Paradise Without the Crowds

the surreal Phraya Nakhon Cave and throne pavilion in Khao Sam R
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Khao Sam Roi Yod is close to Bangkok, but it remains relatively pristine and unexplored.

by Dave Stamboulis

With the hot season upon us, everyone is looking for a rejuvenating weekend escape from Bangkok, which usually means to the closest beach destinations of Pattaya, Cha Am, or Hua Hin. Of course, since everyone has the same idea, unfortunately it isn’t much of an escape. And then there is Khao Sam Roi Yod.

scenery in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in ThailandKhao Sam Roi Yod, Thailand’s first coastal national park, is located near Pranburi, just south of Hua Hin. Despite its proximity to Bangkok, it remains relatively unknown, quiet, and pristine; and offers a variety of attractions: from sandy beaches to mountain trails, abundant birdlife, and perhaps the most fascinating cave in Thailand. The name Sam Roi Yod means “mountains with 300 peaks,” which appropriately describes the rugged limestone karst peaks that dot the landscape, rising out of the Gulf of Thailand and above the coastal marshland.

The park is famed among ornithologists due to its position on an East Asian-Australian flyway for migrating birds; between November and March, over 300 species of birds, many of them migrating from Siberia and Europe, stopover in the mudflats and marshes of Sam Roi Yod. Other wildlife can also be spotted in the park. There are serow (a type of goat-antelope) up on the limestone crags, and plenty of dusky langurs and long tailed macaques, which roam about in the forest and around the park headquarters and campsites. Additionally, Irrawaddy dolphins can occasionally be seen off the coast.

For the ambitious, there are several walking trails, from nature trails through the mangroves to more strenuous jaunts up into the limestone, the most spectacular being the trek up to the Khao Daeng mountain viewpoint, from where a stunning panorama of the surrounding peaks and sea views can be seen. From this section of the park there are also boat trips up the Khao Daeng Canal, which has excellent birdwatching opportunities.

If breaking a sweat is not your forte, the park has two white sand beaches, Sam Phraya and Laem Sala. Laem Sala has bungalows and tents for camping along with a restaurant. Due to its location around a rocky headland, the only way the beach can be reached is via longtail boat or a 20-minute climb over a rocky trail, and other than daytrippers coming to visit the Phraya Nakhon Cave or a handful of the local fishermen who come out with their nets early in the morning, you are likely to have the place to yourself.

beautiful coastal scenery in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in TThere are several caves to explore, but the Phraya Nakhon Cave — probably the most photographed cave in Thailand — is the most special. Getting to the cave involves a 20-minute climb up over a mountain from where one descends into a huge cavern. The cave is actually composed of two large sinkholes whose roofs have collapsed, and in the early morning, light filters in from the openings and creates a dramatic and surreal effect on the surroundings. The cave was named after its discoverer; a lord from Nakhon Sri Thammarat (Phraya Nakhon), who wandered into it some 200 years ago after being shipwrecked in a violent storm.

What makes the cave so interesting is that there is a giant throne pavilion with a four gabled roof sitting in the middle of it, which is also illuminated by the fantastic light. The pavilion was constructed for the visit of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1890, and has since been visited by numerous dignitaries, including twice by King Bhumibol.

But Khao Sam Roi Yod has very poor public transportation options, perhaps one reason why the park remains so quiet. Additionally, as the park is so spread out, it makes sense to have one’s own transport when visiting the different areas. Those without wheels shouldn’t be put off though. You can take a minvan from Victory Monument to Pranburi, and then hire a motorcycle or other vehicle to take you to the park for around Bt300. From the little village near Laem Sala Beach, transport back into town is also available, along with motorcycle rentals for exploring the park.

There are some very nice and affordable lodges on the beach just 10 minutes drive from the park on its northern end, especially the Dolphin Bay Resort (www.dolphinbayresort.com), but it might be far more enjoyable to rough it a bit and stay inside the park itself, either on the beach or near the mountains. The park service (www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/nationalpark.asp?lg=2) does have a few basic bungalows mostly meant for groups, and also have tents for hire.

It is a rather bizarre yet cherished feeling to be this close to Bangkok and yet feel like 1,000km away in a romantic and unexplored hideaway.

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