The two most common responses I heard when I told people I was moving to Thailand for six months were, “Oh I have a [friend, family member, Facebook friend] who did that!” and, “Wow, are you going to see elephants?”
My reply to the first question: Yes, we millennials are big into the teaching abroad thing. And to the second: I really hope so.
Fortunately, my weekend voyage to Khao Yai National Park near Pak Chong allowed me to witness several wild elephants in jaw-dropping scenarios, including one that is quite rare. In addition to majestic Asian elephants, I observed animals such as snakes, deer and macaques roaming around their natural habitat.
Khao Yai National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is one of the biggest monsoon forests left in mainland Asia. With 2,168 square kilometers of land that holds more than 400 species of birds including the great hornbill and a bevy of other wild animals, it’s one of the oldest and most popular national parks in Thailand.
Teachers from our orientation group have made it a priority during our first month in the Land of Smiles, including a group that was visiting at the same time. After the mayhem of traveling to Pak Chong the night before, we decided to sleep instead of meeting the fellow teachers in town after our respective tours, but we did high five as our groups passed each other in the jungle.
The phuaak (squad)
Our excursion with Greenleaf Guesthouse & Tour began around 8 a.m. Hilary and I sprayed a heavy coat of extra-deet bug spray all over ourselves and hopped in the back of a songthaew with a family from Alaska and a 20-something Dutchman.
The family lives amazing lives as nomads. The mother, father, 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter travel around the world spending as little money as possible. They stay in budget hostels like Greenleaf and receive free accommodations in exchange for house-sitting. Needless to say, I have new #famgoals.
Our Dutch friend Stefan had been roaming around Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia for about eight months and this was his last adventure before flying back to real life in the Netherlands.
Next, we stopped at a fancy hotel and picked up three more passengers: A couple from Singapore and their young son who were on a week-long vacation in Thailand. The little boy was adorable and eager, especially while we were trekking through the woods. Our tour guide wasn’t exactly amused with his antics but I enjoyed his energetic curiosity. This miscellaneous crew was led by an English-speaking Thai tour guide named Tae. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who is so passionate about wildlife and excited to share all of his knowledge.
The songthaew wound through jungle roads, pulling over whenever Tae spotted an interesting critter. We found a family of macaques (monkeys) near a viewpoint so we had to pause and check it out. The vista was breathtaking and it was a remarkable experience, walking right up to macaques as they went about their business, collecting little green caterpillars to snack on and climbing into the truck. My favorite part was seeing a baby monkey clinging to its mother.
As we continued along the paved path, Tae saw a few gibbons swinging through the tall trees. We rushed out of the truck and quietly approached the primates. Tae had a telescope that we looked through and he used everyone’s iPhones to capture clear, up-close photos through the lens. Point of information that Tae felt strongly about: gibbons are not the same as monkeys.
“Gibbon is not monkey. Gibbons have no tail. Monkey has tail. Gibbons stay in the trees and monkeys walk on the floor. Gibbons do one sex and have one baby but monkeys have the sex for fun, like humans. Monkeys do sex 20 times a day.”
This fact was verified by the several occasions we saw monkeys getting it on in the middle of the street throughout the tour.
We stopped at the visitor centre for some (much needed) coffee before beginning the lengthy trek through the lush jungle. Tae kept telling us to be quiet as we traversed trails in search of animals. One of the main goals of these tours is to see wild elephants, but Greenleaf doesn’t promise a spotting will occur. As we walked deeper into the forest, a few fellow travelers passed by and said they saw an elephant ahead.
“He’s eating so you’ll hear him,” they told Tae.
Tae legitimately started running through the rocky path, hopping over hanging vines and massive tree roots. Soon we were tip-toeing up a trail toward the sound of plants being manhandled. We could see branches swaying and disappearing before we could actually see the elephant but after staring between the trees, there it was. The beautiful, giant creature was enjoying an afternoon snack and we watched for about 20 minutes from a few hundred meters away, making sure to stay very still and quiet, hidden behind thick leaves.
Later, we spotted another, larger wild elephant chowing down on plants. I took approximately 100 videos of the scene, but it’s difficult to make out much except a brown blob disrupting the nearby branches.
While these moments were certainly memorable, our little group had an unusual experience that had even the park rangers incredibly excited. We were on our way back down the steep hills once we took in the view at the very top of the park when an elephant emerged from the wilderness. This beautiful creature slowly walked across a field and began following the path we were driving on. It passed by us without a care in the world, trunk swinging left to right and floppy ears consistently flapping back and forth. We carefully followed this elephant as it approached a little pond and began drinking, sucking up water in its trunk and spraying it into its mouth. After hydrating, it wandered back into the trees, probably in search of more delicious roughage.
In addition to these magnificent sights, we saw bear markings on trees. It’s uncommon to actually see a bear in the jungle of Khao Yai, but finding evidence of them was still awesome. Tae pointed out a few small poisonous snakes, a black caterpillar that also has “many poison” and hoards of insects that gave me the heebie-jeebies. We attempted to see two waterfalls, the Haew Suwat Waterfall and the Haew Narok Waterfall, but due to Thailand’s recent drought and the fact that the rainy season has barely begun, there wasn’t actually any water falling. It’s okay guys, I’m going to swim under a waterfall at some point before I go back to America, don’t worry.
As I mentioned earlier, we ended the tour with a drive along winding dirt roads to the highest point of the park where Tae gave us little bananas, Euro cakes and a beverage. This ride to higher elevation provided me with another new experience: It was the first time I was outdoors in Thailand and not sweating.
I’ve only been in the Land of Smiles for a month but I have a feeling this trip to Khao Yai National Park will be hard to beat as I continue traveling around the country.
Follow me on Instagram (@christinehaze) and Twitter (@chrishayes65) for updates on my time in Thailand between blog posts.