Someone somewhere must have been aggressively marketing Khao Yai (about 2.5 hours' drive from Bangkok) outside of Thailand because for the past few months, I have been seeing pictures and read stories about Khao Yai and its numerous sometimes-kitschy, sometimes-fascinating points of interests: from the replicas of an Italian piazza, a Santorini windmill to the Hobbit House, and the more commercialised Jim Thompson farm, Chok Chai farm and the sunflower farm.
To me, the highlight of the trip has always been Khao Yai National Park because of my romantic and voyeuristic fascination for wildlife-watching at its natural habitat. It was not difficult selling this destination to the other family members the moment they saw those online travel articles and upon realising Khao Yai offers highland cool weather in December. There were also countless number of cool accommodation choices, but I eventually settled on Raintree Residences. The price per night relative to the calming hilly scenery it offers really made it a no-brainer. It is located in a secluded part of Khao Yai, which in this case is an attraction on its own. The layout is also spread over a sprawling ground and the the five rooms we were assigned were clustered under one roof in a separate wing, which the whole 21 of us had all to ourselves! The big and small kids were so excited that they gathered enough courage to explore the place even in the dark.
Our relatively early bedtime was accompanied by a symphony of weird bird/amphibian/insect calls, much to my delight.
Like all our past family trips, the itinerary is never packed. We like a more leisurely pace. We intend to enjoy those few attractions we decide on and not think about the others we do not. On the first day, there were only Hobbit House and Jim Thompson Farm on the list. Actually I have already warned the others on visiting Hobbit House. I knew beforehand it was just a nondescript resort in the middle of nowhere and all it had going for it were the replicas of Hobbit houses, and some other whitewashed structures similar to those found on Santorini. To put it bluntly, it was just a photo opp in front of some "styled backdrops", symptomatic of the times we are living in right now. Nothing else matters, as long as the pictures look good on Instagram.
However, I must admit that even though there was nothing to shout about the whole experience in the Hobbit House resort, the way the structures were built and styled was very commendable. That we did not have to pay any entrance fees helped it score some points.
After another 90 minutes' drive, we finally arrived at Jim Thompson Farm. I was a bit shocked to see bus-loads of local students and local tourists jamming the car park and the ticket counters. It was just not my idea of a farm. Inside, I saw glimpses of Tomita Farm in Hokkaido. If you like the sight of vast flower fields set against rolling hills, then you will go on a selfie/wefie rampage. Unfortunately, our experience was marred by the surprisingly scorching heat on the day of our visit.
After spending most of the day under the hot sun, the kids were dying to take a dip in the hotel pool, even though the thermometre reading was in the high tens. I was impressed they could stay in the icy water for more than 30 minutes.
Day 2 saw us visiting the Primo Piazza en route to the national park. Besides the realistic-looking Italian piazza, there were merino sheeps and alpacas to entertain visitors. It was our first encounter with an alpaca!
Again, it's just a photo-stop and again, the owners paid attention to details and Primo Piazza is a photogenic venue albeit a little small.
Next came the destination I have been longing for: Khao Yai National Park. Not every one shared my enthusiasm for jungle trekking to hopefully spot some wild elephants or gibbons. In fact, most of them probably were groaning inside their hearts when they heard the trek would take 10 km in total (this was the second rainforest trek in two years done by the family).
One of the most rewarding experience of a trek is the camaraderie built when circumventing the various challenge----upslope, downhill, climb over boulders, tread over rivers, balancing on logs-----and helping one another out, egging one another on, and cracking silly jokes to keep everyone's spirits up. In the end, we didn't manage to spot any mammals bigger than a macaque. The elephants were probably shunning away from the groaning, and whining rag-tag group of trekkers from Singapore. Even the Thai rangers were smiling, albeit politely, at our ineptness. In the end, we stopped short of radioing for help; we made a call to our drivers to pick us up at the halfway point.
Needless to say, I'd be having a earful for the subsequent months for proposing the trek, and I'd be hearing lots of funny anecdotes too, when the aunties start to recall their gruesome experience.