Despite Thailand's rich diversity of flora and fauna, it has only been in recent years that most of the 53 national parks have been established. The majority of the parks are well maintained by the Forestry Department, but a few have allowed rampant tourism growth to threaten the natural environment, most notably on the islands of Koh Samet and Koh Phi Phi. In 1989, all logging was banned in Thailand so that it is now illegal to sell timber felled in the country - this should help to curb illegal logging operations in the interior.
A number of national parks are easily accessible for visitors. There is usually somewhere to stay, and sometimes meals are provided, but it's a good idea to take your own sleeping bag or mat, and basic camping gear is useful if there is not much accommodation. You should also take a torch (flashlight), rain gear, insect repellent, a water container and a small medical kit.
Most parks charge a small fee to visit. Advance bookings for accommodation are advisable at the more popular parks, especially on holidays and weekends. Most national park bungalows are around 500 to 1000 Baht a night (unless otherwise noted) depending on size, but will sleep five to ten people. A few parks also have reuan thaew, or long-houses, where rooms are around 150 to 200 Baht for two. Some have tents for rent for 50 to 60 Baht a night. Finally, if you bring your own tent it's only 5 Baht per person - almost every park has at least one camping area.
In Bangkok the reservations office is at the National Parks Division of the Forestry Department, (tel. 0 2579 4842, 0 2579 0529), Phahonyothin Road, Bang Khen, (north from Siam Square). Bookings from Bangkok must be paid in advance.
Below are some remarks on twenty of the more notable national parks.
This is the oldest national park in Thailand and one of the world's best, covering 2,168 square kilometres. It has some of Asia's largest remaining areas of rainforest and is rich in wildlife, with elephants, tigers, deer, gibbons and other large mammals. There are over 500 kilometres of hiking trails and visitors' facilities are very good.
Accommodation can be arranged with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, but may be expensive. Forestry bungalows (there are 19) are 500 to 1,000 Baht and there are camping areas. The coolest months are December and January.
The park is 205 kilometres northeast of Bangkok.
Take a bus to Pak Chong from the Northern Bus Terminal (or a train from Bangkok (Hualamphong) station). From Pak Chong a large truck with seats in the back leaves at 12.00 midday on weekdays, 10.30 a.m. on weekends (15 Baht).
These three parks form one main complex, northwest of Kanchanaburi. Large mammals and many birds can be found in this region. There are Forestry bungalows at all the parks, as well as a range of private accommodation. The best time to visit is from November to February.
Erawan is best known for its waterfall and the spectacular Phrathat Cave. Buses run daily from Kanchanaburi to the market near the park. From there it's two kilometres - hire a minibus, hitch or walk. Try to avoid weekends.
Si Nakharin is also noted for its waterfall. To reach the park, continue on the dirt road north from the Erawan headquarters, or hire a boat at Tha Kradan 24 kilometres past the junction to Si Nakharin Dam, for a 1½-hour ride.
Sai Yok is between Erawan and the Burmese border. It has the world's smallest mammal - a bat weighing just two grammes, discovered in 1973.
From Kanchanaburi, daily buses going north on Highway 323 pass the park entrance and from there it is about one kilometre.
This park of only 83 square kilometres has an abundance of wildlife for which it is a refuge from the habitat destruction caused by the forestry industry in surrounding areas.
From Rayong, take a minibus to Ban Khao Din, where minibuses to the park are available. The best time is from November to February. There are seven bungalows and camping areas in the park.
This offers a large variety of easily accessible attractions. It is on the east coast, north of Prachuap Khiri Khan and consists of a series of striking limestone hills rising from the sea.
Wildlife includes the serow, a goat-antelope that lives on the limestone crags, and monkeys, porcupines and leopards.
From Bangkok take a bus to Pranburi, from there you can hitch a ride; trucks go the 35 kilometres to the park headquarters several times daily. The best time to go is from November to February. There are five bungalows and camping areas.
Doi Suthep-Pui only became a national park in 1981. In spite of the heavy human use that has displaced the larger animals, some trails off the side of the road to the summit offer pleasant walking after a visit to the famous Wat Phrathat.
Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest mountain (2565 metres). Off the new 47-kilometre road to the summit there are many trails to explore and several impressive waterfalls.
From Chiang Mai take a minibus to Chom Tong, then a songthaew. Ask for Doi Inthanon and say you want to get off at kilometre 31. From the park headquarters there is plenty of traffic for hitching. There are five bungalows and camping areas. Accommodation is also available in hill-tribe villages.
In this seldom visited park, the trail to the summit of Doi Khuntan (1273 metres) offers great views and a good chance of seeing large mammals, including black bear, serow, tiger and sambar.
The only access is by the Chiang Mai to Lamphun train to Khuntan station (one to two hours); the train makes only a quick stop, so be careful not to miss it (watch for the tunnel near the station). Weekdays are the best time to go; try to arrive by noon to reach the bungalows (2½ kilometres above the headquarters) before dark. There are eleven bungalows ranging from 200 to l200 Baht. The best time to go is from November to February.
The mountains here are famous as the birthplace of the Thai nation over 700 years ago.
One notable animal seen here is the scaly pangolin, a strange anteater the size of a small dog. Plan to spend at least two days here and camp on the summit of Khao Luang.
From Sukhothai take a bus to Kamphaeng Phet and get off after 22 kilometres at a police post opposite a hospital sign. From there it's 16 kilometres by unsealed road to the park; hitching is usually the best way to reach the headquarters. The best time to go is from November to February.
This is Thailand's third largest park (1262 square kilometres), spread across parts of Phitsanulok and Phetchabun provinces. The topography here is characterized by rugged mountains and grassy valleys and is said to be a habitat for wild elephants, tigers, boars, deer, and various large birds.
The park is about 50 kilometres from Lom Sak off the Lom Sak to Phetchabun highway. There are four bungalows, long-houses and tents for rent.
This small park (104 square kilometres) in Tak Province is a popular local recreation spot, with a large hill-tribe centre on the west side.
Several trails meander to waterfalls. It's a pleasant stopover along the Bangkok to Chiang Mai highway.
From Chiang Mai get out at Tak and take a bus for Mae Sot; the park headquarters is reached after 18 kilometres. The best time to go is November to January. There is one bungalow and a camping area.
One of Thailand's most beautiful and valuable parks; covering nearly 1000 square kilometres in Chaiyaphum and Phetchabun provinces. Rumours of rhinoceros persist (last seen 1971) and the bizarre fur-coated Sumatran rhinoceros may survive here.
From Sukhothai take a bus to Chum Phae; the park headquarters is 55 kilometres from Lom Sak. Daily buses run through the park from Lom Sak or Khon Kaen. The best time to go is from November to February. There are nine bungalows and camping areas.
Phu Kradung is a bell-shaped mountain in the northeastern province of Loei about 1500 metres above sea level. The top of the mountain is a large plateau with a network of marked trails and government-owned cabins. The weather is always cool on top hence the flora is more like what you see in temperate zones.
The park is best visited between mid-October and mid-June, before the rains set in and flood the trails. Phu Kradung also should be avoided during school vacations unless you like crowds.
There are daily buses from Loei for the 75-kilometre trip to Phu Kradung.
Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's largest national park, spreading over 2900 square kilometres or nearly half of Phetburi Province. In addition to semi-tropical rainforest you'll also find areas of savannah-like grasslands, mountains, steep cliffs, caves, waterfalls, long-distance hiking trails and two rivers, the Phetburi and the Pranburi, which are suitable for rafting. The large reservoir above the Kaeng Krachan Dam is stocked with fish.
Animals living in Kaeng Krachan include wild elephants, deer, tigers, bears, boars, gaurs and wild cattle.
Kaeng Krachan is about 60 kilometres from Phetburi off Route 3175. The Route 3175 turn-off is at Tha Yang on Highway 4.
There is no regular transport to the park, but you can hitch or charter a pick-up. There are six bungalows for 600 to 700 Baht, a camping area, and a private floating resort. The park is best seen from November to June.
Thailand's southernmost park (101 square kilometres) borders Malaysia. The beautiful, unspoilt forests support a great variety of wildlife and there are good trails too.
The park headquarters is only two kilometres from the border. It is about 90 kilometres south of Hat Yai; coming from Malaysia it's about 75 kilometres from Alor Star. The best time to go is from December to March. There are ten bungalows.
The 51 islands off the southwest coast offer beaches, coral reefs and rainforest. Turtles nest on Ko Adang from around September to December. The park headquarters on Koh Tarutao includes an outdoor museum, an aquarium and turtle-rearing ponds. There is a store selling basics, and snorkelling gear can be hired.
Share taxis run from Hat Yai to the pier at Pak Bara. The best time is from November to April.
This is a marine park protecting the northwest portion of Phuket Island. Turtles nest here from around November to February. There are facilities for day visitors; bring your own snorkelling gear if you can.
The park headquarters is 1½ kilometres from Phuket Airport. From Phuket Town minibuses can be hired at the central market for the 32-kilometre ride to Hat Nai Yang. There are several bungalows and tents for rent. The best time to go is from September to December.
Khao Sok is a 646-square-kilometre park in Surat Tham Province that features thick rainforest, waterfalls, limestone cliffs and a lake formed by the Chiaw Lan Dam.
The park is located 1½ kilometres off Route 401 between Takua Pa and Surat Thani at kilometre 109.
There is a camping area and private bungalows.
The forested limestone pillars of Ao Phang-Nga, made famous by the James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun are the major attraction. The park is 96 kilometres from Phuket Town and nine kilometres from Phang-Nga Town where a minibus can be hired at the market. Alternatively, organize a day tour from Phuket. There are no bungalows but camping is allowed. This park is best seen early in the morning before the hordes of package tour boats start arriving from Phuket.
Officially declared a national park in 1981, the Koh Samet group and Laem Ya have only recently had a park headquarters installed (1985). The main islands of the Koh Samet group are Samet, Chan, Makham, Kruai, Plai Tin, Kut and Thalu. Laem Ya is opposite Samet on the mainland, southwest of Ban Phe. There are many places to stay along the mainland sections of the park, as well as on Koh Samet, while the other islands may be visited on day trips from Koh Samet. Admission to the National Park is 5 Baht. Unfortunately, Koh Samet itself is beginning to suffer as growth on this island continues unchecked.
This park consists of several islands in offshore Krabi Province along with a long stretch of beaches from Noppharat Thara to Phranang. There is good snorkelling and beachcombing. There are five national parks' bungalows, camping areas, and many private bungalows. Koh Phi Phi, one of Thailand's most beautiful islands, is a bit overcrowded.
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