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Jebel Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa, situated in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Standing at an impressive 4,167 meters above sea level, it attracts hikers from all over the world. Let me share with you my experience of going to the summit!

When to go?

The best time to hike Jebel Toubkal is typically during the late spring to early fall, so from late May to early October. During this period, the weather is usually mild, and the trails are not covered in snow. Winter requires more experience and equipment (crampons, winter clothing). I did my hike at the end of October and it was perfect. Sunny days with a temperature of about 20 – 25C and very cool at night.

How to get to Imlil?

Imlil is located only 60 km south of Marrakech and can be easily reached by grand taxi.┬áYou will need to pay about 300 DH for the private trip or 50 DH per seat and share the car with other passengers. Taxis are located close to Sidi Mimoun Garden. The trip will take about 1.5 – 2 hours but the views are very scenic!

Alternatively, you may take a local minibus to Asni and from there get a grand taxi to Imlil but it will take more time and you won’t save much.

If you want to have everything organized for you, including transportation, look for a reputable travel agent with a lot of positive reviews on Google Maps or check the offer of GetYourGuide.

Route

The distance from Imlil to the summit of Jebel Toubkal is about 15 km, starting at an altitude of about 1659 m a.s.l. and ending at 4167 m a.s.l. (2508 meters up).

It’s quite a lot and most people decide to conclude the first day with an overnight stay at Refugio du Toubkal, covering a distance of about 11,5 km (1501 meters up). On the second day, they continue to the summit and back to Imlil (18,5 km, 985 meters up, 1659 meters down). If you follow this scenario, there is no need to start in Imlil very early in the morning as you will have plenty of time to arrive at the shelter.

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
Jebel Toubkal

Alternatively, you may do what I did, so go from Imlil to the summit and back to Refugio du Toubkal on the first day (18,5 km, 2493 meters up, 993 meters down), and then walk back to Imlil on the second day (11,5 km, 1501 meters down). If you decide to go for this option, keep in mind that an early start from Imlil is necessary and it will be a very difficult day, especially because of altitude difference.

The trail is well-marked and easy to follow but you can always get the Mapy.cz app on your phone to double-check your position. Of course, I’m talking about hiking season and not winter ­čÖé

What to take?

When hiking Jebel Toubkal, essentials include hiking boots or trail runners, weather-appropriate clothing (shorts, long pants, jumper, gloves, hat, spare T-shirt and underwear), a sleeping bag, suncream and a backpack with snacks and water. It gets really cold at night so don’t underestimate it. Hiking poles will be extremely useful too so if you don’t have ones, you may rent them in Imlil village. I regretted that I hadn’t done so!

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
At the summit of Jebel Toubkal

Do you need a guide?

If you decide to start the hike from Imlil, then it is necessary to have a guide. There is a police checkpoint after Aroumd village where your passport as well as the ID of the guide will be checked. The requirement of having a guide was imposed in 2018 after the murder of two Scandinavian tourists. So it’s not that much related to trail difficulty but rather overall safety. I found the trail well-marked and easy to follow, especially with Mapy.CZ app on your phone where you can control your position.

I have seen some hikers walking without a guide but they were all coming from the direction of Ifni Lake, possibly doing longer traverses of this section of Atlas Mountains. I believe there is no police checkpoint in Imhilene village but getting there from Marrakech is much more difficult (over 4 hours by car).

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco

Anyway, remember that hiring a guide supports the local community and for them, it’s an important source of income. I paid 800 MAD for the overnight trip and I think it was a fair price.

Here is the contact number for my guide (Kamal): +212 659-076-717. He can be contacted on WhatsApp.

Where to stay?

Staying for the night in Imlil before the hike would be a good idea. It allows you to rest and get ready. Moreover, there are plenty of other shorter routes in the area which you could do as a warm-up. I recommend basing yourself in Dar Adouss in nearby Ait Souka village, but easily accessible on foot from Imlil (about 20-25 minutes). Aziz welcomed me with traditional mint tea, cooked a delicious tajine for dinner, recommended nearby hikes and organized a guide for the hike to Toubkal. It was also possible to do the laundry. The room was a bit cold in October but it’s normal in this region that houses don’t have heating. There were plenty of blankets to keep me warm at night.

Most people climb Toubkal as an overnight trip, spending the night in Refuge du Toubkal. It’s a typical mountain shelter, with dormitories and bunk beds. I was positively surprised by the possibility of taking a hot shower. The food wasn’t that good but it hardly ever is in places like that. It was still decent and no one was hungry! The price for the half board was slightly under 300 MAD. In high season, you may want to make a reservation by texting them at refugiotoubkal@gmail.com.

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
Refugio du Toubkal

The hike

Day 1

My guide Kamal met me in Dar Adouss just after breakfast at around 8:30 AM. He seemed to be a nice guy, 33 years old so at my age but already with 3 kids. Well, different life priorities ­čÖé His English was not too good but we were able to have some basic conversation. First, we went through Aroumd village and then continued towards the police checkpoint where my passport and Kamal’s ID were checked.

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
The trail leading to Refugio du Toubkal

The weather was perfect. Sunny but still quite cool in the morning hours. We were progressing quite fast, passing by some places offering cold drinks and snacks. We made a break in one of them and Kamal came up with the idea of going all the way to the summit today. It seemed reasonable taking into consideration that it was still very early and we weren’t that far from the Refugio du Toubkal.

At the shelter, the break was longer so I had my improvised lunch with tuna and bread. Of course, I couldn’t miss some warm tea! It was about 2 PM when we made the final decision to continue to the summit. That was the moment when the hard part started. The terrain was significantly steeper and I guess I started having some issues with altitude as there were moments when I was really struggling to catch my breath and even got a bit dizzy. The path was going up and up and I was fighting my rising, being on the edge of giving up. Luckily, the presence of Kamal and his good attitude gave me more courage and motivation to slowly but slowly progress further.

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
Frozen water, the proof of low temperatures at night

We reached the high point, from where we could clearly see the summit. It still seemed to be far away but in fact, we reached it much sooner than I expected. It’s a wide and flat area, with some ugly metal construction. The views were incredibly nice and we were the only hikers there.

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
The summit is closer and closer…

We took a few selfies and started descending back to the shelter. It was obviously much easier but still took some time as my legs weren’t fresh at all. The shelter was really big and looked exactly like those kinds of places look like in Europe. There was a separate room for boots and several dormitories with bunk beds. When we arrived, it was packed with people planning to climb Toubkal early in the morning to catch the sunrise. I’m sure it’s a nice experience, but taking into consideration lower temperatures and the need for a really early wake-up, I felt really happy that we did it in the afternoon instead.

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
At the summit with Kamal
Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
At the summit of Jebel Toubkal
Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
At the summit of Jebel Toubkal

At the dinner, I shared the table with a nice couple from Belgium, and I was surprised to hear that there was even a hot shower in the shelter! It was really great to refresh after the whole day outside. Unfortunately, because of altitude difference and tiredness, I got quite a strong headache so I took some painkillers and went to sleep very early.

Day 2

Most of the people disappeared from the dormitory in the very early morning and I was glad that I had a few extra hours of sleep in silence. We had breakfast at about 7:30 AM and then we set off for the way down to Imlil. Kamal was walking a good few hundred meters ahead of me, and I had the impression that he really wanted to get back home as soon as possible. Well, three kids were waiting ­čÖé Once we arrived at Dar Adouss, Aziz prepared for us some mint tea and shortly after, it was time to say goodbye!

Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
The way down to Imlil

Other hikes around Imlil

I arrived at Imlil with one spare day before the start of the Jebel Toubkal hike, and I wanted to warm up my muscles before the big adventure. Therefore, I decided to make the following loop, which was an excellent choice:

Imlil – Tinerhourhine – Ikkiss Amssokrou – Aguersioual – Imlil (6.5h, 16 km, 863 meters up, 890 meters down)

Alternatively, you may also want to discover another area on a slightly more challenging route:

Imlil – Tizi n’ Mzik – Tizi Oussem – Imlil (8h, 18 km, 1480 meters up, 1480 meters down)

If you don’t have the whole day, it’s about a one-hour return walk to Cascade Imlil.

Ang Thong National Marine Park is a stunning archipelago located in the Gulf of Thailand, not far from the popular tourist destinations of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. The park was established on 12th November 1980. and consists of 42 small, limestone islands, characterized by lush greenery, towering cliffs, and hidden coves. All of the islands are uninhabited and undeveloped except for one: Koh Wua Talap, where the visitor centre, campsite, and bungalows are located.

How to get there?

To get to Ang Thong National Marine Park, you need to travel to the nearby islands of Koh Samui or Koh Phangan, as it serves as a starting point for visiting the park. In both places, you will easily find tour agents offering day trips to the park. There are no boat tours from Surathani or Koh Tao. 

Koh Samui and Koh Phangan can be reached on a ferry from Donsak Pier near Surat Thani. Raja Ferry is slow, cheap, uncomfortable, and takes about 1,5 hours to Koh Samui and 2,5 hours to Koh Phangan while Lomprayah is exactly the opposite but about twice the price and takes 45 minutes to Koh Samui and 1,5 hours to Koh Phangan. Time is money, they say. The choice is yours ­čÖé

Another option would be to fly to Koh Samui. There are regular flights from Bangkok and other major cities in Thailand, as well as some foreign destinations. Check your connections at 12Go.Asia.

How long to stay?

Typically people sign up for a one-day tour. However, camping is possible so if you wish to do so, you will need to make arrangements individually with the tour agent and the boat will pick you up on the next day. The rent of a tent for 2 people is 250 THB per person per night including a torch, clean sleeping bag, and mosquito net.

When to go?

The best period to visit Ang Thong National Marine Park is between December and August.

The dry season lasts from December to February and it’s the peak tourist season. Pleasant weather with lower humidity and cooler temperatures. Accommodation and flights can be more expensive, and popular tourist spots can be crowded.

From March to August, there is a hot season with higher temperatures and humidity. Occasional rain showers are possible but they are usually brief. May and June can be particularly hot.

Rainy season months, from September to November, are better to avoid. The prices are more budget-friendly but you may expect frequent rainfall and boat tours will most likely be closed.

Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park

Entrance fee to the park

When signing up for a tour, clarify if the entrance fee is included in the tour price. Normally it isn’t and extra cash is collected by tour companies before the trip starts or while you are on board.

The fees as of August 2023 are as follows: 300 THB for foreign adults and 150 THB for foreign kids. Thai citizens will pay 50 THB for adults and 25 THB for kids.

*all prices are from April 2022.

Where to stay?

Koh Phangan

The night in Mae Haad Garden Inn cost me about 12 EUR per night and I chose that location only because other options were not available because of the Full Moon Festival. I ended up very satisfied with it and the area was super calm. With a scooter, it was easy to reach any part of the island anyway. Chaloklum Beach was only a 10-minute ride away.

Later, I moved to the Shanti Boutique Hotel which was a bit more expensive but absolutely brilliant. The rooms are simple but very cozy and clean, and it’s nice that they come with a balcony. The location is great as well, near Srithanu Beach and Zen Beach. There are also many caf├ęs and restaurants that offer super tasty food with a lot of variety.

Koh Samui

I stayed for three nights at the Pamoni Hotel in Chaweng for about 19 EUR per night. It was basically a small apartment, with a living room and a kitchen, a bedroom, and a private bathroom and there was a swimming pool for guests too. A very good price-to-quality ratio and the location was very good too.

Ko Wua Talap

If you decide to extend your tour for the overnight stay, there are camping and bungalows to rent at the park headquarters on Ko Wua Talap Island. Facilities are basic: cold water shower and electricity from a generator that shuts down at 11 PM, but isn’t it a beauty of this place? You may also rent a kayak to explore the area from the water perspective independently.

The tour

There are numerous companies running daily trips from Koh Phangan and Koh Samui and first, you will need to decide if you prefer to take a speedboat or a slow boat. It takes about an hour to reach the islands by speedboat and about 2-3 hours by slow boat. You can save a lot of time choosing the first option but the ride can be bumpy and less enjoyable. The slow boat usually has a nice deck where you can sunbathe and take a lot of nice pictures.

I decided to choose a tour operated by the Orion Cruise, starting from Koh Phangan. It was a bigger and slower boat. As of April 2022, the cost was about 2.000 THB. Included in the price is pick-up from the hotel, lunch, snacks, soft drinks, and snorkelling equipment. You may pay an extra 200 THB if you go for an option with a kayak. The price included the Ang Thong National Marine Park entrance fee.

The day started with a slightly delayed pick up in the accommodation by a minivan and delivery to the pier. Coffee or tea and snacks were already waiting. The boat departed a few minutes after 9 AM and was going slowly so there was plenty of time to relax on the deck. The first stop was around Koh Wao, where we got our snorkeling equipment and jumped into the water to see some colourful fish and coral. It wasn’t bad but the water wasn’t perfectly clear and during my travels in South East Asia, I have visited much better snorkeling locations.

Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Snorkelling spot near Koh Wao
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Snorkeling spot near Koh Wao
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Snorkeling spot near Koh Wao

From there, the boat went deeper into the national park and at this point, it is better to be on the upper deck to have an unobstructed panoramic view of the small rocky islands all around. The boat stopped near Ao Ka Beach, which was a drop-off point for those who decided to choose the option of a kayak. To get to the beach itself, we had to switch to a long-tail boat first, as the slow boat was too big to get so close. The whole kayaking experience wasn’t too long and took about 30-40 minutes.

Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
A scenic beach in Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Picturesque rock formations

If you haven’t decided to have a kayak trip, you will stay on board and meet up with other participants later at Koh Mae Koh. It’s a wonderful island with a Blue Lagoon surrounded by steep limestone cliffs in the middle. Follow some steep stairs to get to the viewing platform and you wonÔÇÖt be disappointed. The color of the water is bizarre yet very beautiful.

Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
The Blue Lagoon
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
The waters are full of fish

The last stop was at the biggest island in the archipelago: Koh Wua Talap. Here are the national park headquarters and this is the place where you can stay overnight if you wish to. What you certainly have to do is hike up to Pha Chan Charat Viewpoint. It provides a sensational view of the islands with blue waters and green forests all around. The hike up is very steep and sweaty, especially under the hot sun but it’s totally doable for most people. Take your time and stop at other viewpoints along the way. The return trip should take about 1 hour.

Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Absolutely amazing views from Pha Chan Charat Viewpoint
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Absolutely amazing views from Pha Chan Charat Viewpoint

Once I got down, I still had some time to enjoy the wonderful beach and chill in the hammock. At the agreed time, the captain called me to return to the boat and we started our return journey to Koh Phangan with the sun slowly setting. We arrived shortly after 6 PM and were dropped off at our hotels.

Overall, it was a great day and the whole trip was organized nicely. The food was good, the crew was incredibly friendly and the views in the national park impressed me a lot. The only negative side was the speed of the boat, which was really slow and we spent plenty of time travelling to and from Ang Thong National Marine Park. If the boat had been faster, we would have had more time to spend in the park.

Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand
Ang Thong National Marine Park

One of my favourite national parks in Thailand is located just next to the impressive Mekong River. Pha Taem is named after a large cliff where besides the panoramic views, you can also admire ancient rock paintings. There are excellent hiking trails and well-maintained campsites.

How much is the entrance fee?

The ticket for one day costs 400 THB for foreigners, so it’s quite expensive compared to other national parks. To fully enjoy it, I suggest spending two days in the park, including camping on one of the cliffs.

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Panorama of the Mekong River

How to get there?

Ubon Ratchathani can be reached by air, train, or bus from Bangkok. There are daily flights from Bangkok to Ubon which take less than an hour. Train and buses are significantly cheaper but the travel time takes between 9 – 11 hours. My preference is the sleeping train which has the best comfort-to-price ratio but the arrival is very early in the morning, so you will need to hang around the city a few hours before checking in to the hotel.

From Ubon Ratchathani, you will need to get a bus or minibus further to Khong Chiam.

You may check your connections at 123Go.Asia

How to get around?

You can travel comfortably through the park by car or motorbike. If you are in Khong Chiam, ask around at your accommodation or Baan Steak Restaurant.

If you plan a long road trip in Isan, I recommend renting a car in Ubon Ratchathani. In bigger cities, there is always more competition and better prices. I used the services of Smile Rent a Car and got a well-maintained and cheap Toyota Yaris.

Smile Rental Car Thailand
Nice and well maintained rental car

When to go?

The park has a monsoon climate with three seasons: the rainy season (June to October), the cool season (October to February), and the dry and hot season (February to June). The waterfalls will look the best in the middle or at the end of the rainy season. Other periods are nice as well but be aware that in May, the road to Pha Chana Dai Cliff is closed and there is very little or no water in the falls.

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
The Mekong River seen from the cliffs
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
The views are fantastic and next time I will definitely camp on the cliffs!

Where to stay?

I recommend the Khong Chiam 2 Hotel in the small town of the same name. It’s conveniently located close to the main road and the night market. The room was clean and very spacious, with fast internet.

Itinerary

The first turn-off when driving from Khong Chiam takes you to Sao Chaliang. It is a natural monolith formed by water and wind erosion that resembles mushrooms. There are visible remains of shells, gravel, and sand in the rock, therefore, it is assumed that about a million years ago, this area used to be the sea. The Meak Mai Sai Than Hin Taek Nature Trail is comprised of 3 pathways. The first trail is 350 meters long, the second one has 1 kilometer and the third one is 2.7 kilometers. I highly recommend doing the longest loop as the views are really beautiful.

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Impressive Sao Chaliang rock formations
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
I highly recommend hiking around that area

Further down the road is Pha Taem Cliff with incredible views over the Mekong River, a natural border between Thailand and Laos. Due to its geographical location to the east, the area is also known as the best place to experience the first rays of the sun in the country.

The hiking trail takes you first down the cliff to see ancient prehistoric paintings that were first discovered in 1981. They were made in various styles and techniques and present people, animals (elephant, turtle, catfish, and freshwater stingray), utensils, symbols, and human palms. The paintings are dated to be approximately 3,000 – 2,500 years old. Then you will climb up and return to the parking lot following the path at the top of the cliff. The total distance is nearly 5 kilometres but it is worth it!

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
The hiking path leads at the bottom of the cliff
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Rock paintings can be seen in several places
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
They present people, animals, utensils, symbols…
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
…and human palms
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
The way back to the parking is at the top of the cliff

Another turn-off from Road 2112 takes you to Soi Sawan Waterfall. From the parking, there is a short walk down to the falls. It was a beautiful sight even though there was very little water in May. From the parking area, you can also take a longer hike to Pha Chek Cliff and Pha Moei Cliff. The panorama of the Mekong River from there is simply breathtaking. The distance is about 4.5 km one way which should take 1.5-2h to complete.

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Not too much water flowing at the end of May
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Nevertheless, the rock formations are worth seeing

Come back to the main road and continue further north. Saeng Chan Waterfall is another exciting place to stop by and quite unusual because the water runs through the hole in the sandstone rock. Take your time to absorb the atmosphere of this place!

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Saeng Chang Waterfall

Nearby, there is Thung Na Mueang Waterfall and if you continue following the road along the Mekong River, you will reach its end and the easternmost point of Thailand.

The next two attractions are a bit more difficult to reach. The road up to Pha Chana Dai Cliff is narrow and there are specific times when you can go up and down. The schedule as of April 2023 looked as follows:

Time of going up: 04:30 – 06:30, 10:30 – 13:00, 16:00 – 18:00

Time of going down: 07:30 – 09:30, 14:00 -15:00, 19:00 – 19:30

The road seems to be closed during the month of May. Check their website for the most recent information.

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
The road to Pha Chana Dai Cliff

The cliff is an easy 10 minutes walk from the car park and provides great views over the Mekong and into the mountains of Laos. Consider camping overnight to see the magnificent sunrise! Huai Phok Waterfall is nearby.

On the way to Pha Chana Dai, don’t forget to stop at Twin Pillars which is another sandstone formation shaped like a mushroom. Very photogenic!

Further north, you may visit Pha Chang, another scenic area with lower cliffs on the Mekong riverbank. It’s free to visit and you can park your car just at the end of the road and walk down the remaining distance. In the same area, you will find Sao Chaliang Yai, which is another rock formation resembling a giant mushroom.

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Sao Chaliang Yai
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Sao Chaliang Yai
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Mekong riverbank at Pha Chang
Pha Taem National Park in Thailand
Less impressive but still scenic cliffs

Nearby

Sam Phan Bok

This place doesn’t belong to Pha Taem National Park but it’s pretty close to it and in my opinion, you can’t miss it. Sam Phan Bok means 3000 holes and as soon as you see the landscape, you will understand why it is called like that. The waters of the Mekong River eroded sandstone rocks into unique shapes. You may walk down there by yourself or hire a pickup truck for 150 THB to give you a lift. The distance isn’t long but it’s exposed terrain and on a sunny day it can be incredibly hot. There are people selling drinks and you may also accept the service of a young local guide showing you around, pointing at some unique rock formations such as Mickey Mouse, and taking photos of you.

Sam Phan Bok, Thailand
Pick-up trucks take tourists to the riverbank
Sam Phan Bok, Thailand
Top-down view of eroded rocks
Sam Phan Bok, Thailand
Aerial views of Sam Phan Bok
Sam Phan Bok, Thailand
Mickey Mouse ­čÖé
Sam Phan Bok, Thailand
You can wander around freely or hire a young guide to show you around
Sam Phan Bok, Thailand
The place is best seen in the dry season when the water level is low

Located in ThailandÔÇÖs Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Khao Yai National Park has a long and fascinating history. It was established as the country’s first national park in 1962 and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations not far from Bangkok. The area is home to stunning waterfalls, rainforests, mountains, as well as elephants, and other incredible wildlife. Read on to discover the amazing attractions that await you inside and outside of the park!

How to get there?

Khao Yai National Park is located about 180 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and about 3-4 hoursÔÇÖ drive from the capital. If travelling by public transport, the best option would be to take a train or bus from Bangkok to Pak Chong and then hail a taxi, take a songthaew or rent a motorbike for a one-hour drive to the Khao Yai.

You may also check your connections at 12Go.Asia.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

When to go?

The park can be visited during the whole year, however, the chances of animal encounters or the size of waterfalls will vary significantly.

The hot seasons last from March to May. While it isn’t as hot as it is in the cities, the rainfall is very low and waterfalls aren’t too impressive, or some may even dry up completely. The advantage is a minimal number of leeches.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

The rainy season lasts from June to September. Waterfalls are and their best and you can hear a loud noise of flowing water even from a distance. The vegetation is green and dense. Unfortunately, there are plenty of leeches so you will need to be extra careful.

The cool season lasts from October to February and the average temperatures are the lowest during the year. It can get especially cold in the mountains during the night. The skies are blue and the visibility is excellent. As this period is just after the end of the rainy season, the waterfalls are still nice to see, especially in October.

Where to stay?

I decided to stay in Pak Chong, which is a bigger town not far from the national park. I recommend this option for people working online, as it may be hard to find reliable WIFI in nature. The place I stayed in was called Pak Chong Hostel & Wildlife Tours and it was excellent. The room is simple and only with a fan, but it was just enough for me. The owner is incredibly friendly. He picked me out from the train station, took me for lunch, rented a motorbike, explained the best things to do in the park and even provided me with leech socks. He also organizes tours, which may be a good option in case you are travelling in a bigger group. The only disadvantage of staying in Pak Chong is the distance to the national park entrance gate. It’s about 30 km and 40 minutes of riding a motorbike.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

For those without the need of being connected to the Internet, the best would be to stay at a campsite or in a bungalow inside the park. It would give you much higher chances for encounters with wildlife at dawn and dusk.

What to take?

It’s a tropical environment and there are a few items that you definitely should take with you, to make your trip enjoyable and safe.

1. Sunscreen

2. Insect Repellent

3. Leech socks

4. Hat

5. Sunglasses

6. Lightweight and comfortable clothing

7. Trekking shoes

8. Water bottle

9. Snacks

10. Raincoat or poncho

11. First aid kit

12. Camera

13. Binoculars

14. Map of the park

Entrance fee

The ticket is quite pricey compared to other national parks in Thailand, but taking into consideration its size, it’s understandable. As of May 2023, foreign adults will pay 400 THB and children 200 THB. Thai citizens of course will pay much less, 40 THB for adults and 20 THB for children. Unfortunately, the double price policy is quite standard in this country. There is a small additional fee if you are entering the park with a motorbike or car.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

What to do inside the park

Chao Phor Khao Yai Shrine

It is the first sight that you will see when entering the national park from the Pak Chong side. The shrine was erected in memory of Mr Jang Nisaisat, the individual who had protected the animals and forest of Khao Yai and was widely respected by local villagers.

Km. 30 Viewpoint

Shortly after passing the shrine, you will encounter this beautiful viewpoint. It faces the north and in the morning there is often a sea of mist below the mountain range.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Trail #3: Km. 33 ÔÇô Nong Phak Chi

Distance: 4.2 km one-way

Time: 2.5 – 3 hours

The trail starts at the roadside by the Km. 33 milestone. It was highly recommended by my host in Pak Chong to hike it first and preferably do it in the early morning. He was right! It was definitely the highlight of my visit. You will see different types of vegetation: mature dry forest, secondary forest and grassland. I saw hornbills, gibbons and some other insects. The sound made by gibbons was amazing! Closer to Nong Phak Chi Observation Tower, you can see some traces of elephants as they come near the water sources and salt licks. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any at that time.

From the observation tower, you may either hike back the same way or continue to the asphalt road and hitchhike back to your car or motorbike. The trail can be started between 8 AM and 2 PM.

Trail #5: Dong Tiw ÔÇô Nong Phak Chi

Distance: 5.5 km one-way

Time: 3 hours

The trail can be combined with #3 in one big loop. It starts at the side of Thanarat Road about 200m from the Visitor Center at Sai Sorn Reservoir and finishes around Nong Phak Chi Observation Tower. The highlight of this trail is a giant Baing tree which is centuries old.

The trail can be started between 8 AM and 2 PM.

Trail #4: Dong Tiw ÔÇô Sai Sorn Reservoir

Distance: 2.7 km one-way

Time: 1.5  – 2 hours

This one-way trail leads to Sai Sorn Reservoir, a beautiful spot to watch the sunset. It is just a much shorter version of trail #5. In the rainy season, you may see a beautiful array of flowers such as balloon plants, begonia and mossiata. The trail also connects with #5 and #7.

Trail #7: Thai-American Friendship Trail

Distance: 2 km loop

Time: 1.5  hours

It starts and ends at the Ridge of Sai Sorn Reservoir. The trail celebrates the long and friendly relations between Thailand and the USA. You will walk through dry forest, secondary forest and grassland. Frequently encountered wildlife include the Siamese Fireback, silver pheasant, gibbons and hornbills.

Trail #1: Visitor Center ÔÇô Kong Kaew Waterfall

Distance: 1.2 km loop

Time: 45 mins – 1 hour

The trail begins at the hanging bridge behind the Visitor Center. This is the shortest and the easiest trail in the national park. Animals encountered might include the Lar gibbon, pileated gibbon and various birds. At the end of the trail is a small Kong Kaew Waterfall. Nothing too impressive but a pleasant place to rest next to the stream with volcanic rocks.

Trail #6: Visitor Center – Haew Suwat Waterfall

Distance: 8 km one-way

Time: 6 hours

The longest and the most challenging trail in the national park. You will walk through both rainforest and dry forests interspersed with bamboo groves. Animals encounters may include elephants, gibbons, Asian black bears and hornbills. There are many twists and turns, so the route may be confusing, and this is why you should consider arranging an experienced trail guide. The reward at the end is one of the two most beautiful waterfalls in the park.

The hikes should be started before 10.00. It is closed between July 1st – August 31st.

Trail #2: Pha Kluai Mai Campground ÔÇô Haew Suwat Waterfall

Distance: 3 km one-way

Time: 2 hours

This nature trail links two waterfalls, following the Lam Ta Khong stream. Along the trail, you will hear the thundering sound of Pha Kluay Mai Waterfall during the rainy season. Unfortunately, in May the water level was very low so the trail wasn’t that impressive to me. On the other hand, when water levels drop, you can see the traces of lava flow from a volcano hundreds of millions of years ago.

Haew Suwat Waterfall

One of the two most impressive waterfalls in the Khao Yai National Park. Lam Ta Khong stream falls 25 metres down the volcanic rock. There is a nice viewpoint where the falls can be seen through vegetation but for a much better experience, you should go down quite steep steps to the basin. In the dry season, you may check out the cave just behind the water curtain.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Sai Sorn Reservoir

A picturesque place with plains for picnics and sufficient parking along the road. A popular place for event photography too. Hiking trails #4, #5 and #7 pass nearby.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Pha Diaw Dai Viewpoint

The wooden boardwalk is approximately 450 meters long and leads you through a pristine forest, which is extremely atmospheric in the wet weather. The views from the stony edge of the cliff over the Rom Khwang mountain range are truly breathtaking.

While driving up here, you will pass by Viewpoint 3 at Yod Khao Khieo Mountain. The panorama is great as well but there is no place to stop and park a car or motorbike.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Pha Trom Jai Cliff

It is located 600 metres from the Pha Diaw Dai, just next to the entrance to the Royal Thai Air Force radar station. At an elevation of 1,290 meters above sea level, this is the highest viewpoint in the central region of Thailand. The view, however, isn’t the best.

Haew Narok Waterfall

Haew Narok is located to the south of Khao Yai National Park on Highway 3077, about 23 km from the Visitor Center. It’s an excellent road through the dense forest with a high chance of seeing wild elephants, especially in the later afternoon. Drive slowly!

The waterfalls are the largest and tallest in the park (150 metres). From the parking, there is a 1-kilometre trail going over Huay Samor Poon Stream and then down the steep staircase to the best viewpoint.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

According to the national park website, the area of the waterfall is a permanent part of wild elephantsÔÇÖ foraging range, which has been the cause of tragedy with elephants falling down the waterfall. The first time was on 2 August 1992, when a family of 8 elephants was lost as they were crossing the stream in the forest at the top of Haew Narok Waterfall, making it known as an ÔÇťelephant graveyardÔÇŁ. On 5 October 2019, another 11 elephants were lost.

Night Safari

When joining the tour, you may see nocturnal animals, such as sambar deer, Malayan porcupine, large Indian civet, Asian palm civet, wild elephant, owls and nightjars. Inquire and reserve a time slot at Khao Yai Visitor Center, at the service desk before 6 p.m. The guided journey on a pick-up truck is 10 km long and takes about one hour. The price is 600 THB per vehicle fitting up to 10 people.

Whitewater Rafting

The rainy season from July to October is the best for this activity as the water current is strong and turbulent, and suitable for rafters wanting to be challenged. Hin Phoeng Rapids is used as a starting point and then a trip continues on a 2.5 km stretch with 6 rapids called Kaeng Hin Phoeng, Kaeng Phak Nam Lom, Kaeng Wang Bon, Kaeng Luk Seua, Kaeng Wang Sai and Kaeng Ngu Hao.

What to do outside of the park

Ban Tha Chang Spring

A popular place for locals to come for a dip. Very clear water with plenty of space to enjoy. You may also rent a kayak and check out the small river. Free entrance and free parking

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Khao Yai Art Museum

Surprisingly good place with paintings and sculptures of local artists. Don’t miss a walk in the garden which is full of art installations. Free entrance.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Wat Tham Sila Thong

Ask the monk to give you a key to a cave. It has a hole in the ceiling, but the cave is quite dark so it’s good to have your own flashlight.

Bat Cave

It’s not really a cave to explore, but rather an observation point for a spectacle straight from National Geographic documentaries. At dusk, thousands of bats fly out of the cave in a continuous stream. Unique and amazing experience! The show of nature usually happens between 5:45 PM – 7 PM and lasts for a surprisingly long time. Over 20 minutes once I was there!

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Sarika Waterfall

Another nice waterfall with a beautiful winding road up the mountains to get there. Entrance ticket for foreigners costs 200 THB and for Thais 40 THB. As in all the other waterfalls in this region, it’s best to visit in the rainy season.

Nang Rong Waterfall

Small and free waterfall but unfortunately not very well maintained. A popular picnic place for local people.

Khun Dan Prakarn Chon Dam

The longest and largest dam in Thailand. You can either walk or rent an electric golf cart to get to the other side. Obviously, I recommend walking. There’s also an option to go on a boat trip further down the lake and to the nearby waterfall.

Cat Tien is one of the most famous National Parks in Vietnam. Located in the southern part of the country, it is home to a unique and diverse ecosystem that includes tropical forests, wetlands, and even a dry evergreen forest. Here, visitors will discover a wide variety of wildlife, including rare species of birds, primates, and reptiles. Not only is this park a haven for nature lovers, but it also offers some activities for those looking for a bit of adventure. From day hikes to overnight camping, thereÔÇÖs something for everyone. I spent 2 full days in the park and left with mixed impressions. Let me show you what the part has to offer and what disappointed me.

How to get there?

From Ho Chi Minh City, you can take a bus from the Mien Dong (Eastern) Bus Station to the town of Dai Ninh, located just outside of Cat Tien National Park. From there, you can take a taxi or motorbike to the park. Alternatively, if you are travelling from other cities in Vietnam, you can take a bus or train to either Bao Loc or Dalat and arrange transport from there.

You may also check your connections at 123Go.Asia.

When to go?

The best time to visit Cat Tien National Park is during the dry season, which runs from December to May. During this time, the weather is more pleasant, making it ideal for trekking and exploring the park.

Where to stay?

My stay at Thuy Tien Eco Lodge was definitely one of the most pleasant experiences in that area. I was upgraded to the bigger room which was clean, with air-conditioning and a hot water shower. The internet was fast and I could work online without any issues. The owner was really sweet and she helped me organize my time in the park and gave me some tips.

What to take?

It’s a tropical environment and there are a few items that you definitely should take with you, to make your trip enjoyable and safe.

1. Sunscreen

2. Insect Repellent

3. Leech socks

4. Hat

5. Sunglasses

6. Lightweight and comfortable clothing

7. Trekking shoes

8. Water bottle

9. Snacks

10. Raincoat or poncho

11. First aid kit

12. Camera

13. Binoculars

14. Map of the park

Entrance fee

The ticket for a boat that takes you across the Dong Nai River costs 60.000 VND. There is no other way to get inside, so you must take it. The crossing literally takes one minute or even less.

Renting a bicycle

There are several options to rent a bike: 30.000 VND for 1 hour, 100.000 VND for 4 hours or 150.000 VND for 8 hours. Unfortunately, the bicycles are total rubbish so take your time and choose wisely. The rental place is just to the left of the Visitor Center.

Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
Very bad quality rental bicycle

Do-it-yourself activities

Tung Tree

In the park, there are many tall trees which are hundreds of years old and Tung Tree is one of them, with a height of 20 meters and a width of 10 meters. The roots of the trees sit on the ground and are absolutely breathtaking. When walking through the jungle and approaching this tree, you can feel like Tomb Raider!

Ben Cu Rapids

Nothing too spectacular, at least in the dry season. You can walk around the stones to get closer to the river but unfortunately, the area was full of rubbish. Very sad view, especially inside the National Park. It seems like rangers are too busy doing nothing instead of moving their asses to clean a bit!

Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
Rapids on Dong Nai River
Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
The whole area looks impressive from the sky

Uncle Dong Tree

Another impressive tree. This time it is a genus of redwood tree with 2 meters diameter.

Botanical Garden

It’s a series of paths through the jungle, very close to the riverside. The names of plants and trees are included on the boards. Very pleasant walk!

Heaven’s Rapids

The series of rapids is located about 12 km away from the Visitor Center. The road to get there is a bit bumpy, especially on low-quality rental bicycles. You can easily do it together with other sights on the way: Tung Tree, Ben Cu Rapids, Botanical Garden, and Uncle Dong Tree (small detour needed). Unfortunately, similar to Ben Cu Rapids, there were lots of plastic bottles in the water. It isn’t my definition of heaven!

Crocodile Lake

This is the classic trekking route in Cat Tien and is not to be missed. Take a bicycle for about 9 km on the main park road to the beginning of the trail. Then hike 5 km to reach the lake. You might see giant trees, rare peafowl, water birds, monkeys and of course Siamese crocodiles. And if you don’t see, for sure you will hear a lot of wildlife around you. This was certainly the best hike in the park, even though the entrance fee of 250.000 VND at the lake seemed to be too high. You can stay overnight at the Ranger Station with advance reservations which of course will give you priceless opportunities to watch wildlife in the night and at dusk.

Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
Crocodile Lake

Garlic-Shaped Lagerstroemia Tree

From Crocodile Lake, the unpaved road continues for another 3 km to these unique trees. At the end of April, the forest here was full of butterflies making the whole ride even more amazing!

6 Rooted Intersecting Ficus

On the way to or from Crocodile Lake, do not forget to stop to see this wonder of nature. I felt like inside the Lord of the Rings movie, only waiting for that tree to move and grab me with its roots.

Bear and Gibbon Rescue Center

It is located just next to the visitor centre and is free to visit. However, it looks a bit creepy. The gate was open but I couldn’t see any staff member around so I just walked around. I couldn’t see any moon bears or sun bears inside but there were a few gibbons in the cages. I hope they are treated well!

Ta Lai Village

The place is located 12 km from the Visitor Center and is populated by Ma, Stieng, and Tay people. The Ma and Stieng people are the original inhabitants of the Park’s Core Zone. Here you can experience daily life in a rural community. You can come here on a bicycle following the western bank of the Dong Nai River or on a motorbike following the eastern bank.

Activities

Wild Gibbon Trek

The most famous activity in the park brought me a lot of mixed feelings. The tours are limited to 4 people per day and we started at 5 AM in the morning when a boat took us to the visitor centre where we were greeted by our guide. Then we walked to the area next to Tung Tree, where we made a short stop and then continued deeper into the jungle. Soon, we were able to hear incredibly loud sounds made by the gibbons so we followed in this direction. The whole singing spectacle lasted about 10-15 minutes and then it got quiet. We could see some gibbons eating high in the trees. After a while, we came back to the visitor centre and the tour finished. Overall, it was great to hear and see gibbons in the wild. The tour took about 2 hours and cost 1.150.000 VND. Was it worth the time? Definitely yes. Was it worth the money? Definitely not. I found the tour highly overpriced and the guides also weren’t too eager to share some information about gibbons and wildlife in general.

Boat ride to Ta Lai

If you like water and birds, it is recommended to take a boat trip on the Dong Nai River. The trip downstream to Tai Lai Village is a great way to see the park from the waterfront. There is not much to do in the village itself so the whole activity is rather about sightseeing from the water and not about the final destination. The round trip takes about 3 hours.

Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
Boat on the Dong Nai River
Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
Dong Nai River

Night Safari

Night spotting is the easiest way to see mammals. Ride in an open-air truck through the jungle to observe wild animals such as deer, wild pigs, snakes, porcupines, gaur and weasels as they forage for food on the grasslands or in bushes during the night.

Dao Tien Engangered Primate Species Center

Dao Tien Island is just 5 minutes upstream from the boat landing. The centre specializes in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of endangered primates naturally found in the area of the park: golden-cheeked gibbons, black-shanked douc, silvered langur and pygmy loris. Most of the animals who are helped at this centre were victims of the illegal wildlife trade. The local guide will explain more about their stories and the job that the centre does. At the time of my visit (April 2023), there was only one tour per day and it was at 8 AM, so you need to be at the visitor centre at around 7.45 AM.

Final thoughts

Even though the time in nature is always great, I left Cat Tien National Park with mixed feelings. In my opinion, the number one attraction called Wild Gibbon Trek is highly overpriced. Moreover, I saw rubbish all over Ben Cu Rapids and Heaven’s Rapids. I also saw many park rangers who didn’t do anything besides chilling in the hammock. Then, where does all the money earned from park attractions goes? They could just walk around ONCE A WEEK to collect the trash if there is any. But yeah, what’s the point? It’s Vietnam and no one cares anyway.

The Ban Gioc is undoubtedly the largest and most beautiful waterfall in Vietnam. It is 30 meters high and 300 meters wide with the water flowing from 3 levels. It is fed by the Quay Son River and is part of the Cao Bang Non-Nuoc Geopark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The location is directly on the border of Vietnam and China, so you can see Vietnamese tourists on one side of the falls, and Chinese on the other. They both take rafts to get closer to the massive main falls of Bang Gioc. On the Vietnamese side, some other small waterfalls can be admired to the left of their big brother.

I visited Ban Gioc in March 2023, approaching on a motorbike from the town of Cao Bang, which is on the Vietnamese side and the post describes that experience.

The visit to Ban Gioc is another example when the destination itself wasn’t the only beautiful thing to see. The whole ride there, through the countryside filled with karsts, observing local minorities doing their daily work, was simply mindblowing.

Costs

At the moment of writing this article, the ticket to Ban Gioc Waterfall costs 40,000 VND per person. Motorbike parking is an additional 10,000 VND and going on a raft is 50,000 VND.

Rafts

If you want to get closer to the falls, it can be done on the raft. The journey takes around 10-15 minutes and costs 50,000 VND. You will get the chance to take nice photos from different angles than those on the land plus you will feel the power of the falling water even more.

Ban Gioc Waterfall in Vietnam
Rafts everywhere!

When to go?

The waterfall can be visited at any time of the year, but depending on the season, it can be more or less impressive. The good point is that it never dries up.

The wet season in the Cao Bang region lasts from June to September and the dry season from October to May. The wet season obviously means more water and more breathtaking views. However, the water gets a dark brown colour and you won’t be able to get too close on the rafts, at least if you plan to stay dry.

I visited at the end of March and Ban Gioc looked wonderful, even though the weather was cloudy and quite cold. The additional benefit was that it wasn’t as busy as it usually gets in high season. I was perfectly satisfied with my visit.

To sum up, don’t be discouraged to visit Ban Gioc in the dry season. It is a magnificent place and you will certainly like it. If you want to see the falls at their best, plan your trip at the end of the rainy season, around August and September.

Ban Gioc Waterfall in Vietnam
Top-down shot of Ban Gioc

How to get there?

Most people use Cao Bang as a base for a trip to Bang Gioc, and so did I. From there, you have three options: renting a motorbike, taking a public bus, or arranging a taxi. You may also think of joining an organized tour from Hanoi, which usually covers Ba Be Lake and other interesting sights en route.

Motorbike

It has always been my preferable way of travelling in Asia. There are a few decent rental places such as Green Riders House. Alternatively, you can ask for a bike in your hotel or homestay and certainly, they will help you to arrange one. Motorbike will give you the possibility to visit not only Ban Gioc Waterfall but also other attractions in the region, such as N├║i Mß║»t Thß║žn Mountain.

Bus

The minibus goes directly to the falls and costs 70,000 VND for the two-hour trip. It leaves frequently but I suggest asking about the current schedule at your accommodation.

Taxi

It only makes sense if you travel in a bigger group. Always negotiate with the driver and ask at your accommodation what’s the appropriate price.

Where to stay?

I spent a night at GiaBinh Homestay in Cao Bang and it was easily one of the best homestays during my 5-month Vietnamese road trip. The room was clean, spacious, and nicely decorated. The host immediately made me feel at home and shared some useful tips about my next destination.

If you don’t want to stay in Cao Bang, there are also nice homestays in stone houses in the village not far from Ban Gioc Waterfall.

How long to stay?

Ban Gioc Waterfall and other attractions in that area can be easily discovered during a 1-day trip, especially if you travel on a motorbike. It’s also doable by bus but probably you need to limit the trip to the waterfall and nearby cave only.

Other interesting places in the area

I recommend making use of your day and doing a loop in that area. Start in Cao Bang and follow the road QL3 and then DT206 all the way to Ban Gioc. Then visit Truc Lam Phat Tich Pagoda and the Tiger Cave. After that head back on the road DT206 until Trung Khanh, where you take a turn off to the road DT211 leading towards Nui Mat Than Mountain and Thang Hen Lake. In the end, join back the road DT205 and then QL3 bringing you back to Cao Bang.

The itinerary can be easily done on a motorbike but you need to start early. If you travel by bus, probably you need to limit yourself to Ban Gioc, Truc Lam Phat Tich Pagoda, and the Tiger Cave which are all in the same region.

Truc Lam Phat Tich Pagoda

The temple was built on the top of the mountain opposite the waterfall, from where you can admire the beautiful panoramic view of Ban Gioc. It’s about15 minutes uphill walk.

Tiger Cave / Nguom Ngao Cave

The cave is located about 4km from Ban Gioc Waterfall, so can be easily visited even without a motorbike. It was created by an underground river and was previously used as shelter during the war with China in 1979. Today visitors have two options for the visit: a shorter one which takes about half an hour and costs 45.000 VND and a longer one, which takes about 1,5 hours and costs 195.000 VND. If you choose the longer one, the guide will accompany you and you will be provided with a headlamp, water shoes, and a reflective vest. The cave is wonderfully lit and after visiting the caves in Phong Nha, Tiger Cave or Nguom Ngao Cave was my second favourite in Vietnam.

Nui Mat Than / Angel Eye Mountain

The mountain is truly a hidden paradise. To get there, put Cao Bang Camping in your navigation. The narrow road through the village becomes a dirt road, leading down into an amazing valley. This mountain is also called the Angel Eye mountain, due to the huge hole near its top. There is a small waterfall to the right of the plain and camping is available. Must be an amazing experience, especially with the sky full of stars! In the rainy season, the lake is created in the central area of the valley, probably making it even more photogenic.

Ban Gioc Waterfall in Vietnam
Ban Gioc Waterfall in Vietnam

Thang Hen Lake

Located right next to Nui Mat Than Mountain. You can take a boat trip or simply sit down and relax by the waterÔÇÖs edge observing nearby mountains that are being reflected in the lake.

Cao Bang

Small and calm city, without major tourist attractions but pleasant to walk around. It’s mostly an overnight stopover for most of the people heading to Ban Gioc Waterfall.

Pho Kim Dong Street is the place where locals hang out in the evenings and where you will find tasty street food. It’s also nice to stroll around the riverside of Song Bang.

The panorama of Cao Bang

Phong Nha used to be just another sleepy village on the banks of the Son River in the countryside of Vietnam, but it all changed with the discovery of one of the world’s largest caves. Guesthouses, tour agencies and restaurants popped up feeling an opportunity and they were right. Today this area is considered to be an adventure tourism hotspot.

I had been looking forward to the visit to Phong Nha for quite some time, as I heard a lot of positive reviews claiming it to be one of the most beautiful nature places in Vietnam. As an enthusiast of multiday hiking trips, I was strongly tempted by the wide offer of tours including camping in the jungle or even inside the caves. In the end, I decided to go for it and selected Hang Tien Cave Exploration, one of the tours offered by Oxalis Adventure.

This is not a paid review. I simply decided to write it as I truly enjoyed the experience.

How to get to Phong Nha?

Phong Nha is one of the top tourist areas so it can be easily reached by bus from all the major cities around. There is an airport in Dong Hoi in case you want to save some time and energy when coming from Hanoi. The capital of Vietnam can be also reached by bus or by train but the travel time will be significantly longer (about 12 hours).

If you ride on a motorbike, the best would be to start at Dong Ha (~ 140 km) or Dong Hoi (~ 40 km) when approaching from the south or Vinh (~ 200 km) when coming from the north.

Where to stay before the tour?

I booked 2 nights at Phong Nha Friendly Home and also left my luggage and motorbike there for the duration of the tour. The room was spacious and clean and there was a nice view from the terrace. The only negative point was the hot water in the shower that didn’t last too long so I had to be quick ­čÖé

The owners are very friendly and breakfast is included in the price (about 400.000 VND per night).

Price and booking

The cost of the Hang Tien Exploration Tour is 9,900,000 VND (426 USD) per person and the tour has a limited annual number of visitors. Yeah, I know. It isn’t cheap. But let’s just think that for each group of 10 tourists, there are 1 tour guide, 2 safety assistants, 1 chef, 2 camp guards, and 4 porters. Oxalis provides all the meals, and camping and safety equipment such as helmets, harnesses, headlights, gloves and a waterproof box for your valuables. The final night is spent at Tu Lan Lodge which is of extremely good quality, much better than the hotels or guesthouses that I usually book. It’s a lifetime experience and I think it is worth the money.

When to go?

The tours are operated from November to September and the best would be to go around April – May. The days are getting warmer and dipping in the water is certainly more fun. I made a trip in late January and it was pretty cold, especially at night or when crossing rivers with icy water. Tours depart on a fixed schedule, on Tuesdays and Saturdays (as of January 2023).

There are no tours from September to October due to the rainy season and increased water levels.

How long to stay in the area?

Besides the amazing trip with Oxalis, it is still worth spending some time for further exploration of the region. It has so much to offer: Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave, Duck Stop and Botanic Garden, just to mention a few interesting places!

I spent there two extra days but I could easily imagine an additional one or two in summer when it’s warmer you can do more water activities.

The trip plan

Day 1

The big day has come! I was thinking for a long time about which tour to choose and nearly booked another one (Tu Lan Explorer) but luckily Oxalis consultant advised me to pick Hang Tien Exploration Tour which doesn’t involve too much swimming, which isn’t that nice in January. So, there I was, waiting at my guesthouse for minivan pickup.

They came right on time and about one hour later, we arrived at the Oxalis base camp in the countryside. We were given the equipment (protective helmet, gloves, backpack, bottle with water, and waterproof box for electronics). Then, we met our guide (Dai), who explained all the details of the tour and we had to repack: some things were taken by the porters, and some we carried ourselves. Unfortunately, I chose a backpack that was quite small and only later on I noticed that there were a few bigger ones but they were already taken by other. Well, too bad. Remember to pay attention and choose wisely! As always, my backpack was full to the limits.

We hit the trail walking first through the countryside and saw the daily activities of local people. Many of them were riding bikes with some plants attached to them. Looked quite funny as sometimes you couldn’t really even see the rider, just a motorbike and moving leaves. The road was getting muddier and muddier. In general, the first day was definitely the muddiest of all. We crossed a fast-flowing river with a strong current, some people did it with hiking shoes but it meant that they had to spend the rest of the day with completely wet feet. Luckily, I had my trekking sandals, which were excellent for that purpose so I quickly changed.

Then we continued through muddy terrain to the Secret Cave. The interior was small but really beautiful. Then we had lunch, mostly bread, rice paper and all the ingredients to prepare a sandwich or a spring roll by ourselves. Then we went to Hung Ton Cave which involved going down the steep ladder while wearing a safety harness. It was quite easy, even though it looked scary as I had never used that kind of equipment before. I felt perfectly safe as I was convinced that the guides were experienced and knew what they were doing. Then, as the water level was high and no one was interested in swimming in cold water, we took a short boat ride out of the cave.

From there, we hiked through more and more muddy terrain, but luckily there were barely any leeches. We crossed some more streams, one of them with a pretty strong current and water level up to the waist. I think it was the most dangerous section of the trip. If someone had fallen down, they would have gone with the river flow and for sure got hurt.

Finally, we reached our campsite. Some people took a swim in the river and jumped into the herbal steam bath. I didn’t do so as the water was way too cold for me. Instead, I drank a few cups of delicious ginger tea and warmed myself up next to the fireplace.

We started drying our clothes next to the fireplace, including shoes, which didn’t end up well for me. I left them there for the night and in the morning the right one was seriously burnt.

The dinner was very delicious and it felt really great to eat at the camp in the middle of the jungle. After dinner we were sitting around the fire, having a nice chat and at some point, roasted peanuts were served, which was a nice surprise.

The camp was nicely organized with tents under some kind of roof and on an elevated platform. There was also a thermal steam bath, a bathroom with water in the bucket and a properly-looking toilet.

In the end, everyone went to sleep quite early. The night was quiet and I slept well even though I was a bit cold. Everyone was given two sleeping bags but they were extremely thin, so it was necessary to use extra layers of clothes.

Day 2

We woke up at about 8 AM, got breakfast and then had some time to pack the things and get ready. On that day, the trail was supposed to be less muddy and without many river crossings. The total distance to go was about 8 km with roughly 350m of ascent. Unfortunately, I noticed that one of my shoes got burnt while lying too close to the fireplace. What can I say, I am a jungle genius.

I set off in my Keen sandals as there were small river crossings at the very beginning of the hike and I preferred to have dry feet.  I was glad to see that the trail was indeed less muddy than the day before. There were no caves en route today, just pure jungle. We had our first picnic at the beautiful spot at the lake. The meal was really delicious. Rice with papaya and some other veggies, peanuts and sauce. The weather was also much better than the day before, with the occasional sunny period but still cold, especially while resting. Luckily, there were still no leeches as well as no mosquitos.

After the lunch break, we had to cross the small lake walking on the fallen tree and the over the wooden mini-bridge but it was submerging under the weight of the person walking on it, so I again decided to change shoes to sandals and keep sports shoes dry.

Then we walked and walked until we reached our second campsite set in an amazingly scenic location at the riverbank. There was a kind of small beach and Oxalis guys even organized a stand-up paddleboard. This time I decided to take a short dip in the water but it was really so goddamn cold. Immediately after, I jumped inside the herbal steam bath. It was really cool experience.

Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam

The evening was pleasant. I learned how to play a Vietnamese card game and we had delicious dinner again, followed by chitchat at the fireplace. The chef also prepared some hot sweet potatoes and corn. Awesome. The sky was clear so we could admire hundreds of stars.

There was another Oxalis camp for a different tour, on the other side of the lake, but we couldn’t hear them at all.

Day 3

The third day of the trip was the most exciting one as we visited the two biggest caves: Hang Tien 1 and Hang Tien 2. The morning on the campsite was cold but there was nice scenery with a morning mist over the river. Breakfast was delicious too, with nice banana pancakes and chocolate sauce.

We were also asked to decide if we want to take the longer route through the jungle which includes going up the mountains or rather a shortcut and coming back the same way through Hang Tien 1. We voted for the longer hike, which was also my preference.

It was a short trek to the entrance of Hang Tien 1, where we made a stop for a photo session. Then we went inside and it was really, really nice. Very big cave, exciting to walk through with some climbing and narrow passages but allowing to keep the feet dry. Inside, we could see calcite terraces and the circular ceiling dome. Further in we were given a safety harness and instructed to climb a 10 m ladder to reach the cave exit, opening out to a lush forest.

Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam

From there we continued to Hang Tien 2, which was smaller but probably even more beautiful inside with crystal-like rock formations. We could leave our backpacks at the entrance because it was a one-way cave with the exit the same way. We took some cool group photos here, with shadows reflected on the rocks and also individual ones while standing between stalagmites and stalactites. The guides were equipped with special lights, which made the photos look really professional.

Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam

After leaving the cave, we had a nice lunch and then continued the hike through the jungle. The weather was perfect and the hike was really pleasant, even though it was quite steep at some points. We rested for a while at the top and then started descent until we reached the road, where the minibus was already waiting for us.

It took about 1 hour to reach the Oxalis office and Tu Lan Lodge. We received keys to the rooms and had some time for taking a shower or riding a bike before going for dinner. The room was so amazing! Big panoramic window with a view of all the area and the mountains, even from the bathroom! Definitely the best room during my Vietnamese trip. But well, it wasn’t cheap ­čÖé I did a short bike ride around the village but was definitely planning to wake up early the next day and explore some more.

Tu Lan Lodge, Vietnam
Tu Lan Lodge, Vietnam

The dinner at the house of the local guide was delicious. A real feast with plenty of dishes but everyone was quite hungry! We also had some happy water (a local alcoholic beverage), obviously for better digestion ­čÖé

Day 4

The last day shouldn’t really be counted as an active one unless you grab a bike and go explore the village. That was exactly what I did! We had free time until 12:00 and the area is way too beautiful to just sit on the terrace. Bikes are available for free for anyone staying at Tu Lan Lodge.

Phong Nha, Vietnam
Phong Nha, Vietnam

It’s a real rural area with extremely friendly people always greeting you and smiling. Lots of great photo opportunities too, especially of people working in the ricefields.

Finally, it was time to set off back to Phong Nha and say goodbye to the group. What an amazing 4 days it was!

Other tours

Hang Tien Exploration is not the only tour in Oxalis Adventure offer. They have both longer and shorter hikes so simply visit their website and find the one that fits you best. It isn’t a sponsored recommendation as I truly liked my days in the Phong Nha area ­čÖé

Summary

All in all, it was an excellent trip. Logistics, guides, food, accommodation as well as communication with the consultant prior to the trip – everything was on a high level. It’s definitely not a cheap tour, but on the other hand, it’s an experience that you don’t have the chance to get very often. I wholeheartedly recommend Oxalis Adventure for all nature enthusiasts visiting Phong Nha.

It’s a popular tourist destination as it’s conveniently located between Phuket and Koh Samui or Koh Phangan. The main attractions of Khao Sok are Cheow Lan Lake, wildlife, iconic limestone hills, waterfalls, raft houses spread over the lake, trails, caves and rivers. It’s a real paradise for nature lovers and be sure that some time here will stay in your memories forever.

The park covers 739 square kilometres and was officially established on the 22nd of December 1980. Luckily, in the 1970s, Thai students, who had joined communist insurgency groups, set up a stronghold in Khao Sok, as it provided ideal conditions to hide and operate guerilla warfare. They managed to keep at a distance not only the Thai Army but also loggers, miners and hunters. Who knows what the rainforest would look like now if not for coincidences like this one?

In 1982 Rajjaprabha Dam was built, closing off the Pasaeng river and creating 165 km2 of the Cheow Larn Lake. This dam was built to provide a source of electricity to southern Thailand, which by now had become a major tourist destination.

How to get to Khao Sok?

It’s a popular place so arranging transportation from other spots in Thailand will be rather easy. The most convenient way is to start the trip from Krabi, Phuket, Khao Lak or Surat Thani with a minivan. Just ask the travel agent or the receptionist at your hotel and I’m sure they will guide you through the options.

I started from Krabi but in this section of my travel, I had a rental car for about two weeks, so it was really easy to get around. I took a white Toyota Yaris ATIV from PURE Krabi Car Rental and it was easily the best and the most worry-free rental experience that I have ever had. Easy contact through Whatsapp with the owner, no deposit needed, the low maximum liability of 5,000 THB and there was even a free WiFi device on board. Perfect!

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Surrounded by limestone mountains
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
The boat ride is incredibly scenic

When to go?

It’s a humid jungle environment with high temperatures and heavy rains year-round. The rain intensifies during the months of June through November but it shouldn’t discourage you from visiting this beautiful place. Just be prepared to get wet at any time of the year. Tropical downpours can be strong but usually, they don’t last for long. After all, it’s a rainforest!

If you really hate rain, February is the driest month on average with 30mm of rainfall, so plan your trip at this time.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Low clouds in the morning hours
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Morning hours are the most photogenic so have your camera ready!

How long to stay?

At least 3 days should be counted to fully enjoy the visit to Khao Sok. I spent 2 days on the trip to Cheow Larn Lake and 1 additional day hanging around the village and enjoying a guided night jungle walk. Anything shorter would have felt rushed.

Where to stay?

I booked a room at Khao Sok Jungle Huts Resort which was an excellent choice. Free parking, mosquito net, great restaurant and unbelievably friendly host. I arranged all my trips here. The place is very green with easy access to the river and you can occasionally spot some monkeys.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
This huge insect just landed at the reception while I was checking in

What to take with you?

You won’t need much, but make sure these items find a place in your bag:

  • Rain jacket
  • Sports shoes or trekking sandals that can get wet (for the cave tour)
  • Long trousers and long socks
  • Swimsuit
  • Insect repellant with DEET (there will be leeches)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat

National Park fees and opening hours

According to the official website, as of June 2022, the entrance fees for foreigners are 200 THB for adults and 100 THB for children 3-14 years old. Thai citizens pay 40 Baht for adults and 20 Baht for children. The entrance fees are valid for multiple days only if staying inside the park, either when camping or staying at raft houses on the lake. In other cases, you will have to buy a new ticket every day, which I find a bit ridiculous. After coming back from the tour of raft houses, I still wanted to do the guided night walk and I had to pay again for the new entrance ticket.

Luckily, it seems that the prices went down because when I was visiting in March 2022, the entrance ticket was 300 THB.

The park is open from 6 AM to 6 PM daily, all year round. Entering after 6 PM is possible if you do a night walk with a guide.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Cheow Lan Lake

What to do in Khao Sok?

The park can be split into two popular areas, which are 67 km apart. The first one is around the national park headquarters and Khao Sok Village, where it is possible to hike a number of trails, join guided night walks, visit waterfalls or take part in activities on the river. The second one is around Cheow Lan Lake and is popular for boat trips, raft houses, caves and limestone mountains.

source: www.thainationalparks.com

Overnight trip to Cheow Lan Lake

I booked a 2D 1N trip at my hotel one day in advance. The cost should be around 2,500 THB but ask if the entrance ticket to the national park is included.

The minibus picked me and some other guests up and we were taken to Cheow Lan Lake Pier where we bought national park tickets and boarded a long tail boat. The ride on the lake was extremely fun. Interestingly, the lake was created in 1982 as part of a damming project to provide hydroelectricity to the south of Thailand. It stretches over an area of 165 km2. We were surrounded by limestone hills and it all felt like going deeper into some unknown Jurrasic Park.

There are many raft houses spread all over the lake, from which it is possible to visit caves, viewpoints, limestone hills and get to some exciting trails. The one I stayed at was called the Smiley Lakehouse. Very pleasant place with simple rooms and private bathrooms. As I was travelling alone, I was asked to share a room with another solo traveller. Of course, I agreed and ended up with a new friend from Germany.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Raft houses on the lake
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Imagine waking up in these surroundings!
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Kayaks are available and paddling around is a great way to kill some time

We had a bit over one hour to chill out, swim in the lake or use one of many available kayaks. I decided to paddle around a bit but it was really tough in that sunny weather!

Then, it was time to return to the boat and head to Nam Thalu Cave. For me, it was the most adventurous part of visiting Khao Sok National Park. Once inside the cave, you wade or maybe even have to swim through the water. Keep all your valuables in a waterproof bag or ask your guide to store them for you. Due to the weather forecast for the afternoon which included rain, we were a bit hurried. Apparently, it may be extremely dangerous if you get caught inside the cave in heavy rain as the water level rises very fast.

We saw plenty of bats and spiders that can be recognized by their eyes reflecting the light. There could be also some snakes around but we didn’t see any. It is definitely not a place to go with small kids and you should wear proper shoes, not flip-flops.

As soon as we exited the cave, the heavy rain started so we were really just in time! It was raining the whole way back to the boat. Rain in the jungle means one thing. Be careful of leeches! A few people in our group were affected so it’s best to stop from time to time and check your body and the body of your buddy. They can move really fast so pay attention to the area around your ankles but also under your armpits.

We went back to the raft house where we had time to relax while waiting for dinner. It was really amazing to see when the rain stopped and clouds were rolling over the massive limestone hills.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Limestone hills after the rain

The night was calm and in the early morning, we boarded the boat again, this time looking for wildlife. We saw a lot of monkeys and some hornbills, but unfortunately no elephants.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Hornbills were seen in the early morning
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Misty rainforest

After breakfast, it was time to pack the bags and go back to the pier, with two more stops on the way: Khao Sam Kloe, which is a group of 3 beautiful rocks, and Pra Kie Phet Cave, a small and this time without water but with bats and some huge spiders which scared the shit out of me, even though they are harmless for humans.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Khao Sam Kloe
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
It used to be a snake…
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Plenty of spiders inside Pra Kie Phet Cave

In the end, the minibus transported us back to Khao Sok Village with a short lunch stop at Ratchaprapha Dam Scenic Viewpoint. All in all, it was a wonderful trip, absolutely worth the price. I highly recommend spending the night at the lake instead of doing only a day trip. It will add so much more to the experience!

You can also arrange your trip independently, by arriving at Cheow Lan Lake Pier and getting a boat from there to the floating house that you booked before or simply arranging the boat trip for a few hours. However, to see all the other attractions around, I believe it’s better to go for an organized trip with a guide, which includes an overnight stay in a raft house.

Night jungle walk

It’s actually a really fun experience, even though you don’t go deep in the jungle but rather follow the dirt road, around the park’s headquarters. We saw some frogs, snakes, spiders, and lizards as well as stick insects.

Rafflesia flower hike

Rafflesia is a parasitic plant with no leaves or roots on its own. It invades the liana vines and like a parasite, it absorbs all the vine’s nutrients. Once a year small buds begin to develop beneath the root bark of the vine. As they mature, they swell, breaking through the bark. They then burst open revealing the massive flower, which can be up to 80 cm! I haven’t done this hike but it’s definitely on my list, even in other places in South East Asia!

Ton Kloi Waterfall

One of the hikes that starts at the national park headquarters. It is 7 km long and runs along the Sok River. The first 2.9 km of the trail, until a checkpoint guarded by rangers, doesn’t require any guide to walk. However, if you want to continue all the way to the end, the guide is obligatory. There are many other, smaller waterfalls along that trail.

Sip Et Chan Falls

This 11-tiered waterfall is accessible by a nearly 4 km long trail starting from the north side of the campground next to the park’s headquarters. You can walk the first 400-50 meters on a wooden boardwalk freely, but a guide is required for the remaining distance.

Mae Yai Waterfall

It’s outside of the national park and you can just see it from the road while driving from Khao Lak. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say that it’s worth a dedicated trip.

Khao Sok Elephant Sanctuary

It’s one of the sanctuaries with really good comments from visitors. You may be able to make food for the elephants, feed and walk with them, but riding or bathing is absolutely forbidden.

River tubing or bamboo rafting

Both activities are especially fun in wet months when the water level in the river is high. It’s best to arrange it directly at your hotel or at street agencies.

Off the beaten trail – Khlong Phanom National Park

Rarely visited park, with a very nice loop hiking trail which should take you under 2 hours. You have a couple of viewpoints along the way until you finally arrive at the big tree. The entrance fee is quite cheap at 100 THB.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Around Khlong Phanom National Park

Summary

It was a magical time in nature and if you are looking for something else than Thai islands, look no further. There are plenty of activities to do both for very active people and also for those lazier ones. Spend the night in a raft house, waking up early to admire the morning mist and listen to the sounds of the jungle. This is one of these experiences that you will remember for a lifetime. I am a big nature enthusiast and I had 3 days of an absolute blast.

Koh Tarutao is the largest island in the Tarutao National Park. The island is 11 kilometres wide, and 26 kilometres long and the highest point on the island is 700 meters high. The headquarters and visitor centre are located near the beach of Punte Malacca. Kayaks and bicycles can be rented there and a small shop offers snacks and drinks.

The island has an interesting, but dark history. In the late 1930s, political prisoners had been kept there with the total number reaching even 3.000 people in 1938. When The Second World War broke out, the supplies from the mainland to the island were cut off causing food shortages and the death of many prisoners. The guards and prisoners formed alliances in order to survive and started attacking ships passing by around the island. Around 130 ships were sunk before the British forces came to the rescue towards the end of the war. Until the prison was shut down, nearly a third of prisoners lost their lives due to cruelty from guards, starvation and malaria.

How to get to Ko Tarutao?

As of April 2022, the only option seemed to be taking a speedboat from Pakbara Pier which heads to Koh Lipe but stops on Tarutao Island for about half an hour to allow the passengers to have a short walk and take pictures on the beach. On the next day, you could continue your journey further and jump onto another speedboat heading to Ko Lipe.

Getting to Tarutao on the way back from Koh Lipe may be difficult as tour operators usually don’t make a stop there and go directly to Pakbara Pier. If you travel with a bigger group, it could be negotiable but otherwise, don’t consider that option.

The National Park entrance fee is payable at the ferry terminal, costs 200 THB for foreigners and is valid for 5 days.

When to go?

The island is open for tourists from October to May. From June to September, the visit is impossible and you will have to go directly to the more popular Koh Lipe instead.

How long to stay?

ItÔÇÖs a small island but using a bicycle rather than a motorbike (not available for rent) makes it way slower and more tiring to explore. 1 full day should be enough to see the highlights on your two wheels and enjoy beach time. If you want to visit Crocodile Cave, you need to count in some extra hours and either rent a kayak or ask around for a long-tail boat.

Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Mangrove forest

Where to stay?

National Park accommodations or tents are the only options on the island. I got a bungalow at Ao Phante Beach, close to the visitor centre and the restaurant. The room was quite big and had a private bathroom but there wasn’t a mosquito net which presence I always appreciate. It cost me 600 THB per night. I also saw some bungalows at Ao Molae Beach, where the group of monks was hanging out, and at Ao Son Beach, which looked completely empty.

You can rent a tent or bring your own and camp at all three locations mentioned above. For sure there is a restaurant near the visitor centre and another one near Molae Beach, but I’m not sure about Ao Son Beach.

Getting around the island

Options are limited to walking or renting a bicycle. Tourists are not allowed to rent or drive motorbikes on the island, only park rangers can do so. Bicycle rental costs 250 THB per day. Check the breaks as there are a lot of hills on the island, but it seems that the bikes are in general in good condition.

In high season, there should be also available old-fashioned leg wagons and shuttle taxis that drive around the island at fixed times, though I didn’t see any during my stay on the island.

Rental bicycle and narrow paths around the site of the former prison

Tips

  • Always consult with rangers about your travel plan, especially your boat schedule or possible hikes.
  • Take enough cash as there is no ATM on the island.
  • Pack good insect repellent. There will be mosquitos and most probably sandflies as well. I was really badly bitten all over my legs and it was itching for several days.

Interesting places

Crocodile Cave

The name comes from a population of saltwater crocodiles that once lived on Koh Tarutao. But don’t worry, it’s history and now they are extinct. The cave can be reached by a longtail boat (the price should be around 450 THB) or by kayak (500 THB for the whole day) and you will go through a very scenic mangrove canal. As always in the caves in Thailand, it’s good to have your own flashlight to see as much as possible.

Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Mangroves canal leading to Crocodile Cave
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Top-down view of mangroves canal
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
The boat ride to Crocodile Cave is very scenic

Ao Talo Wao

The most iconic sight on the island with the pier leading to a huge limestone rock. You can also notice a few smaller islands in the background. A good paved road with monkeys chilling on the side leads there all the way from the visitor centre, though it’s a bit hilly so take your time and don’t forget water. The distance is about 12 kilometres. There is also a ranger building displaying boards with information about the island.

A bit further are remains of historic buildings that once belonged to the prison. The trails around the site are narrower but still doable on bicycle. If you are lucky, you may see a wild boar.

Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Photogenic limestone rock at Ao Talo Wao
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Top-down view of the pier and the rock
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Ao Tao Wao and the mountains
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Nearby small islands

Ao Taloh Udang

If you continue from Ao Talo Wao and the remains of the old prison even more towards the south, you are going to the place where political prisoners were kept. Unfortunately, the road isn’t paved and cannot be done on a bicycle. If you are adventurous, you can hike there but for me, it looked way too overgrown.

Mo Lae Bay

Calm beach close to a very nice bungalow complex, located four kilometres south of the headquarters. When I was passing by, there was a big group of monks. It was nice to see them chilling like that wearing their orange robes ­čÖé There is a restaurant with tasty and affordable food too.

Ao Son Beach

Very long and beautiful beach, yet completely empty. It’s located another 4 kilometres away from Mo Lae Bay.

Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Aerial view of long and remote Ao Son Beach
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Small river flowing into the sea
Koh Tarutao, Thailand
Mountains in the background of Ao Son Beach

Lu Du Waterfall

A signposted track 300m inland from Ao Son Beach leads to this waterfall. It’s about 3 kilometres and 1.5 hours each way.

Toe Bu Cliffs

The hike takes about 20 minutes and starts just behind the National Park’s headquarters. There is a great view over Ao Pante beach and other islands.

There are endless hiking possibilities in New Zealand and if you nature enthusiast, that’s the perfect country for you. I prefer camping, however, with the network of more than 950 backcountry huts operated by the Department of Conservation (DOC), carrying your own tent all the way is not always needed.

10 tracks with the status of the Great Walk are multiday adventures located in the most scenic landscapes in the country and providing hikers with good facilities. My story with them is rather simple. I went for one (Tongariro Northern Circuit) and I knew that I want to complete all of them.

North Island

Tongariro Northern Circuit

Distance: 41 km

Time: 2-4 days

Definitely my favorite walk on the North Island. It was also my first Great Walk after arrival to New Zealand so I’m still sentimental about it. Being a loop, there is no hassle with extra transportation so it’s also budget-friendly.

I was extremely lucky with the weather and even though I initially planned the hike for 3 days, I finished it in 2 days which is perfectly doable but tiring. Do it in 3 days or 4 days if you like a more relaxed pace.

The track meanders through the rugged volcanic landscape with cones of Mt Tongariro, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe around you. It includes most of Tongariro Crossing which is a day hike done by most of the tourists coming to Tongariro National Park and this section can get crowded.

Don’t miss Blue Lake, Tama Lakes and Taranaki Falls as side trips. They are all worth it!

Read the full description of the track.

Lake Waikaremoana Track

Distance: 46 km

Time: 2-3 days

The track follows the shoreline of Lake Waikaremoana and if fairly easy except quite a steep uphill section between Onepoto and Panekire Hut (if walking from Onepoto) or Waiopaoa Hut and Panekire Hut (if walking from Hopuruahine Landing). Rainforest, waterfalls, beaches – you have it all here. Just don’t forget your swimwear!

I started the track at Onepoto and in this way covered the more difficult uphill section on the first day.

Whanganui Journey

Distance: 87 or 145 km

Time: 3-5 days

First of all, it’s not a walk. Unless you can walk on the water. If not, then grab a kayak or canoe, pack your things into waterproof containers and paddle your way down the Whanganui River.

The full version is 145 km long, starts at Taumarunui and finished in Pipiriki (5 days). If you are not such a big enthusiast of paddling, start at Whakahoro instead and cut the distance to 87 km (3 days).

It’s worth stopping at the Bridge to Nowhere, that was built in the times when soldiers coming back from World War I were granted land in the area. The land proved too difficult to cultivate and after building the bridge in the middle of the bush, the plans to continue with the road were abandoned. Therefore, today it’s quite a unique tourist attraction in the beautiful scenery.

South Island

Abel Tasman Coastal Track

Distance: 60 km

Time: 3-5 days

The trail goes along the coast and many hikers rate it as one of the easiest of Great Walks. There are several great campsites on the way where you can pitch your tent on the sand and even enjoy the shower. Jumping in the kayak and doing the whole route or only some fragments from the water perspective is a nice and popular alternative. It’s not a loop so at the end of the track, take a water taxi back to the starting point or if you have a couple of more days to spare, walk back via alternative inland track.

I did it over 3 days starting at Marahau and it seems to be an absolute minimum if you want to cover the whole distance. I camped at Onetahuti Bay and Totaranui. For more relaxed experience and longer breaks at the spectacular bays and beaches, plan 4 or 5 days.

There is one really critical tidal crossing at Aweroa that is passable 1.5 hours before and 2 hours after low tide under normal conditional. Therefore, plan your day accordingly and check tides hours online as there is no alternative way. For me, it was one of the most unique and breathtaking spots on the trail. Oystercatchers wandering around looking for food, a huge area with sand shaped by the water, hilly background and adventurous crossing on its own, sometimes with water above my knees.

Heaphy Track

Distance: 78.4 km

Time: 3-6 days

The longest and one of the most diverse of Great Walks. Being located in Kahurangi National Park, it takes not only good shape to tackle it, but you need extra cash to organize logistics. To come back from one trailhead to another, it’s a long bus trip that takes around 5 hours and costs over 100 NZD.

I hiked the track in 3 days. The first one was a mostly uphill walk in the mountainous area and forest. The second day was way flatter and the forest gave place to wide grasslands at the end arriving at the West Coast. On the last day, walking along the beach I got the chance to admire one of the most remote coasts that I have ever seen.

I spent the nights at Saxon and Heaphy campsites and both had superb location.

Outside of the Great Walks season (1 May – 30 November), it’s allowed to go on the track with a mountain bike.

Paparoa Track

Distance: 55 km

Time: 2-3 days

The only Great Walk that I didn’t experience but that’s because it’s a brand new one due to open in the second half of 2020. When I see its location on the West Coast, I have no doubts it’s on my bucket list for the second visit in New Zealand.

The track crosses the rainforest and the Paparoa Range. According to the Department of Conversation (DOC), mountain bikers are allowed as well.

Routeburn Track

Distance: 32 km

Time: 2-3 days

My favorite of 3 Great Walks in Fiordland National Park. It’s short but breathtaking and there are no boring sections. The weather on my first day was simply horrible with pouring rain and strong winds all the way. But if everything is booked…. gotta go ­čÖé Luckily, it had a positive side too, as the passing dark clouds were extremely photogenic.

I spent the night at Lake MacKenzie campsite trying to dry my completely wet clothes at least a little bit. Of course, I failed.

The second day was much better and the sun welcomed me as soon as I opened the tent. After a full day of rain, the Earland Falls were so huge that I had to take a detour built for such situations.

It’s a great track for mountain enthusiasts. I recommend making a side trip to Key Summit which takes around 1.5-hour return. Leave your heavy backpack at the crossroad, there is no need to carry the things all the way up.

[update from DOC website as of 15.03.2020 – check regularly for further news]

The Routeburn Track partially reopens from 12 March 2020 as a new walking experience, named Routeburn Return. It’s a 4-day, 3-night hike beginning and ending at the Routeburn Shelter. This return journey starts and finishes near Glenorchy.

Routeburn Return replaces the Routeburn Great Walk, which is closed for the rest of the season due to storm damage.

The Routeburn Return route may be more challenging than the usual route because of changes in elevation and one of the days is longer than a usual Great Walks experience.

Kepler Track

Distance: 60 km

Time: 2-4 days

Being a circuit makes it easily accessible and budget-friendly. I did it over 2 days in a clockwise direction with overnight at Iris Burn but I must say it was pretty challenging and I finished completely exhausted.

The weather conditions in Fiordland National Park are pretty unpredictable which I experienced on the second day. The thin layer of snow was covering the ground and people coming from the other direction said that yesterday they were walking in a snowstorm. I was really lucky that DOC advised me to follow the clockwise direction!

There are limestone caves near the Luxmore Hut that make for a nice side trip. Take a torch!

Milford Track

Distance: 53.5 km

Time: 4 days

Only 40 independent hikers can start the track each day which makes it extremely difficult to book. I did it 4 months in advance, refreshing the page several days hoping for someone to cancel. I got lucky, but it’s also easier for solo travelers.

This time I left the tent in the car as camping on Milford Track is not allowed. Even though it’s only 53.5 km long, you need to stay in all 3 huts on the way. It has pros and cons. I could easily walk such a distance in 3 or even in 2 days. On the other hand, I was ‘forced’ to take it slowly having more time to appreciate nature. Which was just fine. However, the popularity of the track, lack of campsites and additional transport from one end to another, demand quite a big budget as for the hike in the mountains.

And even though it’s my least favorite of Great Walks in Fiordland National Park, there is still a lot to appreciate. Spectacular views from MacKinnon Pass, the highest waterfall in New Zealand – Sutherland Falls (580m) and of course plenty of wildlife.

Rakiura / Stewart Island

Rakiura Track

Rakiura National Park covers around 80% of the island and is home to the least crowded of Great Walks. I booked my camping tickets only 2 days before departure which would rather not be possible on other tracks in the middle of the season.

You will hike along sandy beaches and through the forest but the most interesting part is the chance to see the kiwi. It’s the best place in the whole of New Zealand to see its symbolic bird. Apparently it’s possible even in the daylight! I suggest waking up around midnight, taking headlight (best with the red light mode that doesn’t scare kiwi off) and walking quietly around the camp.

Read the full description of the track.