A golden brownish leaf floats in the early morning breeze from a teak tree towering high above the road that climbs through Khao Yai National Park. I watched it drift; its graceful descent to the tarmac caught by sunlight filtering through the trees. Its descent became my marker. Could I speed up just a mite to catch the leaf before it touched the tarmac? I didn’t, but in those few seconds I knew why cycling, of all sports, fascinates me the most. You concentrate on small matters, like finding the strength to round the next bend or climb a mountain road. As you travel in slow mode a destination shares its secrets.
On this particular morning, a multitude of birds presented an unending chorus. There was the sound of a startled animal retreating fast into forest cover as I rounded a bend in Thailand’s largest national park. Monkeys called from the trees. I noticed the wind changes, the rays of sunlight reflecting on trees, the sound of streams and waterfalls. The park was alive with nature’s industry. If I had chosen to roar up the winding road in a car or bus, I might have assumed that the park was a pretty ordinary forest, perhaps even on the dull side.
Khao Yai, the nearest national park to Bangkok, represents a challenging 30-kilometre morning ride, climbing from the southern gate at Prachin Buri to the hilltop plains and the park headquarters. Just a few kilometres beyond the park’s lodges, rolling hills and grass-covered plains give way to a series of hairpin bends during a steep descent to the park gates at Pak Chong. Your cycle will appear to take on a life of its own as it takes you on a breathtaking descent at speeds of up to 80 kph., before you eventually screech to a halt at the park’s checkpoint. Its an exhilarating way to conclude a 5 kilometre excursion.
At the gate, cycles are stacked on the car’s roof rack for the short drive to Chokchai Farm, located on the main highway to Bangkok. We almost fall over ourselves to get seated in this popular ranch-style restaurant where we order juicy steaks and ice-cold beers to round of a perfect day in a national park just 120 kilometres north-east of the capital.
There are a few logistics to this day-ride such as having a minibus drop you off at the Prachin Buri gate and wait for you at the opposite gate for the drive back to Bangkok. Better still have the driver stop at various points to replenish the water supply. The climb will require at least four 500 millilitre bottles even during the cool of the morning.
Another option is to spend a weekend at one of the small resorts that line the road that leads to the Pak Chong junction on the outskirts of the park. This allows more time to explore the off-road trails that criss-cross the park, and enjoy the luxury of a few pit stops at various waterfalls. Many of the resorts rent mountain bikes and even organize outings in the park. Mountain bike clubs also organize outings to the park, that include one- or two-night stay at a resort, and two exhilarating rides in the park over the weekend. Khao Yai’s steep rising mountains are the nearest you will find to Bangkok, but there are other less strenuous cycling options all within an easy transfer from the park.