When the worst of your mishaps in Southeast Asia include unplanned soakings, issues with gravity, or a mild swindling, you’re probably doing pretty well. Unfortunately, my luck was running out. By the time I’d left Malaysia and made the slog to Kao Yai National Park in Thailand, I’d caught a cold and missed two flights. With only a week left on my trip, I can’t say I was too enthusiastic about anything beyond a comfortable bed and a non-squat toilet.
Kao Yai turned me around. Having a few days left simply meant I had some creature comforts on my mind and they temporarily clouded my thoughts. Several good mornings in Kao Yai and I was convinced I could have tacked on an extra month.
As the second largest and oldest park in Thailand this is not a spread to miss. At the southern end of a chain of mountains that extend into the Isaan Region of Northeastern Thailand, the park holds a variety of habitats ranging in elevation from 400 to 1200 meters. Simply put, it has immaculate variety.
A striking aspect in visiting is that the park is only three hours from Bangkok. Glance through agriculture and industry on the outskirts of the city, giggle through a Thai dubbed American film on a government bus, and arrive in Pak Chong, gateway town to the park. You’ll bumble around, looking the part of a slack jawed Farang backpacker for 10 minutes, until you manage to rent a moto. In another 30 minutes you are at the gate to the park, having accidentally passed the guest house where you wanted to stay.
Unlike the vast majority of Thailand, finding a reasonable place to stay was quite the struggle. Kao Yai is a major tourist destination for Thai people and they apparently like luxory. Beyond the gate, it appears they walk around in parking lots perplexed, take some photos of tame Sambar Deer, and drive at hair raising speeds around blind corners where you’ve stopped to watch Ashy Minivets (Pericrocotus divaricatus). I only met one family on any of the many trails and despite being excessively loud (Rhiana Cell Phone ring tones and all), were very friendly. Don’t take that last comment as evidence that I think Americans behave better in our national parks.
On my first morning, after seeing two birds I’d lusted after, the goliath Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) and surprisingly quaint Long-tailed Broadbill (Psarisomus dalhousiae), I found myself zooming up a mountainside. White-handed Gibbons (Hylobates lar) were hooting away in the tropical evergreen forest on all sides when, to my surprise, the forest evaporated into hills of burnt umber blanketed in sandy grasslands, glistening with morning dew. I knew there were grasslands, but not like this.
Similarly to North America, native grasslands (or techinically savannah) have been devoured by agriculture and poor fire regimen. Thailand had much less to start with too. Savannah forest like that in the plateau of Kao Yai are likely the worst hit habitat in all of Thailand. This isn’t abundantly clear in the park, as it appears to make up the majority being adjacent to the major roads. Regardless, I felt like I was in Africa.
I knew where the best birding spots were, but I was anxious to get a lay of the land. The highest road, up to a radar station for the Thai military, beckoned. Apparently this switchback road, while largely potholled and washed out, seemingly the perfect birding road, also happened to be a track for sports car enthusiasts. I saw few new birds but I realized too late I’d wasted my time. I also nearly got myself creamed while trying to watch a Moustached Barbet (Megalaima incognita) gobble figs on the slim shoulder.
The lower areas of the park were much better suited to my kind of roaming. The fields themselves, harbored both Indian Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) and Sambar, rumored Dhole and Tiger, which I guessed would be largely impossible to spy. Bright-headed Cisticolas (Cisticola exilis), a bird I’d been promised I’d never actually see because they so love to skulk in grass, were emboldened, swollen with testoterone, and readily visible. One even decided to spout its love drunk gurgle from an electrical line above my head. A pair of Wreathed Hornbills (Rhyticeros undulatus) whooshed overhead as I watched the tawny soloist. Thrilled, I sat astride my moto, marking my 8th hornbill species on the trip and the 5th in Thailand.
The best birds however, were deep in the forest and took a painful amount of patience. I took an exploratory hike down one trail, but quickly psyched myself out. In reminiscing on how a habitat goes quiet in the presence of a large predator, I found the forest around me still. While I was likely the culprit, I decided I’d rather not have my parents receive the shredded remains of my tiger mauled body in the mail. Death seemed to be on my mind a lot lately. Possibly because I felt like I’d done well keeping out of bodily harm in places so relaxed on safety.
I relish my solitude in wild places. Yet sometimes a good companion is a godsend. What’s more, I couldn’t think of anyone better than another birder, roughing it on his second visit to Thailand. I made a new friend in a Brit named Graham, who was on a similar path of birding, taking time to enjoy some of the other wild features of the park. The rest of the afternoon was spent solitarily adrift, but we’d spend most of the following day birding. My goal was to wait for evening wildlife at the major salt lick in a observation tower.
Hiking to the tower tracked through breezy, fire managed grasslands bordered with patchy stands of dense dry forest. Barn Swallows and Dusky Woodswallows (Artamus cyanopterus) plied the air, buzzing Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) and more Cisticolas perched in prominent shrubs. My grand illusions of a bevy of crepuscular megafauna coming out of the woodwork never quite panned out at the observation tower, but I enjoyed the warm evening glow over the savannah.
I’d signed up for a night safari at 7pm, but I didn’t have high expectations as it cost less than $2 US. Heading back in time for a quick bite before the tour, I noticed a number of cars stopping just above a prominent salt lick. Motoring over, a Thai woman in an imposing truck said “Elephant.” and pointed in the direction of a shadowy group of trees. I raised my binoculars in just enough time to see two Asian Elephants slip into the stand, trumpeting in the steely twilight. Although I stood on a paved road, with all my dangling modern accoutrements, I could have been a thousand miles away form the nearest human and alone with the titans.
Thinking myself quite lucky, I motored back in the direction of the food court. As I rounded a corner, I was face to face with a bull elephant.
His bulk backed into an opening in forest, he stood there, nonchalantly stuffing salt into his wrinkly maw. Only 40 meters from him, I was anxious to attend to his mood but he seemed perfectly calm, likely used to the attention next to the road. Two Elephant encounters in one day, this was getting to be unreal. What’s more, I saw him two more times in the next day.
Graham was eating dinner at the same time and I offhandedly relayed my sighting, thinking that he’d likely seen Elephants before. He was astonished and almost immediately took off on foot to try to see the beast himself. Just before rushing off, he mentioned he’d seen Malayan Porcupine (Hystrix brachyura) the night before nearby. Instantaneously, three gigantically quilled rodents lumbered down the isle of tables, only to be chased out by a man on a scooter. What in the world was going on in this place?
The night safari was a simple affair, involving too many blank stares from Sambar, but was worth the money because I did see a few civets. I rushed back to my bed, head swirling with the days adventures and concocting imaginary encounters for the next day. Two near collisions with porcupines thrust me back into the realities of driving at night in the wilderness.
I wanted to get into the park before dawn the next morning. However, the guards were already up at 5 AM and wouldn’t open the gate till 6. I still managed to make it into the park in time to meet Graham on the path to the observation tower. Hornbills were on the move in all directions and we both couldn’t quite believe these birds were aloft over our heads. Great Hornbills are the avian equivalent of noisy diesel engines. Drongos of all sizes behaved uncommonly gregariously, sharing bare perches en mass and looping into the crisp air, sharing it with high flying Dollarbirds. The gibbons should have been out of breath.
This was my last full day in Thailand, my last in fact in Southeast Asia. I didn’t push myself in birding, I simply sat back and enjoyed being there. A few more encounters with the salt loving bull Elephant, a skulk through deeper forest for a Orange-headed Thrush (Zoothera citrina), and a scouring for an absent Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo (Carpococcyx renauldi) filled the day. Graham and I spent the afternoon and evening talking about the politics of birding, the current state of humans and nature, and the subjectivity of experiencing the natural world, all the while watching birds. The day closed with a final bird, a lifer, the harrier-sized Great Eared-nightjar(Eurostopodus macrotis) issuing unavian spurts and planking through the final light.
Even a month later, it’s difficult to fully synthesize what my experiences really meant. To say the least I learned much, have become all the wiser as a result. Having to jet off to Bangkok after two wonderful days out in the wild was jarring. Indian Cuckoos calling sullenly from trees in urban temples seemed impoverished characters, shadows of their country cousins.
I still haven’t stopped talking about it. Thanks.