Yesterday I stood on top of Thailand. I made the steep trek and it was well worth it. Don’t leap to conclusions though, I rode a motorcycle.
Doi Inthanon is the highest point in Thailand, as well as in most of mainland Southeast Asia east of that pesky Myanmar and its blasted Northern reaches (I really wanted to summit this part of the continent). At 2565 meters (8,415 feet) tall, this hunk of granite batholith is paltry compared to the Himalayan mountains it leads up to, yet it still feels very tall. Height also means it hosts a broad array of bird species and corresponding habitats (yes, yes it’s ecologically diverse, it’s not all about the birds).
Again, a national park it may be, but most of the lower reaches are deforested and well populated with various hilltribes. Constantly while traveling in Southeast Asia you find your Western ideals confronted (while the thought of thousands of people living in a national park year round isn’t too foreign, having them not be people operating trams or cooking french fries is). I sort of relish these revelations; from squat toilets that don’t flush (meaning you have to wash the offending bits down with ladles of water), to realizing that a vehicle rental company is willing, no, thrilled, to hand over a sound, operational motorcycle with no question of my aptitude astride it. I also rather like that staying within the park, I am not restricted to bland tourist restaurants and can venture over to the immoderate world of greasy food stalls in the nearby village. (People talk about returning from Southeast Asia skinner than when they left. This would be easier to imagine if I wasn’t such a frothing glutton).
Back to nature.
The height of the mountain means it is one of the few places that you get true alpine habitats including Thailand’s only sphagnum bog. This surprised me because I associate peat moss with places like Ireland or Northern Europe and archeology more than the tropical species that bounced about the bog. Certainly the temperature was spot on.
Ryan and I rode up the mountain about 8:30 AM, after checking into Mr. Daeng’s Guest House at 500 baht or about $15 US a night (which seems expensive considering we’ve only been in places for 250 baht or less split but isn’t even). Mr. Daeng has been hosting birders here for years with magnificent birds on property. When scoping the spot the evening before, we’d seen Black-throated Sunbirds (Aethopyga saturata) and Chestnut-flanked White-eyes (Zosterops erythropleurus) both quite dapper looking birds.
The ride to the top was actually very chilly. This is the first and possibly last time I’ll likely ware long underwear on the trip. Of course we didn’t make it to the top without stopping for birds. This was largely done at inopportune blind corners with no shoulders. I spied a Great Barbet (Megalaima virens) just as we rounded one such bend and I spied several more new ones from my wobbly perch atop my motorbike. Another stop for Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird (I’m sorry, I’m all for naming birds after women as much as men….but couldn’t it have been Elizabeth’s Sunbird instead of this silly mouthful?) and Eyebrowed Thrush (Turdus obscurus) stymied an early arrival at the top.
Bird activity was at a high when we arrived; there were gobs of birds, the sun was shinning, and I was on top of the world (well Thailand at least). Ashy-throated Warblers (Phylloscopus maculipennis), a specialty up here (one will not find them elsewhere in Thailand except this peak) were all over the place and numerous sightings meant I finally got a decent photograph of a bird!
The boardwalk around the bog was full of life. Hoary clouds whipped overhead for periodic and welcome sun breaks, but lets be honest, I didn’t notice the cold with this much great nature unfolding. Green-tailed and Mrs. Gould’s Sunbirds were dripping off trees, Rufous-winged Fulvetta (Pseudominla castaneceps) clasped to the sides of the trees, and an Orange-flanked Bush Robin (Tarsiger cyanurus) skulked below the walkway. Once I’d taken a second to relax, I began to truly appreciate the rare beauty of this habitat.
We came just in time to see two varieties of Rhododendron blooming, a burst of white and pink against the shaggy mossy environs. An off shade between umber and chartreuse, everything looked so soft, a nice nap crossed my mind. I’d heard it described as stepping into Lord of the Rings but that was an impoverished description. Once I’d spent time on alone, immersed in the landscape, I felt like I was witnessing a world of gnomes and fairies. The avian characters about were not far off from fantasy.
(An aside: I need to say that I am highly envious of the squirrels here at Mr. Daeng’s – they have a veritable playground all about, dashing down vine and pole highways all about my head as I sit writing this.)
I ran into a Thai birder decked out in a ski mask (this was Siberian cold for the Thai) who introduced himself as Pat. He was there for fun but was training to be a guide (I told him I’d plug him back home). He reconfirmed several of my auditory identifications, pointed out the high elevation only Golden-throated Barbet (Megalaima franklinii). Like most people I’ve met and I’ve spoken English with here, he apologized for his poor ability and in turn I admonished him for the apology. My inability to properly speak the mother tongue is embarrassing enough, let alone my Thai, Spanish, French, or Pig Latin. He had rather good English and I wished him luck.
After chatting with Pat, I couldn’t believe my luck with some of the birds. An Orange-flanked Bush Robin was very cooperative, Bar-throated Minla (Chrysominla strigula) acted as if I was not there (so close I couldn’t focus on them), and Ashy-throated Warblers sat still enough for some real bird photos. Up at the food stands, the coffee shop had both Dark-backed Sibia (Heterophasia melanoleuca) and Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush (Garrulax ruficeps) sneaking in for tidbits when the barista wasn’t looking.
Long days of birding end in exhaustion and this was no different. After more time spent at the top, we drifted down into broadleaved evergreen forest to varying degrees of success. New worlds of nature have the spectacular ability of wearing you down and I was ready for a good long rest at the end of the day. And yet I had to sit down and write.