22 Chang on my 23rd Birthday: Khao Yai National Park

All I heard was yi sib ed (21 in Thai), and our tour guide Ben bounded out of the songthaew and began sprinting through a field of waist-high grass. Not knowing what else to do, five American teacher friends and I jumped out and raced to keep up with him on the red clay path. We had been touring the jungle in Khao Yai National Park since 7am, and the only thing keeping me from nose-diving into the field was the prospect of seeing wild elephants. “Twenty-one elephants?” I thought as my initial burst of adrenaline wore off and I regretted not forking over 3,000 baht for a gym membership. We’d been looking for these elusive creatures all day, and I wondered if my exhaustion and preschool-level Thai were making me hear things. But all six of us blindly dashed after Ben in the third largest national park in Thailand, hoping we’d catch a glimpse of the animals we’d been searching for all day.

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View from the back of the songthaew

We arrived in Pak Chong, a town just outside the park, the previous night (also my birthday!) and settled into a cute backpacker haunt called Bobby’s Apartments. The guesthouse arranges guided tours of the massive park, so we met our guide Ben at 7am the next morning and took off in the back of his songthaew. As soon as we entered the park gates, I felt a blast of cool, dry, and fresh air. After months of being covered in the humid, sticky, bus fume-filled blanket of air in Paknam, this was the best birthday present I could have received (aside from seeing elephants, of course). The songthaew wound up the sides of hills and through mazes of trees until we stopped at an incredible vista overlooking the greenest mountains I’ve ever seen.

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After a quick photo shoot in our stylish knee-high baby blue leech socks, we piled back into the songthaew. Ben stuck the entire upper-half of his body out the car window, scanning the trees for animals and making bird calls. As we cruised through the jungle, hyped up on nature and excited for the day, we did what any group of girls born in the 80s/90s would do: we sang some classic Disney songs. That is, until Ben stuck his head out the window, told us we would scare the animals away, and stopped the car on the side of the road. We heard some rustling in the trees and looked up to find a whole family of Macaque monkeys swinging from the branches. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that we weren’t at the zoo. There was no glass wall separating us from the monkey family. Seeing free, uncaged monkeys in their natural environment was an incredible start to the day.

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First monkey sighting!

After some more monkey sightings, we were dropped off at the start of our hiking trail. This wasn’t the leisurely walk through a wide, cleared path that I’d expected. It’s currently the rainy season in Khao Yai, which is the best time to see the waterfalls– but it also means that parts of the hiking trail resembled more of a down-hill slip and slide than a trail. So I spent the majority of the hike clinging to tree trunks and trying not to meet my end tripping over a tree root. But despite my lack of coordination, the hike was incredible and straight out of a Planet Earth special. I had never seen plants like this up-close.

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The easy part of our hike

We saw crazy-looking spiders, one more monkey, beautiful trees, and one towering 400-year-old fig tree. Despite the efforts of our expert bird-caller Ben, we didn’t see any of the park’s famous birds, as there had been a storm the night before.

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400-year-old fig tree

After I thought I couldn’t hike anymore, we emerged from the thick brush and were enveloped in a  huge field of waist-high, bright green grass that almost looked neon against the blue sky. We ate lunch in a house overlooking the field and the mountains.

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We met our driver at the edge of the field and drove to a gorgeous waterfall made famous by the movie The Beach. Despite the throngs of tourists, it was a beautiful place to rest after the hike. I sat on a rock close to the falls and took it all in.

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I started to regret not bringing any dramamine as our driver started the long and winding drive to one of the highest points in the park. It was only a short hike from the road until we came to an incredible cliff with a staggering drop-off. You could see trees and mountains for miles and miles.

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On our way down the mountain, we came across a group of about 15 monkeys hanging out on the road. It turns out that our first sighting wasn’t that rare– we’d seen groups of monkeys on the road all day. The sad and somewhat bizarre part thing about the monkeys is that they’ve learned to beg for food from passing cars.

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We were making our way through the monkey gang and trying to find signs of elephants when Ben got the call about some elephants near the field we hiked through earlier.

We sped to the field, heard a man tell Ben yi sib ep (21), and started to run. We ran for what felt like 15 but was probably only 5 minutes. With our adrenaline pumping, we rounded a corner up a hill and saw small groups of tourists and a few people with huge cameras facing not 21, but 22 elephants grazing in a clearing on the other side of the tall, green grass.

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IMG_1683 Blurry elephants! (Most of the brown bits are bushes, not elephants)

Small families of elephants, ranging from tiny, playful, children to huge, old, weathered grandparents slowly wandered through the field, eating grass. It was one of those moments where I willed my brain to become a movie camera to record each moment. But it was difficult to take in everything that was happening. There were the elephants grazing peacefully in front of us, a National Geographic center-spread happening in real-time. Then there was the sun setting over the distant mountains to our right, casting a purple-orange haze in the sky.

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We stood there in awe, passing around binoculars to get a closer look. We had to leave after the sun set behind the mountains so the elephants could move to their salt lick. It was already after 7pm, so we reluctantly headed back to the guesthouse, buying celebratory Chang brand beers on the way back to celebrate the 22 chang (elephants) and an amazing day in the jungle.

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