Thailand: Mystical Asia

Thailand is one of Asia’s most exciting birding destinations. Located at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, Thailand has exceptionally high bird diversity. It is home to many colorful resident species which share their habitats with healthy numbers of Palearctic and Himalayan migrants. Combined with legendary Thai hospitality, some of the finest cuisine in the Orient, and high-quality accommodation, it is no surprise that this is one of the most popular Asian destinations for birders. Our tour explores the national parks of south, central, and northern Thailand, looking for handsome hornbills, spectacular broadbills, stunning pittas, and a host of other Asian denizens. For those with extra time, a short extension to search for some of the Sundaic specialties of southern Thailand should ensure a grand finale, and bring a taste of the remarkable birds of the Malay Peninsula.

Day 1: Bangkok to Laem Pak Bia. After meeting up in Bangkok, we will drive a couple hours to the shorebird paradise of Pak Thale. If time allows, we’ll start our hunt for the area’s specialty shorebirds, including the famous Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  

Day 2: Pak Thale. Today we visit Pak Thale on the shores of the Gulf of Thailand. This is an extensive area of pools, saltpans, and shrimp ponds. In recent years a handful of critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers have wintered here. In order to look for it, we’ll have to comb through thousands of other shorebirds, including Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Lesser and Greater Sand-plovers, and Red-necked Stints. Other possibilities include Nordmann’s Greenshank and the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Later we plan to visit Laem Pak Bia by boat in search of Chinese Egret, Malaysian Plover and the newly described, and as yet unnamed, “White-faced” Plover, before heading to Kaeng Krachan NP for a two-night stay.

Days 3–4: Kaeng Krachan NP. In the far north of the Peninsula, Kaeng Krachan is home to a wonderful array of barbets, hornbills, broadbills, woodpeckers, and pittas. The most sought-after bird is the oddly-shaped Ratchet-tailed Treepie. Mammals are also readily seen. Possibilities include the delightful Dusky Langur, Gaur, Asian Elephant, and even Leopard.

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Days 5–7: Khao Yai NP. On day four we head to the hill forest of Khao Yai. The lush, evergreen dipterocarp forest supports some highly sought-after birds and mammals, including the entertaining White-handed and Pileated Gibbons. Impressive Silver Pheasants, stunning Siamese Firebacks, and bizarre Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoos walk unobtrusively through the undergrowth. Hornbills frequent the treetops, Blue and Eared Pittas skulk in the leaf litter, and White-crested Laughingthrushes move noisily in understory flocks. The bird list here also includes stunners such as Long-tailed and Silver-breasted broadbills, Vernal Hanging-Parrot, Greater Yellownape, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, and Red-headed Trogon. One night we will linger in the park and enjoy the eerie calls of the harrier-sized Great Eared-Nightjar. We will also search for Sambar Deer, Indian Muntjac, and the retiring Asian Elephant in the more remote parts of the park. Our three nights will be spent in a hotel with spacious, bird-filled grounds just outside this flagship park.

Day 8: Khao Yai NP to Bueng Boraphet. Leaving Khao Yai NP we begin our journey north, with a stop at Bueng Boraphet. Located approximately halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Bueng Boraphet is Thailand’s largest freshwater lake and an area of international conservation importance for migratory waterbirds, which congregate here in the thousands every winter. They include Asian Openbill, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Cotton Pygmy-goose, and Lesser Whistling-Duck. Rarities also turn up regularly, such as Baer’s Pochard. The fringes of the marsh can also be good for passerines like the spectacular Siberian Rubythroat. We overnight in a hotel near Bueng Boraphet.

Temples abound in Thailand
Temples abound in Thailand (Cristina Cervantes)

Days 9–11: Doi Inthanon NP. After another morning birding at Bueng Boraphet, we make our way further north to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. The “Roof of Thailand” provides spectacular forest birding at a range of different altitudes. The lower mountain is covered by dry, open, deciduous dipterocarp forest. Here we seek one of the cutest raptors in the world, the diminutive Collared Falconet. Black-headed Woodpecker and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch may also be seen climbing the limbs of these gnarled trees, while Black-backed Forktails haunt the rushing rivulets. Higher up the mountain slopes, dazzling Green and Purple Cochoas are the prized birds in the evergreen forest, where the resident birds are joined by migrant thrushes and warblers at this time of year. On one day we visit the damp sphagnum bog and rhododendron forest at the summit. This is an eerie place in the early morning, but the misty atmosphere is brightened by dazzling Gould’s and Green-tailed Sunbirds and the bold and approachable Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush. White-browed Shortwings and Slaty-bellied Tesias feed quietly on the damp forest floor. We will stay in a hotel just outside the park for three nights.

Day 12: Doi Inthanon to Doi Chiang Dao. Heading north from Chiang Mai, we arrive at the looming limestone massif of Doi Chiang Dao. We bird around an attractive Buddhist temple searching for Pin-tailed Pigeon, Streaked Wren-Babbler, and Black Bulbul. A night walk may also reveal Mountain or Collared Scops-owls.

Red-faced Liocichla is one of the major targets in the highlands
Red-faced Liocichla is one of the major targets in the highlands (Scott Watson)

Day 13: Doi Chiang Dao to Doi Ang Khang. We will head to the flanks of Doi Ang Khang, near the Myanmar border. The local specialties include Limestone Wren-Babbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Silver-eared Mesia, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, and Spectacled Barwing. One night will be spent in this fascinating highland town.

Day 14: Doi Ang Khang to Fang. We will head to the flanks of Doi Ang Khang, near the Myanmar border. The local specialties include Limestone Wren-Babbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Silver-eared Mesia, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, and Spectacled Barwing. One night will be spent in this fascinating highland town.

Day 15: Doi Lang. This awesome new birding site has some of the most exciting birding in Thailand. Most importantly, it’s the best site for two of the country’s best birds: Hume’s Pheasant and Giant Nuthatch, the largest nuthatch on Earth. Once we have found these two species, there are plenty of other birds to look for, including Siberian Rubythroat, White-bellied Redstart, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, and even Himalayan Cutia or Whiskered Yuhina if we’re very lucky. This is a great place to catch up with some shy and scarce flycatchers like Ultramarine and Slaty-blue Flycatchers and Rufous-bellied Niltava. In the afternoon we’ll descend to a lowland valley, where we’ll spend the late afternoon birding some remnant riverside grassland, which can produce Yellow-eyed and Chestnut-capped Babblers, Bluethroat, and sometimes scarce species like Baikal Bush-Warbler or Yellow-breasted Bunting. 

Day 16: Chiang Saen to Bangkok. We spend our last morning birding the Chiang Saen area looking for River Lapwing, Small Pratincole, Pied Harrier, and a myriad of waterbirds before flying back to Bangkok, where we overnight.

Day 17: Departure. We head to the airport in the morning for departure, or to start the extension.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSIONS

Peninsula Extension (6 days)

This extension will take in Khao Nor Chuchi (KNC), Krung Ching, and Krabi. Southern Thailand holds an almost completely different avifauna from the rest of the country, including highlights such as Banded Pitta, Banded Kingfisher and Diard’s Trogon. At Krung Ching, we look for Malaysian Rail-Babbler and Great Argus. Returning to Krabi, we cruise the coastal mangroves seeking out Brown-winged Kingfisher and the crab-smashing Mangrove Pitta for a fitting finale to this first rate Southeast Asian destination.

Day 1: Fly from Bangkok to Krabi After our arrival in the southern tourist town of Krabi, we will make our way to the local mangrove hotspots to look for such gems as Brown-winged Kingfisher, Black-and red Broadbill, or the incredible Mangrove Pitta.

Day 2-3: Krabi to Khao Nor Chuchi This morning we explore the mangroves further by taking a boat into the Krabi estuary for a closer look at Mangrove Pitta habitat, while White-bellied Sea Eagles and Brahminy Kites circle overhead. Next we head to Khao Nor Chuchi in search of dozens of new lowland specialties, the technicolored Malayan Banded-Pitta, Rufous-collared Kingfisher, Diard’s Trogon, and Black Magpie to name a few. KNC is also renowned as a great night birding spot, with chances for multiple species of Frogmouths and Owls. We spend our nights at a nice lodge right in the heart of KNC.

Day 4 – 5: KNC to Krung Ching After a final morning at KNC we head across the peninsula to Krung Ching waterfall. The hilly terrain here provides a different species dynamic, where such elusive beasts as Malaysian Rail-Babbler and Great Argus are possible, but is also great for diverse Babbler flocks, while fruiting trees near the headquarters are great areas for dozens of Bulbuls including Scaly-breasted, 5 species of Barbets, Leafbirds, and even White-crowned Hornbills. We spend our nights here at a beautiful beach resort in Tha Sala.

Day 6: Tha Sala to Bangkok This morning we may visit Krung Ching again, do some local birding along the coast, or simply go snorkeling directly from your bungalow. Whatever relaxes you before our afternoon flight back to Bangkok.

Gould's Frogmouth can seen in night walks at KNC
Gould's Frogmouth can seen in night walks at KNC (Scott Watson)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. This tour covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Start times vary, but on a couple of mornings can be as early as 5:00 AM, while on others may be as late as 6:30 AM. For those days where we spend the whole day in the field, a packed breakfast and packed lunch will be provided. On other days we typically have breakfast at the hotel before we depart. Lunches are either eaten en-route between birding spots , or at a good restaurant near our hotel. All dinners are at good restaurants at or near the hotel. On those days where we are not moving between locations, we’ll have some downtime in the middle of the day. The other days will involve several hours of driving, but there are usually some stops along the way.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy. There may be some short walks on trails, especially in Khao Yai and Doi Ang Khang. On some days we will walk as far as 4 miles (6.5km), but this will mostly be on wide paths, and often downhill. Several days of the tour are spent above 3300 ft (1000 m), with at least one morning spent above 6600 ft (2000 m).

CLIMATE: Potentially extremely variable. A wide range of temperatures are possible at this time of year in Thailand. Some years the overnight lows (and thus the temperature when we arrive in the mountains in the early morning) can be at 43°F (8°C) or even lower. Daytime highs on such days often don’t exceed 71°F (22°C). However, other years the daytime lows dip below 32°F (0°C), and daytime highs can reach into the 70s°F (above 21°C). In the more tropical south we can expect daytime highs of up to 86°F (30°C). Occasionally you can get both scenarios on the same trip, so it is important to be prepared for a wide variety of conditions. Rain is rare on this tour.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All of the hotels and motels have typical amenities, including Wi-Fi.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but Thailand is among the best Asian destinations for bird photography. At Kaeng Krachan, we will be spending some time at well-designed hides that are very good for photography, though the dark conditions require the use of high ISOs. Dedicated photographers should check out our Thailand Photo Tour. 

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US, UK, most European and Canadian citizens, no visa is required to enter Thailand for a stay of less than 30-days. Thailand’s visa friendly policy extends to many countries, but please check your requirements prior to travel. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 16 on the main tour or the night of day 5 with the extension; meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 17 on the main tour, or lunch on day 6 of the extension; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages with meals; safe drinking water; photo tour leader with camera and audio playback gear from mid-day of day 1 to the evening of day 16; domestic flight tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and from Chiang Rai to Bangkok on the main tour, and a return ticket from Bangkok to Krabi on the extension; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle driven by the guide from mid-day of day 1 to the afternoon of day 16 on the main tour, and until the afternoon of day 6 on the extension; airport shuttle bus on day 1 and day 17; tips included for meals; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; the use of photo blinds during the tour; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips to baggage carriers if you require their services; international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.