We decided back in Kanchanaburi to book ourselves onto a tour for Khao Yai, as attempting to do it by yourself generally yields poor results in actually seeing any wildlife. After looking at a few different companies online, the best price we can find is with Greenleaf Guesthouse, and we find quite a few favourable reviews too, so we book our day and a half tour with them as well as accommodation at their guesthouse. The tour cost 1500 baht (£30) each and the room cost 200 baht (£4) a night between us
. You can just do the full day tour for 1300 baht, but for the minimal extra we thought we'd treat ourselves to the day and a half. Also it's worth noting that the 400 baht (£8) each admission into the park is also included in the price of the tour. The guesthouse offer a free pick up from the town of Pak Chong, so when our train pulls into the station I find a pay phone to let them know where we are, fifteen minutes later a songthaew pulls up and we clamber aboard and are driven to Greenleaf. The room is basic, clean and very good value at 200 baht a night, you get a private shower (cold water though!) and a fan, but it was so cool in the evening we didn't even need to use it. The day we arrive is the day of the half tour, so by the time we've settled in a bit and grabbed a bottle of water it's time to go!
The half day is not actually in the park but is at various sights around it. We are driven to a natural spring for a swim, however it's pretty busy as there is a music festival happening the weekend we're there, so all the revellers go down to the spring in the day before going back to the festival in the evening. It's decided that we'll come back later after seeing the other places we're to be taken. Whilst there Joe, our guide, walks us around the spring and spots a few massive spiders which are about the size of my hand, the one there is a picture of is called a 'Golden Silk Orb-Weaver' but is more commonly known as a banana spider
. Before we set off for our next destination in the truck we are given crisps and water, always a bonus.
We drive out to an underground cave, where Joe and the other guides spy out out horseshoe bats and tarantulas. They walks around the cave and Joe picks up a whip spider (which he almost immediately puts on Mark's face), cave crickets and some really odd centipede type insect. We crawl out of the cave and hop back onto the songthaew where we're taken to the bat cave, but on the way there Joe stops the truck and signals for us to be quiet, then quick as a flash he has a telescope set up and we look through it and see a tiny spotted owl that is in a tree in the distance! The guides at Greenleaf must have telescopic vision I swear, they were all really really good at spotting things.
As we arrive at the bat cave the bats immediately start flying out, we park the songthaew up and everyone just watches them flying out into the sky and it's absolutely incredible, there are around two million bats in the cave and each night at sunset they fly out to eat. Watching the sunset over a corn field with millions of bats flying overhead is definitely one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. We are handed cut up pineapple and a telescope is set up so we can see the mouth of the cave close up. When the bats eventually stop coming through so thick and fast the telescope is turned round and we look at the moon and Jupiter through the lens.
Everyone is asked whether they want to go back to the spring for a swim, but it's dark and a bit chilly and everyone's tired so most people decline apart from a group of young lads from Sweden, so we decide to go with them
. We have to climb over a wall to get to the spring because the main entrance has been closed! There's no one else there, the guides shine their torches over the water so we can see what we're doing, frogs leap at the sides of the pool and fireflies flicker while we ungracefully glide across the water. On the way back to the guesthouse we get caught in the traffic for the festival, my god, it was just like being caught in the queue for Glastonbury! Back at the guesthouse we're told that we can eat and drink what we want and it'll all be added to our bill, we are both a bit cautious thinking that everything must be very expensive but looking at the menu everything is extremely reasonably priced (the price of dishes varying from 40 baht/80p to 50 baht/£1) and actually quite delicious. The people working at Greenleaf are all really lovely and sweet and make you feel at home.
The next morning we're up at 7am to make sure we get washed and have breakfast before the tour begins at 8am. This is the day we actually go to Khao Yai National Park, we are separated into smaller groups for the hike and driven to the park. The park is absolutely massive, mountainous and beautiful with a few roads put in so you can make your way around by vehicle. As soon as we arrive little macaque monkeys scurry at the sides of the roads and almost immediately the truck is pulled over and telescopes set up quickly, "Look
! In the trees! Gibbons!". Black gibbons and white gibbons! We watch them for a good ten minutes or so as they whoop and swing from branch to branch, and eventually into another tree. As they do so three huge pied hornbills fly into the same tree! I'm elated from seeing the wild gibbons as we're bundled back into the van and taken to the visitor centre (which is where all the bad taxidermy and deer skeletons were). We're given bananas by our guides before being driven out to a field where our guide asks if we want to see a snake. Errr, yes. Go on then. We walk out into a field and he quickly grabs a whip snake off a tree, he handles it expertly and as I try to take a picture, with one hand holding the snake, he takes the camera out my hands and quickly turns on the macro setting and the flash (he handled the camera as expertly as the snake), brushes the snakes face lightly with the camera so as to get an 'action shot' before taking a brilliant picture for me. He continues to take amazing pictures for me for the rest of the day! After handing my camera back he goes straight to Mark to get him to hold the snake, I don't know whether they all just really liked Mark or whether it's just because they remembered his name but they always made him hold the animals they found first!
After this we begin our hike. It was a fairly easy jungle hike, I think we walked for around three hours
. On the walk our guide poked a stick down a hole and scooped out a scorpion (placed instantly on Mark once again) and we saw a few more hornbills fly overhead but this was the only wildlife we saw on the walk. We saw fresh elephant poo, "More than one elephant for sure, look at the different poo sizes, mum and baby" our guide tells us and then we hear an ominous roar in the distance, not quite sure what it was, not quite sure I want to know! The guide had been there the previous day and there were no sign of elephants so they must've been there recently, as well as the poo there was a lot of trampled down vegetation and it was pretty cool to imagine we were tracking elephants! During the walk we are given a snack of sticky rice with egg custard, which was tasty and at the end of the hike it we're given rice and tofu and vegetables in a... sauce. Not sure what it was, wasn't very nice. We get back into the songthaew to go to Hew Suwat waterfall and on the way there are more black gibbons in the trees! We stop the truck and they are swinging right past our heads "Very lucky to see that for sure, they never come down low into the trees" we are told by our guide. After quite a long drive to the waterfall we arrive and spend an hour there, after which we head back to the guesthouse. On the way there the traffic stops suddenly, I can see a gap in the distance where traffic is backed up in the other lane and not coming through. I squeeze my body through a gap in the songthaew hoping to see what I think might be up there, I hold my breath and see exactly what it is I wanted: A WILD ELEPHANT
! We're quite far away (about twenty cars back) but I don't care because I can still see it right there in front of me! "Everyone get back into the car, we're going to drive to the elephant" our guide says, and quick as you like he overtakes all the cars in front of us so we're right up close to the elephant. "More than one elephant for sure," he tells us "at least two or three more." One of the members of our group steps out the truck to take a picture "GET BACK IN THE CAR!" the guide shouts "WILD ELEPHANTS ARE VERY DANGEROUS, THEY CAN KILL HUMANS FOR SURE". While watching the elephant in the road, a group of motorcyclists drive by and she chases them up the road (our guide confirms it's a female elephant probably protecting her young), then grabs a stick with her trunk and chucks it into the air with great force. "We are going to drive past the elephant now" our guide says, umm, really? Because she's seems a bit pissed off and just chased those bikes up the road! We drive by and as we do the elephant begins to run towards the truck and I think we all shit ourselves a bit before she stops, it was so exciting. After this she crosses the road followed by a whole family of elephants! It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, made even greater by the driver of the truck trying to be sly, but ending up loudly belching once they had finished crossing. I caught his eye in the wing mirror and gave him a knowing look before he burst out laughing. Elephants and burps, perfect. Oh, also we saw lots of other animals while we were out and about too (tortoise, lizards, barking deer, eagle and lots more birds) but nothing compared to the elephants.
On the way back to the guesthouse everything looked like an elephant and I went to sleep dreaming of elephants. Elephants, elephants, elephants.
We rise early in the morning in Ayutthaya to catch a train to Pak Chong (170 baht/£3.40 Third Class), which is the closest town to the Khao Yai National Park. Travelling third class is fine for a short journey, the seats were comfortable enough and we were lucky to not have a crowded train, but it is pretty hot with only one working fan on there and by the end of the journey (around two hours) we were both quite sticky.