As a nature lover, wildlife enthusiast or even just intrepid explorer, Thailand is absolute paradise.
The Kingdom is home to a huge number of national parks – 127 at the last count – which includes a number of marine parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
But how to choose which one to visit? And how to avoid the ones teeming with tourists?
National parks like Khao Yai, Phang Nga Bay, Khao Sam Roi Yot and Erawan are deservedly popular thanks to their ease of access and plethora of flora and fauna to get up close and personal with. But if you really want to get off the beaten track, it’s time to go a little further afield and discover hidden Thailand, without the noisy commercial tour groups and yuppy backpackers on an ill-defined quest to find themselves.
Here are some of the most stunning national parks Thailand has to offer…
1. Laem Son, Ranong
Best for: Monkey Mischief
Laem Son is a marine national park measuring 315 square kilometres in size, covering beaches, mangrove swamps, rainforest jungle and coral reefs within its remit. With around 62 miles of Andaman coastline, the park also includes over 20 offshore islands and is part of the Ramsar Convention – an international treaty for the conservation of wetlands.
The park’s headquarters were flattened in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Ao Khao Khwai was subsequently split in two. One of the most unusual features of Laem Son are its long-tailed macaques. On the islands of Piak Nam Yai and Thao, these little monkeys are prolific in their manufacture and use of stone tools.
2. Pang Sida, Sa Kaeo
Best for: Wildlife Spotters
Pang Sida National Park covers 844 square kilometres and is part of the Dong Phayayen Forest Complex UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as the majestic Pang Sida waterfall, the park is home to a plethora of wildlife – 271 species of vertebrate – and a brilliant butterfly area with 400 different species. Visitors are required to hire a guide to explore the butterfly park in the interests of conservation.
Also in residence is reportedly the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, as well as the Asian elephant, python, dhole, leopard, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, grey heron and purple heron. Pang Sida’s landscape is also worth writing home about: lush jungle, cliffs, mountains, grassland and forest are all waiting to be explored.
3. Thung Salaeng Luang, Phitsanulok and Phetchabun
Best for: Hikers
Thung Salaeng Luang is notable for its diverse topography: at once savannah, limestone hills, caves, meadows, waterfalls, mountains, salt licks and deciduous forest, it’s a real delight to explore and be guided by. It’s also got an interesting recent history, with the forest used as HQ for the country’s Communist guerrillas in the 1960s to early ’80s.
Perhaps Thung Salaeng Luang’s biggest attraction though is the Kaeng Song Waterfall – a three-tiered subsidiary of the Wang Thong river, often referred to as Thailand’s Niagara Falls. The park is also home to a host of flora and fauna, including elephants, eagles, owls, woodpeckers, yellow-throated marten, tiger, gaur, slow loris and langur. You can also do whitewater rafting at Kaeng Wang Nam Yen.
4. Hat Chao Mai, Trang
Best for: Beach Lovers
Hat Chao Mai is a marine national park, established back in 1981, on the Andaman Sea. Although becoming more popular, it’s still considered separate from the well-trod tourist trail. The park covers a 20 kilometre coastline (including a 5 kilometre white sand beach) as well as 7 additional islands: Koh Muk, Koh Chai Mai, Koh Kradan, Koh Pling, Koh Waen, Koh Meng, Koh Chueak.
As well as beautiful beaches, coral reef and marine life, on land Hat Chao Mai is framed by steep limestone cliffs, mountains, rainforest, mangrove forest and grass fields. It’s also home to the dugong – a funny-looking, endangered marine mammal that’s one of Thailand’s 15 reserved species – as well as the black-necked stork and lesser adjutant birds.