Big Mountain just keeps getting bigger
Whenever Bangkokians say they’re going to Khao Yai, I always wonder which Khao Yai they mean. In fact, there’s no place in Thailand with that toponym. There is of course the famed national park, Thailand’s oldest and third largest at 2,000 sq.km, but there is no geographic feature in the park nor anywhere in the vicinity by that name. Nor is there any political entity—no village, town, or district—called ‘Khao Yai’.
But there once was. In the early 1920s villagers from Nakhon Nayok Province established a settlement in the highlands of the Sankamphaeng mountain range. Perhaps because it was within view of Khao Rom, the highest mountain in the range, the Siamese government decided to call the emerging sub-district Khao Yai, which simply means “big mountain”.
The fact that 1,351 meter Khao Rom barely makes a list of Thailand’s top 40 highest peaks didn’t faze the politicians. Not-So-Big Mountain didn’t have the same ring. Sadly, when the area started becoming a refuge for bandits hiding from law enforcement, the government relocated the villagers and canceled Khao Yai’s tambon status. The name ceased to exist in signage and documents.
Enter Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, self-appointed prime minister in power from 1959 to 1963, who ordered the creation of a national park system in part to keep wilderness areas off limits to both settlers and bandits. The heavily wooded mountain range surrounding the former Khao Yai sub-district, at that time home to a large population of wild tigers, bears, and elephants, became the first area in Thailand to receive national park status in 1962.
Widely considered to be among the world’s greatest national reserves, Khao Yai National Park is found mostly within Nakhon Ratchasima Province boundaries, but also spills over into adjacent Saraburi, Prachinburi, and Nakhon Nayok provinces as well.
Today some 200 to 300 wild elephants still tramp the park, along with gaur, wild pig, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, tiger, leopard, serow, and various gibbons and macaques. In general, these animals are most easily spotted during the rainy season from June to October, and yet most visitors come during the November to February cool season, when the climate is suited to trekking. Khao Yai also has Thailand’s largest population of hornbills, including the king of the bird kingdom, the great hornbill, as well as wreathed hornbill, Indian pied hornbill, and rhinoceros hornbill.
The park has even earned a following among fans of Danny Boyle’s film The Beach, a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle based on the Alex Garland novel of the same name, because the film’s waterfall diving scenes were shot at Haew Suwat Falls.
By and large until the 1980s, if you mentioned Khao Yai, virtually everyone assumed you meant the park. Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan, a native of Nakhon Ratchasima Province, dubbed it ‘Thailand’s Switzerland’ in the late 80s, luring Bangkokians to the park in droves.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand and associated government cronies began adding resorts and even a golf course inside the park to accommodate visitor demand. In 1992, citing uncontrolled growth and conflicts of interest, the Thai government did the right thing and ordered a ban on overnight stays in the park. Most tourist infrastructure, including a golf course and illegal TAT accommodation, were removed.
And that’s when the meaning of ‘Khao Yai’ began expanding well beyond park boundaries. In fact, not limiting visitation to the park meant that virtually anywhere within a 150 km radius of the park—basically any area that shared the park terrain of green rolling hills and moderate climate—could be called Khao Yai.
Easy access to such topography drew wealthy Thais who, having enjoyed the wine districts of France and Italy while on vacation, decided to dabble in viticulture here. To everyone’s amazement, the resulting ‘New Latitude Wines’ weren’t half bad. Over the years, Thai wines have won more than 100 awards, including gold medals at international wine competitions. Wineries established near Khao Yai today produce around 800,000 bottles of wine per annum.
Touring the wineries joined jungle trekking, mountain biking, and wildlife-spotting as a prime tourist activity. Farms and ranches producing fresh beef, cheese, and other ‘European’ delights added yet another layer to the cake, later followed by lush golf courses and luxury housing developments.
A smaller segment of the steady migration from Bangkok and other parts of Thailand includes a number of creative types from the film, music and art worlds. One of the most famous residents of Pak Chong district—the unofficial Khao Yai capital—is artist and filmmaker Somboonsuk Niyomsiri, more well known by his nickname Piak Poster. Starting his career as a talented painter of huge movie billboards, as well as posters, cut-outs, and midget cards, Piak went on to direct 29 films before he retired. Among his more memorable and ground-breaking Thai films were A Man Called Tone (1970), The Adulterer (1972), and Age of Disorder (1976).
Piak moved to Khao Yai in 2007 to avail himself of the clean air and quiet, calm surroundings. When I visited the 83-year-old veteran director in his humble one-story Pak Chong home last year, he told me he had returned to painting, and showed me several large commissions in progress, mostly for commercial businesses.
From the Thai music sphere, those most attracted to Khao Yai life seem to be those from the phleng pheua cheewit—folky, politically oriented ‘songs for life’—genre. For several years one of the biggest annual Khao Yai events was the Super Concert for Nature & Life, held at the edge of the national park. In 2009, the 13th year of the festival, I had the honour of playing guitar in legendary Keo Carabao’s band for a full set, alongside such other phleng pheua cheewit luminaries as Pongthep, Caravan, and Hammer. Many band members lived in the Khao Yai area part time. Meanwhile since 2010, the Big Mountain Music Festival has hosted indie and Thai pop bands for two nights and two days every October, with a changing location from year to year (see pg. 58 for more on upcoming music festivals in Khao Yai).
A quieter, less visible Khao Yai subculture revolves around Buddhist meditation retreats. One of the more famed local Buddhists is Ajahn Jayasaro, an English monk with a lifetime of monastic experience in the northeastern Thailand forest tradition. Since 2003, Ajahn Jayasaro has been living quietly at a hermitage next to Khao Yai National Park, only occasionally emerging for public talks.
Meanwhile Wat Thamkrissanan Dhammaram, a temple set amidst grasslands, farms, forest, and banana groves near Khao Yai National Park’s main gate, offers seven-day intensive retreats for the practice of vipassana—mindfulness meditation—every month, with instruction in both Thai and English. Every year on the first of January, Austrian nun Brigitte Schrottenbacher leads a special new year’s retreat here.
In the end, ‘Khao Yai’ is a catch-all term to cover a whole sphere of activities you can do better amidst hills and valleys than in Bangkok. How about ‘Alt-Bangkok’?