Thailand Trip Report - Part 1

Subject: Thailand Trip Report - Part 1
Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2000 08:44:35 +1000

                                 THAILAND TRIP

                                  JANUARY 2000


Last  January,  six  intrepid  birders  (John  Barkla,  Diana  Bryant, Gabrielle
Harrison, Ross Mulholland, Richard Nowotny and I) and one wife (Rosemary Lester)
travelled  around  non-peninsular Thailand visiting various birding hotspots and
experiencing  some  of the Thai culture.  For some of us, it was a first serious
foray  into  overseas  birding  and  the  selection  of Thailand promised a most
interesting start, both in terms of the potential for exotic birds and the Asian
experience of a foreign culture and language.

Why  did  we  pick  Thailand?  Some of the birds in the Birds of Thailand looked
terrific.   We  knew  several  people  who had been there and they (particularly
Susan  Myers  -  thanks  a  lot)  helped  plan  an exciting itinerary.  To them,
Thailand   had  proved  to  be  a  tourist-friendly  country,  with  good  basic
infrastructure  in  the  form  of accommodation, roads and food places.  We were
told  that  the people were friendly and many of them spoke English.  The former
trouble  spots in the country (recent events notwithstanding) were now very safe
and accessible.

We  decided  to concentrate in Northern Thailand and around Bangkok, with longer
stays  in a few locations rather than attempting to cover the whole country in a
more cursory manner.  We have left peninsular Thailand for another visit.

Sites, Species and Experiences

Around Chiang Mai

Four  of  us (John, Gabrielle, Ross and I) flew to Chiang Mai (via Bangkok) on 2
January arriving at 9.25 am after nearly 11 hours in the air and a short stop in
Bangkok.  It was easy to pick up our hire car, follow the map to our hotel, book
in and tidy up and get out north of Chiang Mai to start birding.  Just after 11,
we  had  started  our  list  on  the Chiang Mai plains.  Some of the first day
highlights  were  Little  Grebe,  Pin-tailed  and Common Snipe, Green Bee-eater,
Indian  Roller,  Citrine and White Wagtail, Purple Sunbird, Wire-tailed Swallow,
Yellow-eyed Babbler and Siberian Rubythroat.

While  we  were  pleasantly  surprised about the road conditions and the ease of
getting  around  by  hire  car, we were not prepared for the suicidal tactics of
some  Thai drivers.  On the highways, traffic mostly travelled relatively slowly
at  60-80  km/hr.  The two-lane roads generally have four lanes of traffic, with
one  lane  of  cars  each way and a lane of motor bikes on each verge.  However,
very  regularly, vehicles would just pull out and pass even if there was traffic
coming the other way, creating a fifth lane.  The Thais seemed used to it as the
cars all moved to the left to accommodate the extra vehicle and the bikes slowed
dramatically  and  got  out  of  the  way.   We decided to use extra discretion,
particularly  as  the  Thai road toll is already very high and increasing and we
didn?t want to join it.

Day  two  was  spent  at  Doi  Suthep,  a mountain just west of Chiang Mai.  The
birding  was much slower, but included Great Barbet, Eurasian Jay, Grey Treepie,
Black-throated  Sunbird, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Long-tailed Sibia and Grey
Bushchat.   It  was  terrific  looking at these birds with exotic names and from
families new to us.  And this day, we were doing it in the vicinity of the ruins
of a Thai wat (temple) that dated from the 13th Century.

Doi Inthanon

"Doi"  means  mountain and, at 2590 metres, Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain
in Thailand.  We spent four days birding the different habitats at the different
elevations.   At the time, this leg of the trip seemed to go pretty well and, in
retrospect,  it  was  the birding highlight.  We spent time at the summit at the
famous   bog   (Eurasian   Woodcock,   Slaty-bellied   Tesia,   Chestnut-crowned
Laughingthrush,  Chestnut  and Dark-throated Thrushes, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin
and  Chestnut-rumped  Minla),  along  several  tracks  at  the higher elevations
(Speckled   Pigeon,   Stripe-breasted   and   Bay  Woodpeckers,  Maroon  Oriole,
Brown-throated   Tree-Creeper   and   Eye-browed  Wren-Babbler),  at  the  lower
elevations  (Green-billed Malkoha, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Blue Magpie)
and along the streams that flow down the mountain (Black-tailed Crake, Plumbeous
Redstart  and Black-backed and Slaty-backed Forktails).  It took us some time to
get  to  grips with the new families and species, but we gradually accumulated a
terrific  list  of  species.  Other observations included Rufous-winged Buzzard,
Golden-throated  Barbet,  Speckled  Piculet  Lesser  Racket-tailed Drongo, Green
Magpie,  Racket-tailed  Treepie,  Blue-winged, Golden-fronted and Orange-bellied
Leafbirds,  Goulds  and  Green-tailed  Sunbirds, Black and White-headed Bulbuls,
Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, Silver-eared Mesia and Spectacled Barwing.

Birding  in  the  Thai forests was quite slow at times.  We only encountered the
occasional  bird-waves and, initially, we were not skilled enough to observe and
identify  all  the  birds in the flocks.  As our identification skills improved,
this  became  less  of a problem with the bird waves providing feverish activity
for  half  an  hour or so.  In Thailand, the afternoon birding was reputed to be
slow  while  the  birds  were resting.  However, we found that birding the roads
from   a  slow-moving  vehicle  was  very  rewarding  as  we  kept  encountering
mini-bird-waves.   We  would  jump  out  of  the  car  and spend the next thirty
minutes, or even an hour, watching the passing parade.

Doi  Inthanon  was the only place we were not able to organise our accommodation
from  Australia.   We  were unsuccessful in getting into the Park cabins as they
were  being renovated.  Eventually, we were offered lodgings in the house of the
local  Christian  minister in the predominantly Buddhist hill-tribe village near
Park  headquarters.   The  house  was being completed and we had to sleep on the
floor,  but  it  provided the ideal base well up the mountain.  We provided some
entertainment  for  the  locals,  who found the four westerners among them a bit

Thai  food  is  fantastic.   And, eating out in Mr Daeng?s (apparently, he is an
institution)  open-air  restaurant  in  the cool of the evening was special.  We
were a bit concerned at the price though, as a large meal for the four of us was
costing about 400 Baht - about $4 each, including beer and soft-drink.

Much  too  quickly, the first leg of our trip was over and we returned to Chiang
Mai  to  pick  up the other three in our party, who were flying in on the 8th to
join  us.   We  had  a  spare  afternoon  to  bird  around Chiang Mai to let the
newcomers  acclimatise.   We  tried  to  visit  Doi Chiang Dao to the north, but
couldn?t  find  the  way in.  We contented ourselves with birding in the general
area of Chiang Dao caves.

Doi Ang Khang

Doi  Ang  Khang  was  supposed  to be special with higher elevation species that
occurred nowhere else in Thailand.  It used to be difficult to get there, with a
25  km  jeep  track  climbing up the steep mountain.  No longer.  There is a two
lane  bitumen  road  right  to the top with an international hotel at the top to
stay in.  Quite a contrast with Doi Inthanon.

The  habitat  was  a  contrast  as  well.   There  is hardly any left.  The Thai
Government  has been encouraging the local hill-tribes to plant commercial fruit
crops  instead  of the more traditional opium poppies - this area was one of the
strongholds  for  the  opium  trade - with the result that large tracts of quite
steep  mountain top are nearly completely cleared.  The environmental effect has
been devastating.

Many  of the specialties are now extremely difficult to find or have disappeared
completely.   We  saw  some nice birds, but the birding was always slow with the
daily  totals  only about 40 species (compared with 50-60 at Doi Inthanon).  The
better  sightings  were Crested Serpent-Eagle, Grey-faced Buzzard, Asian Emerald
Cuckoo,  Collared  Scops-Owl,  Blue-throated  Barbet,  Common Rosefinch, Crested
Bunting,    Fire-breasted    Flowerpecker,   Crested   Finchbill,   White-browed
Laughingthrush,  Large and Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler
and Spot-breasted Parrotbill.

Many  people  go  to Doi Ang Khang to see Giant Nuthatch.  We visited one of the
traditional  spots, climbing a steep hill to search in the isolated pines at the
top that they were reputed to like.  We couldn?t find much up there and returned
a  little  disheartened.   However,  soon after, we were fortunate to see a pair
along  the  road  quite  near  our parked cars.  Nearby, one of us, Diana, saw a
Red-faced  Liocichla.   Despite  much  searching over several days, we could not
locate this bird, much to our disappointment.

Richard befriended some of the local dogs, particularly a mongrel we called Rex.
One  night,  there  was  tremendous,  high  volume barking at 2 am from near our
units.   Thinking  Richards?  dog  pack  had  treed  an  unlucky  cat or similar
creature, I ventured out to see all the local males "serenading" a bitch in heat
right next to John and Gabrielle?s unit.  To his credit, Richard chased his dogs
away from our units and we eventually got back to sleep.

One of the highlights was seeing the Burmese border.  The border crossing at Nor
Lae  village  is  closed - the Thai and Burmese Governments are in dispute about
border  control  in  this  area.  But the border guards are quite relaxed and we
were  able  to walk along the border "fence" - a row of sticks - and look across
to  the  Burmese  guards  casually  resting,  I mean, guarding their side of the

Doi  Ang Khang was where the young Australian birdwatcher was killed in February
soon after we returned to Australia.  He must have been extremely unfortunate as
we saw little sign of potential trouble.  That is not to say it isn?t there.  It
is  quite likely that drug-running is commonplace as the border is actually wide
open away from the border crossing.

Around Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

Leaving  Doi  Ang  Khang  after three nights, we travelled to Chiang Rai via Tha
Ton.   Until  recently,  this road did not exist and you had to return to Chiang
Mai.   The  pace  of  development in the north appears to have been considerable
over  the  last 5-10 years as the infrastructure is very good.  Chiang Rai seems
to  be  booming  with many new resorts, no doubt helped by its reputation as the
biggest  drug funnel from the Golden Triangle to the West.  However, again, none
of this was visible.

We  birded  at  one  of the few wetlands we could find in the north, a lake near
Chiang  Saen.  We saw some good birds here, including Gadwall, Eurasian Widgeon,
Garganey, Green Sandpiper, Temminck?s Stint and Pheasant-tailed Jacana.  Between
Chiang  Rai  and  Mae  Sai,  we  saw Pied and Eastern Marsh Harrier, Jack Snipe,
Eurasian  Wryneck,  White-browed Piculet, Little Bunting and White-rumped Sharma
in  a  variety  of  habitats.  However, again, the habitats were poor and mostly
cleared.   We could not find the supposed "remnant lowland forest patches" along
this border area.

Chiang  Saen is on the Mekong River, which forms the border between Thailand and
Laos.   At  a  place called Golden Triangle, we took a boat trip upstream on the
Mekong,  which was another major highlight of our trip.  We saw some great birds
such as River Lapwing, Small Pratincole, Asian Barred Owlet and Pied Kingfisher.
As  we were boating between Burma and Laos (with Thailand well downstream), this
gave  me  an opportunity to add to my Burma list and start one for Laos.  It was
fantastic  to  be  birding  on  an island in the middle of the Mekong looking at
waders  with  Burma  to  the west, Laos to the east, China only a few kilometres
upstream and Thailand downstream.

With  regard  to accommodation, the Dusit Island Resort in Chiang Rai provided a
great  contrast  with  our minister?s house at Doi Inthanon.  A five star resort
did  not appeal as a better alternative even though the comfort levels were much

Part 2 to follow

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