Boasting sublimely beautiful landscapes that make them the subject of innumerable social media posts, Thailand’s wilderness reserves offer a plethora of activities to outdoor enthusiasts: hiking, birdwatching, jungle safaris, kayaking, rafting, snorkelling and scuba diving, to name just a few.
You’ll also find lush tropical forests rife with innumerable animal and bird species and ultramarine oceanic sanctuaries teeming with splendid coral reefs and megafauna such as sharks and rays.
Most of the country’s top national parks are within easy driving distance – or a short flight away – from the urban sprawl of Bangkok, the national capital. This accessibility means these destinations are easy to combine with holiday itineraries spanning Thailand’s other major draws such as food, culture, architecture, beach vacations and nightlife.
Of the country’s 150-plus national parks, these are a few of the must-visit destinations. All are subject to governmental rules, regulations and entrance fees (also note: some parks close during the annual monsoon season between May and October).
Khao Yai National Park
Best for family outings
Incepted in 1962 as Thailand’s first national park, Khao Yai is an undisputed crowd-puller when it comes to nature and wildlife. More than 300 species of birds thrive in these jungles. The great hornbill, the Austen’s brown hornbill and the rare rufous-tailed robin are some of the most iconic residents. The park is also home to acclaimed animal species like the Indian elephant, the Asian black bear and the white-handed gibbon.
Within the park families can choose forest walking, jungle safaris and night safaris tours, all of which allow you to spy on wildlife up close. Other popular activities include visiting the stunning Haew Suwat and Haew Narok waterfalls. There is also a selection of camping and glamping options in designated areas.
Located about two hours by road from Bangkok, Khao Yai is spread over more than 770-sq-mi (2000-sq-km) of rolling hill terrain in one of the most idyllic landscapes in the country. You’ll also find Thailand’s wine-producing Asoke Valley here – another very good reason to visit the highlands.
Khao Sok National Park
Best for serenity
At the heart of this jaw-droppingly beautiful national park is the Cheow Lan Lake, an artificial reservoir created in the early 1980s by damming the nearby Klong Saeng River for an electricity project.
Extending like liquid tentacles through a network of now-submerged valleys, the vast lake measures more than 70 sq mi (180 sq km) in size, and is hemmed by towering karst and limestone outcrops along the water’s edge. Some contend that the thick evergreen vegetation covering these hills may well count as one of the oldest rainforests in the world.
Clusters of stilted eco-huts located in remote valley gaps – outfitted with nothing but the most basic amenities – offer an unparalleled overnighting experience on the reservoir’s limpid waters. If that’s not enough, you can go canoeing on the placid expanse of the lake, or plod along primeval forest trails in search of elephants, bears, leopards and even the smelly rafflesia flower when it blooms between October and December.
The Sok River, which trickles quietly through the gorgeous scenery, is an excellent backdrop for some laid-back river rafting. The national park is a short drive from Surat Thani, which is connected to Bangkok by a quick flight.
Khao Sam Roi Yot & Kui Buri National Parks
Best for wildlife
The adjacent national parks of Khao Sam Roi Yot and Kui Buri bring together the best of animal spotting and bird watching in the country. Located off the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, Khao Sam Roi Yot – its name literally meaning ‘mountain of 300 peaks’ – comprises a freshwater marsh bordered by lofty limestone summits.
The wetland is a haven for birds, both resident and migratory, and on a good day, you can spot a few dozen among the 350-plus avian species that have been sighted here over the years. Local boatmen also offer boat tours that come with the promise of dolphin sightings, or at least a fun time out on the waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
Further inland from Khao Sam Roi Yot, located along a slim tract of land sandwiched between the sea and the international border with Myanmar, Kui Buri is the top spot for encounters with wild Indian elephants. Few visitors come away from these forests without crossing paths with a herd or two of jumbos, as well as the odd leopard, wild boar or wild dog.
Both parks are located in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, and take less than four hours to reach by road from Bangkok.
Mu Ko Surin & Mu Ko Similan National Parks
Best for scuba diving
Peppered on the azure waters of the Andaman Sea far off Thailand’s west coast, the neighbouring archipelagoes of Surin and Similan are hallowed within the global scuba community as one of the best diving destinations on the planet.
Home to legendary dive sites like Richelieu Rock and Ko Tachai, these tropical waters promise fantastic encounters with massive whale sharks, manta rays, great barracudas, Bryde’s whales, hawksbill turtles and green turtles. The temperate waters are some of the clearest for snorkelling and diving, with underwater visibility routinely shooting past 65.5ft (20m).
Both the Surin and Similan islands lie about 37 miles (60km) from the mainland, and can be accessed from the towns of Ranong and Khao Lak respectively by speedboat. Day trips are possible if you don’t mind the 90-minute ride in each direction.
However, the best way to experience the undersea treasures of both national parks is to embark on a liveaboard holiday. Dive boats offering all-inclusive multi-day trips operate in the area between November and May. The parks remain closed during the wet season from mid-May to mid-October.
Erawan National Park
Best for hiking
The unbelievably beautiful Erawan Waterfall — which lends its name to this national park — is one of the most visited outdoor spots in all of Thailand, and warrants a quick trip even if you’re on an ultra-tight itinerary.
A cascading stream of jade-green water that descends along seven tiers through the hillscape, the waterfall is rife with photo opportunities at every step, from shaded grottos teeming with fish to white-water rapids that strike a dramatic contrast with the emerald canopies above.
The waterfall also doubles as a fantastic hiking reference, thanks to a forest trail that runs along its entire 1-mile (1.5-km) course, going up the seven tiers and allowing adventurers access into one of the most gorgeous jungles in the country.
Located about 7.5 miles (12km) from the park entrance, the grandiose Tham Phra That Cave bores several hundred meters into the Earth’s crust, and is home to a stunning array of limestone formations. Getting to the cave involves a vigorous hike up nearly 600 steps, which makes it a superb outdoor activity for those willing to sweat it out on the trail.
Erawan National Park is located in Kanchanaburi province, a breezy three hours by road from Bangkok.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Best for waterfalls
This national park in northern Thailand is towered over by the eponymous Doi Inthanon, the country’s highest mountain measuring 8415ft (2565m). The summit itself is a popular tourist destination, but the wilderness around it is home to a bunch of spectacular waterfalls.
While they remain in spate through the year, the waterfalls burst forth in all their glory during the rainy season between May and October. Particularly popular are the 820ft-tall (250m) Mae Ya Waterfall, the multi-levelled Pha Dok Siew Waterfall, the voluminous Wachirathan Waterfall, and the Siriphum Waterfall, flanked by peach blossom trees that bloom in spring.
Located on the fringes of the park are quaint villages of ethnic Karen and Hmong communities, where you can experience the indigenous cultures and cuisines of this unspoilt mountainous region. Several tour outfits based in nearby Chiang Mai – an hour’s flight from Bangkok – can arrange a day trip to the park as well as the villages, with prior notice.