Thailand has more than 150 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but tourism is often an afterthought.

Many are difficult to reach and explore without a vehicle or guide. Only a handful of Thai national parks have the facilities and attractions that visitors from Europe and North America might expect. Foreign adults can expect to pay 200 to 400 baht for a ticket to a national park and it’s half price for children. Tents can be rented for around 400 baht, but beware that camping can be unbearably hot. Cabins may be an option, and private resorts that often double as tour companies are found near many parks.

Here's a handful of Thailand's best national parks and wildlife-spotting destinations.


Haew Narok waterfalls in Khao Yai National Park

Thailand's best national parks

Khao Yai

A three-hour drive northeast from Bangkok, Thailand’s oldest national park is 2,168 square-km of mountainous jungle which has UNESCO Natural World Heritage status.

Khao Yai means Big Mountain and its peaks reach up to 1,351 metres. Several viewpoints, such as Pha Diao Dai, are accessible by road. The largest waterfall is the 150-metre Haew Narok, which is reached via a long, steep stairway. It has been somewhat overshadowed by the graceful 20-metre Haew Suwat since Leonardo DiCaprio plunged over it in the 1999 film The Beach.

The teeming wildlife includes elephants and wrinkle-lipped bats. You might also take a spin outside the park to see the many vineyards and sunflower farms, and some of the nearby resorts offer such activities as waterslides and go-karting.

Need to know

Khao Yai is one of the few national parks with sealed roads, a visitor centre, coffee shops, campgrounds and cabin areas. It also has several hiking trails and unless you stick close to the waterfalls and viewpoints, hire a local guide to keep you safe and give you useful information about the area.

Wild elephants live in deep forest at Kui Buri National Park Thailand

Wild elephants at Kui Buri National Park

Kui Buri and Khao Sam Roi Yot

Straddling the Tenassarim Mountains near Myanmar, Kui Buri National Park is the only place in the country where you're virtually guaranteed a glimpse of wild elephants and wild gaur, the world’s largest bovine species. In a genuine safari experience, visitors pile on to pick-up trucks that stop along the dirt roads whenever a jumbo appears in the woods.

40km east of Kui Buri, karst mountains give the coastal Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park its name – it means Mountains of 300 Peaks. Take a boat to the white sand of Laem Sala and from there, hike the half-km to one of Thailand's most impressive caves, Tham Phraya Nakhon. Part of its high limestone ceiling collapsed long ago, allowing sunlight to illuminate a pavilion that was built inside the cave more than a century ago.

Other caves and a mangrove forest can be explored by boat from Bang Pu village, and on the west of the mountains is the largest wetland in Thailand, where a walkway offers glimpses of storks and collared kingfishers hunting in water covered with lotuses and purple water lilies. Back on the coast you might kayak to the island of Ko Kho Ram, home to a monkey troupe.

Need to know

The elephant and gaur viewing area in Kui Buri National Park is best visited after 14:00, when the animals are most active. The area is remote with no campground or cabins. Visitors come on day trips from Prachuap town, Pranburi, Khao Sam Roi Yot, or Hua Hin.

Khao Sam Roi Yot has a campground and bungalows at Laem Sala Beach. North of the park stretches Sam Roi Yot Beach, part of a quiet fishing area with private resorts suitable for families.

KHAO SOK National Park Suratthani Thailand

Kayaking on Ratchaphrapa, in Khao Sok National Park

Khao Sok

This national park, covered by one of the oldest rainforests in Asia, is one of the natural jewels of southern Thailand. Conveniently, it lies along a well-used route between beach destinations like Phuket and Ko Samui.

The park’s centrepiece is a reservoir, Ratchaphrapa or Chiew Lan, one of the most magnificent bodies of fresh water in Southeast Asia. The emerald water glistens between 1,000-metre high limestone mountains. You can take a boat tour lasting a few hours or a full day, or you can spend a night at one of 17 raft-house lodgings. They all come with kayaks.

West of the reservoir are caves and waterfalls, and a trail guide is required to access most of them. This area is also where you'll find the rafflesia kerrii, the fire-red, so-called dinosaur flower that smells rank and is one of the world's largest flowers when it blooms in the dry season. Though large mammals are rare, Khao Sok is full of birds and reptiles.

Need to know

Lodgings include a campground and bare-bones raft-house huts on Ratchaphrapa reservoir. But there are also privately run, and more comfortable, raft-houses. The western area near Khlong Sok village has dozens of resorts, including some actually set in treetops, which kids would enjoy.

Doi Inthanon

A flower-draped viewpoint set in cloud forest at the 2,565-metre summit of Doi Inthanon—the tallest point in Thailand—attracts large numbers of domestic tourists.

The summit extends over a large area and the views are terrific when the sky is clear of smog (common in the dry season) and fog (common in the rainy season), but it gets crowded at weekends and holidays.

On Doi Inthanon's slopes are well-maintained trails leading to waterfalls like Siriphum, which cascades over a 40-metre cliff. Elephants and large mammals are not common, but the park is home to some 385 species of birds. Bring binoculars and warm clothes (a must).

Need to know

The park offers rundown cabins but most visitors come on a day trip from Chiang Mai, 100km to the east. Closer to the park, the small towns of Mae Chaem and Chom Thong have a few resorts where you can arrange excursions to visit the local Tai Yuan hill tribes. Remember that Chiang Mai province has many other national parks, including Doi Suthep, Ob Khan, Mae Wang, Si Lanna and Doi Ang Khang.

Kaeng Krachan

This, the country’s largest national park, covers nearly 3,000 square km of mountainous terrain and joins other protected forest areas in Thailand and Myanmar to form one of the last stomping grounds for tigers and several other endangered species in Southeast Asia. Asiatic black bears and Siamese crocodiles make their homes here, but sightings are extremely rare

But the park's biggest draw is the birdlife, with long-tailed broadbill and Oriental pied hornbill counted among 460 species. Trails near three campgrounds are great for bird watching, but do use a local guide who's adept at spotting wildlife while keeping your family safe.

Other attractions include the mountaintop camp at Khao Phanoen Thung, where you can gaze at sheets of fog in the valleys at dawn, before a hot breakfast. From there, guides will take you deeper into the jungle to look for gibbons and dusky leaf monkeys on a hike to Thor Thip waterfall. Wild elephants are often seen at Bang Krang Camp and Pala-U waterfall further south.

Need to know

Kaeng Krachan is remote and the best option for most families is to arrange a tour through one of the private resorts in the area, some of which are operated by experienced wildlife spotters. Though more challenging to visit than other parks, families with a keen interest in wildlife won't find a better option.

Best places to see wildlife in Thailand

Where to see elephants in Thailand

On a day program at a reputable elephant care centre or sanctuary, families will likely feed, bathe and prepare food for these intelligent animals. Most of the elephants at these centres will have been injured at, or rescued from, exploitative camps.

In Chiang Mai province, Mahouts Elephant Foundation, Elephant Nature Park, Maesa Elephant Camp, and Patara Elephant Farm join Chiang Rai province's Burm and Emily's Elephant Sanctuary and Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, as some of Thailand's most responsible elephant care centres that are open to tourists. Another good choice, also in the north, is Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai.

The group that runs Elephant Nature Park also runs the Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi. And further south, near Hua Hin, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) cares for elephants, gibbons and other animals. WFFT is a non-profit animal rescue organisation that deserves support.

A word on captive wildlife

Meeting an elephant is unforgettable, but it's important to be selective and avoid supporting inhumane “attractions” where captive animals are treated poorly.

Sadly, many elephant and other so-called wildlife sanctuaries are actually for-profit enterprises with little or no interest in animal welfare. Their marketing aims to trick tourists into thinking that by visiting they are supporting animal care.

The worst of the animal attractions rely on using elephants for tourist rides and to perform circus tricks. All the tiger attractions, including so-called tiger temples, are awful: The big cats are drugged into docility, and sometimes even bred for illicit markets.

Before visiting anything advertised as an animal sanctuary or care centre, do some research to find out how well the animals are treated, and whether your money will go to animal care and staff, or into the pockets of businesspeople. One reliable clue: Are elephants used for rides with carriages strung to their backs? A mature elephant can support one mahout but carrying many people on their backs is known to cause health problems.

Read More

For more information on responsible elephant and wildlife tourism, see our companion guides: Elephants in Asia, Ethically, and Wild Encounters: Ethical Tourism for Animal Lovers.

Snakes in Queen Saovabha Institute

The Queen Saovabha Institute in Bangkok, one of the world's leading venom antiserum institutes, houses a snake farm, a popular tourist attraction. King cobras are the stars but you'll also see vipers, kraits and pythons that spectators are allowed to hold for photos. The snake handlers demonstrate daily at 14:30. Later, walk through Lumpini Park to look for harmless Asian monitor lizards.

Sea turtles

Sea turtles of the green and hawksbill varieties are common at snorkelling sites around Ko Tao, Ko Raya, Ko Surin and the Similan Islands, among others. Families with an interest in marine science could visit the Royal Thai Navy Sea Turtle Conservation Centre south of Khao Lak, or another centre with an identical name in Sattahip, south of Pattaya, on the eastern Gulf coast. At both venues, you can watch the turtles swim and learn about the science behind treatment and conservation.

About the author

Thailand's Best National Parks & Wildlife-Spotting

David Luekens

Based in Thailand since 2011, David first waded into Southeast Asia in the early 2000s via friendships forged in the Thai, Vietnamese and Karen communities of Vermont, almost Canada, USA. He is a bona fide nerd in maps, islands and travel planning with a research background in Buddhism and the environmental, political and human rights issues of Southeast Asia. Bylines include CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveller China and more than 100 Travelfish guides.

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