Thailand May-June 2009

From Australia I flew to Thailand on 26th May 2009 for some Asian birding. I initially planned to head to the south of Thailand, to look for pittas, as well as to the national parks of Doi Inthanon and Khao Yai although, in the end because I was running out of money I just went to the north. Bangkok, sprawling, polluted and noisy, was a huge culture shock to say the least and I have to admit I hated the place and was only too pleased to leave. I stayed on the outskirts of the city for a couple of days and, on my first full day there, I headed into town by taxi for a bit of shopping and to reschedule my Qantas flight home for a slightly earlier date (this was necessary because of the dire state of my bank balance!). Getting in wasn't a problem but getting back was, the taxi driver 'got lost' and it ended up costing me several hundred baht more, as well as taking three hours rather than the 20 or 30 minutes it should have done. People advise that you should *only* get into a metered taxi and not an unmetered one but I disagree - DON'T get a metered taxi as the driver may well take 'wrong turns' and 'get lost' in order to maximise his fare...get an unmetered cab and agree on a price beforehand. That way, you save time and money. Yes, they are on much lower incomes than we Westerners are but it's the principle of the thing. A few words of Thai help as well. To be fair, though, I should point out that this isn't a feature solely of Thai taxi drivers (or even all Thai taxi drivers), I've known London cabbies do exactly the same thing.

I did some birding around the hotel in Lat Krabang and got Javan Pond Heron, Striated Weaver, Yellow Bittern and Tree Sparrow (which takes the place of House Sparrow and are very common, unlike in the UK) but I mostly had a lazy time for a couple of days in a nice hotel - one of the good things about developing countries is that good hotels don't cost too much, especially as I couldn't face any more hostels full of students and gap-year kids. I did do a lot of people watching and had a look round a nearby temple as well as the numerous (and a bit pungent!) street stalls selling all sorts of things, mostly food of various descriptions; these ones had loads of stray mongrelly-looking dogs in attendance! I steered well clear of the dogs; although I love dogs, I have a healthy fear of rabies which is a big problem in Thailand and didn't fancy being bitten then having to go to hospital for anti-rabies shots in the stomach, reputedly very painful.

I was invited, via Birdforum, to stay with an American lady and birder, Marie, and her husband George, up in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is the nearest city to Doi Inthanon, which is one of the best birding areas in Thailand. Marie and I birded around her place where the Thailand list finally started to get underway.
We went to some nearby fields with trees for some local common species. The weather was very hot and humid but sunny (that evening, there was a huge thunderstorm) and my list grew with the addition of Ashy Wood-swallow, Green Bee-eater, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Grey-breasted Prinia, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Streak-eared Bulbul, Pied Bushchat, Red-wattled Lapwing, Greater Coucal, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Wire-tailed Swallow, Black Drongo, Black-collared Starling, Large-billed Crow and Common Tailorbird. Unfortunately there was no Indian Roller, a bird I really wanted to see, which was a bit disappointing - but I found one later, at Khao Yai.

Doi Inthanon. The following day, I sent off for Doi Inthanon which is part of the Loi Lar range (also known as the Daen Lao range) which separates Thailand from Burma. Marie gave me a lift and we were there in less than a couple of hours. We stopped in Chom Thong for some supplies at the Tesco there. Yes. Tesco. It did come as a surprise to see something so familiar from home in such an exotic location although, maybe, it shouldn't have been as I'd already seen numerous branches of Boots in Bangkok.
Once we'd got into the park (200 Baht for foreigners, a bargain) we stopped at the famous Mr Daeng's to see if he had any accommodation. He did and I found myself in a very basic but comfortable room complete with satellite tv with English-speaking stations (including the SciFi Channel and a Pakistani channel that showed familiar western films - western as in US and UK blockbusters, not cowboy movies), it cost 500 Baht a night, probably a bit overpriced but Mr Daeng's is very popular.
Once I'd dumped my bag in the 'Green Cochloa' room we headed up to the summit. Unfortunately the clouds were low with the summit, at 2565 metres (8415 ft) shrouded in fog and the view invisible but the birds were very active, especially round the summit visitor's centre. There was some building work going on, with blokes throwing down scaffolding poles with a loud clang at intervals. This bothered me and Marie more than it bothered the birds, who carried on as if nothing was happening. Birds immediately around the visitors' centre were Dark-backed Sibia, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Chestnut-headed Laughing-thrush and the absolutely stunning Green-tailed Sunbird, which immediately became one of my most favourite species of the entire trip it was so colourful but, unfortunately, my photos of it didn't come out very well, thanks to the poor light and low shutter speed. An f5.6 lens isn't quite up to the job of low-light photography.

Green-tailed Sunbird

After buying a few souvenirs, and having a cup of tea, at the shop we crossed the road to the Summit Marsh which is the only sphagnum bog in Thailand and an excellent spot for birds. First was a party of Rufous-winged Fulvettas and Grey-headed Babbler, plus others which we could hear but not see. Further along the boardwalk we heard a sweet high-pitched whistle from high in the trees which was a Large Niltava and a little while later, we saw a Snowy-browed Flycatcher which is a lovely blue, red and white bird - the breast and throat is red, the brows are white and the rest of the bird is blue. Other birds around the summit included Ashy-throated warbler while further down, at Km 35, were Hill Prinia and Flavescent Bulbul.
The next day, 4th June, was an all-day birding trip with a guide, Somchat. I haven't told my mother, who doesn't read my websites (I doubt she even knows they exist!) that I rode a motorbike, helmetless, down a mountain far too fast. It's not something travel insurers should really know about either... In Mr. Daeng's garden, while I waited to leave, were Japanese White-eye, Green-tailed Sunbird and Streaked Spiderhunter.
Further up the road, at around Km 34, were Green-billed Malkoha, White-browed Shrike-babbler, the lovely Silver-eared Mesia, Oriental Magpie-robin and Flavescent Bulbul, while at Check Point 2 was Yellow-cheeked Tit and White-throated Fantail as well as Grey-cheeked Fulvetta and Mountain Tailorbird. We also got views of Asian Emerald Cuckoo and Violet Cuckoo along the road about 1km above Check Point 2. It was foggy and raining as we continued up to the summit, and I added Grey-cheeked Minivet and Yellow-bellied Fantail to the list. I added nothing new to the list above what I'd seen the previous day although we did see an Acro-looking warbler species with no markings except a single pale wing bar.

After this we headed straight down the mountain to the lower altitude dipterocarp forest at 800m (2624 ft) but this was hot, uncomfortable and not very productive resulting in only two new birds, Common Flameback and Collared Falconet. After this, we went back up to Km 20 and the Wachirithan Waterfall, hoping to find Blue Whistling-thrush (which we did) and forktails (which we didn't). The waterfall is a popular spot, with restaurants and shops, and was very busy. Ashy Drongo also found itself added to the list.

Wachirithan Waterfall

Off to the rice paddies next; these paddies are owned and run by the local Karen people. There wasn't a lot about but we did get Paddyfield Pipit, a Pied Bushchat - and very wet when the heavens opened. Shortly before the rain began we got brief views of White-rumped Shama which was calling from high in a tree. I got drenched as I'd left my jacket behind. We sheltered in a hut for half an hour waiting for the rain to stop and, while we waited, we saw some Streaked Juhinas and some evil-looking dark brown hairy pupae that can apparently cause gangrene if touched. Somchat told me that the gangrene is not curable and people have lost limbs before now, if true then I had a lucky escape because I nearly leaned on them and, if it wasn't for Somchat, I'd have got the hairs in my skin. When I got home, I googled the pupae but so far haven't found them; I'd love to know what they are.

Black-throated Sunbird

We stopped at Mr Daeng's to change into dry clothes and then went a short distance to a Hmong village where there was a campsite where Black-tailed Crake had been seen. Crakes can be notoriously secretive, skulking birds and the Black-tailed is no exception. I wasn't expecting to see the bird, not easily anyway, but there it was out in the open and probably the easiest bird of the day to see. It began to rain again but, this time, I was prepared, with a very fetching plastic raincoat bought at the local shop. We sheltered at a market where we had some stew containing and unidentified meat which, I suspect, rat. That's not a rude comment about the cuisine which was very good, rat is actually eaten in rural parts of Thailand. Once the rain had stopped we went towards Mae Klang Lung and finally found a forktail, Slaty-backed Forktail, by the river. We'd spent all afternoon looking for one there it was, on the road. We then found three more, before heading back to Mr. Daeng's.

The next morning, before leaving, I found a couple more lifers, both in Mr. Daeng's garden, a female Scarlet Minivet and a Black-throated Sunbird. Marie arrived and we headed back up the mountain for some last Doi Inthanon birding before travelling back to Chiang Mai. I didn't add anything to my list and we went back to Chiang Mai via the Tesco at Chom Thong.

As the weather was appalling, with torrential rain, I spent my final day in Chiang Mai going shopping and visiting the Buddhist temple of Wat Phra Singh where there were golden Buddhas in different poses, some sitting, others reclining.

The journey back to Bangkok wasn't without incident. The plane was delayed, probably due to torrential rain and, once back at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, I hired an airport taxi for the ride into town to my hotel, this time in the city centre, for 1100 Baht (about 22 quid). Despite me having precise written instructions in Thai to give him, the driver was a complete idiot who didn't know where the hotel was and, after about two hours, tried to drop me off at any old place. We eventually got to the right one and he was sent on his way without the tip he demanded, as there was no way that he was getting one after that palaver. Especially not as I'd paid out 1100 baht NOT to get a driver who'd get 'lost'. The guy wasn't malicious or crooked, just incompetent.
When I got into my room and unpacked I found that my bag was absolutely wet through, thanks to the Chiang Mai baggage handlers leaving people's bags on the tarmac in the pouring rain, and everything in it was soaked so I had to spread out every item of clothing I possessed, and a couple of books, to dry. Fortunately no lasting damage was done and even the wet books (a cheap novel and a photographic field guide) look none the worse for their drowning. The hotel, the Bangkok All Seasons Siam, was great. Four star, very comfortable and cheap.

Khao Yai I had one night at the All Seasons Siam before setting off by bus to Khao Yai NP, near the town of Pak Chong. The bus from Bangkok's Mor Chit bus station to Pak Chong took 2 hours and 35 minutes with drinks served, free of charge by hostesses. It wasn't quite Greyhound or National Express but it was comfortable and I got to birdwatch along the way, adding Asian Openbill Stork to the list. The only problem was that all Thai towns and villages namesigns are in Thai script so I had no idea where or when I had to get off! Luckily a couple of Thai women helped me out so, thanks to them, I got off at the right place and I was picked up at the bus stop by a songthaew sent by the guest house I was booked with, Greenleaf.
After a terrible night's sleep (I can never sleep when I have to get up early and it wasn't helped by the heat and humidity, the uncomfortable bed or my fear of the cockroaches) it was an early start at 0530. It was well worth the early start because it was one of the best day's birding ever. The transport was more comfortable too, Mr Nine's 4x4 pick-up truck instead of a motorbike. First birds of the day, before entering the park, were Red-breasted Parakeets, Black-collared Starling and Black-shouldered Kite.

View from Khao Yai

The park fee is 400 Baht for foreigners. People have complained about that but, if it preserves the park and its birds and animals, then it's money well spent, I think. At the look-out above the park fire station we stopped and soon found Lineated Barbet, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Grey-eyed Bulbul, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Common Iora. Further on up the hill we found male and female Great Hornbill, with a nest with a grown young one inside, who was still being fed by its parents. Both Nr Nine and myself got some cracking photos of one of the parents in flight. We continued up the mountain and parked at the roadside for a walk in the jungle. I'd got my camera bag out of the car and moved to the back of the vehicle when I heard a pattering noise. Thinking it was starting to rain, although I could not feel any drops due to the dense leaves above me, I looked up, to see a Pig-tailed Macaque answering the call of nature right above the spot where I'd got out of the truck! I'd by seconds avoided being peed on by a monkey! A very lucky escape!

Great Hornbill

Oriental Pied Hornbill

The jungle trail was dense, leechy and spidery but we got good views of a Siamese Fireback pheasant which was one of my target birds, but it wasn't photographable because of the dark forest making decent photos impossible. we heard Imperial Pigeon and Sultan Tit calling and caught a glimpse of a Barking Deer (Muntjac) in the undergrowth. Other birds were Greater Flameback and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. There were a lot of spiders' webs strung over the path and I narrowly avoided walking into one at face-height. Fortunate, because the occupant was larger than a man's hand and I am a complete arachnophobe. My second lucky escape of the morning.
The leeches were a nuisance despite the fact that I had taken all the precautions against them - leech socks, repellant spray - or I thought I had. I'd overlooked one small, but important detail - I forgot to tuck my shirt in, so the little slimy ones found their way in. I had leeches all round my stomach and looked like a stabbing victim. My shirt which, naturally(!), was white, was ruined as the bloodstains would never come out and was thrown away when I got back to Bangkok. Luckily it was an old shirt. However, on the bright side, I wasn't as appalled and disgusted by the leeches as I thought I would be and it was almost cute, but sinister at the same time, to see the tiny creatures reaching out to you from the paths and vegetation.

We spent the afternoon at the top and over the other side of the mountain and took the road to the radar station. The soldiers at the radar station were very kind, as I'd been caught short and they allowed me to come into the base and use their facilities - thanks chaps! On the way back down the road, we found a group - male, female and young one - of Silver Pheasants, so we stopped and were able to photograph these beautiful birds as they crossed the road. We also photographed Water Monitor lizards which were lurking beside the road. Further down, we found a lovely Crimson Sunbird, which woke me up as, by now it was 1630 and I was falling asleep. I added some more lifers to my list, including Red Junglefowl (wild relatives and ancestors of the domestic chicken), Green-eared Barbet, Crested Goshawk, Needletail Swift and the desired Indian Roller. Mammals included Sambhar deer. Unfortunately, although we searched for Asian Elephants, we didn't see so much as a flapping ear. The same went for the White-handed (Lar) Gibbons, not so much as a furry body to be seen swinging through the trees although we could hear them.

This was a brilliant day in a beautiful place and the birding was great. It was very expensive at 4000 Baht (around £80) but was worth every satang.

Silver Pheasant

The following day, 11th June 2009, I returned to Bangkok and a night back at the All Seasons Siam before flying back to the UK on the 12th. It was a good trip and a slightly more intense introduction to Asian birding than Singapore. If I could have done anything differently I would have flown into Bangkok and straight out to Chiang Mai (or another destination in Thailand), rather than staying in Bangkok. I would also have cut down my time in Australia, just concentrating on one area rather than two, and spent more time in Asia, purely because Australia hoovers up money like nothing else, having got very expensive in recent years. I would also do Thailand in the dry season (winter), rather than the wet season, although the wet season fitted my schedule; in the dry season, I would see far more birds, migrants from more northerly parts of Asia. Also, when in Australia, I would have allowed time to go on any rescheduled pelagic, rather than book myself on one a few days before I leave the country only for it to be affected by bad weather and me not being able to join the rescheduled one. I'd also have used fill-in flash on the sunbirds!
Bangkok seems to be an acquired taste, some people love it while others hate it. I loathed the place, finding it oppressive, and felt like getting on the next available flight to London during my first couple of days there - in fact one world birder has said that Bangkok is the one place that makes him want to hole up in a hotel and never come out until it was time to leave! I know how he feels! However, Bangkok and confusion of the Thai alphabet aside, I loved Thailand and I would love to return one day.

During the trip I passed 800 species seen in total since I have been birding. Not a massive total by anyone's means but I am not too far short of 1000. I totally fazed from birding when I got home from this trip, which was just short of 2 months long, and didn't do a thing between returning home in mid-June 2009 and September 2010. The 'faze' was a direct result of almost 2 months of thinking of almost nothing but birds, burn-out I guess you could call it. Thankfully I have recovered!

I will post a full bird list if and when I get round to typing it up in full.

Finally, thanks go to Marie and George in Chiang Mai for their hospitality and to Marie for the lift to and from Doi Inthanon and for the birding, for which I am very grateful indeed: คุณขอบคุณผมปลื้มใจมากจริงๆ! Honorable mentions go to Mr and Mrs Daeng, Somchat and Mr. Nine for the birding. Yes, they're running businesses but, without their expertise I wouldn't have seen much at all: ขอบคุณพวกที่ได้ดี!

Indian Roller