Monday, January 26, 2015

Birding Thailand's biggest


After meeting along the final stretch through Cambodia, Leo and I arrived in Poipet in the late afternoon. I was determined to cross the border to Thailand straight away, as I had already over-stayed my one-month visa by four days and did not want to get fined for a fifth day. So we split ways, after agreeing to meet up again the next day on the road in Thailand. I wondered what the odds would be of missing each other on the road – it’s a long, busy road out there! In the meanwhile, my border crossing was over in no time; the officials were efficient and the fine was reasonable.

Park your bike and stay a while.

Boats on a river south of Bangkok.


A White-vented Myna with its meal beside the road.

The next day I was on the road early, as I figured Leo would eventually catch up on me rather than the other way round. However, I did not reckon on the split in the road. Surprise! There were two roads leading to Bangkok. To the right was the original road, which Leo and I had agreed to meet along, while the other was a new and more direct route. After briefly contemplating the implications of taking one or the other, I settled for the latter, the shorter route, assuming that Leo would do the same. Common roadside birds included Red Collared-dove, White-vented Myna, Asian Pied Starling, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Ashy Woodswallow, Plain-backed Sparrow, Asian Openbill, and Eastern Cattle Egret. Some nice surprises were Pied Fantail, Yellow Bittern, Javan Pond Heron and Asian Golden Weaver.  Some 20 km down the new road, I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. An hour had not yet passed, when I spotted Leo approaching. The odds where indeed in our favour! And so the cycling partnership resumed.

Javan Pond Herons are common at wetlands.

In a way it was a blessing cycling with Leo, since he was the only one with any kind of map! I thought I would get away with the occasional visit to an internet cafe to see where I was on Google Maps, but in hindsight that may not have been so easy. I soon learnt that a GPS-enabled smartphone with Google Maps goes a long way when it comes to negotiating the road-maze through southern Bangkok. Thanks Leo! Another bonus about cycling with Leo was that we could share the cost of hotel rooms, as options for wild camping were pretty scarce in the developed zones.

Negotiating the roads to Bangkok.

Leo and the smartphone that got us through Bangkok.

View over southern Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River.


Knowing which way to go was sometimes a challenge.

Bangkok was not our destination; it just happened to be in our way. We were both heading to Hua Hin to the south-west of it. Leo was planning on cycling southern Thailand while I had my sights set on birding at Kaeng Krachan National Park. After clearing the Bangkok maze (which took a good day!) we were home free. We maintained the partnership until the entrance gate to Kaeng Krachan, where Leo decided to continue south. After farewells, I was on my own again, and without my bike. Since bicycles are not permitted in the park, I left it at a guest farm (Samarn Bird Camp) near the park entrance for the duration of my stay.

Bikes in a row, with Leo's (left) being the lightest!

Meals were one of two options, soup or fried rice, with the latter my favourite.
 
Closer to paradise, at Kaeng Krachan headquarters.


On the road to Kaeng Krachan National Park.

Luckily I did not need my bike. There is only one road through Kaeng Krachan, connecting its two visitor camps. To make things even easier, the best birding along this road is within easy walking distance of both camps. I split the eight days that I had to explore the park between the two camps, Ban Krang and Panoenthung. These camps provide a small peek of the park. To put things a little more in perspective, Kaeng Krachan is over 2900 square km of pure forest, and is part of an extensive forest complex of 30 000 square km that stretches far into Myanmar. So its rather big, and hence supports big wildlife, such as elephant and tiger, amongst loads of others.

Silver-breasted Broadbills were common in Kaeng Krachan.

Within this massive forest, the 3 km stretch of road heading west from Ban Krang became my daily stomping ground (as for many other birders that visit the park), delivering a host of good birds. Lifers rolled in quickly, with highlights being three pitta species, including Blue-winged, Hooded and Blue Pitta, four species of broadbills, including Black-and-red, Banded, Dusky, and Silver-breasted Broadbill, as well as Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Sultan Tit, and Common Green Magpie. Christmas was early! Virtually every bird came wrapped in bright colours, with one insane colour combination being replaced by another more bizarre blend. The list can go on with Blue-cheeked Barbet, Common Flameback, Golden-crested Myna, and Black-backed Kingfisher. Some less colourful, but certainly no less adrenaline-pumping species, came in the disguised forms of Pin-stripped Babbler, Puff-throated Babbler, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, Black-necked Tailorbird and the rather prehistoric-looking Great Slaty Woodpecker. Not your average woodpecker! 

The striking Sultan Tit is common around Ban Krang camp.

A female White-rumped Shama, also common around Ban Krang.

The visitor centre at Ban Krang camp in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

Black-and-Red Broadbills were also not hard to find.

Common Flameback foraging along a branch.

A Hooded Pitta, which clearly had a nest nearby.

A common Green Magpie.

A Blue-eared Barbet at its nesting hole.

The campsite at Ban Krang; I strung my hammock under the roof.

A Black-naped Monarch on the nest.

I only managed to see one kingfisher species, the diminutive Black-backed Kingfisher (also know as the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher). It was relatively easy to find at the streams crossing the road, which were also popular congregation spots for hundreds of brightly and insanely coloured butterflies. If birds are not your thing, you could loose yourself in the butterflies instead. Several mammal species were also about, with Malayan Porcupine visiting the camp’s kitchen at night for scraps, while the closest I got to an elephant was a pile of dung left on the road.

New life emerging from a pile of elephant dung on the road.

Black Giant Squirrels were seen daily.

The Black-crested Bulbul is a common Southeast Asian species.

To get to Panoenthung campsite, I hitched a ride with the first vehicle willing to take a psyched-up, twitching birder. Getting a ride was surprisingly easy and an hour later I was closer to the heavens. Panoenthung is perched at the top of a forested hill surround by more forested hills, as far as the eye can see. Its it worth staying here just for the view, which can be spectacular at anytime of the day. 

Forest surrounding Panoenthung in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

I had barely arrived when I met four local birders who were heading out on the road beyond the campsite, to a spot reputed to be good for seeing Rachet-tailed Treepie. Despite having a good look around, we did not see this sought-after species, but instead got good views of a pair of Wreathed Hornbills. Not a bad start I figured! 

A Wreathed Hornbill at the end of the road beyond Panoenthung.

The campsite at Panoenthung, no tents here during the week.

At the Panoenthung viewpoint with local birders.
 
Forested hills, one after the other.


Mountain Bulbuls are common around Panoenthung.

A Blue-throated Barbet.

During my four days at Panoenthung I birded around the campsite, and along the main road leading to the camp. To say it rained frequently would be an understatement; it rained frequently, a lot of the time! I spent a good proportion of my time dashing from one sheltered viewpoint to the next, all the while hoping to see a new bird species. Common species around the camp included the awesome Streaked Spiderhunter, Flavescent Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Puff-throated Bulbul, Blue-throated Barbet, White-throated Fantail, Vernal Hanging Parrot, White-browed Shrike-babbler, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Collared Babbler and Mountain Imperial Pigeon amongst others. The latter had a nest in a small tree at the camp office. A walk along the Orchid Trail near the entrance to the campsite delivered a very lively bird party, with particiants including a flock of Golden Babblers, small but noisy, a single Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-throated Sunbird, White-browed Piculet, Black-naped Monach and probably some other species I missed amongst the commotion and excitement that accompanies bird parties. 

Collared Babblers were common around Panoenthung.

The stately Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

A White-browed Scimitar-babbler in the mist.


Sunset at Panoenthung camp.

At the famous Km 27.5 birding spot, a location at precisely 2.5 km from Panoenthung camp, I managed to escape the rain long enough to get some serious birding done. Great Barbet, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Ashy Bulbul, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Tickell’s Brown Hornbill, Buff-rumped and Black-and-Buff Woodpecker all showed well (still missing Heart-spotted Woodpecker!). I missed the Red-breasted Trogon which apparently lurks in the woods there; it either wasn’t there or was sitting very still. The highlight was undoubtedly the Rachet-tailed Treepie, and while the distant views were shrouded in mist, I could just make out the destinctive tail of this species. At that point I was hoping for better weather more than anything else. But to no avail, the mist had settled in for the day. 

The sign that marks the Km 27.5 birding location before Panoenthung.

Its hard to appreciated the size of a Great Barbet in a photo.



An Ashy Bulbul.

Looking for Rachet-tailed Treepie, up there somewhere.

A photographer and his guide alerted me to the presence of a Long-tailed Broadbill nest close to the road. It was not long before the parent birds brought food to the nest; another broadbill species with a stricking colour scheme. Very happy with the results of the morning, I headed back to camp, only to get mesmerizing views of a Rufous-browed Flycatcher perched beside the road. Loads of mist about but the bird was so close that it did not matter.  

A photographer and his guide waiting for a Long-tailed Broadbill.

Long-tailed Broadbill, what a bird!

Besides the birding, I quite enjoyed the tranquility of Panoenthung. Vehicles are only allowed to reach the camp during two time slots each day. With no one else camping there during the week, and after the last of the day visitors had departed, the camp was virtually deserted. The far-carrying whooping calls of Lar Gibbons added to the atmosphere of this remote location, and I was lucky enough to get some brief sightings of this rather shy species. 

Dusky Lemurs were easier to see than Lar Gibbons.

My time was running out and so I spent my last day at Ban Krang, with not many species to add to my list - a Crested Jay was a thrilling final lifer. After departing, I spent two days at Samarn Bird Camp where I had left my bike, mainly to catch up on administrative duties that were lagging (there was no internet inside the park). Then it was a two-day cycle to Bangkok, and an end to my three months in Southeast Asia. While some exciting times were still to come, on a different continent, I was already looking forward to returning – far too many places still to explore, not to mention another visit to Kaeng Krachan.   

Roadside scenery on the way back to Bangkok.

Scaly-breasted Munia, a typical seeder-eater species.
A Black Bittern pretending not to be seen.

A White-browed Crake lily trotting, seen at a small wetland beside the road.


Cycle route through Thailand from Cambodian (A) to Kaeng Krachan Park (B).



Notes for birders:

In an attempt to revamp this blog, I have decided to add this new section to each post as a resource for birders.  Those who are reading the blog but are not birders can happily skip this section! While I thought I might write some birding notes for a first attempt, I realised there is a better source of information for birders wanting to visit Kaeng Krachan. So without making this post any longer, I would suggest visiting Nick Upton’s comprehensive webpage at http://thaibirding.com/locations/west/kk.htm. For more general information on the park, you can also have a look at https://www.thainationalparks.com/kaeng-krachan-national-park

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cycling across Cambodia


Upon arriving at the Phnom Penh airport in Cambodia, I was amazed at how quickly my visa-on-arrival was issued. I spent less than half an hour in the airport before I was on the first tuk-tuk taxi to a hotel in the city. My bicycle, still in its box, just managed to fit across the tuk-tuk without causing any traffic obstruction. 

Tuk-tuk ride in Phnom Penh upon arrival.

I was in Cambodia to meet up with Jan, an old friend whom I met in South Africa some eight years earlier while he was conducting research on wild canids. He was now in Cambodia doing research on Asian Wild Dogs (also known as Dholes) near Sen Monorom in the south-east of the country. Jan was about to leave on a trip to Myanmar, so there would not be much time to see him and catch up on all the news. So to speed things up I booked a bus ticket from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom, which was to be my first bus ride since starting my travels. I had a day to spare in the capital city before departing, so I took to the streets to do some sight-seeing. Jan had given me some tips on places to visit, so in a day I squeezed in the Royal Palace (which includes the Silver Pagoda with over 5000 silver floor tiles), the Sisowath Quay alongside the Tonlé Sap River, the Wat Phnom temple, and the Independence Monument. By the end of the day I was again reminded how exhausting it can be to be a tourist.

The Royal Palace grounds in Phnom Penh.

And that's why its called a palace - the buildings are all exquisite.

The Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.

The bus ride the next day was like any other, though I did enjoying the passing scenery through the flatlands. In places, numerous hammocks were strung up under simple roof structures, providing ideal retreats from the sun and rain. The few times the bus made stops, there was the opportunity to enjoy mouth-watering deep-fried delicacies with eight legs, or crickets if one preferred. Despite tarantulas being high on the menu in Cambodia, I was more than happy to spoil myself with fried beetroot slices instead (I can recommend these!). 

Fried bugs are high on the menu in Cambodia.

The terrain became hilly as we approached the lands of Sen Monorom. Rolling grasslands interspersed with patches of forest began to dominate the landscape.  By the time the bus finally arrived in the capital town of Cambodia’s Mondulkiri Province, I knew I had fallen in love with the place. The beauty of the countryside surrounding Sen Monorom just looked awesome to my eyes. Besides being brilliantly green, there was something about the hills that was captivating – I knew that this was certainly a place I would have to return too in future. 

Countryside near Sen Monorom.

After a couple days of acclimatising to the new surrounds while Jan completed some pressing work matters, we were off to do some birding at nearby sites. Lisa, a social researcher and expert local birder based in Sen Monorom, kindly took some time off from report-writing to take us birding. Our first stop was O’romis, a site with good forest just a few kilometers to the south of the town. Birding was done from a road with forest stretching out on both sides of the valley, and where a scope would have been useful for some of the distant birds. We recorded a few species I had already seen in Malaysia, such as White-rumped Shama, White-rumped Munia, and Blue-winged Leafbird, while there were also some new species, including Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Crimson Sunbird, Asian Pied Hornbill, Hair-crested Drongo (Spangled Drongo), the recently split Annam Barbet, Scarlet Minivet, and three bulbul species in rapid succession, Sooty-headed, Black-crested, and Black-headed Bulbul. A drive through the rolling grasslands delivered another two new species for me, Vinous-breasted Starling and Burmese Shrike. The latter has a rather striking appearance compared to the Brown Shrikes sharing the same habitat; its white underparts contrasting with its grey crown, rufous back and black wings.

Lisa and Jan birding at the O'romis site just south of Sen Monorom.

A Sooty-headed Bulbul, a common species in Southeast Asia.

In the days that followed, Jan and I did a couple more trips to nearby forest sites, most notably the picturesque Busra Waterfall, some 20 km to the east of Sen Monorom. However, the birds were rather quiet and unobtrusive, resulting in a very short bird list for the morning. Great Woodshrike was probably the only highlight that caused some excitement. Green-eared Barbet was new for me but did not manage to clinch all the features on a possible Yellow-vented Flowerpecker - the one that got away. We had a fleeting glimpse of a Blue Whistling-thrush, and neck-wrenching views of smaller unidentified species in the high canopies. We took our time viewing the two waterfalls, one of 30 metres in height cascading before the second of 40 metres. A surreal spot, worth another visit!
 
Jan looking over the second waterfall at Busra.

I soon discovered that Sen Monorom is a hotspot for conservation NGO’s working in Cambodia. It is one of the last frontier towns in Cambodia; the first paved road leading to the town was only recently completed. As the infrastructure such as roads improve, the area is gradually becoming tamed, with some positive but also some less desirable consequences for the region’s natural assets, ranging from virgin forests to large wild carnivores. The possible extinction of the forest-dwelling wild ox, the Kouprey, is one example of a species unable to keep up with the pace of deforestation and hunting. The only traffic roundabout in Sen Monorom depicts a pair of Kouprey, a stark reminder of what once was.

The Kouprey statue in Sen Monorom.

Meeting with many of the like-minded conservationists working in the area, I soon got wind of a mountain bike race that was to be held within the week of my arrival. I could not resist the opportunity, so made sure I got registered pronto. On the day of the race, there were far more riders than I had imagined would turn up, while there was also an array of race categories – I effortlessly made it into the ‘veteran’ category! The race involved two consecutive laps around the track, which included a single climb followed by lots of downhill; perfect for a touring cyclist, or so I thought. The pace was a little faster than what I was used to, so I found myself out of breath rather quickly. I managed to finish 7th out of the 11 riders in the category (those behind me seemed to have suffered more mechanical failures than I did), and while I was very happy with my performance, a podium finish would have been priceless. Especially since I was wearing my usual cycling gear, trousers and a long-sleeve shirt. I must have stood out like a sore thumb!  

Just before the race in Sen Monorom.

Fellow bike riders in Sen Monorom.


Proof that I can stomach Cambodia's pungent fish soup, or whatever it was.

While I rested my aching muscles in the days that followed, I took to birding at the Nature Lodge on the outskirts of Sen Monorom. Strolling through the grounds amongst the bungalows yielded a few new species for me, such as White-crested Laughingthrush, Red-breasted Parakeet, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, amongst a variety of other species. Numerous other common species, many of which had been seen previously at the O’romis site, were also observed.  

A White-crested Laughingthrush at the Nature Lodge, Sen Monorom.

A Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.

I enjoyed Sen Monorom so much I ended up staying a good two weeks. Then I remember that my visa was only valid for one month; it was time to take to the road once again. I was keen to at least see the Angkor Wat temples near Siem Reap in western Cambodia, which meant I would have to cycle across the country to satisfy my curiosity. I only had two options of getting out of Sen Monorom; the tarred main road leading back to Phnom Penh, or the unsurfaced road heading north into the dense woodlands of eastern Cambodia. Naturally, I took the latter, as I wanted to see this near-wildness part of the country. Dust clouds raised by road traffic, though not heavy, left me with a red tan colour on my face and fine grit in my mouth. A pleasant reminder that I was somewhere remote. While I tried a bit of birding along the way, I was too pressed for time to look about while keeping an eye on the bumpy road. White-bellied and Black-headed Woodpeckers provided good views, but poor sightings of numerous other species left much to be desired. Not to mention the persistent calls of Chinese Francolin teasing me from the dense grass; I had not made enough effort to search for this species before, thinking it will eventually show itself, and now I was paying the price. Collared Falconets dashed across the road a couple times, but the brief views would make sure that the species would not make it on my life list. 

Woodland north of Sen Monorom, and the red road.















After passing through Lumphat, I turned left onto the paved road leading to Stung Treng, a town on the shores of the Mekong River. Random thundershowers would occasionally make for a good but temporary downpour, sending me at a faster peddling stroke towards the nearest shelter. Like clockwork, children would wave wildly at me as I passed their stilted homes, usually from the comfort of their hammocks. Interestingly, I never received the same attention in the mornings or at midday – perhaps they were too pre-occupied with other activities at these times. Scenes of forest logging and clearings became disturbingly more common as I headed west, making me ponder over the future of Cambodia’s wild lands. When would enough be enough?

Cleared lands, rapidly becoming a common sight in Cambodia.

Roadside birds featuring along the way included White-throated Kingfisher, Black-collared Starling, Indian Roller, Red-wattled Lapwing, White-browed Fantail, Rufous Treepie, Green Bee-eater, Pied Bushchat, Hair-crested Drongo, Oriental Buzzard, Black-hooded Oriole and Oriental Magpie Robin, amongst others. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Wooly-necked Stork, Great Cuckooshrike and the Southeast Asian race of Eurasian Jay were also seen.

Popular transport in Cambodia.

At Stung Treng I took two days off to recover from a flu that I had tried to shake off since leaving Sen Monorom. Besides resting I also indulged in tourist behavior in the mornings and evenings, which involved eating fresh coconut while over-looking the massive Mekong River. I was already planning my next trip to Cambodia, which would at least involve cycling along the Mekong River to ensure the chance of seeing river dolphins and the Mekong Wagtail. Time was standing still for me again during this time, until I realised that that would not be a good excuse at the emigration office if I over-stayed my visa. 

View over the Mekong River from Stung Treng's waterfront.

Ferry crossing at Stung Treng.

A Cambodian family I met on the ferry crossing at Stung Treng.

So after two days I hurried on again, taking four days to reach Riem Reap. Similar countryside and similar birds passed by. I also unknowingly passed by Beng Mealea, a temple styled similarly to the ones at Angkor Wat, but situated some 40 km to the east. The temple is largely unrestored and overgrown with tree roots, giving it a real ‘Indian Jones’ feel to it. So I was rather dismayed when I arrived in Siem Reap only to find out I missed the temple on the way. Moral of the story: Be prepared and well-informed to make the most of opportunities!   

 
The road was so flat that even a small incline had to be sign-posted.

A typical roadside shop in Cambodia.

I booked into the Siem Reap Hostel for four days, which was good value for money considering the facilities available and the location within the metropolis. My main reason for staying in the tourist-flooded Siem Reap was to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex, and the TonlĂ© Sap, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. With the Angkor Wat temple complex only being about 10 km to the north of Siem Reap, I cycled there early in the morning to make the most of the day. A large crowd of visitors had already gathered in front of the main Angkor Wat temple in anticipation of the sunrise. The sun rose, that’s for sure, but the extensive cloud cover ensured that it was not going to be a very photogenic one. Once this reality sunk in with the crowd, it began to disperse as many headed for the Angkor Wat Temple. I spent most of the morning here, marveling at the architecture of this grand temple constructed mainly of sandstone. To think that it was built over 800 years ago, in honour of the Hindu god Vishnu, is mind-boggling. I could have spent the whole day here, but also wanted to see some of the other temples, including Angkor Thom, Baphuon, and the beautifully over-grown Ta Prohm. I thus only had time to complete the ‘short circuit’ route through the temple complex, leaving the other temples such as Preah Khan for a future visit. I would then get an entry ticket for three days, get there early for the morning light, and of course, take my time to appreciate this pinnacle of architectural design. 
 
The crowd at Angkor Wat waiting for the sunrise.


Angkor Wat Temple just after sunrise.
 
Tourists inside the Angkor Wat Temple.


Wall carvings inside the Angkor Wat Temple.

Angkor Wat, as seen from the back.

Bridge crossing between Angkor Wat Temple and Angkor Thom.

View from the Baphuon Temple.









Looking and behaving like a tourist at Baphuon. Lineated Barbets heard calling!


The Angkor Wat complex is rather well-wooded.


The Ta Prohm Temple was the most over-grown of the temples I visited.

My bike parked in front of Angkor Wat at sunset.

Sunset over the water surrounding Angkor Wat Temple.

Durian fruit being sold on the street in Siem Reap.


A fresh produce market in Siem Reap - one can buy anything imaginable here.

Pub Street in Siem Reap, a very popular spot for tourists.

Waiters waiting to serve clients at the Angkor What? restaurant in Siem Reap.

Bridge over the Siem Reap River in the city.

Traffic on the streets at night in Siem Reap.


After completing the circuit, I returned to Angkor Wat Temple to admire the sunset view before returning to Siem Reap. It was a rather intense day of temple viewing, and I was pretty exhausted – who said that being a tourist was easy? I rested for one day before heading for the border town of Poipet. It was any easy ride across relatively flat terrain, with some birding along the way. Unidentified swifts, swiftlets, and larks were seen, and I only managed to secure Oriental Pratincole flying over the rice paddies. I was moments away from ticking a Bright-headed Cisticola beside the road, when another touring cyclist stopped behind me. Needless to say, I was rather surprised; I had not seen another touring cyclist since Iran. Leo was from Hong Kong and had cycled through Vietnam and Cambodia, and was also on his way to Thailand. And so our week-long cycling partnership began. And I had completely forgotten about the cisticola as we took off to complete the final stretch of 30 km through Cambodia.     

Cambodian countryside.

More Cambodian countryside in the west.
 
Leo and I teamed up just before crossing over to Thailand.


My cycle route across Cambodia, starting at Sen Monorom (A).