It had been 5 years since we had last covered a South-east Asian birding destination (Peninsula Malaysia), and so felt the time was ripe for a return visit. Thailand looked good, and I had been interested in some of the tours offered by the Birdingpal Tours web site ( www.birdingpaltours.com ), and in particular the Wild Bird Eco group ( www.wildbirdeco.net ) which had some juicy itineraries on offer. First and foremost, they worked on an individual, tailor made basis, which meant none of the dreaded group tours, with mixed bags of birders you hadn't met before, and at a more than acceptable price. Second, one tour held our attention more than others, being only a week in duration, and having minimal travel. This had the enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper at its heart, and was centred in the small Central Thailand area which encompassed Bangkok. This would also result in minimal airfare costs to the capital, and minimal travel from the airport to the locations.
Thus it was that we booked Qatar Airways flights from Manchester to Bangkok, via Doha, the flight times of each whole journey being 12-14 hours depending on the direction of travel. I have to big it up for the airline, which had an excellent service overall, and the additional niceties of decent food and a vast AV entertainment system on offer. Our flights were also very birding friendly since we landed at 7am on the first morning, and left at 8.30pm on the last day, which squeezed in an extra 2 half day birding sessions. We were met at the airport by our guide, Pank, with driver, in a mini van with more than enough space for the three of us, luggage, and extra luxury items such as water in huge ice boxes. We were joined on the third day by a second guide, Tui, both of whom stayed with us for the rest of the trip. The price of the package (40000 Baht total for three) included all meals and accommodation (all we needed to pay for as extras was the cost of the photography hides at Kaeng Krachan which we asked for as extras, and which are payable to the private owners of the land).
For the main breeding season, and therefore best chance of locating many of the species, April to early June are supposed to be the best months. We chose February to heighten the chances of catching up with Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank, both of which start to leave during March. The monsoon season is reported to be from July until October. We had almost continuous dry weather, broken only by an hour or so of rain one afternoon. Despite still being in the Winter, even night time temperatures were still at least mild, and hot during the day (thermometer read 28oC during the day at Khao Yai). The main threat from insects was of leeches and ticks at Khao Yai, meaning leech socks were recommended. Occasional mosquitoes were seen and heard, but small biting insects were worth diverting with bug spray around Kaeng Krachan.
Laem Pak Bia ( www.thaibirding.com/locations/central/lpb.htm )
This large area lies to the South-west of Bangkok (about 2 hours drive) and nestles against the shores of the Gulf of Thailand. It consists of a mix of salt pans, mudflats, mangroves, and beach with sand spit. We visited various different types of habitat while there, including the salt pans, mangroves, lagoons, and an area of scrub near to Petchaburi. Prime visiting location is Pakthale, which is a well signed collection of salt farms, which were actively worked during our visit, and is the best know spot for Spoon-billed Sandpiper, as well as various other species of wader. Access is thanks to the permission of the private owners, and they will allow driving and walking on the dirt tracks separating the pools. This location apparently does not charge for visiting. It is also worth visiting some of the lagoons 10 minutes or so to the South, where we picked up Nordmann’s Greenshank.
The Environmental Research and Development Project (titled Laem Pak Bia in the following text and list) is an area of remnant mangroves and settling pools. The latter allow a car to be driven alongside the pools, and so can elicit good views of the birds present. It is worth being here at dusk to watch the Flying-foxes flying overhead for their nightly feast. The mangroves do not cover a huge area, but can give good views of the exposed mud at low tide if the boardwalks are followed.
Our accommodation was at the Royal Diamond Hotel in Petchaburi ( www.royaldiamondhotel.com ). We only stayed here for one night, and the hotel was more than reasonably clean and comfortable. It was in the town centre, which wasn't in the least bit noisy at our location. As with all three of our stops, wifi didn't seem to be readily available, but there was a mobile phone signal and electricity plugs in the room (taking both European and US style adapters). Also as with the others, there was hot water in the shower, despite being informed that one of the stops would only have cold!
Kaeng Krachan National Park (www.thaibirding.com/locations/west/kk.htm)
This location, as with Laem Pak Bia, is also in Petchaburi province, situated directly to the West. It is one of the largest remaining stretches of forest in Southeast Asia, and joins on to a further tract in adjoining Myanmar. It consists mainly of evergreen species, but with some deciduous mixed in. It is reputed to be best away from the bustle of the weekend, although we didn’t have too much of a problem with humanity during our weekend visit. The park serves as a confluence of the edges of ranges of many species. There is an opening and closing time for the park – 5.30am to 7.00pm, and it is worth noting that elephants can be a road hazard at the latter part of the day! The tracks within the park can be dusty, bumpy, and narrow, so a 4 wheel drive may be a better option than town car. While we were at the park, we hired some photographic hides, which are outside of the park and owned privately (200 Bahts per person per visit). These are mesh camouflaged blinds centred around a clearing in the forest, with bathing pools provided for the birds, and are a must for close encounters, with some species only being seen here.
We stayed for three nights at Samarn Bird Camp (www.samarnbirdcamp.com). This is an excellent location to stay, being only a few hundred metres from the entrance gate to the national park. Mr Samarn, the owner, acts as the driver and bird locator for the park, and has even provided his own hide with small pool at the back of the property – definitely worth a visit either early morning or late afternoon. Mr Samarn also takes over the driving in his open back truck for visits to the park, where the van would find some of the rough tracks a little hard going. He seems to have a good grasp of where the key birds are located in the area, although the two guides also accompanied us each time. The rooms again are fairly basic, but more than adequate, with an open shower room/toilet. We had what appeared to be the cheapest rooms, the Garden View rooms, and they were very acceptable. The lodge is placed next to a tract of forest, with well kept and inviting gardens, and some interesting habitat with pools and scrub showing good potential on the doorstep. Meals are home cooked and delicious (as was all the Thai food throughout) and taken on the open air meal area which doubled as the reception – ask for the curry for breakfast rather than the eggs and sausage usually provided to Western guests!
Khao Yai National Park (www.thaibirding.com/locations/north_east/ky.htm)
This is a little trek from the other two locations, situated to the North-east of Bangkok, which meant about 6 hours drive from Kaeng Krachan. However, this also puts it on the correct side of the capital city for the airport! It was the first, and is still one of the largest, national parks in the country. It is dominated by evergreen forest at various altitudes, and has an extensive trail system, as well as tarmac roads, in many parts. In between the forest tracts are open areas of grassland, which present a different variety of birds, and the air force checkpoint, which is at a higher altitude than the rest of the park, and worth a visit early morning. The down side of such a place is that weekends are apparently even busier than at Kaeng Krachan, and we were also warned of the preponderance of leeches and ticks.
The main reception for the park is 31km from the entrance barrier, and this area also seems to the focal point for the accommodation. Small collections of various types are dotted around here, from campgrounds to blocks to individual buildings. We again had a basic pair of rooms on one of the blocks, a few of which were set around some well kept lawns, surrounded by the forest. The inside of ours consisted of a large reception type of room with chairs, TV and fridge, and 5 stairs leading to two double rooms, both with their own shower and toilet. I believe that exiting from this accommodation area is only allowed between certain day time hours. We used a nearby restaurant for our evening meal, which was close by and more of a shack than full eatery. Breakfast was in our own reception room, and came from a loaf of bread brought in by the guides, with a stop for lunch at one of the four buffet kiosks at the main reception.