There are oodles of unique animals in Thailand. But that’s just what you expected, right? An exotic land of misty mountains and talcum-powder beaches, of coral reefs and life-teeming seas, this is bound to be a place that brims with biodiversity. Darn tooting…there’s loads to make you wonder when it comes to the fauna of the Land of Smiles.
From aggressive fish dressed like drag queens to colossal underwater species that hoover the ocean floor, Thailand showcases some serious wonders of the natural world. Throughout its myriad habitats, you’ll find aquatic giants and elusive lizards alike, along with some seriously endangered species that only the luckiest of travelers will get a chance to encounter.
This guide reveals just seven of the most unique animals in Thailand. Some are uber-rare and unusual. Others are everyday occurrences in the home of pad Thai and sticky rice, but nonetheless a pretty curious spot for folks traveling in from less exotic climbs like the USA or Europe. Prep the camera…let’s take a look…
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Siamese fighting fish
Move over goldfish…the Siamese fighting fish is the one everybody really wants in their aquarium. That’s been the case since around about 1800, when the Thai King Rama III gifted one to the eminent Danish zoologist Theodore Cantor. Fast forward a little over 200 years and these are now one of the most prized pet swimmers there are on the market. It’s easy to see why…
Known as betta (short for betta splendens) in the local lingo, these guys have an ultra-flamboyant fin setup that looks like thin ribbon, twirling all the way around the back end of the fish. The body can be colored any mix of vibrant hues, from silverish blue to gleaming ochres, oranges, and reds. They are freshwater fish, which means they live in the riverways of central Thailand, but can actually be found all over Southeast Asia, from the waters of Malaysia to the coastal lagoons of Vietnam.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Siamese fighting fish is the fact that they were once bred for combat. With a naturally aggressive disposition, they naturally confront each other and spar for minutes on end. Historically, wagers would have been placed on the winner, which was determined by which fighting fish retreated from the foray first.
The whale shark reigns as the largest known fish species on planet Earth. These guys can hit a weighing-scale-crushing 40+ tons in the wild, and there have been reports of individuals measuring a whopping 23 meters from end to end. In Thailand, one report from 1919 tells of a whale shark specimen that measured 10 times the arm span of a single man!
Giants they might be, but gentle giants they certainly are. Yep, whale sharks are carpet grazers. That means they don’t come armed with the jagged fangs of their great white cousins. Instead, they hoover up plankton, krill, and fish eggs with their gaping mouths, which filter out anything that’s not nutritious and keep anything that is.
Diving with whale sharks is now up there with the bucket-list draws of Southeast Asia. The Land of Smiles also happens to be one of the top places to do just that. There are certain spots where the beefy customers are known to gather – like the reefs of Hin Daeng near Koh Ha, and along the shores of the Chumphon Pinnacle near the scuba mecca of Koh Tao. Travel between February to April to give yourself the best chance of an encounter.
The sound of a tokay gecko cackling is trademark Thailand. We never bore of seeing the joy on the faces of first-time travelers when they hear it. It begins with a sucking in of air that’s like a rollercoaster ratcheting up, then a big release, as the namesake sound of “tokay” echoes all around. These guys might be small, but they sure do make one heck of a noise!
Tokay geckos are everywhere in the Land of Smiles. You’ll spot them clambering up the walls of your beach cabanas in Koh Lanta, scurrying through the jungles around Pai in the north, and wriggling between the buzzy streets of Bangkok. They come in all shapes and sizes, but are rarely more than a finger in length, and display any number of color patterns, including greens, blues, red dots, and black polka.
The species is afforded a pretty high status throughout much of Southeast Asia. It’s considered a symbol of good luck and fertility in Thailand itself, where the creature is thought to be descended from ancient dragons. Sadly, that’s not the case everywhere, since geckos are also prized in ancient Chinese medicine, and are heavily hunted and trafficked for use in unproven treatments for everything from HIV to impotence.
Helarctos malayanus, the sun bear, is the smallest bear species around. They’re an arboreal, tree-dwelling species that reside in humid forests right across Southeast Asia and South Asia. However, Thailand is right there at the epicenter of their range, offering vast – and now often protected – swathes of moist evergreen forests along the western shorelines of the Thai Gulf that are just about perfect for the animal.
Omnivores by nature, sun bears sustain themselves on a diet of coconut palms, acorns, beetles, bees, termites, and – every bear’s fav – honey. They’re very rarely seen by humans in Thailand, especially since they’re a shy species that often turns and runs at the first sight of something new or the sound of loud noises.
The Khao Yai National Park is one of the best places to go if you’re keen to witness one in the wild. Spreading over more than 2,000 square kilometers, it was actually used as a filming location in The Beach and is the third largest reserve in the country. You can head in for hikes and multi-day treks in the hope of seeing a sun bear, using nearby Bangkok as a base.
The Siamese croc is probably one of the most unique animals in Thailand that you’d want to come across the least. A Jurassic beast that’s evolved over millions and millions of years, it looks like something from the age of the dinosaurs, touting a smooth, broad stout and a crocodilian body that can extend up to 2.5 meters from teeth to tail.
Scared? You probably shouldn’t be. The modern day has been bad news for the Siamese crocodile. Around about 2000, scientists thought that the species was totally extinct in the wild. However, discoveries of nascent populations in Cambodia and then a smaller population grouping in Thailand offered some hope, and they’re now listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
Siamese crocodiles are a medium-sized crocodile species that live in freshwater along low-lying rivers and flood plains. They remain a pretty elusive animal since scientists don’t have lots to study. However, it’s thought that they breed between April and May (the Southeast Asian monsoon season) and are probably unaggressive towards humans unless provoked.
No list of the most unique animals in Thailand could possibly skip the Indian elephant. This hulking beast of nature is a veritable symbol of the country, and one of the most celebrated creatures in the whole region. They are native to all of South Asia, ranging from India through to Vietnam, with the biggest numbers of wild elephants in the Land of Smiles centered around the north.
Sadly, it’s now listed as Endangered by the IUCN and numbers have plummeted due to habitat destruction and poaching in the last few decades. In the early 1990s, an estimated 3,000 elephants lived in the wild here, but that’s since been cut by up to two thirds, while the number of elephants in captivity is estimated to have doubled.
We’re not joking when we say that you really can’t miss one of these! They can clock up heights of 3.5 meters at their tallest point. They can weigh a mega 5,000kg. They even boast larger trunks in relation to body size than their African compadres. If you’re keen to see one, it’s now more important than ever to seek out ethical elephant experiences!
Finishing off this list of the most unique animals in Thailand is a true curiosity of the natural world. Cue the Sunda pangolin. Also known as the Javan pangolin or the Malayan pangolin, these guys are thought to be present all over the Malay peninsula and the islands of northern and western Indonesia. However, numbers are low. Like, really low – the species is Critically Endangered on the IUCN lists.
Known for their tough exoskeletons and habit of rolling up into a defensive ball when they feel threatened, Sunda pangolins are unique among other pangolin species for their padded feet and bad eyesight. They usually rear two young every season and live mainly in little burrows carved into the base of trees deep in the forest.
Sunda pangolins are among the most poached and trafficked creatures on the globe. They’re sought after for their use in Chinese medicine, where there’s a mistaken belief that imbibing their scales or wearing pieces of the pangolin as a charm can help with health protection. Some scientists believe that Asian pangolins were the source of the COVID 19 virus that ravaged the world back in 2019.
The most unique animals in Thailand – a conclusion
This guide to the most unique animals in Thailand touches on just a few of the amazing creatures that call the fabled Land of Smiles their home. It’s got spectacled bears and fighting fish, along with all manner of curious critters that live in the rainforests, sparkling seas, and mountains of this corner of Southeast Asia.