Khao Yai is Thailand’s oldest and most visited nature reserve. It’s home to one of the largest intact monsoon forests remaining in mainland Asia, which is why it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Khao Yai National Park is in the western part of the Sankamphaeng mountain range, at the southwestern boundary of the Khorat Plateau. The highest mountain in the area of the park is Khao Rom, measuring 1,351 meters at its summit.
Even though it covers an area of over 2,000 sq.km, a region that stretches over four provinces—Nakhon Ratchasima, Saraburi, Prachin Buri and Nakhon Nayok—Khao Yai is not the largest national park in Thailand (it ranks 3rd in size). The terrain here includes tropical seasonal forests and grasslands, and the park is home to thousands of species of plants, hundreds of species of birds, and dozens of species of mammals, including bears, elephants, monkeys, bats, deer, and wild pigs, as well as quite a few snakes, lizards, and other creepy crawlies. There are over 50 km of hiking trails in the park, ranging from easy to hard, and from one hour up to three days. The trails on the map from the visitor’s center will only have the easier trails marked, and a guide is recommended for most trails if you’re not an experienced trekker.
But there’s more to Khao Yai than just wilderness walks. In recent years the area has become a fashionable residential retreat. It’s just a 2-3 hour drive from the urban jungle of Bangkok— about 120 km northeast—and it boasts the 7th best ozone level in the world, which is why more and more uptight urbanites choose it as their weekend unwinding spot. And for those with enough green to afford this much green, it’s now the fashionable place to have a weekend villa, vacation house, or condo.
With this surge in the number of visitors has come a surge in the number of tourist attractions one can find; some quaint, some quirky, and some downright questionable. From bizarre hotels (Baan Suan Noi is a Lord of the Rings-themed lodge where all the units are designed like Hobbit holes), to faux-Italian architecture (the Palio Village community mall has been designed to resemble an Italian town square, while Toscana Valley is an exclusive residence property with an over-the-top Tuscan theme), to amusement parks with thrill rides and waterslides (Scenical World has both), you won’t be starved for entertainment. You also won’t be starved for fine dining options as there are plenty of top-notch restaurants in this part of the kingdom.
To get to Khao Yai you can either drive (the best option), or take a bus or train from Bangkok to the town of Pak Chong—the westernmost district of Nakhon Ratchasima province, and home to Wat Thep Phitak Punnaram. This temple houses a huge seated Buddha image that measures 27 meters wide by 45 meters high, which is enshrined on a mountaintop that can be reached via a 1,250 step staircase (representing the number of monks that gathered spontaneously to hear the Lord Buddha’s first sermon, an occasion that is commemorated on Makha Bucha Day).