Tracking Elephants in the Jungle of Khao Yai!

An elephant never forgets, everyone!

To put that phrase to the test, I joined with my good friend, Mu Sab, and Bobby’s Jungle Tours to scope out the local wildlife of Khao Yai National Park. Today’s adventure almost didn’t happen, though. Mu Sab had booked a private tour with the cranky German booking agent, but then we were placed with a group of falong kee nok as Pakpao called them (that means “bird poop foreigners”).

Rather than go with the bird poopers, we had to reschedule and wait an extra hour and a half for our guide, known to us only as Ben, to arrive and load us into the back of his truck. Waving so-long to Pla, Pakpao, and Mr. Tung Ting, we sped off into the jungle!

We started off on the Nong Phak Chi Nature Trail to look for wildlife. Though it was early in the day and late in the dry season, it was already balmy! But there were neat twisty vines and sand tubes leading to beehives and mighty strangler figs reaching up into the sky, and those kept my attention. Ben even brought along a telescope so we were able to watch a family of gibbons have breakfast!

We were in no particular hurry, and though the trail wasn’t particularly difficult, there were a few times when I stopped to take a photo and my companions got swallowed up by the forest! While no tigers have been seen in Khao Yai for quite some time, I wasn’t too keen on taking any chances!

What we did find were lots of traces of wildlife: the claw marks of a sun bear in a tree trunk and the jet plane whoosh of a hornbill passing overhead! Then, Ben spotted an elephant path, marked by broken branches, mud splotches rubbed on tree trunks, and even fresh poop! Without warning, we headed after the giant jungle animals!

Elephants are really talented at ghosting, because although the tracks and poop were fresh, we wandered right through their path and back to the main trail without catching so much as a glimpse! We paused to rest by a huge strangler fig tree. Strangler figs start off as tiny seeds in kee nok that gets dropped on tree tops. They sprout, grow down to the ground while entwining their host, and gradually cut off all sunlight and water from the host tree, completely taking over! It’s a scary story, but it makes for really great jungle textures!

As the day grew hotter, more animals were settling in for naps to wait out the heat, so we started heading back to the truck. Suddenly, a mighty roar echoed out of the jungle! Then a trumpet! The elephants were back!

Ben took off into the trees, and Mu Sab and I followed as fast as we could, checking for mud splotches, listening for their plant crunching and deep rumbles, and sniffing for their strong musk. It was like chasing unseen dinosaurs into the jungle! It was also kind of scary! But the elephants evaded us once again, hiding in the dense undergrowth, maybe just a few feet away. I was pretty disappointed, because with the sad state of elephants around the world, I was hoping to see some living wild and free!

Of course, after all of our questing and pushing through branches and getting snagged by thorns and vines, we got back to the road and found our elephant! He was a huge bull with one missing tusk, a sad reminder of the constant dangers that elephants face. But he seemed pretty content, ambling down the road. At one point, he struck a pose for all the motorists with cameras, as if he’d done this a time or two.

After spending so much time around elephants in zoos, it was hard to connect this roadside elephant with wildness. Nevertheless, he was wild enough to stop in the middle of the road and take a standing-up snooze! The king of the jungle naps where he wishes, I guess!

Down the road, we had a tasty curry lunch and set out to find our next jungle giants. The crocodiles of the Lam Taking River are not the sorts that you’d want a selfie with. In fact, they attacked a French tourist earlier this year who was dumb enough to sit next to one for a selfie! I was a little nervous, being pretty bite-sized, as we wandered up the dry river, amid the ominous buzzing of cicadas that seemed to get louder the closer we got!

About a mile in, we arrived at the pool of the crocodiles. Far less scary once we saw one, the lone reptile lurked in its stagnant pool, drifting along in the hopes that another dumb tourist would come for photos. We did not grant its wish, but it was very much a reminder that there are dangers in all corners of the jungle, even for crocodiles! The Siamese crocodile has been hunted to the brink of extinction for its skin, with only a few hundred remaining in the wild! I, for one, was glad to have the chance to see one before it was gone forever!

On the other side of the river bend, Ben encouraged us to explore the Haew Suwat waterfall because it was featured in the movie The Beach way back in 2000. Down a long flight of stairs we went, surrounded by an escort of butterflies!

Ravaged by the dry season, the waterfall had been reduced to a trickle, but at this time of year, it was not crowded, and it was perfectly lit by the fading sun, a sanctuary of water, boulders, and butterflies! I could have sat here for hours, but we ended up having to dodge some last-minute falong kee nok!

From there, Ben drove us to our final stop, up to the top of Khao Yai (“Big Mountain”) and the vistas of the Pa Deo Dai cliffs! He let us wander down the wooden walkways through a very unique ecosystem, a high-altitude swamp! The sky was darkening around us, but the insects never ceased buzzing.

Then, we emerged from the trees to an amazing view! Khao Yai National Park is part of the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site that protects over 800 species of animals, like the endangered crocodiles, tigers, elephants, leopard cats, and bantengs! Looking out over the rolling mountain range, I wondered how much wildlife could fit into a photo frame. It really brought home the importance of protecting this amazing place!

As the sun set on our adventure in Khao Yai National Park, though I had not found a durian for Master Sae, I was filled with wonder over the sites, sounds, and smells of the jungle! I hope the animals here continue to flourish in peace. Meanwhile, I must away with me to the south. I hear rumors that there are more durians to be found there!

See you in the South!

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