Most tourists visit Thailand for its many white sandy beaches, its pristine islands, its busy and vibrant capital Bangkok, its many famous buddhist temples, and the food which might be the best in the world. That combined with a hospitality that gave Thailand its nickname ‘the land of smiles’, makes Thailand a popular destination for visitors looking for a well-deserved break from daily working life. But Thailand is much more than that. It has many national parks which are often overlooked by the majority of visitors. Having lived in Thailand during almost 6 years and having visited Thailand several times after, we have already seen a large part of the country, from North to South. This year we wanted to focus on the nature of Thailand, its flora and its fauna, its plants and animal species.
In the past we already visited Khun Nan national park near Bo Klua in the North-East of Thailand on the border with Laos, Khao Yai national Park, Doi Suthep Pui national park, Khao Sam Roi Yot national Park, Kui Buri national park, Phang Nga national park, Erewan national park and Doi Inthanon national park. Most parks are famous for their waterfalls and rainforest, their limestone mountains, wild elephants or a famous cave temple.
This time around, we were looking for some nature parks which were good for birding and maybe even some other wildlife. Because we also wanted to go diving, we would focus on the South of Thailand. We never went diving to the Similan islands before, so this was high on our what to do list.
After landing in Bangkok we checked in in a small boutique hotel, Uncle Loy’s boutique house, in Bangkok Noi, a less known area of Bangkok. For us it was pure nostalgia, since we used to live in this area of Bangkok, and were curious how much it would have changed over the last 25 years. The guesthouse is located in a very small soi, not accessible by car. We took the Bangkok Airport rail link (45 bath) to the end station Phaya Thai and took a taxi from there to Thanon Arun Ammarin Soi 20. We got out at the beginning of the Soi and walked the last 50 metres to the guesthouse.
When booking the room, the gueshouse had warned us about the hard mattresses on the beds. And yes they are very very hard. But the rooms are very comfortable, have airconditioning, very nice bathrooms, and the guesthouse has a cosy outdoor area where you have breakfast and were you can take coffee or tea all through the day. We received a very warm welcome in Uncle’s Loys guesthouse. We arrived at 8 AM so our rooms were not ready yet. We could take some coffee or tea, and they brought us some mango with sticky rice (one of my favorite dishes in Thailand).
We decided to make a walk and see how the area had changed. Strangely enough, this area of Bangkok has changed very little over the last two decades. We even found our house back. In the little sois behind the guesthouse and around the river landing, you find the vibrant Wang Lang market with little stalls, well known for its wide range of street food. So we took a light lunch of Khao man Kai ( rice with cooked chicken in broth), and a drink for 50 bath per person. We bought some fresh fruit shakes and some freshly cut pineapple to eat on the go. Shortly after lunch our room was ready.
After a short rest, we took the river ferry from the Siriraj or Wang Lang Pier to Tha Phra Chan pier (just a few bath, which you pay on arrival) on the other side, and walked towards the Royal Palace and Sanam Luang square. We hauled a tuk-tuk to get to the Giant Swing, and visited the beautuful Wat Suthat Thepwararam temple just opposite at sunset. We took another tuk-tuk to China town, planning to have dinner there. But since it was Saturday evening the place was packed and there were waiting lines at every stall. So we eventually took a taxi back to Bangkok Noi, and had dinner at Tanee beer tap enjoying the view over the Chao Praya river.
Breakfast is quite simple at Uncle Loy’s, white or brown toast with butter and jam, you can fry your own eggs, tea, coffee or hot chocolate, and some freshly cut fruit with coconut sticky rice. The rest of the morning we planned the rest of our trip, since apart from the first guesthouse and the car, we hadn’t yet booked anything. It took most of our morning, and we then headed out for a light lunch on the streets stalls of Wang Lang market behind our guesthouse. We had an egg noodle soup with red pork meat and a drink. In the afternoon we took the Chao Praya Express Boat from Wang Lang (Siriraj) pier to Sathorn pier at Sapan Thaksin and then the free Iconsiam shuttle boat to Icon Siam. From there took another free ferry shuttle boat to Lhong 1919, a place that promotes Chinese heritage, in the mid-nineteenth century Sino-Siamese port. We found the whole place rather artificial, and most people seemed to be there just to make their next instagram post.
So we returned to the Sathorn pier and continued taking another free shuttle boat to the Asiatique Riverfront market for some shopping. We love Chatuchak market, but this was just a poor copy of the Chatuchak market. It was quite hot that day, and being jetlaged, we ordered something to eat at one of the many stalls in the centre, and decided to return to our guesthouse, to get some well deserved sleep.
The next morning after breakfast we took a taxi to Sixt on Khlong Toey at the end of Sukhumvit road, where we picked up our car we had rented. We had also asked for a GPS, only the Sixt staff could not explain us how the GPS really worked. We didn’t really manage to get the GPS to work before we were out of Bangkok, so the first kilometers were quite stressy, trying to find our way on google maps on our mobile phones, but we eventually found our way to the highway direction the South of Thailand. Our first stop was Baan Maka nature lodge near the Kaeng Krachan National park, on the West side of Hua Hin, near the Myanmar border.
We had booked a four night stay at Baan Maka. You best download a map with the directions to the guesthouse, because even the GPS had trouble finding the guest house. But what a nice surprise this place was. This nature lodge is located in the middle of nature, beautiful bungalows, not very luxurious, but with all the necessary basics for a comfortable stay. I only missed mosquito nets. The place is run by Games, a Thai nature and birding guide and Ian, a Brit who loves nature and has been living in Thailand for 15 years. The guesthouse is set on 5 ha of nature and farmland on the border of a beautiful lake. They offer kayaks to venture out on the lake. The guesthouse caters very specifically to birders. There is a short nature trail on the grounds of the guest house, and the owners offer a night walk of 90 min. on the grounds in search of some owls and other nights birds and mammals. There are a few hides on the grounds of the guest house that you can use to look out for birds.
Next to the restaurant they put some bait that attracts squirrels, chipmunks, several birds and if you are lucky Oriental Pied hornbills! The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, at very reasonable prices. They do not really serve breakfast, but every morning from 5 AM you can get freshly baked bread, the best bread I ever had in Thailand with homemade jam, bananas and coffee or tea. And for most and for us, that is more than sufficient as breakfast. You can order a larger breakfast if needed. Coffee and tea are free throughout the day. In the restaurant you find a small library with field guides and some binoculars you can use. The guesthouse owners have made arrangements with local farmers in the area who have put up some hides, which you can book for the following day in the morning or late afternoon for a fee of 200 bath per person per day.
Games offers guided tours through the park, or can book one of the park rangers to guide you. In the guest house it becomes quiet after 9 PM when everybody goes to bed, and between 5 and 6 PM in the morning you find everybody at the breakfast table, ready to do some birding.
I was still struggling with a jet lag the first morning so we booked a hide from 7 AM the next morning, just a few km away from the guest house. The hide was set up in the garden of a nearby coffee house. We sat there for an hour or two, but were not very impressed with what we saw. And for good photography most hides are too dark. But the real attraction here is the Kaeng Krachan national park which opens every morning at 6 AM and closes at 7 PM in the evening. Over the next three days we visited the Kaeng Krachan national park three times. Entrance fee is 300 bath per day per person. You enter via the Khao Sam Yod Checkpoint. From there you drive the 15 km over the main road to the Ban Krang campsite, and from the camp site you can make a walk along two trails, one is the first 3,5 km on the raod to Phanoen Thung with three river crossings, and you can take a smaller nature trail back to the campsite, but here you will also have to cross the stream serveral times. There is another trail that turns left just before you enter the campsite, and where you can also walk the road up to a certain point without a guide. On the second day we drove up to the Pa La U waterfall, and left only when the park closed in the hope to see some wild elephants. You can use the same ticket you bought for entering Kaeng Krachan park via Sam Yot checkpoint. When driving along the rural highway 5062 (Ban Walai-Pa La Oo) from the Waterfall back in the direction of Hua Hin we did come across a wild elephant trying to cross the road. Elephants are sighted here regularly early mornings or around dusk.
Over the course of three days in the park we saw great hornbills, oriental pied hornbills, several kinds of woodpeckers, eagles, egrets, storks, herons, bee-eaters, pittas, squirrels, macaques, gibbons, stump-tailed macaques, dusky langur monkeys and banded surili and many more birds with didn’t know the names of.
The park attracts a lot of birders, and does a great job at protecting its wildlife. We visited in December and on some mornings it was only 15 ° C, so best bring some good sweaters, you will need them. One evening we pedaled in a kayak on the lake and saw numerous bee-eaters, herons and storks, among other birds.
When we had to leave after four nights we really felt sorry to leave this little paradise. We continued South and made a stopover at Chumpon on the way to Khao Sok national park, where we stayed one night at Villa Varich They offer individual bungalows in a green garden on the border of the river, with a lounge area, where you can take coffee or tea or hot coco, and where they serve a real nice breakfast in the morning, with any kind of coffee you like. We borrowed two bikes and had dinner at Baan Phuk Pouk restaurant, an five minute drive from Villa Varich. At Villa Varich they burn their own coffee beans a friend and neighbour grows locally. I took a tea with coffee flowers, a first for me, it had a nice flowery mellow taste. They serve local sticky rice cakes with different fillings, sweet mini bananas and steamed buns, next to toast and jam for breakfastd. Perfect!
We continued after a refreshing night in the direction of Khao Sok national park, where we stayed at Anurak Community Lodge. They have built beautiful little bungalows on stilts on an old oil palm plantation set in a green garden surrounded by the park and on the banks of a river. The restaurant is especially attractive and offers dramatic views of the limestone mountains.
The only downside is that the rooms are very heary. Each bungalow houses two adjoining rooms. The walls between the rooms feel like they are made out of cardboard. We had a couple with a cry-baby in the room next to us, and our first nights we really lacked enough sleep. We mentioned this to the staf the next morning and for the two following nights they gave us another room in a lodge with no one in the next room, bliss! They serve a sumptuous breakfast with lots of fresh fruits.
Over the next two days we planned to visit Khao Sok national park and hoped for a similar experience as we had in Kaeng Krachan national park. After our arrival and before sunset we walked the nature trail close to the lodge, around a limestone mountain. The dog who lived at the lodge accompanied us on our walk. It is a short but beautiful walk, we didn’t see any birds though. You can take lunch and dinner at the restaurant of the lodge, enjoying the stunning views. The next day we drove to Khao Sok and made a walk starting around 8 AM following the trail though the park, until somewhere around km 5 when you are only allowed to continue with a guide. There is a ranger cabin at that point, but the local rangers don’t really pay attention to whom continues and who not. We decided to continue for a little while, and discovered we were not the only ones. We hardly saw or heard any birds and thought this was because we had started to late. When we returned to the entrance more people were coming in. We took lunch just outside the gates of the park, and ordered Som Tam and sticky rice, a typical Isaan (North-Eastern) spicy dish. We drove back to our lodge and made a stop at the Khlong Phanom National Park, almost opposite the Anurak community lodge. We thought maybe we could make a walk there on the third morning. The next morning we got up at five, and came to the entrance of the park at six, but there wasn’t anyone at the checkpoint yet. So we drove on and parked our car inside the park and started our morning walk without buying an entrance ticket. We walked until a little after 9 AM, and then returned to the lodge in time to have breakfast before 10 AM. We saw very little birds but were lucky to see one Jerdon’s Baza hawk on the way back to the entrance.
In the early afternoon we drove towards the Khao Sok lake. The only way to really visit the lake and its surroundings like some caves is to take a boat, but we decided against that. On the parking area and visitors centre it was full with school children out on a school trip. We drove our car all around the lake where we could, but there was really nothing much of interest to see. We took a small walk and spotted some nice butterflies.
A bit disappointed we returned to the lodge and my husband decided to walk the little trail in the Khlong Phanom National Park just before dark but also came back having seen close to nothing. Khao Sok is a beautiful park, the limestone mountains create a beautiful backdrop for the rainforest, but all wildlife is close to extinct here I am afraid. We did meet on wild boar and some macaques though.
After our third night we drove on to Khao Lak, to exchange the forests for the sea. We had booked one night at Palm Garden resort where Sea Bees diving centre also has their office. We had planned to take a three night liveboard with them, and had booked it already online, but shortly after our booking we had received an e-mail with the message that we were the only couple who had booked that trip, and they needed a minimum of six people on board for the trip to take place. Until a few days before the departure of the liveboard we were still the only two on board, so we decided to take day diving trips to the Similan islands, and booked Phu Khao Lak resort for another two nights.
Phu Khao Lak is not located at the beach, but has beautiful individual bungalows in a large garden, a swimming pool and a great restaurant. We checked in with Sea Bees after arriving at Palm Garden, to arange everything for our diving trip the next day. They arrange pick up at all hotels in Khao Lak, and bring everyone to the pier where they board the Sundancer Catamaran speedboat. They serve breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks on board. We decided to take a nitrox course during our two day diving trips with them. It might come in handy if we want ot join a liveboard next time. You get one instructor for every 3 or 4 divers. The first day we dove with three divers and an instructor, the second day we were alone with our instructor. The appraoch is very personal and professional, the boat very comfortable, I am prone to sea-sickness, but did not feel sick at all on this boat.
We had some nice sightings during diving of several hawksbill turtles, blue spotted ray, a nurse shark, murray eel, lion fish, unicorn fish, stonefish, trevalley, box fish, napoleon fish, crab and shrimp. We took walks along the beach in the evening, and had dinner at Phu Khao Lak two evenings and dinner at Bussaba Thai Restaurant on the third night. Both serve great Thai food in a beautiful designed restaurant. We visited the Bang Niang market in the evening but were not really impressed. I don’t really understand the attraction of Khao Lak, except for the beach and the fact that it is the near the Similan islands. The town itself which was wiped away after the 2004 tsunami, and is now a quite uninteresting and bland looking place along a main road connecting Chumpon and Krabi.
Before driving back to Bangkok we made a stopover again at Villa Varich in Chumpon. Our stay on the way South had been really good, so we had booked a bungalow with them on the way back to Bangkok. On arrival in Chumpon we stopped at the market to buy some street food to eat later at Villa Varich. We ate outside in the breakfast area, but had to put on mosquito repellant, because there were many mosquitos out.
The next day we drove all the way to Bangkok, returned our rental car, walked to the sky train stop at Phrom Phong and took the BTS Sukhumvit line to Sanam Pao. From Sanam Pao we walked to our guesthouse Bangkok Voyage Boutique hotel on Phahon Yothin Road Soi 5. Our room was very spacious, we had two large single beds, and a large bathroom. We had dinner in Ongtong Khaosoi in Phahon Yothin Soi 7, where you have a wide range of restaurants. Ongtong Khaosoi serves the famous Chiang Mai dish Khao Soi.
Sunday was Chatuchak day. Chatuchak market is an enourmous outdoor weekend market just a few stops by Sky train away. We spent the whole day shopping for souvenirs and visiting our friend Peter and Ae who run the famous Viva 8 café that always attracts a hip crowd in the weekends lured by the dj’s spicing up the atmosphere at Viva 8. There are many places to eat something, have a drink, an ice-cream or some fresh fruit. That evening we had dinner at Lay Lao restaurant in Phahon Yothin Soi 7.
After breakfast on our last day we went to the Central Plaza Ladprao to do some shopping for new clothes to take home. We had lunch at the food court, and in the afternoon we made a short hop to Siam square. We checked out of the hotel in the early evening, took the sky train to Phaya Thai and from there the Bangkok Airport rail link to the airport. In the station we bought some mango with coconut sticky rice to eat when we arrived at the airport. We took a quick dinner at the airport before boarding for our 12 hour flight home.