Thailand is blessed with jaw-dropping national parks that blanket its mountains, fill its valleys and spill out onto its beaches. While many tourist brochures show stunning images of coral reefs, remote islands and coastal reserves, there's far more to Thailand's national parks than sea and sand; in fact, some of the country's richest and most pristine wildlife lies in its forests, as I discovered on a recent trip.
Almost a third of Thailand is covered in dense jungle, and the largest expanses are protected by national park status. Within these sanctuaries, around 1,700 species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles creep through the undergrowth and hide out in the trees, while the vegetation includes 11,000 different types of plant.
When you visit Thailand, you'll almost certainly fly over or drive through some of the these forest reserves but to truly appreciate their astounding diversity and sheer wildness, it's best to explore on foot, join a guided safari or, even better, spend a night or two in a jungle camp or lodge. Each park is unique and almost all except the most vulnerable are open to visitors.
Here are five of the best:
Khao Sok National Park
Best for: Awe-inspiring scenery
The most impressive path of jungle in southern Thailand, Khao Sok is thought to be the oldest rainforest in the world. Just a few hours north of Phuket, it's easy to combine Khao Sok with a beach holiday, so I spent a couple of days at Khao Lak beach before taking a taxi two hours north to a jungle lodge.
Completely unique, this park is characterised by towering limestone peaks and verdant vegetation. When I visited in October, the forest was at its lushest and the rivers and waterfalls were in full flow. I stayed in a stilted hut at Anurak Community Lodge, where the sounds of the jungle were incredible – at night I'd fall to sleep listening to the buzzing of a million different insects, and in the mornings I was woken by gibbon calls.
Each day, I'd hike through the forest past liana-wrapped trees and sky-scraping bamboo stands, or sit out on viewing decks and admire the breathtaking karst scenery. Monkeys, birds and butterflies made regular appearances, while everything from civet cats and flying lizards, to mouse deer and reticulated pythons lay camouflaged in the jungle depths. I also visited a local elephant reserve where I fed and bathed an elephant and, one evening, I set off on a self-guided night trek along a waymarked walking trail.
There's so much to see and do in Khao Sok that I only wish I'd had more time here – with another couple of days I could have explored the park by bike, canoed along its waterways, and taken a daytrip to Cheow Lan Lake – an enormous reservoir studded with limestone pinnacles. At least I have plenty of reasons for a return trip!
Doi Inthanon National Park
Best for: Mountain hiking
Thailand's highest-altitude forest flanks the slopes of Doi Inthanon (2,565 metres), the country's highest peak – you can either hike to the top or drive there via a paved road. The climate and wildlife are hugely diverse here and, as you ascend, you pass through different zones of moss-coated pine, teak and cloud forest, before reaching the stuppa-topped summit.
Full ascents involve camping halfway up but if you only have time for a half-day hike, there are plenty of shorter trails that lead to jungle viewpoints and rushing waterfalls. Flowers and birdlife are particularly impressive in this park, and you're likely to see small mammals like gibbons, deer and wild boar. Cold and humid throughout the year, bring decent hiking gear and extra layers.
Khao Yai National Park
Best for: Daytrips from Bangkok
Just three hours' drive from Bangkok, Khao Yai gained World Heritage status in 2005. It was also the first forest in Thailand to gain national park status (1961) and, as Thailand's most popular park, it's well set-up for visitors – more than 50 km of hiking trails weave through this forest and you can navigate several sections without a guide.
One of the largest monsoon forests in mainland Asia, Khao Yai covers an area of around 2,168 sq km. Packed with wildlife, this park has one of Thailand's largest populations of hornbills. Sightings of pig-tailed macaques, barking deer, porcupines and civets are relatively common, and monkeys make regular appearances. Elephants, black bears and even tigers also inhabit this jungle, although you'd be very lucky if you managed to spot one of these elusive cats.
Kaeng Krachan National Park
Best for: Bird spotting
Southwest of Bangkok, Thailand's biggest national park (2,914 sq km) is the best place in the country to see birdlife and butterflies. More than 270 bird species and 300 types of butterfly have been recorded here, so don't forget your binoculars! This is also a good place to see snakes like the red mountain racer and venomous white-lipped viper. Mammals are in abundance too – the park is home to leopards, elephants, monkeys and more.
Dense morning mists create stunning vistas in Kaeng Krachan, so it's good to come early or stay overnight in a campground or nearby hotel. Getting here by public transport takes a bit of effort, so Kaeng Krachan receives fewer tourists, which adds to its wild and untouched feel. There are plenty of hiking tracks to explore but these are less well marked than in other parks, so it's easy to get lost if you go without a guide.
Kui Buri National Park
Best for: Elephant spotting
South of Kaeng Krachan, Kui Buri is the best park in Thailand for spotting elephants – according to the park, there's a 99 per cent chance of seeing one on any day of the year. The park is also home to Thailand's biggest population of gaurs (wild cows), which you can spot grazing in huge herds or eye-balling you from the track-side during guided walking or driving safaris.
Although Kui Buri has fewer mammals than other parks, your chances of seeing them is high, thanks to the reserve's wide-open spaces and excellent viewing spots. Many visitors see elephants, deer and wild pigs, while tigers, leopards and golden jackals lurk deep in the forest. As well as wildlife, the scenery is spectacular here – highlights include the 15-tier Huay Dong Mai Fai waterfall and the beautiful Pha Ma Hon waterfall.
Other National Parks in Thailand
With 127 Thai national parks in total, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing one to visit. Other standout sites include Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi province, which is famous for its caves and seven-tiered waterfall, while Khao Luang National Park in the far southeast is home to southern Thailand's tallest mountain. If you'd like to experience marine-life as well as jungle-life, Hat Chao Mai National Park on the Andaman Coast is a haven for sea otters and dugongs or "sea cows," and the karst islands, monkey-filled forests and hidden lagoons of Ao Phang-Nga were the filming location for Danny Boyle's movie The Beach (2000).
Thailand's national parks pepper the country from north to south and east to west, so no matter where you travel, you'll find one within easy reach. For me, visiting a one is a "must" on any Thailand trip and, whether you spend a few hours in a forest, experience a protected island by boat or book an overnight stint in the jungle, I can guarantee you'll emerge with incredible memories and a bulging memory card full of Instagram-worthy photos.