Early February, I had the opportunity to travel with two fellow FREELANDers to Thailand’s most famous national park, Khao Yai. As with my other work, Khao Yai is located in the Eastern Forest Complex and is visited by more than 1 million tourists every year.
|Relief map on the wall at Khao Yai Headquarters|
The purpose of the trip was to hold a meeting between FREELAND and park staff. However, since the meeting was completely in Thai, I was encouraged to wander.
The drive to the park’s headquarters was exceptionally scenic with a winding road coursing through mountainous forest. It eventually took us to an area near the park’s headquarters that was once a village. The villagers had since been removed to reduce human disturbance in the park and what was left was grassland in stark contrast to the thick forest surrounding it. To the keen eye, the odd mango tree could be spotted, a relic from the once active community.
|A road running through Khao Yai.|
We arrived at the park headquarters and spent some time with some of the park’s rangers prior to the meeting. The building featured a massive diorama of the park’s undulating elevations, which I spent some time exploring before heading out to explore.
Given the short duration of the meeting, I could not see the diversity of attractions and wildlife that many visitors come to Khao Yai to see, but I was fortunate to be in close proximity to a gift shop, visitors’ center and a forested creek. Normally, the creek was spanned by a suspension bridge, but on the day of the trip it was out of commission. Nonetheless, I was able to explore the local environment and relax to the sounds of the rushing water pouring over ancient rocks.
|Dramatic reenactment of a tiger attacking a gaur.|
The visitors’ center was an interesting and a somewhat macabre experience. Bones, plaster casts of tracks and taxidermied animals crowded the interior as part of the park’s education strategy. It included three stuffed tigers that were deathly and derelict avatars of a once magnificent, living past. Fur was falling off the skin and bones protruded from where holes had opened. Stuffing was also visible from small holes in the hide, likely wrought by bullets at the time of their death. Both adult tigers on display had attacked and killed people with one taking the life of a small girl crouching to pick up a pencil that had fallen under a stilted house. The other was an old female likely unable to hunt normal prey. The display even included a small cub glaring through unnerving, synthetic eyes. I shuttered at the thought that these sad exhibits may, one day, be all that is left of Khao Yai’s tigers...and perhaps the world’s.
|A taxidermied tiger cub stares out from a glass case at Khao Yai's visitor center.|
|A stuffed tiger, falling apart, is frozen in protest.|
At the conclusion of the FREELAND meeting, we departed by truck through the same winding road. Shortly into the journey, the driver spotted something in a creek while crossing a bridge. Slowing to a stop, we stared inquisitively at an unidentifiable brown mass at the water’s edge. We decided to get out of the vehicle for a closer look, which spooked something near where we were looking. Gliding through the water, the animal we had disturbed seemed snake-like. It turned out to be a water monitor, but the unusual mass it had fled from was still a mystery. Even photos I had taken at full zoom didn’t seem to lift the veil. I decided to get a closer look.
|A camera-shy monitor swims away at our approach.|
|A footprints from a wild dog pockmark the riverbank.|
I made my way through thick scrub to the muddy river-bank. I could immediately hear the sound of flies and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the brown mass in the water was something dead (and smelly). The tangled mass belonged to a partially submerged sambar deer, intertwined in a fallen tree. How it met its end, I couldn’t be sure, but more than monitors seemed to be taking advantage of a potential meal. Animal tracks lined the muddy bank, which were later confirmed to be from wild dog. Given that the location was likely to attract a number of animals, I decided not to linger and made my way back to the truck.
|The incredible exploding cervid.|
As we continued on our journey, we excited discussed our discovery. We turned a corner and, marked by a shout of surprise, the view was suddenly filled with the leathery grey mass of a male elephant.
|A male elephant in Khao Yai scans the air with its massive trunk.|
As the largest living residents in Khao Yai, elephants occasionally feel compelled to occupy roads, sometimes halting traffic for an hour or more; when faced with something that can effortlessly destroy your car if its mood turns sour, you don’t press the issue of getting past.
The male seemed in a mellow mood and casually sniffed the air with its massive trunk. Fellow visitors stuck on the other side foolishly got out of their cars to take photos only to be chased back when the elephant made a short, mock charge. Content with whatever it had accomplished, the elephant slowly made its way to the forest edge. It is surreal to imagine elephants moving through such thick forest , especially when most footage of elephants in media comes from open savannah in Africa; however, it was even more surreal to watch the elephant slip through the trees and completely disappear after no more than 5 meters. The feeling was akin to watching someone walk through a wall.
Once the elephant had disappeared, we continued on our way. Talking about tigers in Khao Yai, we decided to stop once again when we picked up the signature ammonia scent of feline urine. Pulling off to the side of the road, we jumped out and walked along the road in the hopes of encountering more visual wildlife sign. We meandered up a trail on a hill, which took us up to a viewpoint. We didn’t find any other sign of felids, but we were treated to a spectacular view of the park’s mountains, lit by a sun descending into dusk.
|A scenic conclusion to my visit.|
We left the park without further incident and made our way (in my case begrudgingly), back to the hectic and polluted streets of Bangkok. I took solace in the fact that I would likely return.