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Doi Suthep and the First Steps in Tropical Asian Birding

Culture shock can come in many forms. I’ve been struggling with something people keep repeating here: “they eat all the animals.” Deciphering whether this is Western racism or simple reality is complicated. I do know that the Thai sense of edibility is far more encompassing when compared to American concepts. Compared to Thai food choices, we are simplistic heathens.

Why I bring up food is largely because photographing birds here is more difficult than I imagined. Not only that, but simple observation involves a game of hid and seek. I’ve tried to think of other reasons for being skittish, however large populations of humans have lived here for thousands of years and bird populations learn quickly. Birds tend to be on the tastier side of things, though lacking in much meat. Whatever the reason, the extreme jumpiness of birds here is clear. They are not keen on having us close to them.

We descended a mountain last weekend.

Doi Suthep is a mountain behind Chaing Mai. To the Thai, the major attraction is a temple, named Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, considered by many a sacred site. According to legend, a white elephant with half a shoulder bone of the Buddha, was released to roam the mountain by the king of the region at the time. Where it collapsed to die was deemed site of the new the temple, apparently established in 1383. It also happened to be an easily accessible site to get into the forest from Chaing Mai.

Traveling as I am, practicing frugality, transport is an important factor in the experiment. The majority of birders who would visit would likely already shelled out to rent a vehicle. As it turned out, not having one probably worked in our favor. While public transportation (a Songthaew, a shared truck taxi) up the hill and to the park headquarters, seemed tedious and expensive, it left us free to hike without concern of returning to the same spot.

Birds, birds, birds! Before we could take baring we’d seen a new avian menagerie. As I mentioned before, none of them were keen to be within a stones throw of us. (I’m not exaggerating for the sake of a story, any empirical evidence either way would be welcome). A stunning Blue-throated Barbet (Megalaima asiatica), a flock of cavorting Scarlet Minivents (Pericrocotus flammeus), Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius), and a lone Asian Barred Owlet, reminiscent of a large pygmy owl (Glaucidium cuculoides). All of them stunning, novel, and skittish.

Finding the trail we’d seen on a map was a bit of a challenge. As a result a few more species were found and our concept of a National Park was up against it. When asking the shop attendant for directions, we received a punctuated “It’s closed,” yet several minutes later an overly friendly staff person (a common thing in Thailand) recognized lost souls and pointed us in the right direction. Several forks and retracing of steps later, we found ourselves in an increasingly surreal situation.

I’ll willingly admit people in search of birds frequent odd places. Yet I’ve never, until now, met a pair of bird photographers sitting in full camouflage in a rubbish heap. I quickly realized the reason for enduring the mild stench was the cavalcade of flies, attraction enough for birds. These two Thai gentlemen were waiting for Siberian Robins among other species. Knowing all this didn’t set me at ease, especially considering we’d scaled the mountain to find native habitat. Thankfully, slightly down the road the horrors could be forgotten and unique species were found.

Understanding a new environment is difficult enough. Throw in the tropics and you’ve got yourself a handful. Plants, numerous and beautiful as they are, I have reserved learning for times when I can glean from others. Insects can be photographed for inquiry, which I have taken full advantage of thus far. Yet birds remain difficult, so much of recognition is tied to voice and reliance on helpful information in our books (which are surprisingly vague). No massive amount of studying would have prepared us.

Layers upon layers. Lushness filtered by lushness. Even in the supposed dry season, so much was green. As we crept down slope, towards a supposed waterfall, it was surprisingly quiet but this was welcome, Ryan and I had little clue of what much of the bird song was. No matter, that’s the fun part of exploration, seeking to learn!

The waterfall did exist as it turned out. We relaxed with our lunches, watched the spectacular insect life, and hoped to see a few new birds. Two species I’d lusted after appeared amidst the noise of the waterfall– a Black-naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea) of a clear blue and an unusual non-parasitic cuckoo, a Green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis). We were raking in a fraction of the species likely present, but being my first excursion into the ubiquitous Broadleaved Evergreen forests of Southeast Asia I was having a blast.

A tip from a couple from Toronto got us on the track down the hill, avoiding backtracking. Doi Suthep National Park is a mere 30 minutes climb from busy Chiang Mai, it seemed yet another exotic world away and coming face to face with two Canadians was surprising. Earlier we’d ran into some guides with their Anglo charges, somehow they seemed like they belonged more. Of all the advice they could have lent us out here in the forest, they wanted us to stay vigilant against the Lady Boys.

Although it heated up as we down climbed, the birds kept coming. While audibly I felt a cretin, visually I was feeling quite proud of myself. Even if I didn’t know exactly what it was, I could still stab in the right direction!

At the bottom of the hill we strolled down a paved road to the main highway. If you haven’t watched birds, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the middle of the day is not ideal for birds. Heat is restrictive and we saw very little before reaching a ride out at 4 PM. A songthaew was caught for a fraction of the price up, food was procured, and a good day in the bush was celebrated.

My travels thus far have gotten me a stone’s throw from the Northern border of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. The lovely town of Pai has been good to us thus far and hopefully will continue to do so. New birds, new images, and new stories have most definitely taken place (but I must admit the birds unfortunately are still hard to photograph). Stay tuned!


  1. Lisa

    Beautiful pictures… 🙂 Sounds like you’re having a great time. Can’t wait to see more! No spider pics without a major WARNING sign first, please.

  2. Katy Hutchins

    Hi Brendan
    I love reading your notes. I meant to tell you about Pai (or maybe I did). (kind of reminded me of Santa Cruz in the 60’s….)but it’s where we rode and swam with elephants (Thoms elephant camp) and I rented a bike and rode for miles into the hills over the days that we were there….we took local buses to towns that I now can’t remember the names of (I’m not in my house) but we did that kind of northwest triangle. One of my favorite places is the old capital, Sukothai (south of Chaing Mai). though it is a world heritage site there was hardly anyone there when we were there and we rented bicycles and rode all through the ancient city and up the hill to the giant buddha at sunrise . Enjoy yourself!

  3. Pingback: chiang mai

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