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June 12, 2018, Thailand

Close encounters

Gibbons, macaques, elephants, hornbills and bats are some of the wildlife species Tan Chung Lee gets to see at Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park

Tan Chung Lee

A PAIR of Oriental pied hornbills flew past me minutes after I walked into Khao Yai National Park. I had been enjoying the panoramic vista of the lush forests, surrounded by the mountains of Dong Phaya Yen, at the viewpoint just steps away from the park entrance near the town of Pak Chong in central Thailand.

This viewpoint is one of the best places in Khao Yai to see hornbills, one of many wildlife encounters I had during my three-day safari tour.

Impressive array

The national park, Thailand’s first when it opened in 1962 and the second largest today, is a showcase of the country’s biodiversity.

More than 2,000 types of plants and over 300 bird species can be spotted here. The park is also home to a wide-ranging array of wildlife — both big and small — from snakes, palm civets and porcupines to sambar deer, bears, elephants and even the elusive tiger.

The 2,168 sq km terrain of forests, grasslands and mountains offers visitors plenty of picturesque landscapes, a handful of impressive waterfalls and 50km of hiking trails to explore. It is not hard to see why it reigns supreme among the country’s 127 national parks in terms of popularity, attracting more than 1.2 million visitors a year.

The rich wildlife and ecosystem are factors in the inscription of Khao Yai and its surrounding Dong Phaya Yen mountains as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005.

After the hornbill sighting, I put on anti-leech socks before jumping back onto a pick-up truck with three other tourists to be driven by our guide to a trailhead to kick off a 3km hike to hunt for white-handed gibbons.

Although they make loud whooping calls from their forest hideouts, these agile primates are difficult to spot as they move swiftly from tree to tree while foraging for food.

We managed to catch sight of a few and, on the last day, were even able to photograph a lone gibbon clinging onto lianas and a mother-and baby pair perched on a tree branch.

While looking for gibbons, we also stumbled across a bright green Vogel’s pit viper curled around a plant and glimpsed a brown whip snake zigzagging across muddy trails.

The park’s extensive grasslands and animal hideouts overlooking salt licks are great wildlife viewing sites. We spotted an elephant emerging from the forest edge and at the Nong Pak Chi observation tower, we spied two families of gibbons and long-tailed macaques frolicking in the trees, as well as a Chinese pied heron stalking a salt lick.

More treats

Wildlife can also be seen on the roads. During a drive, we saw an elephant walking nonchalantly along, but the moment we stopped for a photograph, it beat a hasty retreat back into the jungle. On another drive, a pair of barking deer peered curiously at our vehicle. Making more frequent roadside appearances were long-tailed macaques.

At night, the nocturnal animals come out to play and forage for food. On a night safari, we 

hopped onto an open-sided truck for a 90-minute drive through the hills of Khao Yai. The vehicle’s bright lights allowed us to see a pair of palm civets shinnying down a tree, two porcupines, and several sambar deer and barking deer grazing on grass.

In hopes of seeing the rare and elusive pileated gibbon, we drove to the Khao Khieo viewpoint, the highest in Khao Yai at 1,292m. We enjoyed the panoramic views of forested mountains but, alas, there was not a single sighting of the pileated gibbon.

In awe

Even if you don’t spot any wildlife, wandering through Khao Yai’s evergreen vegetation is a continuous visual adventure. We came across countless plant varieties and were treated to an ever changing scenery of ferns, rattan creepers, bamboos and magnificent towering trees draped in lianas, many with gnarled buttress roots spreading across the forest floor.

To cool off in the mid-day heat, we headed to Khao Yai’s waterfalls. The best time to see them is during the May to October rainy season, when gushing waters create remarkable cascades.

Haew Suwat Falls — made famous by the film The Beach, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character jumped off the top of the falls into the pool of water below — was a single ribbon of water when we were there in March. But it still made a pretty picture and provided welcome relief.

But there’s no doubt the wildlife encounters were the highlight of our escapade.

On the last day, we were lucky enough to see a male and a female wreathed hornbill — these pair for life, building a nest together in a tree cavity.

And in an open field outside Khao Lak Chang cave on the fringe of the park, we stood in awe as we witnessed a daily phenomenon. At dusk, some two million bats exit the cave and fly into the forest to forage for food.

Over our heads, the bats streamed out in what looked like a continuous ribbon waving across the darkening sky in a whirring swoosh of flapping wings.

For well over an hour, they danced and somersaulted in the sky before making their way back by dawn. It was a grand spectacle and a fitting finale to an action-packed nature safari.

GUIDELINES

■ I flew to Bangkok on Thai Airways then travelled 170km by bus from the northern Mo Chit bus terminal to Pak Chong, the gateway to Khao Yai National Park.

■ Although it is possible to stay in the national park, accommodation is basic in the form of tents or cabins. 

■ Better accommodation is available outside the park, mostly in Mu Si, which is half an hour by taxi from Pak Chong.

I stayed in Phuwanalee Resort (www.phunawalee.com), located 7km from Khao Yai. 

■ Several tour operators offer one- to three-day wildlife safaris in Khao Yai. 

■ I signed up with Tontan Travel (www.tontantravel.com).

■ Cars and motorbikes are also available for hire if you want to explore the area on your own.

■ Wear good walking shoes, long hiking trousers and T-shirts.

■ Carry a small day pack with sunblock, sunglasses, insect repellent, a water bottle, a poncho or rain jacket, and a cardigan as it cools down quickly in the evening. 

■ The national park is open all year round. 

■ November to February is the cool, dry season, while May to October is the wet season, a good time to see impressive waterfalls.

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