Bangkok remains one of the world’s most visited cities, if not the most visited; itself a gateway to many of Thailand’s other incredible destinations, especially if coming from beyond Asia.
For many Singaporeans, visiting Bangkok is much like hopping over to Kuala Lumpur for a weekend, given the sheer number of flights making the route between the two cities.
Beyond Bangkok though, there’s a growing number of visitors making it out to the wondrous destination of Khao Yai.
Located in the lush national park of the same name, Khao Yai offers a peaceful break away from the hectic pace of Bangkok, and is more a place you visit to relax and unwind rather than pack with adventure.
There are several ways to get to Khao Yai.
Many hire drivers that pick them up from airports in Bangkok to drive them around Khao Yai itself via Klook. You can rent a car too and in some cases makes far more financial sense. Either way, the journey will take an uneventful 3 hour drive through central Thailand’s urban traffic before you eventually reach.
Distances between places in Khao Yai aren’t as vast as say, Hokkaido, but a car is still the best way to get around as public transport is largely insufficient and more in support of local needs rather than a visitor’s.
If you’ve hopped on an early morning flight, you’ll most probably reach Bangkok before noon, and you can either choose to settle lunch at the airport or head straight for your resort. You’ll most likely want to hang around and explore your resort grounds as many resorts in Khao Yai are destinations within themselves. This includes places like Thames Valley, styled like English manors in the country, and offer a pleasant surrounding to walk around or grab a bite.
Khao Yai’s climate is suitable for wine-producing, and as such, you can head on a wine tour at PB Valley.
There are six tours that take place everyday, and we got on the last of the day which took about 75 minutes through Khao Yai’s biggest vineyard.
The tour comes with a live commentary of the various grapes and sites you see, including grape cultivation and extracting them to produce the various wines.
The tour ends with a wine tasting, or for those less inclined, grape juice.
Adults pay THB350 and children under 20 pay THB300 for the tour. Children under the age of 4 do not have to pay, and these rates are valid till 31st October 2019. Head to the official website for the most up-to-date information on tour times and rates.
Mind, the website strongly advises booking slots in advance, and that’s probably true during peak season of November to January, when Khao Yai is drenched in sunshine and um, tourists.
In August, we simply showed up 30 minutes before and nabbed the first slots of the 4pm tour, though it should be mentioned that slots actually filled up pretty quickly, and by the time 4pm rolled around, all the tickets for the 4pm tour were sold.
So I’d definitely recommend booking in advance, especially during the peak season.
Pirom Cafe is actually at the end of the PB Valley vineyard, but you’ll have to drive about 5 minutes to get there from the main entrance of PB Valley.
The cafe offers some stunning views of the surrounding national park (a common theme you’ll see soon with other cafes), and features an open grass area for the young ones to run about.
The food menu here is not extensive, but most come for a relaxing drink and beautiful view.
Mind, the cafe closes at 6pm so don’t get here too late, you get about an hour after you end the winery tour if you hop on the last tour of the day.
Strap in as it’s a 35 minute ride to Kua Kampan, a humble Thai restaurant serving up authentic local dishes.
Dishes here are more of a communal sharing type of affair, and is situated in a traditional wooden house.
These days, Kua Kampan is already pretty popular, so don’t expect to stumble on a local secret, especially if you’re here during peak season!
Still, dishes are good, reasonably priced, there are staff on hand who can speak English, and the carpark is just beside the restaurant.
Many Thais themselves dine here too.
Yellow Submarine Coffee Tank
If you find yourself in Khao Yai over a weekend, start your day at Yellow Submarine Coffee Tank, a cafe that only opens Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The high all-black walls, minimalist architecture, bold lines and edges make for stunning photos, and you’ll see many travellers with cameras in tow taking advantage of the unique and beautiful surrounds of the cafe.
Here, the Charcoal Honey Toast is the most famous item on the menu, though I can see how it might be a little too sweet for some first thing in the morning.
Still, the toast was actually pretty good, though we ran out of ice cream and honey faster than the thick toast, but it does provide a nice balance to the sweetness of it all.
There are other food items on the menu as well as cakes, though it isn’t an extensive menu by any means.
There’s plenty of beverages to try though.
Primo Piazza is an Italian-themed village you have to pay for, and a THB200 ticket gets you a discount at the cafe (which we didn’t use) and a free animal feeding session of alpacas, sheep and donkeys.
With 90s power ballads and crowd pleasing love songs in English from decades past blaring through the speakers, to say it’s an accurate reimagination of an Italian village would be, well, inaccurate.
It was fairly quiet too, but that goes for the entirety of Khao Yai in August, as I’m pretty sure the place will be packed with travellers looking for their next Instagram photo op once the year-end crowd comes.
The village exists pretty much just for pretty architecture, as there weren’t many cafes or shops open, though I’m not sure if they’re open during high season. As it stands, it just felt like walking through an open-air museum that felt a little lifeless.
The Italian village itself is pretty small, but there are neat little vantage look-out points from different areas.
As for the animal feeding, it did feel a little touristy and kitsch, especially with the animals behind fences, but a stalk of food for the animals comes with your admission ticket anyway.
Let’s hope the animals are at the very least eating well and not subject to awful conditions to put on a show for tourists.
The Birder’s Lodge
Then, hop over just next door to The Birder’s Lodge, another cafe that mimics a greenhouse type of atmosphere, with open air and indoor seating available.
The architecture itself is pretty striking, and I particularly enjoyed the abundance of natural light pouring in through the glass windows.
The food menu here is a lot more extensive than many cafes in Khao Yai, so this would definitely be a recommended place to grab lunch.
You can find standard Western favourites as well as some local dishes.
If you time your visit right, The Lodge just next door to the cafe opens itself up to a local farmer’s market, which I’m told takes place the first weekend of every month.
It’s not a big market, but still lends itself to a homely atmosphere.
Otherwise, you can do what everyone does and get photographs in front of the massive doors.
A short drive takes you through to Palio, a slightly more authentic take on an Italian village (only because you don’t have to pay for admission and shops are actually open), but is actually more of an al-fresco shopping experience.
Still the shops were pretty touristy, and the lack of authentic family-run Italian restaurants and bustling streets made it hard to actually feel like I was in the middle of Italy so once again it didn’t feel entirely Italian and not exactly Thai either.
Still, it’s a pretty enough place to grab some pictures, and some of the streets do look really nice to be fair.
I was fully expecting Midwinter Green to be a stuffy restaurant given how much of a hard sell it felt like to travellers, but wonderfully, behind the gleaming exterior, I found a wonderful restaurant with a beautiful outdoor dining scene.
Midwinter Green is set in the valley, and you’ll be accompanied by live music every night during your dinner under the stars.
There is also a bakery here which you get fresh produce, as the restaurant operates on a farm-to-table concept, and grows much of their own food.
The Midwinter Pizza is a house specialty, and what was served was quite interesting. The crust and base is crispy and folded up, so it felt like taking a bite out of a sandwich than a traditional pizza, though the pizzas one might be more used to are also served here. Beyond that, the ribs here are pretty good too, but expect this to not be a cheap meal.
Mains start from THB350.
If anything, the detractors online seem to go after how expensive it is, but honestly for a one-off, I think the restaurant is pretty good, as well as the great atmosphere dining al-fresco.
I might say different if I was dining indoors in the air-conditioned area!
Please Don’t Tell Khaoyai
You’ll start to realise there isn’t a whole lot interesting to do in Khao Yai besides eating and relaxing, but one can’t make it out here without visiting the sprawling National Park.
Before that, fuel up and grab coffee at Please Don’t Tell Khaoyai, a cosy cafe also in the valley with a long table outdoors that faces the lush vegetation around.
Again, the food menu here isn’t extensive, but there are plenty drinks on offer here.
The food was an odd mix of western and Thai cuisine, so I stuck to the safer, typical brunch options which were decent though not amazing.
When we arrived first thing in the morning, the cafe wasn’t busy at all, but closer towards noon, the indoor seating started to really fill up.
Haew Su Wat Waterfall
After which, strap in for a long drive into the dense, thick jungle of the Khao Yai National Park.
Haew Su Wat Waterfall will be the closest highly-rated attraction within the National Park, which even then takes an hour from Please Don’t Tell Khaoyai.
You’ll first pass through a gantry where foreigners have to pay THB400 to enter the National Park each, and THB50 more for a car.
While this is admittedly really expensive for Thailand, it should be common knowledge by now that foreigners tend to pay incredibly inflated prices for a lot of things in Thailand, including visitor attractions, so you can decide for yourself if this is worth it.
Once you’re in and find yourself at the carpark of Haew Su Wat Waterfall, it’s a short hike down to the waterfall, and nowhere near as challenging as some of the hikes I attempted in Ko Samui chasing waterfalls and incredible view points.
The stairs though steep, are actually stairs that have been carved out for hikers, and you can stop at the end to take a break anyway whilst admiring the falls.
If you’re here in the off season when rainfall levels are at their highest, the one good thing is that the falls will be pretty spectacular!
Pha Diew Dai
There are many scenic viewpoints, but Pha Diew Dai is probably the most famous.
However, this viewpoint is closed during the rainy season between 1st June to 30th September every year to allow for forest regeneration.
If you’re here on a clear day, you’ll get some pretty stunning views.
Fret not though, if you continue driving up the road, you’ll eventually reach a Thai military airbase which is naturally closed off to visitors, but just before it there is a nice viewpoint.
You won’t be able to hang your legs off the cliff but the sweeping views are pretty cool if visibility isn’t too bad.
Khun Dan Prakarn Chon Dam
Another popular spot in the National Park is this dam, which is said to be a nice place for children and families.
On a clear sunny day, the blues of the water do look pretty stunning with the hilly vegetation all around, and is one of the King’s projects to supply water to the farmers in the vicinity.
It’s said that you can even take a boat tour on the lake.
Haew Narok Waterfall
The highest waterfall in Khao Yai National Park stands at 80 metres higher and is located closer towards the Southern entrance.
I didn’t make it out to this one if only for the fact I’d seen my fair share of waterfalls in Thailand, but it’s been said that due to it’s height, this is a slightly more challenging hike to tackle.
Still, if you’re up for the adventure, you can’t miss this.
Camping is available in the National Park (for a fee of course), as there are several campgrounds, and this was popular even during the off-peak season.
Ban Mai Chay Nam Restaurant
Ban Mai Chay Nam is more than a restaurant.
Stepping in it actually feels more like entering a vintage store littered with paraphernalia from over the decades— from jukebox machines to furniture to electronics.
Ban Mai Chay Nam is a pretty decent restaurant for Thai food, and sits facing the river.
At night when you can only see the river, it does feel like you’re dining in a jungle.
Pak Chong Night Market
Just a short drive away is the Pak Chong Night Market, which is possibly going to be the most local experience you’ll get in Khao Yai.
Of course, a Thai night market is all about the street food, and you can enjoy some local snacks if you still have room in your tummy.
Jim Thompson Farm
For a long weekend, day 4 is a luxury, but if you’re here at the end or start of the year, you should head to Jim Thompson Farm.
About one and a half hours away is the Jim Thompson farm, only open during the peak season when the flower fields are in bloom.
The sunflowers here can be taller than an average human being too!
You can find the exact dates they’re open every year on the official website, and in 2019 you can pop over to visit from 7th December till 5th January 2020.
Mind, Jim Thompson farm is located in a direction further away from Bangkok, and it takes about 3.5 hours to drive back to Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Baan Suan Noi Resort
Unlike other resorts which do not allow you to enter just to get some great pictures, Baan Suan Noi Resort does for an admission fee of THB100.
Here is where you’ll find the themed Hobbit Houses and Little Santorini.
You can play dress up here but honestly the whole thing does feel a little kitsch.
The Little Santorini is probably the biggest letdown as it isn’t exactly a big compound by any means (and that’s putting it lightly), though if the rooms are empty, you can take a look inside.
In all honesty, if you’re short on time, I’d give this a complete miss, especially since it’s also a little more out of the way.
If you have extra time on your last day and can’t make it to Jim Thompson farm, while the morning away at a nice cafe instead.
Khao Yai, Overall
Khao Yai is a nice city break from Bangkok.
It’s a place where you enjoy your resort in the beautiful surroundings.
It’s a place you take things slow at a beautiful cafe and eat far too much.
It’s a place you get to enjoy a bit of nature in the huge National Park.
Beyond that? There’s nothing really much to Khao Yai in my opinion. I can definitely see the appeal, but perhaps it’s not really a destination for me as a traveller, but it doesn’t have to be, and I’m still happy I got to see it.
If you enjoy themed villages and cute cafes, Khao Yai will be right up your street.
Khao Yai feels like a place that’s easy to please a large family with different generations on a trip, with easy to visit places, good food, opportunities for cute group photos etc.
And given how easy it is to get to from a city that is already so accessible, it’s easy to see why Khao Yai has become so popular.