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Published: February 19th 2017
(This turned into a much longer post than intended, so make sure your chair is comfy and your coffee pot full).
I landed in Bangkok at 4am in the morning. There was some mild consternation as I came up to immigration and saw the visa-on-arrival scrum. New Zealanders (and the citizens of most other civilised nations) have always got an automatic free 30-day visa stamp when they arrive in Thailand by air. You don't need anything, you just walk up to the immigration desk, they stamp your passport, and you're away. This time I saw a big sign by the visa-on-arrival area stating the need for onward tickets, proof of funds, proof of hotel booking - all the sorts of things I did not have at all - with an "as of December 2016" declaration and a statement that it costs 2000 Baht. There was a crowd of people pushing and shoving, as is the way in Asia, all trying to get their documents noticed and get through the door. I scanned down the list of countries by the door. No New Zealand. I asked the girl at the desk and she said it didn't affect me. Access as usual
for me then. Whew. It was only for a strange mix of nineteen Asian and European countries like Bulgaria, Cyprus and Lithuania. (See here for the list if you're interested: http://www.thaiembassy.com/thailand/visa-on-arrival.php ).
I noticed when leaving Thailand a bit later that they've modified the border-run rules too, with a declaration that as of December 2016 only two land crossings are allowed within one calendar year. I can't really see that being upheld.
My original Air Asia flight from Kochi to Bangkok (which never got used because I had changed things around due to the demonetisation issues) had been going to land at Don Muang Airport, the budget airport rather than the usual one. My new flight was with SpiceJet - Delhi to Bangkok via Calcutta - and I thought this was also going to Don Muang so I was a bit confused when it didn't. I was wandering around looking for the A1 bus into the city for a while before realising I was at a different airport and had to take a train instead.
Bangkok's roads seemed so quiet and half-empty after the chaos that is India. I had gotten used to it and Thailand felt
like "where is everyone?" And it is so clean! There are no piles of rubbish lining the roads, no cows or pigs roaming between the vehicles, nobody using the street as a toilet every twenty metres. I like Thailand very much.
I stayed in Bangkok just for one night, purely to go to the zoo that day. The palm trees in the zoo in which greater short-nosed fruit bats used to roost have all been removed. After some time looking in other palm trees I managed to find some. They are just little fruit bats, like a big rat in size, and they roost tucked up under the leaves where they are difficult to see unless you have binoculars.
In the morning I headed off to Kaeng Krachan National Park which is on the border with southern Burma and is the largest national park in Thailand. I had been here only once before, in April 2014, because on previous visits to Thailand I had been put off by the frequently-repeated assertion that it is impossible to do this park without your own transport, something which I found is utterly untrue.
My start-point in Bangkok was to be
the Southern Bus Terminal (aka Sai Mai Tai) from which buses and mini-vans ran to Petchaburi two hours away, and then from there I would get another mini-van to the village of Ban Kaeng Krachan which is a few kilometres from the park HQ. Being miserly I wanted to take a local city bus from my guesthouse to the bus terminal. This should have been easy and would cost only 12 Baht. Unfortunately the conductor never bothered to tell me when we reached the terminal. It wasn't until quite some time late that a lady asked me where I was going. Not impressed. I was going to take a bus back the other way but I was standing by the road for quite a while with no buses in sight so eventually broke and took a taxi for 70 Baht. Still cheaper than a taxi would have cost from my guesthouse, but a bit annoying nevertheless. I got a mini-van to Petchaburi for 100 Baht (a normal bus has more leg-room and would have cost the same, but there were none leaving for a couple of hours) and at the Petchaburi van-stop got one for 120 Baht which went all
the way to the park HQ and took an hour. When I got there I found out that there are now mini-vans direct from Victory Monument in Bangkok to Kaeng Krachan for 200 Baht. Sigh.
There is no public transport beyond the HQ except the trucks at about 5am in the morning which take people up to see the morning fog, so to get from the HQ into the park without your own car you need to hitch. This is pretty easy in general. The first 20km stretch to the checkpoint is the trickiest because the road goes off to various other places along the way. Also, for me, today was a Monday and it was mid-afternoon - not the best time to be trying to get into the park! Fortunately after only about ten minutes a couple of UK birders drove past and picked me up. Any white person standing by the road here is going to the park and will almost certainly be a birder, although they probably still must have taken a punt on me not being a psychopath. They weren't going into the park itself because they were staying at the Ban Maka Bird Camp,
however they took me all the way up to the checkpoint anyway which was right nice of them. Once at the checkpoint there is only one road, going 15km to the lower campsite and then another 15km to the upper campsite, so you just sit down and wait for a car.
I had one main reason for coming back to Kaeng Krachan, and that was to try and see a Fea's muntjac. There are quite a few species of these small deer around Asia. The common muntjac, as its name suggests, is found pretty much everywhere from India to Indonesia. The Fea's muntjac has a much more restricted range, probably being found only in southern Burma and the adjacent parts of Thailand. I think Kaeng Krachan is probably the only place where one can go and reasonably expect to see one, but they seem to be only found in the higher parts of the park (and there are also common muntjac in the park, so you need to get a good look to ensure you have identified it properly if you see one!). My plan was to spend all my nights at the upper campsite until I saw one.
However there are specific times for going up and down the road between the two campsites, and so for the first night I just stayed at the lower one.
This was no great hardship of course. There was a large troop of dusky langurs in the trees around the campsite, a black giant squirrel in another tree, and in a big fruiting fig tree there were loads of grey-bellied squirrels, Oriental pied hornbills and thick-billed green pigeons. In the evening Malayan crested porcupines came out behind the restaurant to feed on scraps put out for them. Last time I was here there were brush-tailed porcupines living under one of the toilet blocks, but they were not to be found there now. I went spotlighting for a little while around the campsite too, finding a common palm civet and a pair of lesser mouse deer. You can't do a whole lot of night-wandering at Kaeng Krachan because at night the elephants use the roads and the ones here are particularly ornery - several people have been killed here by elephants.
I hitched to the upper campsite at 6am the next morning, on one of the fog trucks. The trucks
go to a viewpoint 6km past the upper campsite from which one can marvel at the great spectacle of fog. It is actually pretty cool, despite how boring it sounds. The altitude is not that high - less than 1000 metres - but in the morning all you can see are the forest-covered hilltops showing like islands in a sea of fog. The only time I went to the viewpoint I got there in the middle of the day (by walking) and the fog was long gone, but you can see the fog-sea from the upper campsite as well if you stand in the right place.
A few things were very different on this visit from my 2014 visit. Firstly it was bone-dry in the park. Everything along the roadsides was grey, and it wasn't much fun birding along the road when a convoy of cars roared past in clouds of dust. Perhaps connected to this, there didn't seem to be a lot of birds around. Some bird guides I talked to (leading small tours) said it was really quiet, so it wasn't just my imagination. Also possibly connected, there were no bees! Last time I was here there
were giant forest bees everywhere, especially at the upper camp there were great swarms of them. Now I only saw one small hive, saw no giant bees in flight at all, and even the little sweat bees were almost non-existent. On the plus side, there were almost no bird-photographers and that was a blessed relief!
By the upper campsite I spotted a banded leaf monkey, strangely enough all by himself amongst a troop of dusky langurs. There has been a lot of confusion over the banded leaf monkeys at Kaeng Krachan. They are the robinsoni
subspecies - greyish on the belly, with pink lips and eye-rings, and otherwise jet-black - but a number of reports claim them as being Tenasserim langurs which is a little-known southern Burmese species which may or may not occur at Kaeng Krachan. I haven't seen any photos of Tenasserim langurs from Kaeng Krachan, but I have seen several photos of robinsoni
banded leaf monkeys labelled as Tenasserim langurs. My personal viewpoint on it is that a particular mammal-watcher misidentified the langurs as Tenasserim langurs in a trip report and then other mammal-watchers and birders simply followed on from that report without questioning it.
Last time I was here I only managed to see the banded leaf monkeys once - but on this visit I found them easy to find and saw them every day on which I was in the upper levels of the park, usually in large troops. Still didn't manage to get any good photos though!
There wasn't much in the way of birds on the first day at the upper campsite. I walked part of the way to the viewpoint and only saw about fifteen species. Most of the way along the road the forest just drops away off the side. You can hear things moving in the dry leaves but you can't see a thing because the drop is too steep, or there is too much undergrowth between the road and the edge, or you just make too much noise on the dead leaves as you try to creep to the edge. Best animal of the day was a Berdmore's ground squirrel (the first one I'd ever seen) which scampered onto the road and then just stood there allowing me to take his photo. He obviously didn't realise that the freezing trick doesn't hide you when you're not
on the leaf litter. I don't think there's many species of squirrels left for me to see in southeast Asia any more.
The second day I tried the Orchid Nature Trail in the early morning and found nothing. In 2014 I had a really good bird-wave (a mixed feeding-flock) here which included the ratchet-tailed treepie, but this visit I never found anything except hair-crested drongos (which, incidentally, I kept seeing in large flocks of twenty or thirty birds, which for drongos was really weird). After breakfast I walked to the viewpoint. This walk was considerably better than yesterday's, with a fairly good bird-wave which included cartoon-like silver-breasted broadbills, yellow-bellied warblers, white-browed scimitar-babblers, black-naped monarchs, grey-headed canary-flycatchers, striped tit-babblers, and a fantastic little white-browed piculet which is a woodpecker the size of a sparrow.
As yesterday, though, the best animal of the day was a mammal. And it was, surprisingly, the very mammal which I had come to the park to find - the Fea's muntjac. As I came round a bend about 10.30 in the morning, there was one just standing at the side of the road. He stayed in place for about a minute while I checked him out through the binoculars. When I tried to move out further to try for a proper photo he turned and left pretty quickly. I did get a couple of photos but they were silhouetted and don't show much other than a muntjac shape. I was pretty pleased to have seen him though. I had been expecting it to take much longer, if I even saw one at all. It was a twelve kilometre walk, but if someone had said to me that I would definitely see a Fea's muntjac but I'd have to walk twelve kilometres to do it, I'd have said "let's go". Actually there are a lot of animals I'd walk twelve kilometres for even a small chance at. I think the longest I've walked in one stretch for a specific animal is twenty kilometres for ibisbill in China - and I didn't see any!
Because the muntjac search had been completed sooner than anticipated I decided to spend some nights at the lower campsite. It is safer spotlighting up higher because there are (supposedly) no elephants up there so no risk of getting stomped on, but I hadn't seen anything up there at night other than the porcupines behind the restaurant (Malayan crested porcupines, the same as at the lower campsite). There are more birds down lower as well. It was a good decision too, because I was sitting in the lower campsite's restaurant for lunch when a newly-arrived birding couple came up to ask me about the scale of the map on the wall. They were Rick from Louisiana and Manu from Austria. As you all probably know, manu
is the Polynesian word for "bird" so that was appropriate. And so for the next few days we teamed up; I found them some birds and they found me some birds, and it all worked out great. We found another trio of young Austrian birders on the same day, and in the evening with all of us spotlighting around the campsite we turned up a brown hawk-owl, a common palm civet, and a couple of common muntjacs.
In the night an elephant came through the campsite and caused some damage, pulling a wing-mirror off one car and knocking a couple of other vehicles about a bit. In the morning Rick and Manu said they had tried looking for birds along the Nature Trail just by the camp but had come across the elephant still in there so turned back. They were a bit more sensible than me. I had planned on going along that trail to look for pittas after breakfast. I reasoned that by now the elephant would have retreated further into the forest. Yeah, no. I was sneaking along the trail, both looking for pittas and being wary of meeting the elephant. It's kind of a catch twenty-two. You don't want the elephant to know you're there but at the same time the last thing you want to do is to surprise him. Anyway, he turned up behind me and scared the bejeesus out of me, smashing a small tree down the slope. I just ran. It sounded like he was charging, although he was probably just throwing trees around, and I didn't stop until the sound stopped. Then I walked, really really
quickly. I couldn't go back the way I'd come, so I had to go aaaaaalll the way to the end of the trail, which kept doubling back in the direction of the elephant. Scary morning that was, but totally my own fault.
Later I met Rick and Manu on the road (they had a hire car). I had just spent the last ten minutes watching a bird-wave pass by, with greater and lesser necklaced laughing-thrushes, green magpies, greater racquet-tailed drongos, two species of woodpeckers, and a green-billed malkoha, as well as a side-show of a white-handed gibbon family. We went back to try and re-find the flock, which we sort of did but not really, and then we drove up to the upper campsite and birded some of the higher areas. One of the best bird-waves I have ever seen was up here. Just birds everywhere - you didn't know where to look because new birds just kept appearing, from white-hooded babbler to speckled piculet, red-headed trogon to grey treepie. And there was also a very large troop of banded leaf monkeys crashing through the canopy, and a red-cheeked ground squirrel on the road.
This was a Friday and the park tends to get busy on the weekend. We got back to find tents everywhere. Their tent had been completely surrounded whereas mine was still isolated. Sensibly they moved their tent up next to mine where it would be quieter. Then we went to dinner. After eating Manu and I returned to the tents to get our spotlighting torches, and found that their tent was now surrounded by elephant droppings. According to someone nearby who had been watching, the elephant came walking through the campsite at 7pm and, finding their tent in his way, just started kicking it, then urinated all over it, and then deposited droppings all around the outside. Literally about ten minutes before we came along. Rick and Manu were slightly unnerved about this, so I suggested they move into the information building. Last time I stayed at the park I had set up my tent inside the building so I knew it was allowed. We checked with the staff and they said it was fine. I was just going to stay where I was - I wasn't too bothered about the elephant in the campsite at night, only about surprising one in the forest - but the rangers said I should move too, or as they put it "last night no problem, but tonight maybe a problem". So I moved my tent into the building as well, and I guess that was a good idea because the elephant came back later in the night and marked the whole spot again. This was his area now. The elephant was hanging around the whole time - we even saw him on the road during the day, which is unusual.
I had been going to head back to Petchaburi on Saturday and see if I could get to a birding spot called Pak Thale by motorbike or tuktuk, and try my luck at finding spoon-billed sandpipers. But Rick and Manu were also planning on trying to find spoon-billed sandpipers which worked out well because it meant we could drive straight there rather than me mucking around with getting lost. None of us had scopes so our hope was that, being Saturday, we would find some other birders there who were better equipped. We didn't, and we didn't see spoon-billed sandpipers. With just binoculars it was hopeless - the ponds too big, the flocks of waders too large, and the spoon-billed sandpipers too few (I think there were meant to only be four at the site). Never mind.
Before heading to Pak Thale we had spent some time on a trail that came off the road above the lower campsite. This was a superb trail. I found a flock of Tickell's brown hornbills and had to go back to find the other guys so they could see them - we had split off on different trails and they had ended up back on the road watching green magpies chasing a crested serpent-eagle. We re-found the hornbills and then continued on further. I had found an arena of a grey peacock-pheasant in the middle of the trail, and further on from that we found several more. The arenas are circles cleared of leaves by the male pheasants on which they dance for the females. One of the arenas had a newly-dropped tail feather on it so we knew they were in use. While we were hanging around a blue pitta called nearby which greatly excited Rick. I have seen blue pitta at Khao Yai so I was more interested in the peacock-pheasants. The only one I had ever seen in the wild was a Malayan peacock-pheasant at Taman Negara - I saw it far up ahead walk out onto the trail but as soon as I put my binoculars up to see it, the lenses steamed up and I couldn't see a thing. It was gone before I could clear them. While we were sitting quietly, hoping the pitta would reveal itself, a ferruginous partridge walked past instead, bright flame-orange and not at all like the brownish bird depicted in the field guide.
I had been going to go back to Bangkok after Pak Thale but it seemed like there was a very good chance of seeing peacock-pheasant on that trail, given that the arenas were definitely in use, so I changed my mind. After Pak Thale I stayed the night in a tent at the Samarn Bird Camp just outside the park checkpoint, and then hitched back up in the morning. As soon as my tent was up and bag stowed, I walked up to the trail. Halfway there I suddenly remembered a story I had been told at Samarn by an English guy about how the day before when they were driving down from the top a guy came running around the corner and took shelter behind their car - there was that elephant on the road again, in the middle of the day. No sooner had I remembered this, and started looking nervously around, when I came across fresh elephant droppings beside the road. Not super-fresh like the ones around Manu's tent, but fresh enough that they were still moist. That wasn't good. There was no saying where the elephant was, so I kept going. More droppings were further ahead. Kept going. The trail was particularly nerve-wracking because I suspected the elephant may have turned off the road and gone up there - I knew elephants used it because I had seen old dung on it the previous day.
Fortunately I did not meet the elephant. In fact the only animals I saw along the trail were a troop of dusky langurs with a new bright-orange baby, a puff-throated babbler doing a distraction display, which I didn't know babblers did (it was scuttling along the ground like a mouse, as if its legs and wings were broken, to try and lure me in the opposite direction to where-ever its nest was), and, oh yeah, a peacock-pheasant! The guides had all been telling me there was no way I'd see a peacock-pheasant. I had snuck up to the arena in case the bird was on it - he wasn't - but as I was scraping some lines on it so I'd know if he had been there the next time I came back, he just casually strolled past on the dry riverbed below, cocked his head as he watched me, and then continued on his way. Perfect views at less than ten metres away. A couple of hours later I saw what was probably another male on the hill on the opposite side of the riverbed (there were several males calling around the area).
So, as with the Fea's muntjac, the search was somewhat less lengthy than I had expected. The next morning I hitched out of the park and caught a mini-van back to Bangkok.
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