Just a few hours' drive from Bangkok, Kaeng Krachan National Park fascinates nature lovers with its abundant birds, butterflies and other wildlife that thrive in this large piece of forest in Phetchaburi Province.
"Are you going up the mountain? Can I join?" hitchhiker Charoen asked as he saw us prepare for the Phanern Thung camping site, the highlight of Kaeng Krachan National Park.
"Sure," I said. "You are more than welcome."
Dressed in green camouflaged jacket matching the surroundings, Charoen, a bird lover who preferred nature to spending the weekend walking the shopping malls of Bangkok, seemed clearly excited as he dumped his gear and joined us in the car. In fact, he was the only bird expert in our group and we looked forward to his company.
Every weekend, the park on the Thai-Burmese border becomes a mecca for bird lovers from Bangkok who pitch their tents in the hug of its wilderness.
The park with a total area of 2,915 square kilometres is about three hours' drive from Bangkok. Bordering Burma on the west and not encroached by luxurious resorts, it has quietly become an attractive place for nature lovers who roam the wilderness dressed in camouflaged jackets armed with binoculars.
"I have been here four or five times, alone." said Charoen, affirming that this was a place for real nature lovers.
Ban Krang, the camping ground is west of the park's headquarters, is a good place to begin the tour. It is full of birds and butterflies.
The park is nourished by Phetchaburi and Pran Buri rivers. According to Prathan Sangworn, deputy chief of the park, 250 species of butterflies and moths and 450 bird species are found in this area.
"During February and March the park is full of colourful butterflies which attract lots of birds and tourists. They can be seen by the stream, particularly on sunny days, and on the ground feeding on minerals, totally oblivious to human presence and passing vehicles.
"That is when they get knocked over. You can see hundreds of them dead by the roadside," said Charoen.
Ban Krang is the gateway to camp site which can be accessed via only one road that cuts through dense jungle. As our four-wheel drive passed Ban Krang, I could feel the air was cooler.
The road runs through lush tropical jungle home to wildlife. Langurs watched our car pass from tree tops, while hornbills and the black drongo circled the sky above. Via the narrow, dusty and winding road, we drove slowly to find ourselves in a mountainous landscape with thick forest cover.
After driving for two hours uphill, we reached the Phanern Thung Camp, set in a remote part of the park. It wasn't a huge place with luxurious facilities, and the limited water supply meant it could take only 200 campers a day. But the location was certainly special.
The camping ground was located among a picturesque mountainous landscape where visitors could enjoy the scenery at sunrise and sunset, and a view of the valley clad in mist at dawn.
The mist-covered valley of Phanern Thung is quite popular among Bangkokians and we spotted several of them pitching tents there. The camping ground sat in the heart of the jungle infested with various forms of wildlife.
"Spectacled langurs," someone shouted, prompting us to grab our cameras. At first I thought the langurs were far away, but actually they were perched on a tree nearby watching us pitch our tents.
"Last month a tourist took pictures of a tiger's cub on this trail," Prathan said as he walked me to the viewpoint to watch the sunset and showed me the photo. It was a warning to me not to roam around alone after sunset.
However, it was not that scary around the camp. I found myself among various feathered friends such as the wreathed hornbill, barbet, drongo etc, etc. Charoen ran to me, saying in excited tones that he had spotted a school of the chestnut-headed bee-eater.
Phanern Thung is never known to let bird watchers down.
Next morning it was chilly as we walked to the viewpoint again. There we stood on the edge of a cliff and were stunned by the picturesque valley blanketed in thick mist surrounded by hills.
The crests of some hills stood out among the mist like islands in the sea, while the yells of gibbons echoed through the jungle.
The jungle below the mist is the source of Phetchaburi River which is famous for its clear water. Water from the river is used for performing royal rites, which is why the forest here is well protected.
Charoen and I jumped on to the 4x4 again after Prathan revealed that there was a better viewpoint at the Kilometre 36 marker. As we arrived there, the sun was shining brightly illuminating the mist-covered valley into various hues of silver and blue. The wind occasionally blew the mist baring tree tops and parts of the valley.
We hung around for quite a while, soaking up the view to our heart's content before making a retreat to the camp and from there back to Bangkok.
Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province is around 200 kilometres from Bangkok. It can be reached via Highway 3175. From Bangkok, drive via Tha Yang district to the park's headquarters located close to the Kaeng Krachan dam.
Park entrance fee is 40 baht for locals and 400 baht for foreigners. There are lots of privately-owned accommodations around the dam. For more information, call TAT office in Cha-am at 032-471-005/6. The park provides 18 guesthouses and a camping facility around its headquarters. Ban Krang Camp at Km 15 is good for 100 tents, while the Phanern Thung Camp at Km 30 can only take 60 tents. From Ban Krang the road uphill to Phanern Thung Camp is narrow and winding. The traffic is one way, up or down, regulated by park officials. To access Phanern Thung, a four-wheel drive and experienced driver is required. Cars, priced 1,000 to 1,800 baht per trip, are available for rent. Besides the wildlife and mist-clad valley, the park has several waterfalls, the more famous being Tor Thip about four kilometres from the viewpoint at Km 36. For more information, call the park at 032-459-293.
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