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Beyond Bangkok: the national park that's just a short hop from Thailand's capital

Decamp from the frenetic Thai capital with Bangkok’s fashionable set, discovering rural retreats around Khao Yai National Park and the ruins of Ayutthaya — each blossoming with boutique boltholes, contemporary art galleries and vineyard experiences.

Khao Yai is Thailand’s first national park, around 50 miles north east of Bangkok.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Lee Cobaj
Published 1 Aug 2022, 14:00 BST

The sun is dropping slowly, as if weary from burning so brightly all day. The mountains coiled around the broad valley turn to silhouettes against a colour wash of lilac, rose and tangerine. The air is warm and still, and I can hear what sounds like a waterfall rushing in the distance. My guide, Khun Patirop Thipparat, tells me to look up. The sound isn’t coming from whooshing water but from a torrent of wrinkle-lipped bats emerging from their cave to spend the night hunting for insects.

The colony exits the hillside above Tham Sila Thom Buddhist temple like smoke seeping from a volcano. It’s an extraordinary sight. There are hundreds of the creatures — no thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, two million, in total, it turns out — moving in a continuous ribbon across rice fields and grasslands, around limestone outcrops and red-roofed farmhouses, towards rainforested mountains, where they dissolve into the pink-cloud distance. The only things that break the snaking stream are the crested serpent eagles that dive into the flow to pick off their prey — an easy meal — before the wavy line reforms.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The beguiling display goes on for over an hour, perhaps longer. Finally, we lose sight of the animals in the darkness. Through the night, the dormouse-sized bats, with faces like fanged chrysanthemums, will act as a natural form of pest control, hoovering up the multitude of insects found in this agricultural region. The guano they later produce will become a highly prized fertiliser, earning the tiny mammals the gratitude of local farmers and Buddhist monks alike. Then, at first light, the torrent will weave its way back home, vanishing into the labyrinthine core of the mountain again, just as it has done for millennia.

The Buddhist temple of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, a name that translates as ‘the monastery of auspicious victory’, Ayutthaya.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

This natural spectacle is taking place on the edges of Khao Yai, Thailand’s first national park, around 50 miles north east of Bangkok. Created in 1962, it’s now the third-largest in the country, sprawling over four biodiversity-bursting provinces: Nakhon Nayok, Nakhon Ratchasima, Prachin Buri and Saraburi. It’s home to lakes, waterfalls, rock pools, prehistoric rainforests and a number of rare and endangered animals. But, bats aside, I’m here on the trail of a species that until recently had rarely been seen in the area: Bangkok’s bohemian set.

Read more: How Bangkok is becoming a magnet for young creatives

“About 10 years ago, people from Bangkok started building condominiums here,” Khun Pat (as he asks me to call him) says the next day, as we continue to explore the outskirts of the park. “In the past, you could buy land here very cheaply; now it’s very expensive,” he says with a smile, which could mean any number of feelings in Thai culture. But Khun Pat does have something genuinely good to beam about: the return of tourism. The pandemic border closures battered the Thai tourism industry (which normally accounts for 17% of Thai GDP) and tour guides, the majority of whom are freelance, were particularly hard-hit. After 20 years of guiding, Khun Pat suddenly saw his source of income evaporate.

As we pass an array of private residences with grandiose names — Chateaux Les Royales, Rancho Charnvee Country Club, The Kensington English Garden — he tells me how he turned to one of his passions to keep his family afloat. “I love to drink coffee, and even have a machine at home, so I put an advert on Facebook to say I’d deliver cups to anyone in my neighbourhood in Bangkok,” he says. “I only use the best Thai beans — Chiang Rai in the north has very good arabica.” Two years on, he’s built up a loyal local following; the extra revenue allowing him to continue his guiding career as travellers trickle back.

The pandemic, and lack of tourists, however, doesn’t appear to have dampened Khao Yai’s property boom. We pass hoardings announcing the arrival of the new Intercontinental Khao Yai Swan Lake Resort — ‘opening soon!’ Bangkok’s beau monde has also brought glamping sites, music festivals and organic cafes, all spliced between mango, dragon fruit and sugarcane farms and fields of sunflowers and lavender. “Thai movie stars and members of our royal family stay here,” Khun Chokedee Yoosathit, the general manager of Roukh Kiri Khaoyai hotel, confides when I check in. “It’s so private.” The boutique property is a vision of loveliness: 12 private, farmhouse-style villas with pared-back, cream-and-teak interiors and private pools, surrounded by hills and fields of pampas grass. There’s no mistaking there’s money here.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there’s also fine wine; what is surprising is that it’s grown right here. Maintaining vineyards in high heat and humidity, and defying heavy monsoon seasons, a clutch of vintners are creating hundreds of thousands of bottles of Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, Durif, Grenache and more.

A spread of noodles, pad thai and summer rolls at Phak Wan Noodles, Ayutthaya.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

“We’ve been here since 1999, when Khao Yai was still very agricultural,” says Khun Mimi Suvisooth Lohitnavy, as we share a glass of wine at GranMonte Vineyard and Winery, which her family owns. She manages the 170-acre estate with her sister, recently expanding the site’s visitor offering to include tours, tastings and wine-pairing meals. Granmonte is still something of a local secret; Khun Mimi says her guests are mostly Thai, with only a few travellers stopping by. “All food and wine lovers, of course,” she says with a smile.

A simple, European-inspired lunch — washed down with a glass of 2019 Granmonte Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon — comes with a garnish of edible flowers, a simple, decorative prelude to the elaborate feast of the arts on show at our next stop.

Founded by socialite Yaovanee Nirandara — a representative of Christie’s auction house in Thailand — 129 Art Museum opened in 2017, blazing a trail for a procession of other private museums, galleries, art gardens and sculpture parks that open their doors in the area. Set in a simple, three-storey block alongside a main road, the private collection is one the finest bodies of contemporary Thai artworks in the country. Upstairs, a surrealist painting by Panya Vijinthana swirls together blue-monkey forests with golden Buddhas to dreamy effect; and Natee Utarit’s blood-red hibiscus in oils looks like it might swallow me whole. In the grounds beyond the temperature-controlled galleries, clipped lawns and tropical blooms hint at the fecundity of the area — and the vast, protected wilderness at its heart.

Park life

“Tat tat tat tat!” park ranger Khun Bok calls out the moment we step into Khao Yai’s dense forest, pointing to a handsome heart-spotted woodpecker drumming its beak into a tree. A moment later she squeals, “Weeeoooh!”, directing my attention towards a regal bluebanded kingfisher flitting through the canopy. Moving deeper into the forest, I hear a loud ‘chuuf chuuf chuuf’ and look up expecting to see a helicopter coming into land. I’m amazed to learn the sound is being created by the 3ft-wide wings of a pair of magnificent oriental pied hornbills, their enormous yellow, banana-shaped beaks flashing against the jungle greenery. There are monkeys, too — fluffy, white pileated gibbons with black tummies and Zoro-like masks, fuzzy white-handed gibbons and a third, hybrid species of the two, only found in Khao Yai — not to mention civet cats, flying lemurs, porcupines and a host of other rare indigenous animals. Over the course of a day and night, Khun Bok leads me to most of them.

Buddha head entwined in tree roots at Wat Mahathat, a royal temple in the ancient city of Ayutthaya Haew Suwat Waterfall, one of the most famous landmarks in Khao Yai National Park.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

To protect Khao Yai National Park's 837sq miles of prehistoric forest, visitors can only enter accompanied by a ranger — which is why, for my hike, I’ve been teamed up with Khun Bok, a cheerful 5ft-nothing local woman who’s been guiding visitors, tracking animals, preventing fires and catching poachers here for over 20 years. “We catch a few poachers a week,” she says. “They mostly come for the trees.”

Pulling a machete from her belt, Khun Bok hacks into the dead stump of what was once an 80ft eaglewood tree to let me smell the bark; its highly prized resin has a rich, woody, amber-like aroma and is used in the production of perfumes, incense and traditional Asian medicines. As one of the world’s most expensive commodities — top-grade eaglewood costs north of £80,000 per kilo — the illegal trade is pushing the critically endangered species to the brink of extinction. I couldn’t be more in awe of Khun Bok, working on the frontline, trying to save it.

Also on the endangered list are wild Asian elephants, which we go in search of that evening. As we drive down bumpy tracks, Khun Bok spots, with apex predator-like sight, sambar deer, barking deer, dhole (a type of fox-dog-hyena), a slow loris, a flying lemur and a trio of Malayan porcupines, which waddle down the road with their plump bottoms swaying like the bustles of Victorian ladies. “I see a herd pass by here most nights,” says Khun Bok, as we park our 4x4 at the side of road and kill the engine, the warm night air laced with expectation. Just moments later, with a full moon illuminating the thick clouds overhead, and with the treeline a crisp, black cut-out, half a dozen elephants plod out of the forest and into the inky foreground. The group of females has a four-month-old baby in tow, one of three elephants born in the park over the past year. It’s a hopeful scene, one that lingers in my mind long after I’ve left the country.

The ancient capital

On our way back to Bangkok, Khun Pat and I detour to Ayutthaya, the former capital of the ancient Kingdom of Siam, which flourished between the 14th and 18th centuries. It’s another of the capital’s up-and-coming satellite destinations: mixed in with the UNESCO-protected sprawl of ancient palaces and temples is a modern town of the same name, attracting the great and good of Bangkok and beyond for weekends away with its glut of award-winning restaurants and slew of boutique hotel openings.

One such retreat is Sala Bang Pa-In, a resort in the countryside, just east of the ancient city. Its stilted wooden villas, with peaked roofs and rickety-looking piers, line a bank of a scenic artery of the Chao Phraya River. This will be my base as I explore the historic area.

Sisters Mimi and Niki Lohitnavy, co-owners of GranMonte Vineyard and Winery estate.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

It strikes me that the ancestors of the locals now working in the hotel might once have served in the court of the royal family, who’d decamp to the nearby Summer Palace — once used by Thai kings — a brief long-tail boat ride upriver from the hotel.

“This palace was built in 1630, long before Bangkok even existed, but it was abandoned after Ayutthaya was pillaged by the Burmese in 1767,” Khun Pat yells at me, as our motorboat captain tries to break the sound barrier on the short journey to the palace. Unlike Ayutthaya’s Khmer-influenced red sandstone ruins, which have remained virtually untouched for over 250 years, the Summer Palace was renovated in the mid-19th century by the then prince and future king Rama V. Khun Pat tells me about Rama V’s British governess, Anna Harriette Leonowens, whose time working in the royal court of Rama IV inspired a raft of books, plays and films, including the Oscar-winning Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster The King and I, in 1956.

“Rama V modernised the country but it was actually his father, Rama IV, who could see the future,” says Khun Pat, clearly proud of his forward-thinking former monarchs, a sentiment shared by the majority of Thais. The government, though, is less comfortable with Hollywood’s take on the royals, and has banned both the 1950s film and the 1999 remake.

Even having learned of Rama V’s flamboyant taste in architecture, Bang Pa-In Palace still comes as a surprise, appearing in the shimmering heat like something pulled from the pages of a fairytale. At the entrance, life-sized topiary elephants dance across manicured gardens in front of the main palace building, a supersized Swiss chalet painted purple and periwinkle. Elsewhere, there’s a theatrical, red lacquer Chinese mansion, a bejewelled Thai pavilion floating in a lake and a butter-coloured, neo-gothic monastery, which monks are being delivered to across a river in a cable-car.

Read more: How to navigate elephant tourism in Thailand

We take a more conventional form of transport, a minivan, onwards to the main event: Ayutthaya, one of Southeast Asia’s great ancient cities, on a par with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia. Founded in 1350, it grew into a cosmopolitan centre of commerce, and, by the middle of the 18th century, it was home to more than a million people. Despite being sacked and looted in the years since, its glory days are still immediately apparent in its resplendent ruins. As we approach, they rise and swell across a square mile of flat, baked, red earth, cut through by the Chao Phraya River.

A family of endangered Asian elephants, Khao Yai.

Photograph by Getty Images

Exploring the Buddhist temple of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, I’m dwarfed by a 200ft-high stupa, which leans to one side like a melted candle. At the Ancient Palace, I marvel at a tryptic of delicate, tapering stupas, seemingly trying to pierce the sun. Inside the grand Wat Mahathat complex, I stand before a crypt that once held relics of Lord Buddha, guarded by dozens of decapitated statues, their knees still blackened by 200-year-old soot, their hands still folded in mudra hand gestures symbolising compassion, contemplation and transition.

With temples and shrines on every corner, it would be easy to imagine the surrounding town of Ayutthaya is steeped in spirituality, but most Thais don’t come for the memento mori, they come for the garlicky, deep-fried glory — and the big, meaty river prawns, the fluffy roti, luminous yellow pork satay and the bright green pandan candyfloss. They come for food that’s been showered with more Bib Gourmand awards than Bangkok in the 2022 Michelin Guide — served up at street stalls, hole-in-the-walls and family-run restaurants.

Read more: Rat-tail radishes and hooker chives in Chiang Rai, Thailand

“This place has been here at least 10 years,” Khun Pat tells me, as we duck below curtains of pink orchids and around koi ponds at Phak Wan Noodles, looking for a much-needed seat in the air-conditioned section. Ten minutes later, our table is laden with bowls — dishes including rice noodles with river prawns, papaya and shrimp stir-fry, and deep-fried mushrooms — and there are baby coconuts to drink from.

My journey onwards promises to be an interesting one; eschewing the roads, I’ll take the hour-long train to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station.

Commissioned by King Rama V at the turn of the 20th century, the exterior of this terminal was built in the neo-renaissance style; inside, the art nouveau terrazzo floors and ornate balustrades are illuminated by light flooding in through the facade’s giant, half-moon window. For more than 100 years, the station served as Bangkok’s main terminus, its trains literally stopping traffic as they fanned out across the city. It was the resulting jams that led to the development of a more modern replacement, Bang Sue Grand Terminal, which opened in summer 2021, condemning its predecessor to redevelopment. Architecture buffs and commuters threw up their arms, the transport minister U-turned. For now, the station is in a state of limbo: open to the public but with only a few services still running — including my route from Ayutthaya to back to the capital city.

But, for now, I’m at Sala Bang Pa-In hotel, lazing by the pool, entranced by the riverscape beyond. A long-tail boat piled with laundry sails past; another, with a plumage of fresh leafy greens, passes slowly; a gaggle of teenagers swim in the shallows, submerged up to their nostrils like crocodiles; and on shore, an elderly woman tends to the bougainvillea overtaking her wooden deck. As the evening turns golden, I watch village life scroll past like a sepia-toned movie reel — the perfect antidote to the kinetic chaos of Bangkok.

Viewpoint overlooking the lush green hills of Khao Yai.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

Getting there & around

Thai Airways and Eva Air have direct flights from Heathrow to Bangkok; Scoot operates direct flights from Gatwick.

Average flight time:12h30m.

Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have one-stop flights via their respective Middle Eastern hubs, with flight times of about 17 hours.

A second-class return ticket from Bangkok to Ayutthaya in an airconditioned train costs 345 baht/£9. To get around by road, hire taxis or a driver for the day via the Grab app. Fares are very affordable, at around £15 one-way to Ayutthaya (1h30m) and £30 one-way to Khao Yai (3h). 

When to go

It’s best to visit this part of Thailand in the dry season (November to March), when temperatures average 27C.

Places mentioned

Khao Yai National Park.

Bang Pa-In Palace. royaloffice.th
GranMonte. granmonte.com

Where to stay

Sala Bang Pa-In, from £130, B&B.
Roukh Kiri Khaoyai, from £210, B&B.

More info

Tourism Thailand.

How to do it

InsideAsia has a seven-night tour of Thailand with two nights in Ayutthaya, two in Khao Yai National Park and three in Bangkok, from £1,272 per person, including breakfast, transfers and private guiding. Excluding international flights.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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