About 120km northeast of Bangkok, the cultivated lushness of the central plains gives way to the thickly forested Phanom Dangkrek mountains. A 2166-square-kilometre chunk of this sculpted limestone range has been conserved as KHAO YAI NATIONAL PARK, the country’s first national park to be established (in 1962) and one of its most popular. Spanning five distinct forest types and rising to a height of 1341m, the park sustains over three hundred bird and twenty large land-mammal species – hence its UNESCO accreditation as a World Heritage Site – and offers a plethora of waterfalls and several undemanding walking trails.

Rangers discourage visitors from exploring the outer, non-waymarked reaches unguided, partly for environmental reasons, but also because of trigger-happy sandalwood poachers. The highly prized sandalwood oil is extracted by making cuts in a mature aloewood tree and collecting chunks of oil-saturated wood – which sells for B20,000–40,000/kg – several months later. Sandalwood trees are indigenous to Khao Yai, and though oil-collection does not usually kill the tree, it does weaken it. Guides can point out trees that have been cut in this way along the trails.

For many Thais, however, especially Bangkokians, Khao Yai is not so much a place for wildlife spotting as an easy weekend escape from the fumes. Some have second homes in the area, while others come for the golf and the soft-adventure activities, especially horseriding and off-road driving in ATVs, offered by the increasingly popular “dude-ranch” resorts. The cooler climate here has also made Khao Yai one of Thailand’s most productive areas for viticulture and dairy farming.

There’s camping and basic accommodation in the park itself, and plenty more comfortable options just beyond the perimeter and in the nearby town of Pak Chong. It’s quite easy to trek the park trails by yourself, but as some of Khao Yai’s best waterfalls, caves and viewpoints are as much as 20km apart, a tour is worth considering. Try to avoid visiting at weekends and holidays, when it’s busy; that said, even at peak times, don’t expect it to be like a safari park. Bring binoculars if you have them and some warm clothes, as it gets cool at the higher altitudes, especially at night.

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