Highest point in Thailand!


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October 9th 2006
Published: October 9th 2006
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With Doi Chiang Dao done, I had to head off to Doi Inthanon, the other indispensible stop for any birder in northern Thailand. How to get there by public transport was the problem. That is to say, getting there wouldn't be a problem, getting around to the right spots on the mountain would be. There's a fair bit of traffic so your average tourist could do it, but for a birder the only hitching option would really be with another birder. So I rented a jeep. "What? He rented a jeep?" I hear the people back home cry. "What's he gonna do, push it up the mountain?" No, I had a driver too. When I was heading up north originally I knew that Doi Inthanon was going to be a problem for me, so when I came into Chiang Mai I asked at a tourist place about bird tours of the mountain. A one day tour cost 4600 Baht, two days 6400 and three days 11,000. That was a lot of money, but I figured 4600 Baht is about NZ$200 and I should see heaps of birds because the tours are taken by a local knowledgeable birder. So I decided that when I got back from Doi Chiang Dao that's what I would do. But at Doi Chiang Dao I met a Belgian birder called Gilbert (with a soft g, in the French fashion). Gilbert had been living in Thailand for four years and considered himself an expert on all things Asian. His casual occupation was to take groups of French tourists around southeast Asia. There were many tour guides for English speakers, he said, but none for French ones (but, frankly, who would want to spend more than twenty minutes with a bunch of Frenchmen anyway?). So I'm saying to Gilbert about what I'm going to have to do to get to Doi Inthanon, and its 4600 Baht for one day, and he says "They want HOW much?!!". He then proposes that he will take me if I pay for the car and petrol, his accommodation and the entry fee. It works out at about 3000 Baht for two days. Sounds like a better plan to me, so it was set. In the event he paid for his own room, so I just had the car (1400 Baht for two days), petrol (900 Baht), and my own food and room. When we got to the entrance of the park we discovered the entry price had doubled to 400 Baht per person. We were suitably outraged, Gilbert more so than me, and he paid half of his, so I paid 630 (the car cost an extra 30 Baht). We stayed at a place called Ban Maae Klang Loung (or the Karen Eco-Lodge) at km26. When you first pull in it looks a bit, um, 'rustic', but its actually a very nice place to stay. There are huge swarms of big golden dragonflies billowing through the air all round the place. The bungalows were 500 but we beat them down to 250 (they weren't worth 500). The hill tribes of northern Thailand are collectively called the Karen people (as I understand it) but the different tribes have individual names; the ones at Doi Inthanon are called Hmong.

First stop on the mountain was the Wachirathan waterfall for redstarts. No redstarts but the waterfall was awesome, best I've seen here yet. Next stop was a trail called the Jeep trail (the lower one of the two trails with the same name). We walked its length. Not a sausage! Well, two leeches which are like very very tiny sausages, but no birds. I could just see myself writing that I'd gone to Doi Inthanon and seen no birds at all. Then we went right up to the summit, the highest point in Thailand at 2565 metres. It was nice and cool. At the summit is a boardwalk called the Ang-Ka Trail. It wends its way through dripping cloud forest with carpets of ferns covering the ground and gnarled and twisted trees festooned with great tendrilled curtains of moss. It was fantastic. It was exactly the sort of forest where you wouldn't be surprised to find an inbred tribe of dwarfened Japanese soldiers still holding out after WWII. The first bird I saw was a new one, the ashy-throated warbler, a lovely little bird, so much nicer in person than its picture in the bird guide. It also quite special because in Thailand it is found only here on Doi Inthanon. Its always an excellent start when the first bird you see somewhere is a lifer. Second bird we saw was also new, a snowy-browed flycatcher. Third bird was new too, the chestnut-tailed minla, which was really gorgeous and the flock was so close that I couldn't even focus my binoculars on them (but, of course, my camera was in my bag not round my neck!). The fourth bird was new (dark-backed sibia), fifth bird was new (chestnut-crowned laughing thrush). This place was brilliant! Even without any birds though, the summit forest at Doi Inthanon would still be my favourite place in all of Thailand. It was that nice a place. After we ran out of birds at the top we headed downwards in search of the black-tailed crake. This bird is REALLY rare in Thailand, found only in two places: Doi Chiang Dao, where there is a pair (but well nigh impossible for the casual visitor to see), and Doi Inthanon where there are six individuals. At least there used to be six. A couple of years ago a local Hmong boy practised with his slingshot upon them and killed one, so now there are five. Before that they were very reliable for birders, always coming out of the reed-beds at 5.45 each evening and crossing a grassy path to another reed-bed. Not now apparently. We sat in the car watching the place; nothing came out.

Next day was an early start (for Gilbert; a pretty average time for me). We left at 6am for the checkpoint where lots of birds gather after dawn. It was quite brisk. I'd been carrying a sweatshirt around with me for two months just for this one place. The checkpoint was absolutely humming with birds: large niltava, long-tailed minivet, rufous-backed sibia acting like a treecreeper, and lots of others I'd already got elsewhere. Then it was on up to the summit again. The forest up there really reminded me of New Zealand forest, but with fewer stoats. We didn't actually get anything else new up there. The green-tailed sunbird was a no-show (the local subspecies is found only on Doi Inthanon, so it would have been nice to see). I managed to get some rather poor photos of some of the birds -- of course the minlas declined to approach as closely as the day before -- and also some rather poor photos of the forest itself (the lens I had on the camera was for the birds not landscapes, so not much good). The second Jeep Trail was much better. Lots of birds, LOTS of leeches, and a monstrous beetle larvae! The Jeep Trail is the place where birders go for two other special birds, the green cochoa and the purple cochoa. We couldn't find either but we did get the grey-bellied tesia, another much sought-after bird. Its so teeny its like a mouse with feathers. Other nice new birds were the white-gorgeted flycatcher, rufous-winged fulvetta and yellow-cheeked tit. Then it was back to the crake site. Waiting, waiting. A grey bush-chat came along, which was good. Then a crake popped out of the reeds ... and popped back in again. It was out and back in before binoculars could even be lifted. We waited, bins to eyes, and a minute later its head appeared, then it stepped out onto the grass. It stood there bobbing its head for what was probably only about ten seconds then it high-tailed it back the way it had come. It was VERY flighty! We waited for a while longer. An Asian barred owlet flew past but the crake had done its thing. No more crake tonight.

We had the next morning to try the checkpoint again and the Jeep Trail for the cochoas then it was back to Chiang Mai. Nothing much came by the checkpoint, and the trail was also fairly quiet. For the short time spent at Doi Inthanon I managed to get 20 new bird species. I was pretty happy. Two things I didn't see there but wanted too were Phayre's leaf monkeys and Assamese macaques. In fact, the only mammals I saw were a squirrel and two tree-shrews. Never mind, there's always next time.

Something I discovered: you can always tell if there's a birder driving a car because it weaves erratically over the road at very low speeds while the driver leans out his window checking the roadside trees for birds. Every so often the car will screech to a halt irrespective of other traffic, blind corners, etc, and the driver will leap out and rush to the bushes waving binoculars. Never travel too closely behind a birder!

Item of curiosity: on the way to Doi Inthanon we passed a sign that said "Elephant Park and Rate Mounting". Rate Mounting? No idea.

Back in Chiang Mai I was going to go in search of fruit bats. Before going to Doi Inthanon some guy in the street had told me there was a bat colony in the trees above the night market. I had gone over there, found where the night market would be if had been night-time, but not a sign of any bats, not even any trees that looked suitable for a roost-site. I was going to give it another shot but the owner of the guesthouse I was at said there were no bats there. He gave me the useful information that bats don't like being in trees out in the open: they live in caves. Good to know. Anyway, I couldn't really be bothered because it was too hot, so the bats went undiscovered.

Then it was off to Bangkok. I had decided to take the bus back instead of the train. I wasn't really looking forward to a ten hour bus trip but it was probably the right decision because it had been raining so much the train tracks were probably flooded out again. I had bought the ticket a few days earlier before the Doi Inthanon trip. The bus left at 9pm. At 8.30 I was at the station, at the platform my bus was supposed to leave from. A lady comes up to me, takes my ticket, then tells me to follow her. We go along to a different platform and she says "You catch this bus". "But the ticket said the other bus," I say. "Yes, but you change to this bus. Now this bus," she says. I look at the ticket she's got in her hand. Its not the ticket I had given her thirty seconds before. I said as much. "Yes, bus changed. You take this bus now," she says. "But where's the ticket I gave you? This isn't the ticket I gave you." I'm very confused. "Now you take this bus!" This exchange continues for a couple more times, then she figured out she was dealing with a particularly slow example of farang-kind and told me to follow her again, and leads me to the counter where I'd originally bought the ticket. The lady there told me that her bus had had an accident (always something you want to hear when about to embark on a bus trip) and that I'd been changed over to a different bus company. Would have been simpler if that had just been explained to me earlier, but never mind: I was more intrigued by my disappearing ticket. Somehow it had magically ended up in the cabinets behind the counter. "See? Same seat number, same time," she's saying. "What's this number here?" I ask, knowing full well its the price. "That's the price." "I see. Well, this one says 518," I say, "and my original one says 558" "Look, I give you the forty Baht," she says, desperate to get rid of me. The moral of the story: if you're changed over to a different company, check the ticket prices!

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