too big and there are not enough marked trails to get you from one place to another on foot. Some visitors choose to hitchhike, and considering that many of the other guests are families with kids, it might just be the safest place to engage in an otherwise risky behavior. Still, you’re better off on a tour or in your own car.
If you are driving from Bangkok , it’s less than three hours. Take Route 305 to Route 33 at Naresuan, then turn onto Route 3077, which will take you directly to the park’s entrance (about 40 kilometers from the turnoff).
If you are arriving by public transportation, you can take a bus from Bangkok to Pak Chong. That’s still more than 16 kilometers from the closest entrance to the park, so you’ll need to either hire a motorbike or taxi or take a song thaew (pickup truck with benches in the back).