Welcome To The Jungle: Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park

Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I was 12 years old when I discovered the jungle wasn’t for me, and I hadn’t even been to one yet.

It was “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” that did it for me. Enthralled though I was by the idea of a Professor Challenger-esque expeditionary jaunt into unchartered territory, I was quite perturbed by some scenes in the movie. Even when you took away the dinosaurs, the tropical landscape seemed treacherous and thick with danger.

For instance, even the ground was unreliable. More than one character in the movie slipped on the unpredictable muddy jungle floor, often accompanied by a onomatopoeic schlippp and was promptly eaten. The hippie paleontologist lost his footing on wet rock. Crunch. “That’s not for me,” I thought. I don’t care for the wet.

Then the “moveable feast” fled through a break in the woods and into the long grass. “Don’t go into the long grass!” one of the characters urgently and repeatedly screamed as they did, and I nodded yes, listen to that man – for the long grass hid dozens of velociraptors. And, I thought, thousands of leeches. Sound advice either way.

Several years later I went on a jungle trek in Costa Rica, which I anticipated with a certain amount of dread. The real thing was stickier, itchier, sweatier and wetter. In short, it was much worse. The real world, as I discovered was far more sinister than “The Lost World.”

But I’m nothing if not forgiving. I gave jungles repeated chances throughout my travels via a certain amount of self-inflicted amnesia and a masochistic determination to enjoy the ecosystem. I like the idea of the jungle in principle – full of life, and so on. So I hiked in India, Malaysia and other tropical places, each time with the same itchy, sticky, anxiety-inducing result.

Then I heard about Khao Yai National Park, supposedly one of Thailand’s unsung treasures, and I knew it was time to test myself again.It’s Thailand’s most popular park, but the vast majority of tourists are Thai. Some 74,000 foreigners visited in 2011, which sounds like a lot. But compare that to Phuket, Koh Samui or Chiang Mai, which each receive over 2 million foreign visitors a year. Around 240,000 foreigners visit out-of-the-way Sukhothai, a six- or seven-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Khao Yai, as far as Thailand goes, remains “undiscovered.”

With a quixotic resolve I decided to check it out, and I made the 125-mile drive in good time, paying my $16 entrance fee and $1 camping fee as I rolled in during the early afternoon. I had seen an elephant by the side of the road on the way in. “This is promising,” I thought.

My second wildlife experience came soon after, as I rounded a bend and almost ran over an entire troop of pig-tailed macaques. They ambled up onto a guardrail and watched me blankly as I drove by. I have had some particularly poor experiences with macaques, who I consider to be the jerks of the jungle. Yet these simply stared at me placidly. The jungle was increasing in esteem in my mind.

Macaques in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

To be fair, I hadn’t left my car, nor had I been in the jungle, really. But that such simple things would improve my opinion of this place should indicate how much of a nightmare I had come to consider it to be. I stopped at the small park canteen and ate a notably average late lunch, and my opinion of the jungle soared yet again.

My campsite was located in a pleasant clearing, and I was one of only four other campers there. We were outnumbered almost 10-1 by a herd of sambar deer, the most bovine representatives of the family cervidae. A small pond broke melodically into a wide and short waterfall just beyond my tent, the soft music of which was joined by the near-ceaseless chomping of the campsite’s immobile platoon of ruminants. I counted this as another point for the jungle. Just as I was thinking this, a Great Hornbill soared overhead and planted itself on a tree at the edge of the forest. “Wow,” I thought. “Maybe I have the jungle all wrong.”

As the sun went down, I met an old German couple that told me they were going on a night safari, and would I like to join? Of course I did. We hopped in the back of a pick-up and with the aid of a massive spotlight were able to spot several porcupines, some muntjacs, civet cats and even an Asian narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle. “This is going swimmingly,” I thought, and congratulated myself on my own perseverance.

I went to bed early in a positive frame of mind. As I fell asleep to the sound of pattering rain on the tent roof and the incessant mastication of the vigilant deer, I noted to myself with a certain amount of foreboding that I had yet to actually go into the jungle proper.

Sabar deer in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

In the morning I awoke with a start to the sound of car tires on gravel right next to my tent and checked the time: 4:45 a.m. “I wonder who would be leaving now,” I thought. It’s still dark. I listened more closely. The car appeared to be rolling back and forth just next to my head, tires crunching gravel. But I heard no engine. It stopped unexpectedly and I fell asleep but awoke minutes later to the same noise. I rolled over and unzipped the flap ready to deliver an inquisition. Bursting forth from the flap a terrified group of sambar deer bounded away. They had been ripping up the grass on all sides of my tent. I grabbed a handful and yanked, and it sounded like the crunch of a car tire on gravel. What I thought was a car was just a herd of insatiable deer.

I fell back asleep and awoke again 30 minutes later when the deer returned. I yelled and heard them stop. They resumed moments later. I tried to sleep, tossing and turning for another hour, dreaming of eating venison. Eventually I admitted defeat and tore down my campsite. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll get a good start on the day.”

Clothed and fed, I arrived at the trailhead for what was to be a five-hour walk, passing through long grass, a salt lick where I hoped to see elephants and, finally, the heavily treed forest where if I was lucky I might spot some gibbons.

The rain from the night before had made the path through the grassland extremely slick. I stopped and read a sign that had been covered by long pointy grass. Cogon grass, it said, is “… a favorite food for sambar deer and guar. Once mature, however, the leaves become hard and develop sharp, serrated edges that deter foraging animals and can cut curious humans.” Don’t go into the long grass.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

On the way to the forest I passed the salt lick. The only evidence of elephants was a giant pile of dung. One can’t fault the elephants for not being around, I thought, and went on into the forest.

No sooner had I passed the treeline than my head became the focal point for the errant orbit of several large biting insects. They seemed impervious to the bug-spray shower I had taken that morning.

I pressed on, slipping along the muddy path and sweating heavily inside my jacket. It was only 9 in the morning and the sky was overcast, but the humidity was intolerable. I had a choice between exposing my skin to all manner of itchy things or mentally working through my portable sweat lodge. I went with the sweat lodge.

It’s extremely difficult to actually see anything interesting in the jungle. For one, the dense canopy makes it much darker at ground level. Since the jungle can be so thick even at eye level, you’re depth of field is limited as well. Add to this the fact that most animals don’t want to be seen or live in the canopy a hundred feet up and you don’t see much fauna of any note. Mostly, you see fungi and bugs – bugs that seem bent on using your body as a ladder, ambulatory transport or food.

Fungi in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

It had occurred to me as I was swatting things off and looking despairingly for any sign of quadrupedic or avian life that I had seen numerous paths diverge from what I judged was the main route. It had also occurred to me I had seen no signs on which to base this judgment. And then as the cloud of flying things around my head thickened and the clamor of the jungle swelled to a dull roar, I walked into a small clearing in which there were no signs but some four or five distinctive paths leading out.

At a loss and trying to wrest my sanity back from the little buzzing satellites around my ears, I plowed on down my best guess. Some 30 minutes later, the jungle was thicker and the path was winding down a steep muddy slope. I had the sense I was heading the wrong way, but there was no way to tell. Then, schlippp. Airborne and horizontal above a muddy hill. I thought, “Jungle, you got me again.”

Three hours into my walk and covered in mud, sweat and insect bits, I emerged into a field – the same field I had entered from. Notably, this wasn’t supposed to be an out-and-back hike. I had been turned around completely at some point, but I didn’t care. I was in the long grass, which at this point was much preferable to the jungle.

Caterpillar in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I stomped out of the forest, past the salt lick, across the field of grass that wanted to watch me bleed and into the parking lot. I went to take a photo of the lethal grass for posterity and noticed my lens cap had gone missing. The jungle had truly taken its pound of flesh.

As I approached my car, the old German couple was standing under an umbrella gazing up at a tree and making quiet exclamations. I paused to greet them, and they looked at me slightly unnerved, taking a step back. I realized I must look out of sorts. They recomposed themselves and the husband, cleared his throat. “Look,” he motioned to the tree, “gibbons!”

I looked up at the gibbons and sighed. Then I looked down at my feet. Grinning to myself, I pointed at my legs. “Look,” I said to the Germans, “leeches!” I had acquired some five or six now-bloated passengers on my expedition. They looked at me smiling at them enthusiastically, which in retrospect I realize doesn’t make me seem all that sane, and they took another step back. I flicked off the leeches and waved the Germans goodbye.

Jungle Valley in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I changed out of my filthy, sweaty clothes and drove off through the park, cursing the jungle. “This is the last time,” I thought. Then I passed a lookout, with a stunning view of a deep-green valley suffused with low-lying cloud. During the pause, I reflected on everything pre-trek. I realized that I like the jungle in theory, but I prefer to see it through a pane of glass or an elevated position.

But with time comes reflection. And due to my more-than-tolerable experience at Khao Yai the night prior to my own personal “Jurassic Park” sequel, my jungle rating had been raised from mild hatred to general disdain. I don’t think there’s a much higher recommendation I could give to Khao Yai.