Animal spotting in Khao Yai

Departing the chaotic mess of Bangkok was a relief. After a few hours on an air-con bus with water and snack provided, we arrived in Pak Chong, the gateway to Khao Yai National Park. Our guesthouse picked us up and soon we were headed for the hills.

On the way to the guesthouse, we passed two different smoked meat restaurants. The first actually had a bunch of Texas roadhouse signs. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to stop and check it out.

We used the Greenleaf Guesthouse recommended in Lonely Planet. The reviews on trip advisor were on the good side of mixed so we went for it and actually stayed in the slightly more expensive bungalows at the next door hotel (there’s a gate in the back fence). It was 500 baht ($14) for our little fan cooled cabin with TV, fridge and large private bathroom. We did have an impressive train of ants parade across the floor for awhile and a half dollar size spider above the toilet but that’s life in a rural tropical climate. I would say it was worth a bit extra for the nicer room that’s farther away from the busy road.

Rob and I arrived just in time to grab lunch before our half-day tour (only an extra 300 baht after the day tour). The food at the lodge is pretty decent with all plates under $2. Our tour group was almost entirely French as it is a holiday period there. The half day tour began with a circle of the guesthouse grounds to see some critters: geckos, spiders and a couple bigger lizards that live in the gutters, followed by swimming in a spring fed pool.

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Spring pool filled with tourists.

With all of us cooled off, we descended a couple flights of steep steps into a large cave with shrines inside. Some folks balked and refused to go down when they learned the cave is full of bats. And there were tons of bats. Our guide showed us all the best guano and explained some of the locals make good money collecting and selling it.

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Bat cave that we were allowed to visit.

Finally it was dusk and time for the real show to begin. We drove to a field near another cave where 2 million bats take 45-60 min to exit for their night’s meal. From our spot, we watched as winding ribbons of bats twisted across the sky blazing with the orange hues. A few birds of prey danced around the ribbon attempting for a bit of bat for dinner.

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Ribbon of bats.

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Winding motion of the bat ribbon.

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Rob photographing the bats.

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It's the bat stream.

As the stream died down, we walked to a nearby field to enjoy the sensation of bats rushing past us to feed. Our guide joked offered free beer to anyone who could catch a bat in the air. Needless to say, no one did as the bats are much too fast for us (although they certainly buzzed close enough to our heads to reach).

The next day we did the full tour into Khao Yai National Park to search for more animals. They loaded us onto large flatbed trucks with covered beds and benches along the sides, this was the preferred transport in rural Thailand instead of buses or vans.

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Our transport.

After a good drive into the national park we made our first stop at a scenic overview with lots of monkeys who hang out and try to steal food.

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According to our guide, each male has 8 females.

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The grooming buffet.

At this point we put on our leech socks which are heavy enough to prevent leeches that fall into your boots from being able to bite you. Since it was the dry season we didn’t see any leeches, but it was nice to have the socks just in case. Only the tourists bothered to wear them. Seeing the hordes clad in the white covering had me imagining a field guide entry for tourists.

Markings: Distinctive white droopy calf coverings. Variety of head coverings possible. These creatures had large back pouches where they store water.

Spotter’s guide: These creatures are found in large groups with one male leader carrying a monocular on a collapsible tripod. Most often found along roads and trails.

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Next, we found a couple Great hornbills breakfasting in a fruit tree. Our guide said the secret to finding animals is knowing which fruit is ripe and where the corresponding trees are located. You can tell the sex by the eye color. These photos were taken through the scope, so we didn’t get a great feel for their size, but we’re told they’re quite large.

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The guy.

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The girl.

Then, we found a squirrel (not like the squirrel we’re used to, these have different tails) and a family of gibbons. The other sure way to spot animals here is to pull over whenever you see tour groups or other people stopped to look at animals. We were amazed by the number of independent tourist groups that didn’t bother to stop. I guess that’s who the National Park reviews that complain of not seeing any animals come from. On our own, we wouldn’t have seen very much.

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Gibbons, described to us as monkeys without tails. They have a distinctive call and are not able ground walkers so they stay in the trees.

A quick stop at the visitor center was next. Rob saw the water monitor lizard on a display and wondered if we would see one. Five minutes later meeting at our truck, the whole group was watching a large water monitor lizard hang out on a log.

A jungle trek would occupy the next few hours. Thankfully, they had split the tourists into three smaller groups in the morning, so we had the young, angle bodied set. While a well-marked and traveled trail existed, our guide took every opportunity to cut off of it onto smaller parallel sections that followed the river more closely. We saw a pit viper and a crocodile in addition to many birds and butterflies.

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Crocodile!

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Pit viper. He was hard to spot even when you knew where to look.

At last we reach the end near one of the famous waterfalls and lunch! It was 1:30pm at this point and we had started at 8 am. Then, I couldn’t believe it when the slower groups piled into the lunch spot a half hour or more behind us. They must have been even more ravenous.

Exploring the waterfall was nice (it appeared in some movie with Leonardo DiCaprio). Although in the dry season, it’s not as spectacular.

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Heo Suwat waterfall in the dry season

Then, snack time and on to elephant finding. We had to wait until late afternoon to do this. Well, it took us about 10 minutes to find an elephant. Unfortunately, we barely got to see it before it ambled away, but we were on the right side of the truck so Rob got the money shots (and emailed them to the rest of our tour group).

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They are able to move surprisingly well through the thick jungle.

Since we saw an elephant so quickly our guide had to figure out what to do with us for the rest of the day. Normally they spend hours looking for elephants. We walked to a wildlife observation post and stayed awhile without seeing any big animals.

Finally, we went back for dinner (Rob got an amazing Tom kha gai) and an evening hanging out the the Germans and an older Dutch guy from our tour. The next morning Rob and I would head to Nang Rong via Korat.

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