From cowboy theme parks to mountain-hugged vineyards and Khao Yai National Park’s endless carpets of green, Khao Yai serves as an ideal place to escape from the ordinary everyday life. Day trippers can enjoy a range of sight-seeing opportunities along the Saraburi-Pakchong route, then head back to the city at the end of the day without feeling too tired from the journey.
To really appreciate Khao Yai’s diversity and natural beauty, however, an overnight trip is necessary and highly recommended. This can be combined with a stay inside the national park, where you can explore its verdant landscape and scenic waterfalls on foot, or enjoy several encounters with wildlife and rare tropical birds. Coming from the Wang Nam Kheo side, dubbed the ‘Switzerland of Isan’, the highlights include endless fruit and vegetable orchards as well as Khao Paeng Ma, one of the last few places in Southeast Asia to spot roaming wild gaurs.
Better yet, you can drive around the entire Saraburi-Khao Yai National Park-Wang Nam Kheo loop and experience it all in one go.
At the foot of Khao Yai National Park, just before you pass the main gate, there’s a small side street that turns into an expansive valley where grapes are grown, harvested, crushed and turned into fine wine. GranMonte Estate brought a slice of Tuscany’s sun-drenched vineyards to Khao Yai’s verdant foothills in 1999. The main highlight here is the cellar-door shop and the VinCotto restaurant, that whips up delicious pastas, salads as well as hearty Italian main courses and desserts. The best time to visit is October-February, and guided tours of the vineyard are available only on weekends.
Location: Pakchong, foot of Khao Yai National Park
How to get there: Take Highway 1 to Saraburi-Pakchong, then after passing Muak Lek, make a u-turn at km. 136 and turn left into Pansuk-Kudkla road.
You may have seen or heard of the Jim Thompson silk brand and even visited the Jim Thompson’s House and Museum in Bangkok. If you’ve taken a guided tour of the museum, you will already know about its humble beginnings and how one man’s vision transformed Thailand’s silk industry.
But only a few people know that the rural heartland north of Wang Nam Kheo called Pak Thong Chai is the throbbing heart of Jim Thompson’s silk empire – where its fine quality silk comes from. Here, learn all about how Thompson’s 30-year dedication helped save this cottage industry from disappearing forever. Plan to visit in December or January, so that you can take a guided tour of the expansive silk farm, the cultivation of top-grade silk worms, as well as its picturesque vegetable orchards, botanical gardens and the ‘Isaan village’ – a collection of traditional Isaan houses and a living museum of Isaan culture.
Location: Pak Thong Chai, north of Wang Nam Kheo
How to get there: Head north on highway 304 (Prachinburi-Wang Nam Kheo route) until you arrive in Pak Thong Chai, turn left into highway 2072 and continue about 20km.
The reward that awaits you atop Khao Paeng Ma doesn’t come easily. Patience and a love for rugged adventure are basic requirements. This lone mountain south of Khao Yai National Park is one of the few places in Thailand to spot wild gaurs from, but you might not be so lucky as the population is rather scarce.
A day out to Khao Paeng Ma involves a short and extremely bumpy ride on a four-wheeler, an easy hike through a forest to the viewpoint with watchtower, then it could take hours before you see, if at all, any movement down in the valley below. The hiking trail is actually 1.8km long, with nine scenic points, but you can just walk the first 200m to the gaur watch tower. The best time to spot them is right before sunset, ideally in May, and don’t forget to bring good binoculars if you don’t want to rent one from the park’s office.
Location: Wang Nam Kheo
How to get there: Take highway 304 (Prachinburi-Wang Nam Kheo route) from Bangkok, then turn left into the local Khao Paeng Ma road, which also leads to Khao Yai National Park.
This medium-sized reservoir is on the way to Khao Paeng Ma and Khao Yai National Park, from Wang Nam Kheo. Fronting one of Khao Yai’s verdant ridges, and surrounded by a vast expanse of green fields, the reservoir offers a delightful break from long car journeys and is a wonderful recreation area where you can enjoy fishing, bird watching, or lunch with a view. Should the reservoir’s laid-back pace beckon, you can hire a long-tail boat and journey up the river to Khun Jone and Khlong Ki Waterfalls.
Location: North of Wang Nam Kheo, on the way to Khao Yai
How to get there: From highway 304 (Prachinburi-Wang Nam Kheo route), turn left into the Khao Paeng Ma local road, heading towards Khao Yai National Park.
If your idea of visiting a vineyard is to actually immerse in the whole viniculture experience, then head straight to PB Valley, the pioneer of winemaking in Khao Yai area since 1989. Pass through endless rolling vinyards before arriving at the information centre, where you can sign up for a guided tour of the vineyard and Khao Yai winery, as well as a cellar wine-tasting session.
If you’d rather skip the full glamour – and also save a few baht – then drive around on your own or head to the shop and pick up a few bottles. There’s also The Great Hornbill Grill, which serves up western and Thai dishes accompanied by breathtaking views of the vineyard.
Location: Pakchong, foot of Khao Yai National Park
How to get there: Take Highway 1 to Saraburi-Pakchong, then after passing Muak Lek, make a u-turn at km. 136 and turn left into Pansuk-Kudkla Road.
Straddling Prachinburi and Nakhon Ratchasima provinces, Tub Lan is the first scenic stop along the Wang Nam Kheo-Khao Yai route. This beautiful national park – Thailand’s second largest – houses the country’s most abundant fan palm forests, several waterfalls and a wildlife reserve sheltering rare mammals, such as crown bangtang, serow, black bears, tigers and elephants. Try your hand at creative reforestation; rather than planting trees with a shovel, you swing a golf club or use a slingshot to send off the seeds into the unknown forest beyond. And if it’s getting late in the afternoon, consider heading to a scenic viewpoint at Keb Tawan Cliff for gorgeous sunset views.
Location: Samakki Sub-district, South of Wang Nam Kheo
How to get there: Heading towards Bangkok, about 7km from the Wang Nam Kheo disctrict office on highway 304 (Prachinburi-Wang Nam Kheo route), you will see the park’s sign.
Tucked away in the luscious hills of Wang Nam Kheo, this European country-style farm estate has been producing fine wine under the ‘Chateau Des Brumes’ and ‘Village Cellar’ labels since 2002. Compared to the Thai country-style orchards and farms in the area, Village Farm’s log-cabin huts, stone-paved courtyards and expansive underground wine cellar definitely stand out from the crowd. Come by during the harvest season (Nov-Feb) to experience the full dynamics of wine making. Otherwise, there’s a restaurant, spa – with vinotherapy – accommodation, wine shop and demonstration vineyard to keep you entertained.
Location: Wang Nam Kheo
How to get there: Take highway 304 (Prachinburi-Wang Nam Kheo route) from Bangkok. At km. 79, slow down and be prepared to turn right at the farm’s sign.
If you are continuing on to Korat, this is the last expansive greenery you will see. Thais love to call Wang Nam Kheo the ‘Switzerland of Isaan’ for its picturesque expanse of rolling mountains, lush forested valleys and refreshing all-year-round cool breezes. In fact, the feel is much closer to the verdant mountain ranges of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Apart from its beautiful landscape, Wang Nam Kheo has an active agro-tourism industry. Nearly all vegetable farms and fruit orchards in the area offer tasting tours of their produce. From Wang Nam Kheo, you can continue on to Khao Yai (80km) via a scenic route that cuts through Khao Paeng Ma, Lam Phra Ploeng Reservoir and more fruit orchards.
Location: 230km northeast of Bangkok
How to get there: Take highway 304 (Prachinburi-Wang Nam Kheo route) from Bangkok