Thailand's Wild East

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Patrick Aventurier / Gamma / Eyedea Presse

Khao boys: Workers at one of Khao Yai's many ranches form a tableau straight out of the American West

Packing for Thailand usually doesn't involve more than throwing sunblock, insect repellent and a T shirt or two into your bag. But if you're headed to Khao Yai National Park, the country's oldest nature reserve, there's one more advisable piece of gear: a Stetson hat. Three hours' drive northeast of Bangkok, this forest and grassland plateau counts as Thailand's cowboy country. Locals work the nearby ranches, occasionally dressed in Wild West outfits likely inspired by American soldiers who passed through during R&R from the Vietnam War.

The cowboy theme starts on the journey up Highway 2 from Bangkok, near the town of Pak Chong. At the Chokchai Steakhouse, tel: (66-4) 432 8445, run by one of the country's largest farms, carnivores can dig in to dry-aged T-bone and spicy jaew sauce made with garlic, chili and ginger, or pick up disks of sweetened beef jerky for the ride north. Freshly churned ice cream is available for dessert. And just as the American West has its Californian vineyards, so this vicinity is home to several Thai wineries, which offer up passable plonk.

Half an hour away is Khao Yai National Park itself. Though it may no longer teem with tigers — except for the stuffed, moth-eaten relic languishing in the visitors' center — there are plenty of gibbons, deer and colorful birds to keep amateur naturalists occupied. The waterfalls are lovely, although the leeches are pernicious, particularly in the rainy season.

Several rustic resorts catering to Thai tourists are clustered near the park, but the poshest digs are at Kirimaya,, a boutique hotel that boasts lovely landscaping and a Jack Nicklaus – designed golf course. Kirimiya's standard rooms are a tad cramped, especially given how expansive the grounds are. But the four tented villas, with oversized Jacuzzis, are plenty spacious. Just the place to hang your cowboy hat.

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