Kaeng Krachan Forest
Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is a vast forest area that contains fauna and floral species from different zoogeographical realms and floristic provinces.
It lies on the Thai side of the Tenasserim Ranges, which form the border with Myanmar. The continuous complex comprises Mae Nam Phachi Wildlife Sanctuary, Kaeng Krachan National Park, Kui Buri National Park, and Chaloem Phrakiat Thai Prachan National Park. Important populations of a range of species such as the Siamese crocodile and Sunda pangolin (both critically endangered) and Banteng, Asian elephant, tiger, and Asiatic wild dog (all endangered) inhabit these forests.
Community Perspective: Solivagant describes a self-drive visit entering the park from the North, while Bernardo and Els covered Kui Buri National Park. For the latter, expect an “Indian-style safari” with large congregations of tourists.
Map of Kaeng Krachan ForestLoad map
For my ‘tick’ of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex I choose Kui Buri National Park. Kui Buri (sometimes also spelled as ‘Kuri Buri’) was established only in 1999 after tensions between wild elephants and villagers escalated. The elephants’ former habitat had been taken over by pineapple plantations. The park now offers daily 'elephant safaris', where - with a bit of luck - one can observe the wild elephants from a distance. The WWF is still active here to further reduce human-elephant conflict.
The park lies about 1h15 from the pleasant seaside resort of Hua Hin. I used HuaHin Taxi for the return transfer – they are easy to communicate with and know the drill at Kui Buri. The wildlife viewing area is open to entering daily between 2 and 5 p.m. (though you will leave towards 6 p.m.) and requires hiring a 4WD truck and guide at the ticket office.
We arrived at 2.15 and I was driven into the park immediately. The noisy truck drove quite fast on the sandy roads and it was clear that we wouldn’t be seeing much along the way. They will bring you to one of the two main viewpoints, where you disembark and the waiting begins. These viewpoints are major tourist congregation sites, not the lovely camouflaged watchtowers that they use in Huai Kha Khaeng. Eventually, some 15 trucks and 50 tourists showed up at this viewpoint, the furthest. This clearly was an Indian-style safari, not a serene African one.
I barely even saw a bird. I was just sitting there and thinking about what rating I would give this site, it was so disappointing. After a while, I noticed some movement in the trees to my left: there were monkeys, endangered Banded leaf monkeys. They are very cute with their white ‘spectacles’ on their black faces. All other tourists were so focused on seeing elephants that they missed this, as did the guides for some time as they were not very observant either and mostly chatted with each other. Every car requiring its own ‘guide’ seems mainly to be a job creation scheme.
It wasn’t until 5 p.m. that a murmour went through the ranks of the guides: big mammals spotted in the distance (we were overlooking a very wide valley). They turned out to be Gaur, a.k.a. Indian bison (or ‘buffalo’ as the guides called them). Just a string of black dots moving on the horizon for those people without binoculars or superzoom cameras. Zooming in delivered views on their characteristic ‘white socks’ and general massive build.
Some crackling on the guides’ radios announced more activity: two elephants were seen from the other viewpoint! So all trucks and tourists had to move. As I, fortunately, had the truck to myself and not an elderly aunt or similar to wait for, we were quick off the mark. From the other viewpoint, the two elephants could be seen remarkably close. They were soon joined by a family of three, including a young. Their appearance didn’t last for more than 10 minutes, the original two stayed a bit longer. So just in the closing minute of our safari the park (or the elephants) had delivered.
Seeing wild elephants at Kui Buri has become harder over the years. Does it have to do something with the successful campaign to keep them away from the crops, so they withdraw deeper into the park? Limited access to locations certainly is one factor (they only have two main viewpoints in a vast park, both not far from the entrance and close to a dam being constructed). The other factor is the timing of the access: the animals will become more active towards dusk when the tourists already are ordered to leave.
The experience at Kui Buri I found quite exemplary for Thai national parks. Three of Thailand’s six current WHS are natural ones, but a lot more could be done to open them up in a sustainable manner. Overcrowding (leading to noise, pollution) and feeding of wild animals are prevalent (read this horrifying account). An approach to ecotourism is seriously lacking, which is so successful in countries like Costa Rica, Peru, and Brazil. Also, although the Asian elephant is an endangered species, in Thailand it still is often captured to be used for entertainment purposes (notably near Chiang Mai, but I also encountered a baby elephant being walked through the streets of Udon Thani).
Read more from Els Slots here.
As the previous two reviews focused on Kaeng Krachan NP, I'm sharing here my experience in visiting Kui Buri NP last March 10, 2022.
My friend and I stayed in Prachuap Khiri Khan (PKK) for a few days and thought of ticking off Kui Buri from there. Not only is PKK closer to the NP than from Hua Hin, I also felt that PKK offered more both in natural and cultural sceneries. We gathered that the only way to conveniently get to either the park's HQ or the Wildlife Viewing Area was by renting a taxi for 2000 Baht (half day). Unfortunately, the local tourism office-recommended travel agency that used to offer tours no longer exists because of the pandemic. As Kui Buri is only 55 kms away, we thought that we could do it on a rented motorbike, which we eventually did. Not only was it doable, it also made it possible to first visit in the morning the karst landscape of Khao Sam Roi Yot NP --- probably the more impressive one of the two nearby national parks!
Here is a summary:
1. Wildlife Watching Area is only open from 2pm to 6pm, with the last visitor admission at 4pm. Entrance is 200Bt, and safari truck is 850Bt -- you cannot enter using your own vehicle. The entrance certainly does not fail in informing visitors that it is a "UNESCO World Heritage Site since July 26, 2021." From the park's HQ, it will still take some 40 minutes to get to the Wildlife Watching Area, so better not confuse the two sites. Online reviews suggest that the HQ does not offer much to see and do.
2. While you are accompanied by a driver and a guide that claims s/he knows a little bit of English, you will realize later on that that would be the last English statement s/he will ever say. So, better read up before or after to make sense of what you see. The safaris are solely gunning for the big animals, so do not expect them to stop for birds, plants, etc.
3. I have been to several safaris in South Africa and Namibia, and what makes them easy to appreciate is that the animals are easier to spot. In lush tropical rainforests, it just does not work like that. The best bets are really in the viewing points looking over open fields (Kui Buri Wildlife Watching Area has four designated viewing areas), hoping that they will indeed show up. It is crucial to remember that you are neither entering a zoo nor an "elephant camp", so you are lucky if you see them. But it can also happen that you may not see them at all, and that is just the way it is with wildlife.
4. While it claims to "guarantee Indian elephant sighting," we only saw one bull that proudly displayed an erection (photo), to the fascination of visitors. We overhead from others that he was in "heat", which meant he was at his most dangerous state. There were a few elephant droppings on the road, so you know they are there but you just cannot see them. We also saw two herds of gaurs (Indian bisons) and even sighted some close to the road but they immediately ran away when our vehicle made a stop. It was very nice to see three calves, too -- while juvenile, they are tan in color.
5. A large part of the Kui Buri Wildlife Watching Area is a recent annexation to the NP, so do not expect a mature primary rainforest. Some used to be pineapple plantations in fact. It is interesting as well to know that Kui Buri NP is the only place in Thailand where sandalwood used for the cremation of deceased members of the royal family can be harvested.
The drive into the Wildlife Watching Area was highly impressive, and it was what we enjoyed the most in this WHS visit. On our way back to PKK, the setting sun behind the Tenasserim hills of Kui Buri was equally a sight worth stopping for.
Kaeng Kratchen Forest Compex (KKFC) consists of 5 contiguous parks and reserves (including Kaeng Kratchen NP) situated along Thailand’s border with Myanmar at the very top of the Malay Peninsula which, together, have been badged as a “complex” for this nomination. KKNP itself figures significantly in commercial birding and butterfly tours in Thailand. Such specialist tours, however, allocate several days to the park and the big question for us was whether we could gain value from a much shorter visit as part of a whistle-stop tour by self-drive car of Thailand’s inscribed and tentative list sites.
A further incentive was that a KKFC nomination had been considered at both the 2015 and 2016 WHCs and was still “alive” after consecutive referrals. Even though we had already taken in Thailand’s 2 existing natural WHS (at Kao Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng) the possibility of a future inscription was enough to tip the balance in favour of a visit to a third!
The previous 2 visits had already shown us that Thailand’s natural WHS don’t give out their “value” very easily and KKFC wasn’t particularly different. The iconic mega-fauna is difficult to see in a forest environment within a short visit and the birdlife is best seen at dawn and dusk which means either staying inside the park (if allowed) or at least arriving very early and departing as late as the rules will allow (i.e just after sunset at best), leaving the rest of a very hot day to fill! That leaves of course the forest itself and its wider ecosystem but these too have their “interest limits” for the non specialist. None of the parks is well endowed with roads and, in all honesty, the scenery, at least near most of those roads, is somewhat short of “spectacular”. Which leaves “walking” and all of the parks have their obligatory “waterfalls” as hiking objectives. During our journey around Thailand we had come to view these as something of a “Thai obsession”, signposted across the country wherever water “fell” more than a few metres. One can understand their attraction to those living in cities or flat agricultural areas and they certainly create a pleasant, refreshing sight and even breeze in the heat of the day - but Niagara they are not!
KKFC covers 482k ha but only has 2 relatively short access roads. We decided to enter via the main northern one (the prime objective of the Southern one was …. Pala-U waterfall at 12.538176, 99.463495 !). On the Northern route the Park HQ is situated about a 1hr drive from Phetchaburi near a dam which has created a rather nice lake at 12.885204, 99.632558 . But you are not yet into the NP (or even the forest), though we met travellers who had taken transport from Phetchaburi and had been left there and had to rent another means of transport to get into the park. You need to drive on around 15kms to 12.809668, 99.554196 where a checkpoint will relieve you of 300 Baht pp entry fee if you are a “Foreigner”, plus another 30 for a car (The southern route also has a payment point - though an entry through one allows an entry through the other on the same day without extra payment). The road continues through the forest to Ban Krang campsite (34kms from the HQ) at 12.798902, 99.454324). At this point the surfaced road ends and a dirt road continues for another 15kms to Phanoen Kung campsite. Ideally, to gain the most from a visit to KKNP, you need to go on to there - it is situated higher than the first camp and thus has different flora/fauna and is also the starting point for walks to yet higher spots where, in the right conditions and timing, the “Sea of Fog” may be seen in the valleys below. A further complexity is that this last 15kms of rough and narrow road operates a 1 way system with “up” traffic only early morning and afternoon each followed by an equal period of “down” traffic. This means that, even if you do have 4x4 transport, you really need to stay at least overnight in order to be able to do anything to justify the trip up there. Beyond here lies wild country all the way to the Myanmar border and that country’s own T List entry - the “Taninthayi Forest Corridor”. Oh, and another waterfall at Tho Thip!
In our little Honda City, the road beyond the first campsite wasn’t really practical, even if the times of day had been right. We did drive a km or so to the first ford and did some walking along the road to try to see some birds and butterflies. There were some, but the birding literature recommends that the camp site and restaurant (which was operating - the second camp site requires self sufficiency in this department) areas are probably the best places to bird watch as they benefit from the “edge effect”. Our experience confirmed this and we saw there what was the “highlight” of our visit (though not that “rare”) - the Great Hornbill (photo). This was (just about!!) “adequate” recompense in our minds for the time and effort put into the visit. Beyond that and a variety of other bird species and butterflies we saw only monkeys, monitor lizards and lots of Elephant droppings! We spoke to some UK expats who were regular users of the camp (you need your own tent) and they, over the years, had seen a fine variety of mammals passing through including bears, leopard and elephant. So - you might be lucky during a short stay! We also met UK and French birders who were happy with what they were seeing - indeed the former were leaving each night to stay just outside the NP and paying the high entry fees each day!
So – why, after 2 tries, has KKFC not progressed past “Referral”, and what are its chances of future success? IUCN seems ready to agree that the site has OUV, though it has actually gone no further than to state that the site has “strong potential … to meet Crit (x)” and that it also “encouraged Thailand to consider nominating the property also under criterion (ix)”. Beyond this lie 2 issues concerning
a. the rights of “indigenous” Karen people living within the KKFC. This report presented to UNESCO in July 2016 gives an indication of the sorts of things which it is claimed by some pressure groups have been occurring. Thailand, is taking action to involve locals (and disputing the allegations made in the above report) but also claims that many of the complaining Karen shouldn’t even be in Thailand.
b. the frontier with Myanmar, which claims that 34% of the proposed site lies within its territory. This is of course wonderfully ironic in that, on the other side of Thailand, the opposite has happened with Cambodia gaining inscription for Preah Vihear which Thailand claims includes its own territory. It isn’t clear how much the lack of an agreed KKFC boundary relates to deep seated differences and how much to the practicalities of surveying a border (remembering that Myanmar has been fighting insurgencies in the border areas for decades - with those insurgents often "supported" by Thailand), but this would not seem likely to be a quick matter to resolve. UNESCO claims that inscription has no impact on territorial claims but would Thailand want to try to “do a Cambodia” on this one? Another possibility of course might be for Thailand to reduce the nominated area to exclude the disputed sections - but that might be construed as either conceding territory to Myanmar and/or reducing the "natural integrity" of the nomination in the eyes of IUCN which has already suggested that Thailand should work "in partnership with the State Party of Myanmar, between the nominated property and neighbouring transnational protected areas within the Taninthaya Forest Corridor in Myanmar"
The forest is so beautiful especially Phaneun Thung on the top of the mountain. It's really worth to wake up 3AM and get over there. The scence is wonderful. You can see through Myanmar. Just one point, the tribe people in side the forest could threat to the forest as they kill wildlife animal and cut the trees. The government should find new land for them and move them out the forest.
2021 Advisory Body overruled
IUCN advised Deferral.
2019 Advisory Body overruled
From Deferral to Referral, via a specific working group during the WHC
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