Looking beyond Bangkok, it is not difficult to realise why Khao Yai has gradually caught the attention of foreigners. Just three hours from the Thai capital, this verdant and cool region is a popular day trip even for the locals.
Khao Yai, which means Big Mountain, has lured visitors with its bucolic scenery and educational farm activities that are ideal for families.
Khao Yai National Park
Nature lovers will be enchanted by the beauty of the national park. It was established in 1962 and is the third largest national park of Thailand. Khao Yai National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is an oasis teeming with wildlife and primeval jungles.
After paying the fees at the foot of the mountain, we drove up the hill, and as we ascended, temperatures dipped. We stopped at one of the several vantage points to marvel at the dense jungle with its tall canopy of trees.
There are two types of forest found here - mixed deciduous forest on lower slopes and evergreen forest on higher slopes. There are several waterfalls to visit and we headed for the more popular Haew Suwat Waterfall, which cascades down a 20m cliff into a large pool below.
The waterfall is 8km east of the visitors' centre and is also accessible by one of the easterly roads. Near the waterfall, we saw wild orchids and flowering hoya parasitica trailing down tree trunks.
If time permits, head for the short hiking trail to Nong Pak Chi Wildlife Observation Tower, which is a manageable path with views of the grassland overlooking a peaceful lake. Here, you will see the fertile evergreen dry forest grown with Cogon Grass (known locally as Ya Kha). The Sambar Deer or Gaur (Indian Bison) is often spotted during the early hours or late evenings grazing on the Cogon Grass. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to catch a glimpse of it.
There are many elephant riding centres in Thailand - the centre at the Jungle House Hotel offers a worthwhile experience.
The park has made it user-friendly to allow non-riders to walk along an adjacent boardwalk to click shots of the elephant riders.
The highlight was when we approached the riverbank and the elephant traversed the shallow river to cool itself in the hot sunny weather.
At the end of the ride, the diligent elephant was rewarded with fresh bananas from a nearby stall. We walked around the vicinity to see the numerous furry rabbits and some beautiful peacocks reared in the park.
Educational farm tours
There are several farms to visit. At Chockchai Farm, we savoured the delicious lunch using freshly grown mushrooms at Panorama Farm.
Chockchai Farm was started in 1957 on a deserted high-forested plateau in Pakchong and began integrated farming on a small plot of 100 acres. Now it has become a top attraction for visitors to Khao Yai. At the entrance of the farm, children can opt for pony rides or cuddle the sheep and calves partitioned by the low fence. Adventurous adults can try milking the cows, go horse riding or watch the cowboy show.
Don't miss the farm's delicious dairy products. The farm's exclusive milk brand is Umm!..Milk, which is suitable for those who are lactose intolerant. You can enjoy fresh pasteurised milk in glass bottles and creamy milk ice cream. My Italian travel companions said it tasted just as good as their Italian gelato. We bought a few bottles of the Caesar salad dressing, made with the fresh milk, as souvenirs.
A haven for mushroom lovers, the 30ha Panorama Farm is also the largest mushroom farm in Khao Yai. We were given a welcome drink of mushroom broth. Then we started our farm tour by sanitising our footwear before entering each germination chamber. From spores to the harvesting frequency of each variety, we learnt about the cultivation of mushrooms, which range from the common Oyster mushrooms to unique Monkey Head mushrooms and the precious Lingzhi mushrooms.
These mushroom dishes tantalised our tastebuds. Our favourite was the crispy Yanagi Mutsutake mushroom, which goes well with the local Singha beer. Craving for more, we picked up some tom yum-flavoured mushroom snacks to munch as we continued touring the region.
It is more convenient to hire a car/van from Bangkok to Khao Yai. You can stop at several attractions in Khao Yai along the way.
Sample the dairy products at Chokchai Farm (bottled fresh milk or milk gelato). Khao Yai Panorama Farm has a wide variety of fresh mushroom dishes and mushroom snacks to choose from.
Enjoy a relaxing stay at Khao Yai Paradise on Earth. This stylish accommodation has a running stream nearby and you can ride a kayak or enjoy your meal in the outdoor sheltered hut.
For THB400 (S$16), the elephant ride at The Jungle House Hotel is adventurous with the deft elephants traversing the dense forest and crossing the shallow river.