Thailand: Mystical Asia

This is a Birding Tour. It is designed to see as many birds as possible, while spending extra time on endemics and other target species. Photography is welcome as long as it doesn’t interfere with the birding. For many birds, there will be little or no time to photograph them since there are other birds around to see. We’ll also look at other wildlife, especially “star” species like Asian Elephant. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for more of a photography-oriented tour, you should check out our Thailand: Birding with a Camera Tour (BwC).

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.  

Buddha is an imposing figure in Thailand
Buddha is an imposing figure in Thailand (Nick Athanas)

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.

Silver-breasted Broadbill, one of several wonderful broadbills in Kaeng Krachan
Silver-breasted Broadbill, one of several wonderful broadbills in Kaeng Krachan (Ken Behrens)

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.

Collared Babbler can be found in Kaeng Krachan, with luck
Collared Babbler can be found in Kaeng Krachan, with luck (Ken Behrens)

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.

Blue Pitta is a fairly common but extremely shy denizen of Kaeng Krachan and Khao Yai
Blue Pitta is a fairly common but extremely shy denizen of Kaeng Krachan and Khao Yai (Ken Behrens)

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.

Great Hornbill in Khao Yai
Great Hornbill in Khao Yai (Ken Behrens)

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.

Collared Falconet at Doi Inthanon; this is one of the World's smallest raptors
Collared Falconet at Doi Inthanon; this is one of the World's smallest raptors (Sam Woods)

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.

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.

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 14: Doi Ang Khang to Fang. After a morning of birding the trails of Ang Khang, we’ll make the short drive to the town of Fang, which serves as a springboard for our visit to Doi Lang the next morning.

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. 

Doi Lang is a good site for the stunning Mrs. Hume's Pheasant
Doi Lang is a good site for the stunning Mrs. Hume's Pheasant (Sam Woods)

The male Rufous-bellied Niltava is a gorgeous flyctacher
The male Rufous-bellied Niltava is a gorgeous flyctacher (Sam Woods)

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.

Spot-breasted Parrotbill showing off in the early morning light
Spot-breasted Parrotbill showing off in the early morning light (Ken Behrens)

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OPTIONAL EXTENSIONS

Malay Peninsula Extension (6 days)

Thailand is a long, gangly country, with the birds of the north and center differing markedly from this further south on the Thai Peninsula, or northern end of the Malay Peninsula. As the latter name suggests the avifauna of this part of Thailand is influenced by that of Malaysia juts to the south. Extreme beauties like Malayan Banded Pitta, Scarlet-rumped and Diard’s Trogons, Green Broadbills, and Whiskered Treeswifts lurk in the forest, while the extensive mangroves in the bay of Phang-nga hold Mangrove Pitta and Brown-winged Kingfisher, among others.

Malayan Banded Pitta, one of the World's best birds occurs at sites on the Extension
Malayan Banded Pitta, one of the World's best birds occurs at sites on the Extension (Sam Woods)

PLEASE NOTE: The itinerary has been changed for 2018 onwards from that which was previously advertised. This has been done purely to improve the birding; it still visits the same habitat types and targets the same broad list of birds, but now covers better sites, which have come to the fore in recent years, therefore increasing your chances at some of the rarer species.

Day 1: Fly from Bangkok to Phuket; transfer to Ao Phang-nga NP. This park on the north side of the Phang-Nga Bay is famed for its quality mangrove birding. It has even now surpassed the mangroves of Krabi as THE go-to place for mangrove birding in southern Thailand. As you’d expect for this habitat, kingfishers are a major feature. There are six species in this area, and we will be especially on the lookout for Ruddy, Brown-winged and Black-capped Kingfishers there. However, the jewel in the crown of Ao Phang-Nga is the glittering Mangrove Pitta, which will be our principal target of the site. Other species that may feature as we cover various spots in the mangroves, are Rufous-bellied Swallow, Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, Streak-breasted Woodpecker, Common Flameback, Black-and-red Broadbill, Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler, and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. A single night will be spent in a hotel on the edge of Phang-nga Bay.

Mangrove Pitta is a top target on the southern extension
Mangrove Pitta is a top target on the southern extension (Ken Behrens)

Day 2: Ao Phang-nga NP to Khao Sok via Laem Pakarang. A final session will be spent cleaning up whatever we still need in Ao Phang-nga, before we head north to the coral sandspit of Laem Pakarang for some different coastal birding. Shorebirds and terns gather here in great numbers, and these will be our focus; while searching among the more regular species, we will keep an eye out for a Crab-Plover, Nordmann’s Greenshank, or Far Eastern Curlew. The more regular fare at the site includes Terek Sandpiper, Gray-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Kentish and Malaysian Plovers, Pacific Golden-Plover, and Greater and Lesser Sand-Plovers. Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Sea-Eagle are also regular. The night will be spent just minutes away from Khao Sok National Park, which will be the site we cover for the majority of the following day…

Large numbers of Terek Sandpipers winter in southern Thailand
Large numbers of Terek Sandpipers winter in southern Thailand (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Khao Sok NP. Most of the day will be spent birding this lowland forest site, which will not only offer further chances at some species missed in the north, but adds a considerable number of species that are only found in southern Thailand. Among the possibilities here are Silver-rumped Needletail, Bushy-crested Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Blue-banded, Blue-eared, and Banded Kingfishers, Red-throated Barbet, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Chestnut-naped Forktail, three species of iora (Green, Great and Common), Black-headed and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Chestnut-winged and Abbot’s Babblers, and Forest Wagtail. In the afternoon, we shall drive to the town of Kuraburi, just outside Sri Phang-Nga National Park.

The Malay Peninsula Extension offers the best chance at Black-and-yellow Broadbill
The Malay Peninsula Extension offers the best chance at Black-and-yellow Broadbill (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Sri Phang-Nga NP. This fantastic little park is seldom visited by tourists, and can be wonderfully quiet as a result. However, like Khao Sok, it provides superb lowland forest birding. Sri Phang-Nga is particularly noted for Malayan Banded Pitta, arguably one of the world’s best looking birds. In recent years, a feeding station has been set up just outside the park (feeding is now prohibited inside the park). If the feeding station is active during our visit, this will be our first port of call, as the views are unrivaled; if it is not active, we shall seek on out inside the park by more traditional methods. There are plenty of other birds to keep an eye out for, like Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Great Hornbill, Raffle’s Malkoha, Whiskered Treeswift, Banded and Maroon Woodpeckers, Black-and-yellow Broadbill, Crow-billed Drongo, Red-eyed, Spectacled and Buff-vented Bulbuls, Asian Fairy-Bluebird, Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, and Purple-naped Spiderhunter. After much of the day in this park, we shall drive to a beach resort situated on the Gulf of Thailand for the next two nights (in Tha Sala).

Red-bearded Bee-eater in Kaeng Krachan
Red-bearded Bee-eater in Kaeng Krachan (Scott Watson)

Day 5: Khao Luang NP (Krung Ching). Our final full day of the extension is set to be a special one, as we visit Krung Ching, one of the most revered sites in southern Thailand that offers some rare species for Thailand, more typical of the Malay Peninsula further south. The ,list of species here is daunting, but this is a good thing, even at this late stage of the tour, we will have our hands busy, searching for Red-billed and Black-bellied Malkohas, Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Scarlet-rumped and Orange-breasted Trogons, White-crowned and Black Hornbills, Sooty Barbet, Buff-rumped and Gray-and-buff Woopdeckers, Green, Dusky, and Banded Broadbills, Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Philentoma, Scaly-breasted and Hairy-backed Bulbuls, Lesser Green Leafbird, Spectacled, Yellow-eared, and Gray-breasted Spiderhunters, and Yellow-breasted and Crimson-breasted Flowerpeckers. With such a long list of good Thai birds, we will return to the park the following day again, before we reluctantly return to Bangkok for the tour end. Another night will be spent at a coastal resort, along the Gulf of Thailand (Tha Sala).

Day 6: Krung Ching to Bangkok. Depending on what we have not seen by this point, we will likely return to Krung Ching for some further birding there, or may do some coastal birding locally, or a combination of both. In the afternoon, we shall drive to Nakhon Si Thammarat airport and take the short flight back to Bangkok, for evening departures out of there.

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker is common in the south of Thailand
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker is common in the south of Thailand (Ken Behrens)

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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). There is some trail walking required on the extension, although this is not difficult, with only occasional, short steep sections.

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. The climate on the Thai Peninsula, for the extension, is hot and humid.

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.