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Published: April 10th 2014
When leaving Malee's, rather than pay the 150 Baht for the songthaew to Chiang Dao town, Tjeerd and I just went out to the junction a few minutes from Malee's and after about ten minutes a passing monk-mobile gave us a lift. From Chiang Dao we caught a bus from the side of the road to Chiang Mai's Chang Puak bus station for 40 Baht and then walked the ten minutes or so to the North Gate where we found a couple of rooms at the V.R. Guesthouse for 200 Baht each.
Tjeerd's next destination was Khao Yai so he left the next night for Bangkok. I was staying on in town for three nights. First essential was a new pair of shoes. Again. I was now on my third pair in two weeks! The emergency Indian shoes were no good so I just had them for two days and gave them away as soon as I had bought the next pair in Bangkok. The Bangkok pair lasted well....for two days, and then the soles started coming off. While at Doi Inthanon I looped the laces around the bottom of the shoes before tying them to keep them in one piece. By Doi Chiang Dao I had a second pair of laces wrapped around each shoe simply to stop them falling apart all together. In Chiang Mai I found a pair which were exactly the right size and although cheap they seem to be holding up all right. They are the colour of a fennec fox, with bright purple laces. Fashionable.
I went to the Chiang Mai Zoo (first time since 2006) and also checked out some book-shops. Chiang Mai has some really good second-hand book shops. I was tempted by A Field Guide To The Mammals Of Central America And Southeast Mexico by Fiona Reid (600 Baht) and even more so by The Natural History Of Unicorns by Chris Lavers (300 Baht) but decided to leave them where they were. I already have about 5kg of books in my luggage as it is.
I was going to go next to the city of Nakhon Ratchasima (aka Korat) because I had heard that the zoo there had marbled cats, but unfortunately I found out that in fact the last one there had died some years ago. So instead I took an overnight bus back to Bangkok to continue my journey southwards.
I got back into Bangkok at 5.30am. The temperature was already something like 35 degrees. Everywhere was full. I was walking around for about an hour before finally finding somewhere with a single room which was cheap enough. It's a bit weird in Bangkok's backpacker district (i.e. the Khao San Road area) because there are so many
deadbeats here. It is like there's a new Woodstock Festival being held somewhere nearby but KoЯn and Rob Zombie are also playing at it, and all the mixed fans are spilling out into the alleyways. It is also surprising how many people here are walking around in bandages and plaster-casts. I had previously been puzzling over how so many backpackers were injuring themselves, until someone pointed out that they do it while they're drunk, falling down stairs or through windows or whatever. Early morning when I arrived there were quite a number of oxygen-wasters just passed out drunk in the gutters and on sidewalks.
My plan obviously did not involve getting drunk, but was instead to head to Kaeng Krachan National Park a few hours south of Bangkok. I had read that you can take a bus from Bangkok's southern bus terminal to the city of Petchaburi (about two hours), and then a songthaew from there to the village of Ban Kaeng Krachan (about 1.5 hours), and finally a motorbike for the last 4km to the park headquarters. However if you don't have your own transport, to then get any further into the park to the campsites you need to try to hitch a ride. Tjeerd had come to Doi Inthanon from Kaeng Krachan and he had said it was easy to hitch around there, which sealed the deal. What made things even simpler for me though, was that around midday I had just come back to the guesthouse after buying some water at the 7-11 and Chris from Khao Yai suddenly appeared beside me. Chris was the Arizonite (is that what you call someone from Arizona?) who had given me a few lifts around Khao Yai on his hired motorbike back in January. It turned out he was staying at the guesthouse directly across the street and had seen me walk by and thought “I recognise that pony-tail!”. He was about to go to Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi and I said I was going to Kaeng Krachan tomorrow, and he decided that not only did that sound better but he offered to give me a lift there in his hire car! Talk about your fortuitous luck!! One should never look a gift car in the mouth, so I happily agreed.
Kaeng Krachan is the largest National Park in Thailand at 2915 square kilometres, and as it borders extensive forests in Burma it is actually just part of a very much larger area. As such it is home to a huge range of mammals, including many larger species not easily seen elsewhere, as well as an even more huge range of birds. It is only a few hours south of Bangkok but I had never been there before because all I had ever heard was that it was extremely difficult to visit it as a car-less backpacker. In fact it turns out that it is no harder than Doi Inthanon or even Khao Yai. A car would be desirable if one only had a couple of days there (and it would certainly make finding birds and especially the larger mammals easier because more distance can be travelled faster) but if you have some time to spend then it is perfectly easy to just walk up and down the road from either campsite and hitch to any spots further away. I didn't find as many birds while there as some people do but I'm not sure if that's because I was walking, or if it was because it was fairly quiet bird-wise (I'm told it was by regulars I met there), or just because I wasn't putting enough effort into it!
Getting to Kaeng Krachan didn't quite go to plan and I ended up spending more getting to the park than I would have done otherwise but with no real greater convenience. Chris wanted to rent the car in Petchaburi rather than Bangkok which was fine, but he wanted to take a mini-van there from Khao San Road which was going to cost 500 Baht each (about NZ$18) . It was extremely expensive compared to the regular bus I would have taken but I figured I would be saving money in the long run so I went along with that. When we got to Petchaburi we ran into a small snag in his plan. He had got a girl at his guesthouse to write down in Thai that he wanted the mini-van driver to drop us at a car rental place, but a miscommunication in pronunciation meant she had heard “temple” rather than “rental” and we got left at some random temple outside town. We found a songthaew to take us into town (for 100 Baht each) and because Chris didn't know where any rental places were, we ended up taking the regular mini-van which runs hourly between Petchaburi and Ban Kaeng Krachan (the village 4km before the park's visitor centre) and likewise costs 100 Baht each. It should be noted that – as far as I could work out – the songthaews which used to run to Ban Kaeng Krachan from the Petchaburi clock tower no longer do so, having been replaced by the mini-vans which leave from some entirely different place in town.
The visitor centre where you pay your entrance fee is well outside the park itself. I couldn't quite work out where the kilometre markers start but the lower campsite (Ban Krang) is at km15 and the upper campsite (Panoen Tung) at km30. I think
it is about 15 kilometres from the visitor centre to the actual checkpoint gate, and then that is where the kilometre markers start. Just like at Doi Inthanon there is basically one road up the mountain, which is why hitching is so easy – everyone is going to the right place! It is really cheap staying here. The entrance fee is 200 Baht (about NZ$7), the camping fee is 30 Baht per night, the tent hire is 120 Baht per night (plus some small extras for sleeping mat and pillow), and food is around 40 to 100 Baht per meal. Unlike at Khao Yai the staff are all very friendly and helpful although little English is spoken, and there are working restaurants at both campsites. The one at the lower campsite was better – everything on the menu could actually be ordered, whereas at the top campsite most of the time the only thing available was fried rice (and the restaurant up there closed at 5pm every night!). I stayed at the lower campsite for the first night (because it was too late to get to the upper one due to the road being a one-way system), then the top one for the next three nights and then back at the bottom one for three more nights. Both camps were humming with Asian giant honey bees (Apis dorsata
), and the huge hanging clusters where they hived were commonplace under the tree branches in the forest canopy. There were a lot of bees at the lower campsite, but it was at the upper campsite where the numbers were almost overwhelming. At times I would be literally standing inside a swarm of bees – by my tent, in the toilets, in the restaurant: it didn't matter where you were, you were constantly surrounded by bees. They were completely docile but there was always the worry you would accidentally squish one and enrage the swarm!
The birding is mostly done just walking along the road. Chris was not happy with the lack of trails (he's a hiker not a birder). He only stayed at the upper camp for one night and when I came back down a couple of nights later he had already left. Birding was slow a lot of the time – it is one of those forests where you can go for ages seeing nothing – and most of what I did see were species I have already seen elsewhere in Thailand, Malaysia, etc on this trip (and even just this year alone). There were some gems in there though. Because I was on foot I didn't really see any big mammals. The presence of elephants on the road at night makes it too dangerous to go spotlighting on foot (I almost walked into one in the car-park of the lower campsite one morning before light!) whereas with a car you can stay out later or leave earlier. Strangely enough the elephants don't seem to come out during the day here, so birding on foot by day is safe enough, but at night you run the risk of being stomped on like that which happened to an unfortunate girl just a couple of months ago. There aren't any elephants at the top though, so walking around up there is pretty safe at night.
There was a fair bit of small wildlife in the restaurant of the lower campsite on the first night. The lights were attracting all sorts of insects in, amongst which were several owlflies which look like damselflies but are related to antlions and have butterfly-like clubbed antennae. A painted bullfrog passed through briefly. On the walls were the ever-present tokay geckoes. Chris was keen on catching one until I warned him about their bite and then he was a bit more circumspect. Earlier I had found a large and very aggressive longicorn beetle which, after photos had been taken, I had released in some plants off to the side. Some time later I heard a rustling in the plants growing up a tree stump and when I went round to the other side I was surprised to see the largest tokay off the wall, now sitting on top of the stump with that longicorn in its mouth! It posed quite happily for photos – although unfortunately sitting on plastic which ruins the photos! – until Chris said he was going to try and catch this one, whereupon it suddenly dropped the beetle and took a flying leap to the ground. Chris gave chase as it headed towards the wall but when he cornered it at the base it decided it wasn't going out like some chump and it abruptly turned the tables and went for him, puffing itself up, barking, and hopping on all four legs. I've never seen a grown man being chased off by a gecko before! One of the funniest things I have ever seen!
Out the back of the restaurants the left-over food gets dumped to attract porcupines and civets. No civets came by but there were up to four Malayan crested porcupines that night (the same species as seen at Khao Yai). Even better were the Asian brush-tailed porcupines which were a new species for me. They are much smaller than the crested porcupines, sort of like giant rats with a long tail tipped with a tuft of quills. None came by the restaurant but I found where they lived, under the lower toilet block. There's a big hole in the foundations and if you stick your head through and shine a torch into the darkness they are scuttling round under there. I saw at least five.
I didn't see any porcupines at the upper campsite's restaurant but on the first night up there I found two large Indian civets coming in for food. I had seen one at Khao Yai but only briefly. These two I saw much better. Although they didn't like the torch they sort of just strolled casually away rather than bolting. I had been given a tip-off that there were Polynesian rats living under the shelter at the upper campsite (inside which I had my tent) and sure enough some rice left out at night brought them out to feed. On the outside walls of one of the buildings there were quite a few flying geckoes (not sure which species yet). I had been hoping for slow loris (as always!) but the only thing seen when walking along the road that night was a brown wood owl. The next two nights it was pouring down so no chances to go out unfortunately.
The main reason I wanted to spend time up in the higher areas of the park was to look for Fea's muntjacs and banded leaf monkeys. The muntjac is regularly seen here I think, but not by me. Muntjacs are an animal which are easily seen if you're not
looking for them but are nowhere to be seen if you are. The banded leaf monkeys are of the subspecies robinsoni
which are as black as coal apart for the white areas around the mouth and eyes. Dusky langurs were common, I saw them all over the place, but I couldn't find any banded leaf monkeys which was frustrating because they were supposed to be common. On my very last morning at the upper campsite I was sitting at a table outside the restaurant having breakfast – without my good camera naturally! – and a troop of about twenty banded leaf monkeys passed by about fifty metres away, crossing the road through the canopy. I got some really poor “record” shots with my little camera which are no better than Loch Ness Monster photos. I was still very happy to have seen them of course. Right after the banded leaf monkeys had passed by, a smaller troop of duskies crossed through the canopy at the same point, followed by a female white-handed gibon with a little baby on her belly, then a male gibbon, then a juvenile male gibbon (last year's young one), and then surprisingly a few minutes later another adult male gibbon! Gibbons of course form pair-bonds and maintain territories against other gibbons (that is why they sing) so I can only assume that the second adult male gibbon was the couple's offspring from two years before, still accompanying the family.
Right by the shelter where my tent was there is a grove of fig trees which was attracting a lot of birds throughout the day (as well as grey-bellied squirrels, Himalayan striped squirrels, and once a gibbon swung through). Yellow-vented and thick-billed green pigeons were common in the trees, along with regular white-crested laughing thrushes, fairy bluebirds, various leafbirds, barbets and bulbuls, and once a black-throated laughing thrush. One particularly special bird found up here is the ratchet-tailed tree-pie. It has a wider distribution in Indochina but in Thailand it is found solely in Kaeng Krachan. It sort of looks like a wholly-black magpie but the tail has spiked feathers coming out all along its length. This is reminiscent of a fish skeleton so I took to calling the bird a fish-pie for short. Apparently they can be tricky to find, but I did so easily (even if by random chance!) when on the Orchid Nature Trail hoping to see an Asiatic black bear which Tjeerd had seen there a few weeks before. The fish-pies were in a mixed flock of drongos, cuckoo-shrikes and warblers. I managed to get some photos which showed the tail but that was about it.
The main birdy spot in the upper part of the road is around the general km27-28ish mark. I saw my first black-throated laughing thrush here along with my first white-hooded babblers and first Radde's warblers (not looking a lot like their picture in the field guide!), all in the same mixed feeding flock. While looking at these I could hear something making a loud cracking noise over the top of the bank. I was thinking it must be a pretty big bird to be making that much noise but while scanning the area I realised it was a squirrel. I could only see the body and although it was about the size of a Callosciurus
the colour pattern didn't match any of the species. I couldn't think what it could possibly be, but then it moved forwards so the head was in view and I saw it was actually a red-cheeked ground squirrel, another lifer for me. The cracking noise was being made by the squirrel ripping open the thick stems of the giant bamboo with its teeth.
Right now was a good time to be at Kaeng Krachan because a lot of the birds are breeding, which makes them easier to locate. Broadbills are a group of dumpy little birds with big beaks, usually a bit tricky to find but much easier when breeding because they become really active, rushing about collecting nest material or food for the chicks. The nests can be quite obvious too, being large hanging bundles of woven palm fronds and dried leaves suspended in mid-air underneath branches. I saw several pairs of long-tailed broadbills, a pair of black and red broadbills, a pair of banded broadbills (that one was a lifer) and lots
of silver-breasted broadbills. I didn't see the black and yellow broadbill or the dusky broadbill but I've seen them elsewhere so that was fine. There were woodpecker nests everywhere in tree-holes as well (although I didn't see the great slaty woodpeckers), bulbul nests, drongo nests, pigeon nests, red-bearded bee-eater nests, hornbill nests: you name it and it was probably nesting somewhere within sight of the road. You can usually tell where there's a nest because there will be a pack of photographers with giant lenses clustered along the roadside, cameras all aimed at the same spot, waiting for the bird to arrive or leave and hopefully perch somewhere in view. In fact I didn't see a lot of proper birders at Kaeng Krachan and the ones that were there were heavily outnumbered by photographers. They weren't interested in the birds themselves, only in getting photos. There was a fish-pie nest at one point and a group of photographers were getting frustrated by the birds not showing well, so I mentioned that I had seen some on the Orchid Nature Trail but they were just completely uninterested because those ones weren't at a reliable spot to be photographed. It was at that fish-pie nest that I had a run-in with some of the worst kind of bird photographers. On one of the days I was walking up the road, came round the corner where the nest was, and saw two Thai men there, one with camera aimed up at the nest area, and the other one shaking the hell out of the tree below trying to make the bird desert the nest so they could get a photo of it flying out. I went up to them and asked the tree-shaker “do you speak English?”, he said “no”, I asked the other one the same question and he said “yes”, so I asked innocently “is there a nest up in there?””yes” “is it a ratchet-tailed tree-pie?” “yes” – and then I ripped into them and gave them an absolute blasting over their behaviour. It didn't do any good of course, apart for making the one who didn't speak English (but who obviously did speak a little) start jumping about in my face going “you want Thai boxing, you want Thai boxing?!” trying to intimidate me in exactly the pathetic way that little kids do, so I told him to shut up and not to be so stupid. I wrote down their licence plate number and they left pretty quickly after that. If there had been any rangers who spoke English at the upper campsite I would have reported them, not that I think anything would have been done about it if I had. Really ruined my day meeting that sort of scum up there, to be honest.
Another eventful nest-site was that of the Tickell's brown hornbills, after I had moved down to the lower campsite. Heading up the road from the camp there are three streams which need to be crossed, called with great originality “stream one”, “stream two” and “stream three”. There were a few different bird nests located along this stretch and the hornbills were the ones I wanted to see. I arrived at the site just as the hornbills had departed. I was told they only come to the nest-tree every hour or two to feed the chicks inside so I had a while to wait. The tree was on the other side of the stream and the viewing point was well-trodden by countless photographers. It was also apparently a favourite spot for the bees. Soon I had probably fifty-odd bees crawling over my arms and neck, licking up the sweat. There were at least three different species of stripy stingy bees, one or two species of stingless sweat bees, and one other individual bee which had a fuzzy white head and bright neon-green stripes, as well as a few random flies, butterflies and other insects which joined the party. I didn't mind the bees crawling over me and buzzing around me, but what I didn't like were the ones which found their way up my trouser legs! I ended up with at least half a dozen inside my trousers and I had to stand perfectly still for fear they might get caught in the material and sting in defence. And the flipping hornbills didn't return for almost three hours! Standing stock-still for three hours with bee underpants isn't much fun!! It was totally worth it when the hornbills eventually did turn up though. They were much nicer than expected, with big blue cartoon “eyes” (the bare skin around the eyes). There were three of them, I think the male and two juveniles from the last clutch, all feeding the female inside the nest hole. As soon as the hornbills had gone again, the trousers came straight down and all the bees shooed out!!
When I had come down to the lower campsite Chris had disappeared but I unexpectedly ran into a chap called Brian who I had met up at Doi Inthanon. He only lived about two hours from Kaeng Krachan so he comes here a lot with his wife and daughter. This was a Saturday. I had been warned that weekends get mental at Kaeng Krachan but it didn't seem bad to me. Every morning at the upper campsite I had seen a string of trucks arriving at about 7am to see the view from the summit – usually about seven to ten trucks every morning, like a convoy – but on the Saturday morning there were only three! The lower campsite filled up over the next two days but it never got as busy as I had been led to believe. Maybe it was a quiet weekend, or maybe I had just had worse expectations. The road seemed just the same, car-wise, as during the week. I got a couple of lifts with Brian, including one early morning up to km27 in which I hoped we might see something interesting (i.e. mammalian) on the road but didn't. On one of the days I went inside the forest at a so-called “Nature Trail” just by stream one, and just sat down on a vine for a few hours to see if any pittas might fortuitously hop past. None did, but just as good was a chestnut-winged cuckoo, like some weird cross between a malkoha, a roadrunner and a pheasant. A really outstanding bird. Even better was when I spotted a movement up the hill and it turned out to be a pair of yellow tortoises (Indotestudo elongata
), the male intent on mating but the female not so keen, so he was just trailing along behind her butting the back of her shell in the hope she would stop.
When I finally left Kaeng Krachan (after seven nights) I got a lift out to the main highway with Brian from where I got a passing mini-van to Petchaburi and then an overnight bus to Krabi in the south of Thailand, which is where I am now.
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